Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"CVN 79 Part 2: Crusher"

"Kid! Kid, you alive?" I heard someone yell. I couldn't have been out more than a couple of seconds, because I wasn't even underwater. I could see sky out my window, but I could hear water rushing into the chopper.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm alive," I croaked. I felt a hand on my shoulder unbuckling the straps that held me to my seat.

"You hurt?" the same voice asked.

"Headache. Think that's all."

I turned my head and saw the Death Dealer -- the SEAL -- unbuckling the last of my straps. He was moving stiffly, clinging to the back of my seat with his legs propped up on the Lieutenant's chair. The chopper had hit the water on the pilot's side, and I looked past the SEAL's boots to check on Lieutenant Eastman. He was mostly underwater, but his head wasn't yet submerged. His face was covered in blood.

"He's dead, kid. Don't look at him too long," the Death Dealer said.

"Anyone else?"

"Medic's dead. Diver's alive, but in bad shape. Radio guy's conscious, but bleeding pretty bad."

The SEAL got the last of my straps loose, and I fell sideways out of my chair. I managed to kick my feet out under me and onto the instrument panel before I crashed into either the SEAL or Lieutenant Eastman's corpse.

"Here. Take my bag. You'll need it," the SEAL said, strapping a heavy pack to my back. "We're less than a half-mile offshore. You'll have to swim for it."

"You mean we'll have to swim for it?" I asked.

The Death Dealer shook his head.

"Legs are busted. I'll try to keep up, but that water's just above freezing. I don't have much chance. We don't have much time -- take the medic's pack and try to patch up the radio guy as best you can. I think he can make it."

"Leary? The diver?"

"Back's broken. I'm going to try and get him out."

The SEAL vanished toward the back of the chopper, and I tightened the straps on his pack and set to bandaging Kessel's leg.

"Jesus, kid. Did you see the size of that chopper wing?" Kessel asked as I wrapped his leg in Curlex and gauze.

"Yeah. Eight helicopters just to shoot down little old us," I grunted, tying his gushing leg wound tightly. "Think you can swim for sure?"

"Sure gonna try."

"Go. I'm gonna help the Death Dealer."

Kessel pulled himself from the rapidly sinking chopper and set out into the water -- he was swimming slowly, but he looked like he was going to make it. I ripped the cushion out of my seat and tucked it under my arm, then made my way back to the chopper.

"Hey, Leary. How you doing?" I asked.

"He probably won't respond. He's all goofy on morphine," the Death Dealer told me.

I handed him the seat cushion.

"You hang onto this. I'm going to get Leary to the shore, and then I'm coming back for you. This should keep you floating until I get back," I told him.

"Good luck, kid. You're looking at swimming a mile and a half with one and a half times your weight," the SEAL told me.

"Look -- sorry, I didn't catch your name."

"Ensign Lang."

"Right. Lang. Shut up, sir. I'm doing it -- just stay alive until I get back. Deal?"

The Death Dealer smiled.

"OK, kid. OK."

I managed to get Leary to the shore, where Kessel was already propped up against a piece of driftwood with his pistol out. I looked back out to where the chopper had crashed -- the Seahawk was gone, but I could see Ensign Lang bobbing in the water. I stripped off his pack and my coat, then dived back into the water.

I hadn't noticed while dragging Leary to the shore, but it was really fucking cold in the water. My muscles were already shot from dragging Leary to shore -- for a little guy, he sure weighed a lot. It was slow going getting back out to Lang, but I made it.

"Fuck's sake, kid. You're running on fumes and your lips are turning white. You'll barely make it back alone, much less dragging my ass. You have to leave me," Lang said as I hooked his arm around my neck.

"I'm getting really sick of you calling me 'kid,'" I said. I kicked as hard as I could, but I wasn't making much progress. I could tell Lang was trying to help with his free arm, but we were barely moving forward.

"Fine, then. What's your name?" Lang asked, spitting out water.


"Hunter. Drop me now, Hunter, and you're gonna live. Don't, and we'll both die out here."

"I'm a convict, Lang. I'm dead on paper anyway."

"Hunter. Seriously. Take the M4 slung around my chest and go like hell for shore."

"We're not having this conversation again. Now shut up and paddle."

I knew we weren't going to make it. Those choppers would be back to strafe us any minute, probably, and even if they didn't, we were going to drown or freeze before we made it to shore. Didn't matter, though -- I wasn't going to let Lang go without trying.

As we gimped our way forward, I saw someone on the beach dive into the water and start swimming out toward us, fast. Within a couple of minutes, a lean, gray-haired man was bobbing in the water in front of me.

"Give me the SEAL, kid," he said. He had a Texas drawl.

"Who are you?" I gasped.

"Lt. Commander Paul Noonan, at your service. Funny enough, I think you guys came out here to rescue me."

* * *

Between Noonan and me, we managed to get everyone off the beach and into the trees. Noonan had set up a shelter -- it wasn't big enough for even two of us, but Leary was in the worst shape, so we put him on his back and activated some chemical heat packs from Lang's bag near him. We got Lang propped up against a tree next to him -- he unslung his M4 and sat it in his lap.

"How'd you find us, sir?" I asked.

"Heard the choppers firing on you. Saw you hit the water. Looks like the Russians got you too, huh?"

"Russians shot us down?" I asked.

"Shit, kid. You don't know much, do you? Russians split down the middle when the Chinks got aggressive. 'Bout half of the Russian Army went commie. I got shot down by MIGs, but I've seen patrols of choppers and Russian ground troops for days. Some Chink vehicles, too. This area's crawling."

"Great. So how are we gonna get out of here?"

"We aren't, most likely," Lang piped up. "We're probably gonna get shot or captured pretty soon here."

"You're just a fucking ray of sunshine, Lang," I said.

"He's probably right, though," Leary's voice floated from the shelter. "We're not combat-ready, really. Three of us are dead weight. You've probably pulled every muscle in your body, so we're down to the Commander. And my morphine is wearing off."

"We do need to secure our position. What do you guys have for weapons?"

"Well, I've got this Glock. Death Dealer's got an M4."

"Two MP5s in my bag, too. Claymore mine. A couple of frag grenades. Beretta M9, bunch of ammo."

"Jesus. You really are a Death Dealer," I said, shaking my head.

"How about a radio. Anyone got a radio?" Noonan asked.

"Left cargo pocket," Kessel said, standing up and digging into his BDU pants. He pulled out the radio and held it out to Noonan, then jerked back and it the ground, his head exploding in a spray of blood.

"Shit! Sniper!" Noonan yelled. It was unnecessary -- I think we'd all figured that out. We hit the ground, Lang forcing himself to simply fall over.

I landed on Lang's bag and pulled the two MP5 compact assault rifles from under my chest. I tried to slide one over to Noonan, but bullets tore up the ground between us. I could see soldiers in dark green coming towards us -- a lot of them.

"Looks like you gotta take 'em down, kid," Noonan said.

"Lang! How do I make these things work?" I yelled.

"Bolt on the side! Pull it back, then point and pull the trigger! Watch your ammo, we got one spare mag each!" Lang yelled, firing his M4 in short bursts.

I pulled back the bolt like he told me, then aimed it at the oncoming soldiers and pulled the trigger all the way back. The gun clicked empty in seconds, but several of the soldiers fell down.

"I said careful with the ammo! But good shooting!" Lang yelled, still firing.

I switched MP5s and fired again. I emptied that clip, too, but the soldiers kept coming.

"Pull out the magazine, slam a new one in, bolt, fire!" Noonan yelled, so I did. I noticed he'd managed to grab the radio from where Kessel had fallen.

I burned through the last two clips, but there were still a couple of soldiers left. I looked over at Noonan -- he was bleeding from his left shoulder, but he had Kessel's Glock in his hand and was firing. I dug the Baretta out of the bag and joined him. We dropped the last two soldiers.

"More on the way, I bet. They had plenty of time to radio us in," Lang said. "I'm out of ammo. Guys?"

"Couple rounds," Noonan grunted.

"Um, how many bullets does this hold?" I said, holding up the M9.

"Fifteen, extended clip."

"Five bullets left, then."

"Yep. We're dead," Leary said.

The radio crackled to life.

"This is Razor 4-7 Echo," a voice came. "We're locked on to your position, and inbound. Hold tight -- we're encountering resistance."

"This is Commander Noonan, Enterprise Fighter Wing. We're down to rocks and sticks here, Echo. ETA?"

"Five minutes. Be advised, you'll have contact with ground troops well before then."

"Roger that."

* * *

"Convict Vasquez. How're you feeling?" Captain Rush asked me. I was in the Enterprise sickbay. Four bullets had just been pulled out of my body -- two in my legs, one in my back, one in my shoulder.

"Not great, sir. But I'm alive."

"Ensign Lang and Commander Noonan came to see me. Told me what you did. You rushed out to the first wave of Russian soldiers and grabbed as many guns as you could carry. That's balls, son."

"Only way to keep us in the fight until those Marine Convicts got there to bail us out," I said, shrugging. A wave of pain shot through my shoulder, and I winced.

"Careful with the shrugging, there. I wanted to thank you personally -- your direct actions saved three of my guys. With no thought to your own safety, you pulled them out of the chopper, ran to get weapons and got shot for it. Still, even with four bullets in you, you defended your position."

I had no idea what to say, so I said nothing.

"I just got off a call with a friend from High School -- he's a Federal judge now. He agreed with me -- your sentence has been commuted. Soon as you heal up, you're a free man. You can leave Enterprise any time you want."

I nodded.

"And if I don't want to leave?"

"Well. . . funny enough, you're not old enough to enlist," Rush smiled, picking up the e-reader by my bed and looking at it.

"I'm sure you can do something about that," I said, smirking.

"Oh, look at that," Rush said, tapping at the screen. "You were born in 2002 rather than 2004. Looks like I can give you a battlefield commission now, can't I?"

"Looks like you can."

"Airman Recruit Hunter Vasquez. Take your time healing up, Airman. You'll be back out with the Reavers as soon as you're ambulatory."

"Thank you, sir."

"Maybe next time, we can even keep the chopper in the air, yeah?"

"God, I hope so, sir."


Friday, April 23, 2010

"CVN-79 Part 1: Scrub"

It used to be "It's Not Just a Job, It's an Adventure," then "Accelerate Your Life," and, more recently "America's Navy: A Global Force For Good."

It should be "Steal A Car and Spend The Next Four Years Scooping Barely Identifiable Meatlike Product onto Trays for 14 Hours Every Day!"

OK, so maybe that's a bit long, but that's what happened to me. A lot of other guys, too. I was 16 when I snagged that awesome Mustang in Virginia Beach -- had it out on the road for not even an hour before they caught me. Trial was quick, and they tried me as an adult. They're doing that a lot these days. My sentencing took about a minute, minute and a half. Hell, I read an article a few days back about some redneck judge in Alabama who wanted to try some 9-year-old kid as an adult. Don't know how that one turned out.

"Vazquez, Hunter D.," the judge said without looking up from the file in front of him. The room was packed with guys in orange jumpsuits just like mine.

"Yes, your honor," I answered.

"Navy. Convict Unit. Four Years," was all he said before gesturing to the bailiffs to get me out of the room.

My court-appointed just looked at me and shrugged. Appeals had just gone out the window at that point, a couple of months after the Battle of Neryugn. Guess the government just needed bodies by then. He stuck out his hand, and I shook it before following the officers out of the courtroom.

So, at age 16, I was off to join the war. Didn't take even a day to get my assignment -- the process was getting streamlined by early 2020. I was loaded on a bus just outside the county courthouse -- as soon as the bus was full, it started up and drove off to the Navy Convict Processing Center in Norfolk. Two black-helmeted, jackbooted Civil Protection Force guys with psycho-huge guns corralled us from the bus into a long, low building with two tables set up at one end and told us to form a line.

I've heard the other convict services -- the Army, Air Force, Marines -- they test you to see where they can use you. Not so with the Navy, who seemed to give out assignments at random -- but maybe I'm just saying that because I'm pissed about where I ended up.

"Vasquez, Hunter. You're coded NC-4478 from here on," the guy behind the table said. He was a little guy in a suit -- not Navy or anything that I could tell.

"Uh, OK," I said, accepting the dog tags he handed me, which, indeed, read "NC-4478."

"Duty assignment is kitchen work, CVN-79. Hope you don't get seasick," he chuckled, waving me to the exit door on the far end of the room.

I traded out my prisoner orange for some convict-gray BDUs and black combat boots, got on another bus, then an airplane for a long time, then a big helicopter with a lot of other guys in gray BDUs. When the chopper landed on the deck of a huge aircraft carrier, I couldn't tell you where we were, and no one was particularly forthcoming with any kind of information. Some Marines hustled us into a conference room below decks, and we were coded in, told the rules, and escorted to our duty stations. Mine was, as I think I mentioned, the kitchen, which is where I've been ever since. Total time from arrest to that kitchen -- two days, three hours.

That was four months ago, and I've never been more than a couple hundred feet from the kitchen ever since. My bunk is just behind the kitchen, along with my fellow food-service conscripts. There's only one real Navy guy in the kitchen, and he's our boss -- Petty Officer 3rd Class Stahl. He's all right to us as long as we do our jobs. I can tell just by looking at him that he hates where he ended up just as much as the rest of us.

Enterprise (that's the ship's name) is huge, and we're the main kitchen for all the sailors on the ship, so we're in operation pretty much 24-7. As far as the war goes, it's not too bad -- hours are long, but I'm not getting shot at. My buddy Craig (or NC-4919) tells me horror stories all the time about what happens to other convicts.

"You know, I hear if you go Marines, they put you in something called Mecho. They don't even give you guns, man, they make you fight the Chinks with your bare damn hands," Craig told me, sweating like he always did.

"Uh huh. Sure, man," I nodded.

Craig was a year older than me, and horribly fat. I was a little pudgy when I got sentenced, but that went away quick -- working around that horrible slop all day really killed my appetite, and running around with 85-pound pots or stirring thick stews made for 100 people is quite a workout.

If I'd been able to just stay there for the remainder of my sentence, I would have been just fine with it -- my only war wounds would be some repetitive-stress injury and terminal boredom. Didn't work out that way, though.

One day, I was about halfway through my shift, so it was sometime around two in the afternoon. I'd heard through the grapevine that we were in the Bering Sea, firing planes into Russia and China, but I didn't know for sure. A Marine with a big gun walked into the kitchen and pulled Petty Officer Stahl aside. They talked for a minute, and Stahl pointed over to where Craig and I were serving the day's slop on the line.

"NC-4478," the Marine bellowed.

I turned around and wiped my hands on the towel I'd stuck in my belt.

"That's me, sir."

"You're coming with me," he said. "Tuck in that fucking shirt and grab your uniform jacket."

I nodded, tucked in my shirt, and followed the Marine, shrugging into my uniform jacket and buttoning it up as I went. I knew better than to ask him any questions -- Craig had gotten clocked in the mouth a month or so back for making that mistake. I simply walked where he walked and stopped when he did outside a door up on the top deck.

I hadn't been there before -- in fact, I hadn't been above-decks since the day I arrived -- but I knew it was the Captain's office. The Marine knocked on the door.

"Word of advice -- speak only when directly asked a question," the Marine muttered from the side of his mouth.

I nodded.

"Come in," came a voice from the other side of the door.

The Marine opened the door and nodded for me to go in. I did, keeping my hands behind my back. Couldn't tell you why I did that.

"Right. NC-4478. Vasquez," Captain Christopher Rush said. He was young for a Captain, in his mid-40s, and built like a brick shithouse, as they used to say.

I nodded. He hadn't asked me anything.

"Sit down, kid. I'm just looking at your file now."

I sat in one of the chairs across from Rush's desk as he flipped through a few pages on his e-reader. After a moment, he set the reader aside and leaned back in his chair.

"So, I got a problem, NC-4478. Late last night, we lost a Lightning driver out near the Siberian coastline. He reported contact with a squadron of MIGs, reported he was bailing. That was the last we heard from him, and his locators aren't working."

I nodded, but I couldn't help wondering what this had to do with me shoveling D-grade food down in the kitchen.

"We sent up a CSAR bird -- that's Combat Search and Rescue -- to look for him. Came up against some more hostile contacts, and I lost a spotter in the chopper. Which is why you're here."

Rush picked up the reader again and tapped the screen.

"20/10 vision. That's pretty impressive. Your batteries say you're highly observant, mechanical aptitude."

"Batteries, sir? I don't remember taking any."

The Marine shot daggers at me, but Rush didn't seem to care.

"You wouldn't. They've been slipped into standardized testing in high schools lately. We know what you can do before you're a sophomore. So here's the deal -- you're reassigned to the Reavers. That's my CSAR crew. You'll be taking over for the spotter I lost. Get a shower and get to the flight deck ASAP -- your chopper leaves in half an hour, and you smell like a fryer."

"Yes, sir."

* * *

The Marine showed me to where I'd be living, which was a hell of a lot nicer than where I'd been. First off, there were only six bunks in the space where my old room had 25. I took a shower, put on fresh convict BDUs, and followed the Marine up to the flight deck. There was a big chopper -- an SH-60 Seahawk -- sitting on the deck with mechanics replacing one of the windows. Another mechanic was hosing blood out of the inside of the chopper.

"Hey, Lieutenant. I brought your new spotter," the Marine said, nodding back at me.

"Jesus. How old are you, kid?" the Lieutenant asked. He was dressed in heavy BDUs, and his nametape said "Eastman."

"Sixteen, sir."

"Sixteen. Jesus. Look, kid, your job's not rocket science. You're here because you're an eagle eye, so just keep an eye out for our man, for wreckage, for anything out of the ordinary. Head on a swivel," Eastman said.

"Yes, sir."

"If our pilot's in the water. . . well, good chance he's frozen to death by now, but he should have deployed green dye. If he went to ground, he's trying his best to stay hidden, so your job gets harder. Questions?"

"None yet, sir."

"Good. Soon as they have this thing ready to fly, you're in the seat next to me. You eat yet today?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. I expect to be wheels-up in five minutes. You're gonna have to learn as you go, kid. What's your name, anyway?"

"NC-4478, sir."

"I'm not gonna remember that. What's your real name? Last name?

"Vasquez, sir."

"Right. Convict Vasquez. That, I can remember. You're gonna need a heavier coat, Vasquez. It's fucking freezing out there. I'll have one of my guys sort you out."

Eastman waved one of his crew over, a guy maybe three years older than me with short, red hair and dark eyes.

"Leary. Get Convict Vasquez here some ECW gear. And some sunglasses -- he's been below-decks for a while."

"You got it, boss," Leary nodded, running off and returning a minute later with a heavy black coat that matched his own and a pair of gold aviator shades. He handed them to me.

"Man, and I thought I was young. You ever been on a chopper before, kid?" Leary asked as he handed me my gear.


"Ever had any weapons training?"

"No, sir. Never even held a gun."

"I'm not a 'sir,' shipmate. I'm an Airman. Just call me Leary. Only 'sir' on our ship is the Lieutenant, there. Rest of us are all working scrubs," Leary said, nodding to two other young guys in heavy black coats and sunglasses. "That's Kessel, he's on comms, and Mancewicz, our PJ."

"What's a PJ?" I asked.

"Parajumper. Air Force combat medic," Mancewicz answered. "Welcome to the Reavers."

"We got another guy, Cooper. Rescue diver like me. He's still getting cleaned up. Lieutenant drives the bus, and that's us in a nutshell," Leary told me.

"Ladies! Load up your shit!" Eastman yelled. "We're wheels up in 60 seconds!"

I could hear the chopper blades spinning up behind me, so I followed Leary over to the helicopter. He told me where to sit, and I sat and strapped myself in. The rest of the unit piled in, followed by one more guy in BDUs and carrying an M4.

"Oh, shit, boys! Looks like we got a Death Dealer riding along!" Kessel yelled as the chopper started to lift off.

"Death dealer?" I asked Leary, who was sitting behind me.

"SEAL," he told me.

"Control, this is 1-1 Vampire. We're outta here," Eastman radioed as we rose up in the air and zoomed away from the Enterprise.

* * *

"Repeat, 1-1 Vampire going down!" I could hear Kessel yelling into the radio. He was trying to keep his voice calm, but he wasn't doing very well.

"Shit! Manc, how's Coop?" Leary shouted from behind me.

"He's gone!" Mancewicz shouted back.

"Strap in, kids! We're about to hit, and hit hard!" Eastman yelled above all of us.

That was the last thing I heard before the chopper slammed into the water and I blacked out.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I jolted awake tied to a chair. Even though the room I was in was dark, I could tell that I was blind in my left eye. There was one light, and it was shining directly in my face. After a few seconds, I could make out the silhouettes of two men behind it.

"What was your mission here?" one of them said. His English was flawless.

"Chief Petty Officer Roger Daniels, serial number 586-4277B," I croaked. My throat was dry, and I could taste congealed blood.

"You've got three bullets in you, Chief Petty Officer Roger Daniels," the man said.
"They will refuse you medical attention until you answer my questions. Now, again. . . what was your mission here?"

"Oh, that. OK. Chief Petty Officer Roger Daniels, serial number --" I cut off as a fist slammed into the left side of my face.

I swallowed a molar.

* * *

[Two Days Earlier]

"SEAL Team Four?" the Admin clerk asked, raising an eyebrow at me.

"Yeah. That's me," I said.

The Admin was a young guy, maybe 19. He didn't look anxious or afraid -- just a little confused as to why a SEAL team, a Delta detachment, and a Ranger chalk were hanging out at his otherwise-sleepy little duty station.

"Call from the States for you, sir. On the secure line," he said, motioning to an office behind him.

"Thanks much, Airman. Track down the Ranger Chalk Leader and have him join us, will you?"

"Of course, sir."

I motioned to Master Sergeant Yates, who was talking with one of his Delta guys across the hangar. He nodded and started heading my way. I like the Deltas -- they're pretty laid-back. Fun guys. Not like those damned *hoo-ah!* Ranger types. Those kids have no sense of humor.

"What's up, Rog?" Yates asked as he walked up to me. His voice was quiet -- but then, his voice was always quiet.

"Secure call," I answered, smirking.

"And you think it's *the* call?"

"Better be. Hate to think they flew us out all this way for nothing."

"CPO Daniels. Flyboy said you needed to see me?"

It was the Ranger Chalk leader, a Sergeant First Class named Harrison Shobe. For a Ranger, Shobe wasn't too bad -- he seemed like an angry guy, but at least he had a personality. I'd read his file on the flight over -- he'd been in Afghanistan about the same time I was (right up to the bitter, clusterfuck end), and left the Army soon after. He came back in and joined the newly formed 138th Ranger Regiment two weeks after Los Angeles.

"Call from CENTCOM," Yates told him. "Rog thinks we're going in."

"Copy that," Shobe nodded. I led the two other team leaders into the secure office, which was empty save for a large flat-panel monitor on the far wall. As soon as the heavy metal door locked behind us and beeped to indicate the room was secure, the screen came on.

General Weston appeared on the screen, sitting behind his desk in Tampa -- that part, I expected. What I didn't expect, and what let me know we were on instantly, was the image inset in the bottom left of the screen. President Crozier was sitting behind his desk in the White House.

* * *

The plan wasn't necessarily simple, but it was straightforward. Intel from on high had it that Jae Han Park, the suspected mastermind behind the Los Angeles attack, was holed up in North Korea. He was also the son of some Minister in the NoKo government -- agriculture, I think -- so he'd have guards. My team and Yates' were on snatch-and-grab, with Shobe's Ranger chalk on standby to back us up if things went pear-shaped.

Jumping out of the back of a C-130 with an inflatable raft strapped to my chest isn't something I do every day, but I've been a SEAL for 17 years -- I've done it dozens of times. Yates and his boys, though, were a different story. The jump was no problem for them -- they'd all started their careers in Airborne.

"It's the boats, man," Yates had bitched during the mission briefing. "I just hate fucking boats. I woulda joined the Navy if I wanted to ride around in boats all goddamn day. No offense, Rog."

"Ah, come on. It's just a half an hour in a cushy, inflatable speedboat. It'll be fun," I'd said.

Didn't go that way, of course. Flight took off from Misawa Air Force base two hours after dark the day after we got the call. The jump was fine -- me and three of my guys, Yates and three of his. All of us jumped at the same time and made a perfect splashdown in the Sea of Japan 15 miles offshore from Wonsan. The raft I was carrying inflated just fine -- Delta's didn't. Something must have happened in the plane, because it was fine when I checked it, but it had a huge fucking tear in it when Yates tried to inflate it.

Four SEALs in a raft, four pissed-off soldiers floating in the nice, chilly sea. It wasn't hard math to do. Our raft only held four, but two of my guys immediately jumped out. Yates and one of his guys got in, and we started up the motor with the other two SEALs and D-boys hanging on to the side. It was slow going, and we switched off positions after the first hour. A journey that should have taken a half an hour took two and a half.

We couldn't communicate to anyone that we were running behind -- we were on radio silence. That meant we had to hump it as soon as we hit the shore -- and when you rush, you make mistakes, no matter if you're an office drone or a highly-trained death dealer. And make mistakes we did.

The target was a house four miles inland. Yates and his guys took point -- those D-boys moved like cats, silent and light on their feet. Me and my guys followed behind, keeping to the shadows and moving as fast as we could. All our gear was taped down, and we didn't think we were making any noise, but we must have been. A half-mile from the target house, the gunfire started.

North Korean soldiers started pouring at us from the alleys. I don't know how they saw us, how they knew we were coming, but there were too many of them.

"Weapons free!" I yelled, though I didn't really need to. My guys already had their MP5s up and the safety off. The D-boys were taking out NoKo soldiers right and left, but saying we were outnumbered was several orders of magnitude above understatement.

The last thing I remembered was the night lit up by gunfire, hazy from smoke, thick with aerosolized blood.

* * *

That brings us back to the tiny room and the swallowed molar.

I had no idea where Yates or the rest of our guys were -- probably in rooms just like this one, with smooth-talking, hard-hitting North Korean guys pumping them for information. I also had no idea what time it was, but I guessed Shobe and his Rangers were on their way -- and without any communication from us, they had no idea what they were walking into. I didn't expect to be rescued. I was thinking escape instead.

"Come on, Chief Petty Officer Daniels," the young man said. "I don't like hitting you.
Why don't you just answer my questions, and we'll let you go?"

I cleared my throat as the molar kicked and scratched its way down my esophagus. I looked into the light, but said nothing.

"Fine," the young guy sighed after a minute of silence. "We'll do it the hard way."

He opened a door behind him, and a little bit of light came into the room. I could see now that the light shining in my face was coming from a digital video camera held by the other man in the room. Perfect.

The young guy spoke a few words in rapid Korean and closed the door. The only Korean I speak is swear words, so I have no idea what he said. A few minutes later, the door opened again, and something was wheeled in on a cart. My vision had adjusted in my good eye just enough that I could identify it when it got close -- it was a car battery.

The young guy picked up a pair of jumper cables attached to the battery and clanged them together. They sparked loudly, and the young guy sighed again.

"Sure you don't want to answer the questions?" he asked. "Those three bullets must be hurting pretty bad by now, and I doubt they can save that eye. And I've only ever used one of these on a sheep, but he seemed to really hate it."

"Do what you have to," I said, trying to shrug. It wasn't easy with my hands tied behind my back.

"I respect you American Marines," the young guy said. "You're tough cookies, you know that?"

I resisted the urge to tell him I wasn't a Marine. He knew it, anyway -- he was just trying to get a response out of me. Instead, I just stared at him as he brought the jumper cables closer.

It wasn't pleasant, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. Truth be told, I got worse in SERE. When he touched the cables to my chest, my pectoral muscles involuntarily constricted and pushed all of the breath out of my lungs. If the young guy wanted me to talk, he was going about it the wrong way -- kind of hard to speak without any air.

It felt like about an hour before he gave up on poking the cables at various points on my torso and watching me jump. I won't lie -- I screamed a couple of times. Still didn't tell him anything, though.

"Let's be reasonable here, my man," the young guy said as a lackey wheeled the battery out of the room. "I could do this for days if I had to."

"Try waterboarding. I hear that works," I said, chuckling.

"Right. We move on to burning, looks like."

He opened the door again, but this time, he jerked back and hit the floor as soon as the door opened. The man with the camera turned toward the door, and his light illuminated Harrison Shobe for a half-second before Shobe shot him in the head, as well.

"CPO Daniels! Hang on, man, we're getting you out of here!" Shobe yelled as he rushed into the room. Another Ranger fell in behind him, covering the door with his M4.

Shobe had me untied and on my feet in seconds. My left leg didn't want to move -- guess that's where one of those three bullets landed. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to take a step. It hurt like hell, but I moved.

"Can you walk?" Shobe asked.

"Looks like it."

"Good. Here," he said, handing me his Beretta M9. "Blackhawks are just outside. We need to move now."

"The others?"

"Yates, Martinez, and Orso are dead. My guys got them on the chopper already. Other than them, you're the last one out."

"How'd you get past the NoKo guards?" I asked as Shobe and I headed down a dark hallway.

"Miniguns on the Blackhawks. We came in hard. Did a lot of fucking damage."

"Can't say I'm upset about that. We get Park?"

"Nah. He's in the wind. Looks like this one got all FUBAR, didn't it, Chief?"

"You can say that again, Sergeant."

"Call me Harrison."

* * *

Three days later, while recovering in the hospital at Inchon, I saw myself giving name, rank, and serial number on CNN. We never got Jae Han Park -- but we did get a lot more than we bargained for very soon after.


© 2010 Trace Eber

Friday, April 16, 2010

"Civil Protection"

This is a fucking disaster, Daniel thought to himself. He was hoping a few shots too many would net a much better result than his current situation. He found himself on a bright, spring morning in an overpriced downtown Raleigh condo in front of an overly complicated (and by his guess barely palatable) gourmet Sunday brunch that was served by someone he was straining to remember.

“Disaster” was not the chef's opinion of this sunny Southern morning. Heaven on earth was more like it. He could not believe his good fortune as he stole long stares at Daniel from across the table. He thought he had the kind of good looks that every state in the US tends to claim as their own. He was a small town corn fed Nebraska quarterback, bronzed California surfer, and a gritty Texas rancher, all rolled into one. Or to be less verbose about it—fucking hot. He was an angel, he thought. A bright sapphire-eyed angel.

Daniel felt the admiration flowing from across the table. He checked for his keys in his right pocket and knew he was sitting on his wallet. As he walked into the bar almost flat broke and his ID was a fake, he wasn't terribly concerned about the rest of the contents. His motorcycle helmet was sitting on the front table in the hall, so he had what he needed to just bolt. While he fully realized he was in walk of shame territory right now, his brain couldn't come up with a decent excuse to leave through the thick hangover. It was obvious that the Martha Stewart devotee across from him felt like he had hit the jackpot (literally) and wanted nothing more to serve breakfast to his temporarily captive Adonis. Daniel decided he would make the best of the situation, be polite, and give him the whole “breakfast with Marlboro Man experience.” Besides, Daniel had sat down in front of the table without thinking, so a dead sprint out the door was out at this point.

“So what's for breakfast?” Daniel muttered, pouring a steamy cup of coffee from a French press into a mug.

“Well good morning! I hope you slept well!” Chef Can't-Remember-His-Name heartily replied. “Lobster frittata with a truffle butter reduction sauce topped with caviar.”

These were too many syllables for Daniel. Breakfast food should be able to be described with words that could be uttered inside of a grunt. Eggs. Grits. Toast. These are the words that should be uttered prior to consuming a full cup of coffee. Longer words and more complicated concepts could wait until later.

“Oh. Great. Thanks.”

Daniel drew in another breath of coffee and looked around the place. This guy had some cash to throw around. One side of the condo was a glass wall and provided a view of Fayetteville Street and overlooked the North Carolina State Capital. The view was a great one were it not for the Civil Protection Force troops standing guard with their souped-up machine guns in expensive SWAT gear and jackboots. They were the spawn of the private American security firms that rolled through the Middle East in the 00s. Fuck-ups with rich parents went CPF. He was meeting tomorrow with an attorney who probably got her juris doctor online to discuss the incident that had occurred while he was out with James a couple of weeks ago. His fate to Echo was pretty much sealed.

James. Daniel felt a low level sense of dread sink in when he remembered why exactly he was here — as much as he could remember, anyway. He got into a fight with James the night before. Daniel wanted to plead no contest to the charges. James wanted him to plead not guilty, which Daniel disagreed with. The circumstances were shitty, but Daniel was in fact guilty of the crime he had committed. He didn't “shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die” or anything like that, but a narrow minded shitbag was shoving around James. Daniel didn't like it and delivered a Golden-Gloves style punch to the shitbag's jaw and he went down. James saw shades of gray, whereas Daniel only saw black and white. Daniel had decided that he was done talking about the subject and left their apartment to get some fresh air. That led to a motorcycle ride to downtown Raleigh. Which led to the bar. Daniel had enough cash in his wallet for a couple of drinks and this guy offered to buy him a couple more. And a couple more. And. . . who the hell was this guy?

Daniel felt his own jaw tighten and turned his attention back to the apartment. Chef What-The-Hell-Is-His-Name-Again had some taste. He had a killer view and didn't destroy it with too much stuff. Low-profile leather couch with a custom-made cherrywood Parsons table in front of it. A wall adjacent to the window contained a very large painting of blotches and swirls that looked familiar to Daniel.

“That's a Pollack. . .do you like it?” Chef No-Name asked. He was following Daniel's eyes as they traveled around the room.

Daniel smiled, nodded and continued his silent assessment of the apartment. While most people read novels on various techno devices, No Nombre maintained a low profile bookcase that ran along both non-windowed walls that matched the cherry of the Parsons table. The kitchen was huge, and had every single culinary gadget imaginable sitting on heavy marble counters. A small touchscreen monitor positioned on the front of the refrigerator played a cable news channel with the volume muted. Beyond that there was no other type of television or monitor visible.

Daniel now turned his attention to the Face With No Name. He looked back at Daniel with the eagerness of a dog waiting for a ball to be thrown. He had large hopeful brown eyes, close cropped glossy black hair, and a smile slightly too large for his face. While he was tall and had a muscular build, life in a place worthy of an Architectural Digest spread with a high bank balance had given him a slight stomach paunch. He also was about fifteen years older than Daniel. What's His Name reminded Daniel of someone who spent too much time on Internet gaming sites as a teen and discovered the gym later in life. Daniel had a feeling that he had the privilege of being the best looking guy that had ever had too many drinks in No Name's presence.

Daniel realized that the hopeful staring directed at him was patiently waiting for a response to the food. He dug a fork into his plate and hoped for the best. He was surprised. It tasted like a really expensive, really good casserole. The lobster was sweet, the egg savory, and the caviar salty. Most of his culinary experience growing up carried the suffix of “-helper.” Once he could legally sign a lease and cook for himself he stuck with steak and some sort of vegetable. Basic, basic stuff. James tried to cook fancier things, but that usually resulted in a call to Pizza Hut.

Daniel swallowed and grinned, scratching the stubble on his chin in surprise. “It's good” he said while digging his fork in for a heaping bite. WhytheFUCKcan'tIrememberthisguysname?

“I'm glad — eat up. You need something to soak up all that alcohol,” the man turned his head and smiled. “You had a lot to drink. Name's Tom, by the way. In case you've forgotten.”

Daniel laughed.

“You got me. Name's Daniel, though I doubt you forgot. Pleasure to meet you under more civilized circumstances,” he said, thinking of how shit-drunk he was the night before.

Tom grinned, “Now don't think I didn't enjoy the less civilized circumstances of last night.”

Daniel found himself reassessing Tom slightly based on this response. Tom was much more than an opportunist — he was too calculating for that. Daniel shot him a huge grin.

“I'm going to assume despite my raging headache I can say the same.”

He scooped another forkful of fritatta into his mouth. After he swallowed he bit the base of his lip and looked around the condo. “So Tom, to be perfectly honest, I'm something of a professional fuck up right now. What do you do to earn your bread?”

“Oh, I work in RTP,” Tom said. Daniel paused for a minute. Research Triangle Park was something like the Silicone Valley of the South. A lot of tech companies had offices there. Some government agencies kept office space in the area as well. Daniel glanced back out the window at the stellar view of the State Capitol.

“I'm the Chief Analytics Officer for CPF,” Tom said this with a slight tinge of reservation. He admitted to being the CAO of one of the largest government contractors the same way one might admit to being a 35-year-old shift manager at McDonald's.

CPF. Civil Protection Force. The wealthy delinquent's way out of conict service. And he had just spent the night with one of its big guns. Who liked Daniel. A lot.

Daniel saw his future had he wanted it. Daniel talked when he drank, so he was sure Tom knew the story. Play house with Tom and and get “assigned” to CPF. Daniel wouldn't even be one of the jack boots outside of the capitol. He'd sit in the office wearing a suit writing the jack boots' schedules and reviews if he wanted to. The only time he'd have to wear a uniform is if that's what Tom wanted for his birthday. Tom clearly liked Daniel. Not just liked him, but felt like he was lucky to have met him. Tom was clearly intelligent and strategic, but he wasn't a mastermind. This arrangement wouldn't be a form of servitude. Daniel knew that he would have the balance of power. All he had to do was exist in Tom's universe and he would be loved and protected. Sincerely loved and protected.

Daniel carried on polite conversation through the rest of breakfast. He then kissed Tom on the cheek, thanked him for his time, and told him he could probably write him in Echo in a couple of months if he wanted.



© 2010 Lisa Kupfer

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


When China condemned the U.S. incursion into North Korea. . . well, that's when things started to get really uncomfortable for poor Dave Graham.

Relations between China and the US were already pretty shaky -- though the US economy had mostly recovered, it hand't really made much effort to pay back the hundreds of billions of dollars it owed China. On top of that, President Crozier had been taking potshots at them in the media for a while now -- human rights violations, shady international trade, ignoring their poorest classes. Dave really regretted voting for the guy.

But none of those really figured into Dave's reluctance to go to China when his company had asked. It wasn't so much that he didn't want to go to China, he just didn't want to go anywhere, really. He was perfectly happy at home in Atlanta, getting through each day at work so he could go home, get baked, and play video games.

Dave worked in customer service for MobiTech, a Chinese cell phone manufacturer. They were doing tons of business in the states with cheap, tech-forward phones, and Dave had gotten hired on by them his first week out of Tulane. It wasn't what he wanted to do, but it was money.

He wasn't even supposed to go to China, actually. His boss, a guy named Jerry, was supposed to go and train the Chinese customer service agents to take over for some of their more expensive American counterparts. But Jerry had a car accident three weeks before the trip -- he was in no condition to go, and as his second in command, Dave was elected.

"Man, I envy you," Jerry had said the day before Dave left, driving his powered wheelchair into Dave's cubicle. "China's awesome. Great food, good-looking women."

"Sure, lead off with the food when you're talking to the fat guy," Dave joked.

"Oh, shit, Dave. I didn't mean --"

"Kidding, Jer. Kidding. How're the legs?"

Jerry shrugged.

"Still broken. But healing, they say. Seriously, man. . . when you're in Beijing, you gotta visit a little place called Huajia Yiyuan. It's pretty damn awesome."

Jerry seemed so excited about the restaurant that Dave didn't have the heart to tell him he hated Chinese food. Early the next morning, he left for a four-month stay in China.

The first month wasn't too bad -- the company put him up in a decent hotel and provided him with a driver to take him back and forth to work every day. He had an international smartphone (benefit of working for a phone manufacturer), and the company paid the bill, so he kept in touch with people back home pretty frequently. He did pretty much what he'd done back home -- go to work, do his job, go home, drink (he couldn't find weed so far in China), and play video games. He'd even found a little place not far from his hotel that served a decent approximation of American food.

It wasn't ideal, but it was liveable.

One thing that bothered him was the looks he got from a lot of the locals -- they seemed to eye him with something like suspicion, or maybe loathing. Dave knew he didn't blend in -- he as about six feet tall and 260 pounds (most of which wasn't muscle). Everywhere he went, he felt like people were staring.

still, no one was in any way hostile or impolite towards him. The looks were about as bad as it got, until the day the news of the incursion broke.

It was after work, and Dave was out of alcohol in his room, so he was sitting in the hotel bar, abusing his expense account. The bartender was actually pretty nice to him -- he'd been in a couple of times before, and he'd learned the guy's name, Johnny. Johnny spoke pretty good English, and he was a funny little guy.

"Haven't seen you in a couple of days, Dave," Johnny said, smiling as he poured a rum and coke. "You doing OK, my friend?"

"Yeah, just, you know, work. Been busy," Dave lied. Work wasn't tough at all -- the students in his customer service class were already better-trained than a lot of the guys he worked with back in Atlanta.

"See, that's why I tend bar. My father wanted me to go out and get a real job, but I'm lazy. I like drinking, and I like talking. I don't so much like working. It was either this or become a professional barfly. I chose this."

Dave smirked and took a long sip of his rum and coke. He glanced up at one of the many TVs mounted behind the bar -- one of them was tuned to CNN.

"Mind turning that up a little?" Dave asked, pointing to the TV with his drink.

"Sure, man. Helps me with my English, anyway," Johnny said, turning up the volume on the TV.

"We now have breaking news," the anchor was saying, "from North Korea. This footage was emailed to us this morning by the North Korean State Information Agency."

The image changed, and that was the first time Dave saw him -- that poor, beaten-up American soldier tied to a chair and bleeding. The image burned itself into his brain, and all of a sudden, he felt just as angry as he'd felt the day Los Angeles had been attacked.

"Chief Petty Officer Roger Daniels, serial number 586-4277B," the soldier said weakly. There was a harsh light shining in his face, and he was squinting with his right eye. His left was swollen shut.

The footage was replaced by the anchor.

"According to the statement sent with the footage, Chief Petty Officer Daniels was the head of a Navy SEAL team that, quote, 'illegally entered sovereign North Korea for purposes both criminal and reprehensible.'"

Johnny turned down the TV and looked at Dave, then back at the muted screen. Dave looked around the bar and noticed that everyone was staring at him.

"Um, how about I wrap you up the rest of the bottle to go, my friend?" Johnny said.

"Yeah. Yeah, I think that would be best," Dave said softly.

Work the next day was uncomfortable. Still, no one was even impolite, but Dave couldn't help but feel his students were quieter than usual. They'd never exactly been a rowdy group, but that day, extraneous conversation was totally nonexistent. Dave dismissed them early and went back to the hotel, where he had a message waiting on his phone.

It was Dave's mother. He called her back after he poured himself a drink.

"Hey, Mom."

"Dave! Have you heard what's been going on?" she asked without even saying hello.

"Yeah. The SEAL guy they caught in North Korea. It's pretty messed up, huh?"

"China came out and condemned the US today for sending military forces into North Korea. You should probably get out of there."

"I can't, mom. I'm working."

"So tell them to fuck off. Quit. I'm worried about you, Dave."

Dave's mom was like that -- she'd sworn a lot as long as he could remember.

"Come on, Mom. The job market's better than it was a couple of years ago, but it's not great. You really want me to quit? Move back in with you?"

"If it gets you out of there, then shit yes."

"I'll be fine, mom. Hold on -- work's calling on the other line. Let me call you back, OK?"

"You'd damn well better."

Dave clicked over to the incoming call. It was Jerry, back at the office.

"Hey, man. Did you hear?"

"Yes, I heard. I'm in China, not in a media blackout," Dave sighed.

* * *

It was a week later and two in the morning when the call came. Dave woke up feeling nauseous -- he'd put down a bit too much rum, but he wasn't drunk enough that he didn't recognize his office number on the Caller ID.

"Hello?" he grumbled.

"David. Steve Benford at MobiTech."

Dave straightened up immediately. Steve Benford was his boss's boss's boss -- the Vice President of the American division of the company.

"Yes, sir. How are you this morning, sir?"

"It's not morning here, David. Now I need you to listen -- the US Government has ordered all civilians out of China and Hong Kong. There's a ticket waiting for you at Beijing Airport, leaving for Tokyo in two hours. You need to be on it."

"Yes, sir. What's going on, sir?"

"I don't know for sure -- but the talking heads on TV say war."

Dave opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out.

"You still there, David?"

"Yes, sir," Dave finally choked out. "I'm leaving for the airport now, sir."

"Good. Don't worry about checking out of the hotel -- just go. We'll take care of it."

The line went dead, and Dave quickly got out of bed, threw on some jeans, and stuffed everything into his luggage. He was on the street in front of the hotel five minutes later, waving down a cab.

"Airport," he said to the driver, opening the back door and throwing in his suitcase. He was about to throw in his backpack, too, when the cab sped off, nearly slamming the door on his hand.

"Motherfucker!" Dave yelled after the cab. He still had his passport and wallet -- all the cabbie had gotten were clothes and sovenir crap. His hotel wasn't more than a couple miles from the airport -- he didn't like the idea, but Dave realized he was going to have to leg it.

"Jesus. I really need to lose some weight," he said as he huffed along. He'd made it no more than a mile before he was lost. He tried to wave down another cab, but no one was stopping. Dave leaned against the side of a darkened building to catch his breath and pulled out his phone to bring up a map -- the device wasn't getting a signal.

"Perfect," he sighed. He saw a young Chinese guy headed his way and waved him over.

"Yeah? What do you want?" the guy said, scowling.

"Hey, my man. I just need to get to the airport. Can you help me?" Dave asked.

"Sure, buddy. We can help," the young guy laughed, clapping his hands together. Four more young guys appeared from the shadows -- they were all armed with blunt, heavy pipes.

Dave had never been in a fight. He was a self-professed coward who had never even thrown a punch. He hadn't ever been angry enough, really. He considered trying to run, but something happened then.

He felt rage. He saw the image of that poor SEAL bastard tied to a chair, bleeding out, trying to open his ruined left eye. . . and suddenly, Dave wanted to fight.

"Right, then. Come on, you fucking bastards," Dave growled, bringing his hands up. As soon as one of them moved toward him, he threw a sloppy left-handed punch, catching the guy in the head and dropping him. It was the only punch he connected with before the other four were on him, beating the living crap out of him.

His vision was turning black around the edges when he heard a gunshot. Dave wondered why they waited this long to shoot him -- why they bothered beating him with lead pipes if they had a gun. The four guys were suddenly off him and running away, and someone was offering Dave a hand up. He took it.

"You look pretty bad, sir," the man connected to the hand told him. As Dave's vision cleared, he saw it was a police officer.

"Feel pretty bad, too, Officer."

"Trying to get to the airport?"

Dave nodded. Nodding hurt his neck.

"I'll give you a ride. Obviously, it's not safe for you here."

The officer helped Dave to his car and opened the passenger door. Dave realized his backpack was still on his back -- that meant he still had his passport. The officer got in and started the car.

"Pretty terrible morning we're having so far, isn't it?" the officer said as he turned on his lights and sped away from the curb.

"Yeah. Yeah, it sure is, Officer --"

"Zhang. You are?"

"Dave Graham. I work for MobiTech."

"Well, if the news is right, probably not for much longer," Zhang said.

"Yeah. Yeah, I suppose not."

"We'll be at the airport in a few minutes. I'll walk with you through security -- Americans aren't having a real easy time in the airports, either."

"I appreciate that, Zhang."

"It's no problem. Just, you know, when things get really bad between our countries. . . remember, we're just like you. Just people, you know?"

* * *

Four months later, Second Lieutenant David Graham graduated from Air Force Officer training school at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. He got his duty assignment -- Intelligence Analyst at Camp Justice in Russia, only a hundred miles from the Chinese border. During the last four months, he'd dropped forty pounds and could now run the 100-yard dash in 12 seconds.

When he got on the plane for Camp Justice, he had two thoughts in his head. The first was the image of Chief Petty Officer Daniels, beaten and tied to a chair. The second was of Officer Zhang smiling and waving as he got on the plane to Tokyo. He had no idea what the days ahead had in store for him, but he whispered to himself as he strapped himself in, "they're just like us. Just people."

Friday, April 9, 2010


The plans to the Los Angeles device hit the Web while the media was still trying to decide on a sound-biteable name for the attack. 9/11 2? The Second 9/11? 2/911?

Like, well, everyone, I checked them out. Only, I didn't do it out of shock, or morbid curiosity. I did it out of what I suppose you could call professional interest.

All guys, to a certian level, love to watch things blow up. It's somewhere deep within our XY makeup to enjoy the hell out of something that goes "boom." It's why we have the Fourth of July. It's why we love action movies. And it's all normal and probably completely healthy -- to a certain level.

Then there other guys. Guys like George Matesky, Edward White, Ted Kaczynski. Do some Googling if you don't know who these guys are -- but these are the guys who like to see things explode a little too much. Sure, they may have had other motives for the stuff they did, but I know, deep down, they worked in the medium of explosives because they just loved to see shit blow up.

I suppose you could add the name Martin Chase to the above list (that's me, incidentally). I've been blowing things up since I was a little kid, since I learned how to take the gunpowder out of my daddy's shotgun shells and make it into a pipe bomb. I wasn't a sadist, though -- it's not like I blew up animals or hurt anyone. I used to spend hours building structures on the empty plains behind my house just to blow them up. Just to watch them explode.

There's a certain beauty to an explosion -- a sound and a flash that's impossible to produce any other way, each one as unique as a fingerprint or a leopard's spots. That's what I loved -- the beauty, not the destruction. (OK, to be honest, the destruction was kind of a cool side effect -- but I was in it mainly for the explosions themselves.)

Not all of us guys who are that in love with bombs turn out to be criminals, but I'd guess a lot of us do. Me, I went the other way, initially -- went to college and got degrees in chemistry and physics, got a job with a demolitions company. Brought down my first building, all nice and legal, at 26. It was an old, rotting apartment block in Dallas. That was thirteen years ago, but I remember it like it just happened.

I was heading the team wrapping the foundation of the building with explosives. I could barely contain my excitement, and I guess it showed.

"Nervous?" Kieth asked. Kieth was my boss, and owner of the company -- he'd hired me directly out of grad school. Good guy.

"Not really. Excited. I've wanted to do this since I was a little kid," I told him.

"Didn't we all, though?" he said, smiling. "Otherwise, we'd be in the wrong business."

That first demolition was gorgeous. The basement and first floor blew just as I'd planned -- all my math that I'd checked and re-checked had worked out perfectly. The building collapsed in on itself, and the debris field couldn't have strayed more than fifteen yards in any direction. Perfect, clean, and above all, beautiful.

Living a perfect life for someone like me, you'd think. And for a while, it was great. But here's the problem -- it wasn't enough. Over the next ten years, we demolished seventeen buildings. That's it -- just seventeen. Not even two a year. A lot of our time was spent consulting, planning, doing forensic work with State and Federal authorities. . . paperwork. Boring as hell, and not what I signed on for.

So it took a while, but yeah, I suppose I became a criminal. My modus operandi wasn't that different from when I was a kid, though -- I wasn't out to hurt anyone. I was just trying to capture those moments, those beautiful moments of ignition and detonation. I started finding condemned properties, places that were scheduled to be torn down anyway, and getting there before the bulldozers could. And I'd travel to find a good target -- I took down empty warehouses in Phoenix, burned condemned houses in Davenport, Iowa.

I varied my methods and tools -- TNT, RDX, incindiaries, penetrators, shaped charges. It was so random that I was pretty sure no one would put it together.

So, back to the Los Angeles device. I studied the hell out of those plans for at least a week, even calling in sick to work for a couple of days (which, as you recall, was not out of the ordinary when Los Angeles happened -- a lot of people didn't show up to work for weeks). I lamented the loss of life, like anyone else -- but the device itself fascinated me.

I would've studied the device longer, though I probably had memorized every relay, every little design flaw. But the FBI (or whoever does that sort of thing) managed to pull the info off the Internet in about a week, just around the time the media started blaming a North Korean terror cell for the attack.

From a professional standpoint, it was a pretty amateur job, and probably shouldn't have detonated at all, but someone got lucky. It wasn't near as elegant as, say, the Mk-54 SADM, developed back in the 1950s by the U.S. Government. From the amount of material and the shaped charges they used, they should have gotten a yield of at least two kilotons -- they got just over half that, but it was enough to turn downtown LA into rubble.

I suppose it's a good thing they pulled the plans down when they did. It forced me to go back to the office, and to stop obsessing over how I could have designed the bomb better. Yes, I know. That's morbid and fucked up.

"Hey, Martin. How are you holding up?" Kieth asked when I finally returned to the office. It was a question everyone was asking everyone else those days.

"You know. As well as can be expected," I said. "You?"

"I don't know, man. I think. . . I think I'm going to shut us down for a little while. People don't need to be reminded. You know?"

I nodded my head as if I understood. I didn't, of course. I wanted to get back out there and get back to work -- we had a huge project scheduled in two months. I couldn't believe he was going to shut us down without letting me do my job. But I was just his employee, and I realized that it wasn't the right time to debate him. I figured I'd let it sit for a few days and bring it up when the time was right.

That time never came. Kieth shuttered the company and never opened it again. I was out of a job, and no one was even wanting to think about hiring a demolitions specialist that soon after the Los Angeles tragedy. I was stuck.

It was January or February when I talked to my father about it, finally. He'd called just to check in, and I was pretty frustrated at that point. It wasn't just the loss of my job -- I'd also lost my connection to the raw materials to indulge my hobby. I hadn't blown anything up in almost a year.

"So how're things looking on the job front, son?" he ased.

It was a question he'd asked before, but usually one I deflected with "still looking." This time, though, I was itchy and frustrated, and I let it out.

"It sucks, is how it looks. I'm going out of my mind here, dad. I loved what I did, and now these stupid North Korean fucks go and mess it all up."

"No one's pulling down any buildings anywhere?"

"They're not blowing them up. And if they are, they're not hiring."

"I kinda don't want to bring this up, but. . . ."


"You know there's a lot of talk about war. With China. Maybe, I don't know. . . the Army? I'm sure they could use your experience somehow."

It was one of those facepalm moments -- one where I felt like slapping myself in the head like I was one of those old cartoons. Of course. The Army. They'd certainly pay me to blow shit up, wouldn't they?

"But I'm too old to join, aren't I?" I asked. Dad was in the Army back in the days where we weren't really fighting anyone, so he'd know.

"Forty-one's the cut-off, I think. You're 38. And with your experience and your degrees, they'll probably take you."

So I went to the recruiter the next day. I told him about what I did, and he gave me some tests to take. I was ready to sign up then and there, but he told me he'd call me the next day.

You know when someone tells you something you already know, but you really don't want to hear anyway? Yeah, that's what happened the next morning when the recruiter called. The Army wouldn't take me. Apparently, I'm a nutcase. Like I said, something I already kind of suspected, but something I didn't want to hear.

And that's what did it, I guess. That was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's spine like kindling. That night, I got hammered, went out, and torched an auto body shop down the street from my house. I didn't care any more if they caught me -- I just needed to see something in flames. I sat on the curb, drinking beer, and waited until the cops came to pick me up.

"Sir, did you see what happened here?" the first officer on the scene asked me.

I'll never forget the look on his face when I answered him. I've never seen that mixture of shock and confusion on anyone's face since.

"Fucking right I saw what happened. I made a nice, thick mixture of polystyrene, benzene, and aviation gas and lit that fucker up like the Fourth of July," I told him, laughing.

Not all of us become criminals -- but I have a feeling that most of us do.

While the cop was cuffing me, the fire hit the fuel pumps behind the auto shop, causing a fantastic secondary explosion. Shrapnel flew well across the street, and one piece cut my face open from just above my right eye from my lip. The cop standing behind me was fine -- I took the worst of it.

And even with my face streaming blood and damn near falling off in the back of the cruiser, I couldn't stop laughing.

A year later, Congress passed the Convict Conscript Act, and I was given the same test I'd taken at the recruiter. I have no doubt the result was the same, but they needed bodies -- so I was taken from the Allan B. Polunsky Unit in Polk County, Texas to a military airfield and flown out in a cargo plane to Camp Justice in Russia. I was coded into Army Kilo, which is pretty much a death sentence.

But I was right where I wanted to be -- setting off explosions again. Most of my fellow conscripts in 28 Kilo gave me a wide latitude, but I didn't care -- I've never been what you'd call a social animal.

And that's where I've been for the past three months. My CO looked at my file and realized I knew what I was doing around explosives, so I've been able to blow up plenty of stuff. I know it's supposed to be punishment. . . but I'm kinda loving every damn minute of it.


Monday, April 5, 2010


"I thought you said you filled up on gas before we left," Daniel sighed, stretching his legs as far as they would go in the truck's passenger-side wheelwell.

"I did. Almost a thousand miles ago. You've been asleep for nine hours," Bryce said, shooting a smile at Daniel without taking his eyes off the road ahead.

"Damn. Felt like I'd been out for maybe fifteen minutes. You should've woken me. I could have done some of the driving."

"No bother. Besides, you drive like my grandma, God rest her soul."

Daniel smiled and pulled a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his dark green canvas jacket. He cracked the window and lit one.

"Thought you were gonna quit those, finally," Bryce teased.

"Yeah, so did I."

"Well, long as you're doing it," Bryce said, grabbing the pack from Daniel's jacket and lighting his own. "Just keep an eye out for the police. Wouldn't want to get popped for something stupid like smoking. Where'd you get these, anyway?"

"Chris. Andrey sent him a couple of cartons from Russia. He sent 'em to Mike, Mike gave 'em to us," Daniel told him, exhaling smoke. "Nine hours, huh? We should almost be there by now."

Bryce nodded and glanced at the GPS screen in the center of the truck's dashboard.

"About two hours. Next chance for gas is Dothan, about ten minutes ahead. Looks like a ghost town, but the Web says there was a gas station open there as early as yesterday."

"Fuck. I hate Alabama. Anything across the state line?"

"Nothing as definite. And we sure won't make it to Panama City on what we've got."

"And we're not even sure what the fuel situation in Panama City's gonna look like," Daniel said, sighing and nodding. "Well, shit. Alabama it is, then."

"We'll make it quick, I promise. I'll fuel up the truck while you go in and see what you can requisition in the way of food and speed, yeah?"

"Yeah. You hear from Mike and Pete while I was out?"

"Yep. They're about an hour behind us. Got held up a bit in New Orleans."

"Think we should wait on 'em?"

"I asked. They said they're cool. They'll meet us at the LZ."

Daniel nodded and dropped the smoldering butt of his cigarette into a mostly-empty can of Rockstar in the cupholder in front of him. He idly scratched at his left wrist, just below the spot where a barcode was tattooed in black. Above the barcode, "47E1313" was tattooed in red, flowing script.

Bryce reached up and pulled off his sunglasses with his left hand, and his sleeve rolled up to reveal a barcode tattoo very similar to Daniel's. The coding itself was a little different, and "47E210" was tattooed above it in the same red script.

"Here we are," Bryce said after a minute, nodding down the road ahead of them at an ancient gas station at the side of Highway 231. "Be nice and charming. You know how these country folk can be."

"Hey, easy there, Bryce. I'm from the country, remember."

"Yeah, but you're adorable. Some of the people in this part of the world are just fucking scary."

The truck -- an older but pristine Dodge Ram -- coasted to a stop in front of the gas station, and the two front doors opened as one. Daniel shot a grin at Bryce as he headed into the gas station. There was a woman behind the counter, perhaps 30, decked out in a "Hardison in '24" T-shirt and beat-up jeans.

Shame, Daniel thought. She might be pretty if she took some effort. And didn't wear a shirt for that fucking Nazi asshole who lost the election.

Apart from the girl behind the counter and Daniel, there was only one other person in the store, a rough-looking man in his mid-50s. Daniel could tell by looking at him that he'd once been in shape -- a football player, probably -- but his love for beer had given him enough of a pot belly that he looked pregnant. His arms were still huge, though, and Daniel kept an eye on the man without really meaning to.

He grabbed a few bags of chips that didn't look expired, as they were the most attractive dining options in the nearly empty store. The drink coolers were stocked with beer and liquor, but only a few energy drinks and sodas. Daniel grabbed all six cans of Rockstar that they had and walked up to the counter. He shot a smile at the girl behind the counter as she started to ring up his items.

"Even 30," she said to him, smiling back. "Where you folks headed?"

"Oh, just south of here," Daniel said, opening his wallet and pulling out five twenty dollar bills. "Put the rest of it on the pump my man's at out there."

"Hope you're not heading to Panama City Beach. That place is a war zone," she said, taking the cash from his hand and putting it into the register.

"That's what I hear," Daniel said, smiling.

"How long you been married?" she asked. Daniel realized she'd been looking at his wedding ring the entire time.

"About five years now. Time flies," he said, smiling at her.

"And how'd y'all meet?"

What is this? Get to know every fucking guy who stops in for gas? Daniel thought, but he remembered Bryce's request for him to be charming.

"We served together in the war. Just kinda stayed together after that, you know?"

"Well, I sure wouldn't want my husband heading down Panama City way, if I had one," she shook her head. "It's not safe down there."

"Hey, I was in the war. What were you, kid? Air Force?" the guy in his 50s piped up.


The gas station went suddenly silent, and no one spoke for at least a full minute. Daniel did his best not to smirk -- he'd expected that reaction. That one word was a showstopper, every time.

"I thought. . . I thought most of the Mechoes didn't make it out of the war," the girl behind the counter stammered.

"Yeah, and those that did went back to jail. You're full of shit, kid," the guy growled.

"If you say so, Chief," Daniel said, smiling sweetly at the guy, watching his chest for any sign he was about to take a swing.

Bryce walked in at that moment, nodding at Daniel, then stopping in his tracks as he picked up on the mood in the room.

"Dammit, Daniel," he sighed. "I told you to be nice."

"Hey, I was being nice," Daniel shot back, smirking. "These good folks asked a question, and I answered it. Not my fault they didn't like what they heard."

"I apologize for him," Bryce said, looking back and forth between the girl and the older guy. "He's a young one, y'know? Sometimes his mouth gets the best of his brain. We all paid up here, miss?"

"Yeah, you're all set."

"Then I think it's time to go," Bryce said, shooting a look at Daniel.

"Yeah. That's probably smart," the older guy growled.

Bryce nodded Daniel towards the door, but before Daniel could take a step towards it, the door's glass shattered out of the frame. Instinctively, Daniel and Bryce both dove for cover behind one of the empty shelving units. Daniel reached into his coat for his sidearm, but it wasn't there.

Daniel and Bryce watched as bullets tore into the counter. The big guy was crawling on his ample belly over to hide with them behind the shelves, but the girl was frozen in place by the register. Daniel nodded to Bryce, then took a flying leap over the counter, tackling her to the ground.

"What the hell is going on?" Daniel heard Bryce yell over the gunfire.

"Scavenger gang! Probably saw you pull in, figure they can take your truck and anything worth salvaging in the store!" he heard the big guy yell back.

The gunfire stopped for a second, and Daniel dragged the still-stunned girl back over to the shelves where Bryce and the big guy were crouched.

"You know these guys?" Daniel asked the big guy.

"Reputation only. They're some bad dudes."

"Yeah. So are we," Bryce smiled. "What's your name, Chief?"


"And you?" Bryce asked the girl.

"Kelly," she stammered.

"Right. Kelly, you got a gun in this place?"

"Behind the counter."

"I'm on it," Daniel said, diving behind the counter once again as the gunfire started up. He looked under the register and pulled out an old Remington 552 Speedmaster.

"You find that gun?" Bryce hollered over the gunfire.

"I wouldn't really call this a gun!" Daniel yelled back. There was a box of .22 ammo on the shelf next to the rifle -- there were only five rounds inside, and Daniel loaded them all.

"We're gonna need the bitch," Bryce said as the gunfire stopped again. He poked his head out from behind the shelves and saw at least seven men converging on foot toward the gas station, all of them carrying weapons. They were only about five hundred feet off.

"She's still tied up behind the seat in the truck," Daniel told him.

"You cover me while I go and fetch her?" Bryce said.

Daniel shook his head.

"I'm faster."

"And you're also the only one of us with a chance in hell of hitting anything with that damned toy they call a gun," Bryce told him. "Keep them off my ass for ten seconds. I'll be all right."

"You'd damn well better be. Go!" Daniel said, popping up from behind the counter and letting the first round fly out the shattered window. One of the scavengers dropped to the ground a half-second later.

The other men saw this and opened fire, some of them aiming at Bryce (who was almost to the truck), some aiming at where the shot had come from. Daniel was already on the move, though, crouching next to the open door and squeezing off another round. Another of the scavengers jerked and fell as Bryce threw open the Ram's passenger door and grabbed a large green duffel bag from the back seat.

Bullets bounced off the truck's armor plating. One bounced off the ground next to Bryce's foot, but if he was worried, he didn't show it -- he simply threw the duffel over his shoulder and crouched, ready to run back to the station as soon as the gunfire let up again. Several seconds later, it did, and Bryce was on the move.

Daniel could see one of the scavengers drop to one knee and take aim at his running partner. He raised the Remington, took a quick breath, and squeezed the trigger. Even without the scope, the scavenger was close enough that Daniel could see his right eye simply vanish in a flood of red before the guy hit the ground.

Bryce scooted back into the store and slid back behind the shelving unit. He unzipped the duffel bag and pulled out a custom M4A1 carbine with a shotgun mounted on the accessory rail. The rear grip had been wrapped in white tape, and the word "Bitch" was scrawled on it in black Sharpie. Bryce loaded the M4, then reached inside the bag and pulled out two Beretta M9 pistols. He handed one to Jordan.

"You said you were in the war, right?"

"Yeah. I was in the motor pool, though."

"They still taught you how to fire one of these in basic. We wait until those guys make for the door, then we take them out. Clear?" Bryce told him.


"Daniel, your gun's still in the truck."

"'s OK. I kinda like this thing," Daniel said, nodding to the Remington. "It's cute."

Still, Daniel picked up the other M9 and tucked it into his belt.

"Damn. Mecho or not, your wife is a lucky woman," Kelly mumbled from the floor.

"Hear that, Bryce? I always told you people thought you were the bitch," Daniel smirked.

"Not the time, Daniel," Bryce said, but he smiled anyway.

"You mean the two of you are. . ." Kelly trailed off.

"Yep. A couple of queers just saved your asses," Bryce said, popping up from behind the shelves and opening fire. The M4 filled the room with noise for less than five seconds. Daniel fired one last round and set the Remington back on the counter.

"That's the last of 'em. I'll take that back, Jordan," Daniel said, nodding to the M9 the older man hadn't even fired.

Jordan handed the pistol to Daniel without a word, and Daniel tossed it to Bryce, who put it back into the bag with his M4.

"You folks have a nice day, now," Daniel smiled at them as they walked back out to the Ram and drove away.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

San Dimas High School Football Rules!

Yes, the title of this blog entry is a Twitter joke. That's the closest I'm going to get to an April Fool's joke, because I'm old. You should probably get off my lawn before I find a rake.

So here they are, folks -- the rules for the fourth incarnation of Tweet_Book:

  • As mentioned yesterday, this time around will be a collection of short stories set in the 47 Echo universe. While each story will be relatively small (and thus more digestible), the aim is to have a novel-length collection at the end of it all.
  • There will be guest authors this time around. If you haven't already heard from me and you might have perhaps been expecting to, don't worry -- I'm still getting set up over here, and I've asked exactly one person thus far. If you think you're on the list to be asked, you probably are.
  • As these are going to be short stories, I'm thinking of posting them in their entirety -- one whole short story a night. This means there'll be breaks, sometimes days long, in between story updates as I get the next one written. This also means I'll be available to actually converse with you fine folks in the interim without messing up the story timeline.
  • Story-related tweets will be tagged with the #twtbk hashtag. Anything else is probably not essential to the current story.
  • Yes, I'll be having guest authors. . . but I'm also going to have a contest. One (or perhaps more) of the stories will come from reader submissions. If you get chosen by our panel of experts (me and the larger of my two dogs, currently), you'll not only get your story published here and on the @Tweet_Book page, you'll get a very cool prize from me (and not the dog).

That about sums it up, I think. Stay tuned to the Twitter page as the first of the stories gets rolling tonight. . .