Tommy Harrigan had a mission, and it was one he'd volunteered for. They'd finished a mission not two hours before, pushing a Chinese unit back further into southeastern Russia. When he'd reported back in, he was informed that one member of his unit -- 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit -- was unaccounted for. Not KIA, not wounded; just missing.
Tommy was the leader of his squad, and one of the few uninjured. The missing soldier -- Lance Corporal Elizabeth Vargas -- was a member of his squad, so Tommy was the first to step forward to go find her. There were others, of course, mostly from Tommy's squad, but they were all injured and tired. Tommy figured he'd be better on his own -- though they'd won the battle, there were still bound to be Chinese elements still wandering around out there, and they would certainly be angry.
"You sure you don't want me to tag along, Gunnery Sergeant?" Corporal Davis Rogers asked, scratching at the bandage on his upper arm. "Corpsman says I'm good to go. Bullet passed right through."
"No, D. You stay here. Keep an eye on the unit. It's going to be a long night, and you know the Chinese are going to try to take back the ground we grabbed tonight."
"You think she's still alive out there?" Davis asked.
"Probably not. But we need to know one way or another, don't we?"
Davis nodded grimly and cracked his knuckles.
"I'll keep an ear on 1-9 Victor. You get in a corner, Gunny, we'll be ready to roll a Cougar out to you at a second's notice."
"Appreciate it. I'll keep you apprised as much as I can," Tommy said, slinging an M4 over his body armor and strapping his helmet on tightly.
He left his squad's tent and headed out towards the just-erected front gate -- if they could hold onto this territory, they'd need to give it a name soon enough, but for now it was called Grid-118 South. Tommy suspected it had been farmland before the war, but now it was nothing but a Marine encampment and several hundred acres of scorched earth.
As he neared the front gates, he saw the remnants of the ten Convict Charlie units from the operation putting up their own tents. Charlie had taken some heavy losses -- Tommy wondered if they'd be able to even make five full units now. One of them, a lean young black man, nodded and smirked at Tommy as he passed. Tommy nodded back.
"Gunny. Can't say I envy you going back out there," one of the MPs said as he opened the front gate.
"Gotta be done," Tommy sighed.
"Try to come back alive, yeah, Gunny? We've lost enough people tonight," the other MP said, waving Tommy through.
He'd made the decision to move on foot, carrying only his weapon, some extra ammo, and a medical kit so as not to draw any attention he didn't have to. Vargas couldn't have gotten too far, if she was alive -- the battle had been fought for two straight days, but in an area less than three square miles. With the night-vision visor on his helmet and data from an Aero UAV overflight, he should be able to cover the entire battlefield up to the Chinese lines a mile and a half away before the sun came up.
Tommy thought he heard the Aero pass over him, but it was most likely running on stealth mode, so he couldn't be sure. Still, its data started coming through on the left side of his visor as he walked away from 118 South, letting him know of a heat signature about a kilometer to the West. He headed in that direction, his head on a swivel for any movement, his M4 up and in front of him.
"Who thought volunteering to walk around a hot zone in the dark would be a good idea, anyway?" Tommy mumbled under his breath. "Oh, right. Same idiot who thought it'd be a good idea to enlist in the Marines during wartime."
As he walked, he noticed a flare in the visor's night-vision display -- a fire, he guessed. That had probably been the heat signature the Aero had picked up. Tommy headed for the flare -- it was a cold night already, and if Vargas was still alive, she might have lit a fire to keep warm. If it was just some ordinance that was still burning, Tommy figured he wouldn't lose anything by checking it out. The visor estimated the range at just over a thousand meters -- Tommy moved quickly and quietly and covered the distance in a few minutes.
He found Vargas. She was sitting crosslegged in front of the fire, stripped down to her BDU pants and T-shirt. She was covered in blood, but Tommy couldn't tell how much of it was hers and how much of it belonged to the several corpses around her. He could see that she held a Ka-bar knife in each hand.
Tommy thought he was moving silently, but apparently he wasn't. Vargas sprang to her feet and spun, both knives up and at the ready.
"Marine!" Tommy hissed.
"Yeah? What unit?" she growled.
"Yours. It's Gunny Harrigan, Lance Corporal."
"Gunny. You out here lookin' for me?"
"I am. How are you hurt, Vargas?"
"Oh, I'm not, Gunny. I'm five by five."
"You're soaked in blood, Vargas."
"Ain't mine. It's theirs," she shrugged, pointing one blood-smeared blade at the pile of corpses around the fire. "I been burning 'em as fast as I can, but there sure are a lot of the bastards."
Tommy raised the visor on his helmet and looked into the fire. What he had thought was logs or scrap wood was actually the bodies of three Chinese soldiers.
"You killed them all?" Tommy asked, lowering his M4.
"Fuckin' A right I did, Gunny. They all huddled here when the fighting started. Cowered here is more like it. They never saw me coming, Gunny."
"Where's your weapon, Vargas?"
"Don't know, sir. Didn't need it," Vargas replied calmly, picking at her teeth with the point of one of her Ka-bars.
"They didn't fire on you?"
"Didn't give 'em the chance, Gunny."
Tommy looked closer at the bodies stacked next to the fire -- there were five of them, plus the three burning. He noticed the insignia on their sleeves -- all of them were medics.
"They were medics, Corporal. They didn't fire because they didn't expect to be attacked."
"They were Chinese is all I know, Gunny."
"Come on. Let's get you back to base. We can sort it out there," Tommy said, trying not to watch as the Chinese medics burned.
"Nothing to sort out, Gunny. They were hostiles, and I eliminate hostiles."
"Sure. Sure. Come on, Vargas. Let's get back and get some rest, yeah? I'm sure we have plenty to do in the morning."
"Hold up a second, Gunny. How do I know you're not a hostile? Never saw you fire a shot out here tonight, and we all know the Chinks have brainwashing methods," Vargas said, staring hard at Tommy, her grip on her knives tightening.
"I fired my fair share of rounds tonight, Vargas. Believe that. Now lock yourself down and come with me back to base. That's an order, Lance Corporal."
"Not a scratch on you, Gunny. But that makes sense. Chinks wouldn't want to hurt one of their own agents, now, would they?"
"Lance Corporal, stand down now," Tommy growled, raising his M4 as Vargas stalked towards him.
"I don't take orders from the enemy, Gunny," Vargas hissed, lunging at him with one of her knives.
Tommy stepped back, and the knife sliced only the air in front of his face. Quickly, he swung the butt of his rifle, catching Vargas in the side of her head. She dropped, and Tommy kicked the knives away from her.
He activated the radio in his helmet.
"1-5 MEU to 118-South."
"We copy, Gunny."
"D, roll out with that Cougar now. And bring restraints."
* * *
Blood. The bodies burning on the bonfire. Vargas absentmindedly picking her teeth with the blood-smeared Ka-bar. The look in her eyes when she lunged.
These were the images that popped into Tommy's head every time he closed his eyes for the next three nights. They managed to hold the Grid and push the Chinese forces back another couple of miles, but Tommy was feeling his lack of sleep. He hadn't caught but a few hours here and there since the night he'd found Vargas out in the dark.
When the stimulants stopped working, Tommy figured he'd better talk to a medic. See if they could prescribe him something to keep him up or to help him sleep. The medical tent was just a few over from his squad's, so, during a five-hour break when his men were sleeping, Tommy walked over and poked his head in.
"Hey, Gunny. What can I do for you?" a young Air Force officer said. He was a Captain, though he was probably only 26 or 27 years old. That meant he was an actual doctor, Tommy guessed.
"Oh, hi, sir. I was just having some trouble sleeping. Nothing to bother you with," Tommy muttered, turning to leave.
"No bother, Gunny. Come on in. Sit down a minute."
So Tommy walked into the tent and sat down. He and the Captain -- Dr. Eckmann, as he introduced himself -- talked for the better part of an hour. Tommy told him about what he'd seen, the sleeping problem he'd been having. Eckmann was a good listener, and nodded along as Tommy spoke. At the end of the conversation, Eckmann stood and grabbed a vial from his medicine cabinet.
"I'm going to give you something to knock you out for a bit, Gunny. Now, it's no substitute for natural sleep, but you need some sort of rest. I'll keep you here for the night and keep an eye on you, and we'll figure out a way to get you to sleep normally in the morning, OK?"
Tommy just nodded, and Eckmann gave him an injection. Tommy laid down on a cot and his eyes closed. Thankfully, he didn't see blood, fire, or Vargas immediately.
He could still hear, though. He was sure he heard Eckmann talking with Major Barnes, 15th MEU's commanding officer.
"He's in bad shape, sir. He's seen shit that'll require a lot of therapy to fix," he heard Eckmann say.
"Looks like he's sleeping now," Barnes said.
"Well, he's unconscious, anyway. But he needs to get out of combat, sir. He needs to go home."
"Go home? What do you think this is, Captain? Day camp? No one gets to go home."
"He's a medical risk, sir. If his situation gets any worse, he's going to be a liability on the battlefield."
"How long can you keep him going with the drugs?"
"A week. Maybe two at the outside. But I'd prefer not to do that, sir."
"We all get to do a lot of things we'd rather not out here, Captain. Gunny Harrigan is an experienced squad leader, and we need him. Patch him up as best you can, but get him combat effective immediately."
"I don't know if I can do that, Major."
"You're going to have to. It's either that, or he fucks up on the battlefield and gets himself and his squad killed. Do what you can."
Tommy wasn't sure if he'd actually heard the conversation or dreamt it, but the next morning when he woke up, Eckmann didn't look happy.
"Hey, Gunny. Get some rest?"
"I think so, sir. Feeling a little better, anyway."
"Well, that's good. Look, here's what we're going to do -- I want you to report back here at the end of your duty shift every day. We're going to see what we can do to get you to sleep, but I'm afraid I can't get you pulled out and sent back to Justice or anything like that."
"I understand, sir."
"In the meantime, take it easy on the amphetamines, all right? They're just going to make my job harder."
As Tommy walked out of the medical tent, he heard Eckmann sigh and swear under his breath.