"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.
"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."
"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."
* * *
"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."
"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."