Conner had the shits.
He had been very careful not to eat anything all day. The virus, whatever it was, was working its way out of his system. It had made rounds throughout every member of the platoon, and finally landed on him, one day before the Operation was going to kick off in earnest. Sgt. Lazirko had called him over to talk to him about it.
"Are you going to be able to handle this?" He asked.
"Yes, Sgt." He replied.
"If you cant do it, let me know now. You can stay behind with Harshbarger and guard the gear."
Conner's mind recoiled. Stay with Harshbarger? Harshbarger, who had decided that he was a consciountous objector? Harshbarger, who most of the platoon called 'faggbagger' behind his back? Harshbarger, who even managed to smoke a cigarette like a woman, with a bent wrist? "I'm good to go." He insisted, again. "I'll be ready for it."
But now the waiting was weighing him down. They had staged at zero five hundred near the front gate, waiting for the word to go in. The AMRAPS didnt arrive until zero eight. An AMRAP was a sort of armored personnel carrier, that was supposedly amphibious. It resembled nothing more than a metal box with wheels. After the AMRAP's arrived, instead of an attack happening, the Marines were handed MRE's for lunch chow. Conner packed his away in his daypack, and only went to the port-a-shitters when a group was ready, to not make a big deal. But when he did the act of crapping was so big a relief he nearly cried, even though there was nothing left in his intestines but water and bile, by this time. When he got back everyone was sitting down, or leaning against the AMRAP for support. He didnt need to ask for the word, the word was wait.
At twelve hundred, they handed out ammunition. Enough to top off anyone that needed it, and grenades. After that some excited chatter moved back and forth through the waiting Marines, but soon died down. Nothing was happening, again. By sixteen hundred almost all the Marines had taken a seat on their helmets or daypacks, and nothing had happened some more. Another MRE was handed out to each man.
At seventeen hundred Staff Sgt. Kurre had drawn up the outlines of a basic room with his foot in the sand and was conducting room clearing exercises with the platoon. It was a simple enough manuever to go over. How to stack on a door, clear a room, check the corners and the ceiling, announce 'clear' to the next Marine. all of this Conner had been over many times, as had everyone else, but still the fuckups managed to fuckup, namely Dula, who never seemed to get anything just right, and Fonseca. Devening would have fucked up as well, but he was in Germany with a missing eye.
At nineteen hundred the AMRAP drivers let down the back of the ramps into their vehicles and the Marines piled in. Many of them started to sleep immediatedly. Conner couldnt sleep, still. He was overhyped with what was going on. Sawyer and Jerel Swinney were having a heated debate next to him about the existence of God, or politics or something. The squad leaders were looking around to see what was happening. It was getting hard to see, until Conner realized that the sun was going down, and he was still wearing his Oakley sunglasses. He was suddenly fautigued. The entire day he had been fighting his asshole, fighting its urge to open wide and let loose whatever was left in his colon. He could imagine his sphincter as an actual muscle now, rebellious, and angry. Occasionally Conner would let out a fart, a great big hrumphing flatulence that somehow no one would notice, or comment on. Afterwards he would feel dizzy, and the only sustenance he would allow himself was a sip from his Camelbak hose. Sgt. Lazirko thumped him on his knee.
"An NVG check." He said. "Get em on your helmet mount."
Conner fumbled among his many pouches for his night vision goggles. He fumbled some more getting the helmet mount secured, where the NVG's would flip down so he could use them. Not that he would use them. Looking through NVG's at night was a way to completely kill your depth perception, with its single camera lense. The world appeared green and hazy. Worse, any source of light became a brilliant blinding torch with the night vision. It was an idea that appeared good on paper, or to on officer, but was totally useless in the practice. The older PVS-14 model had a single eye lense, so that when they were flipped down you could still retain your normal vision. But the company had decreed that all SAW gunners would have the newer model with dual eye lenses, and Conner was a SAW gunner, which meant that he was screwed for as long as someone would be watching to make sure he used them.
"Mine dont work, Sar'nt." Sawyer told Sgt. White, and Conner tried not to grin. Sawyer had clearly worked some sort of sabotage earlier, possibly beating the lense against a cement barrier, or stepping on it with his boots until in snapped.
"Use your extra batteries."
Sawyer fumbled with these a minute, and then said, triumphantely, "Those dont work either."
"Just put it on your helmet mount." White said, "For uniformity."
"I dont have a helmet mount."
"Why dont you have a helmet mount?" Kurre snapped, now involved in the conversation.
"They ran out when I went to supply, Staff Sergeant." Sawyer said, lifting up a mass of straps and plastic. "I've got this thing."
"Thats a head mount." Kurre said. "Put it on under your helmet, and get yourself unfucked."
And thusly Sawyer was punished doubly for his transgression. The Marines had decreed that not only would he wear the non-functional goggles, but also that he would wear a sort of vise on his head, underneath his helmet, that would strive to render him totally useless in combat. This was done in the name of uniformity. If one member of the platoon was wearing NVG's, then the entire platoon needed to do the same.
Wearing night vision rendered the sights on your weapon mostly useless, as well. Some members of the platoon had a sort of infrared laser mounted to their rifles or SAW's, to compensate for this condition. The problem with that was that the laser beam was notoriously unreliable, for anything but the most point blank shooting. Conner was going to do without any of it. He had a surefire flashlight strapped to a pouch on his body armor. If the situation came up, he would flick it on. Other than that, he would use whatever lighting was available.
Conner fell asleep.
When he woke up someone was shaking his body armor back and forth and passing back a command with two upraised fingers. Two minutes. He had a blinding headache. The AMRAP was moving. In was not dignified in this effect. There were no windows in the vehicle, to see outside. The air was choked with the smell of diesel fumes. A single raised finger, this time, from Staff Sgt. Kurre.
Things were revving inside Conner, as if an engine was being started. He listened hard, and over the sound of the AMRAP's diesel he could hear the braap braap of gunfire. One minute! he checked his SAW, racking the bolt to the rear. It was hungry now, ready to spit out two hundred rounds from the plastic drum. One minute! He tried to check everything from his gloves, with its plastic knuckles built for thumping. Were his boots tied? His boots were tied. His kneepads were fixed assuredly to his knees, the ballistic plates were in his vest. A new signal passed to the back benches.
The AMRAP was lurching to a halt. He could feel the change. It was time to stand up. The engine gargled down, Conner swayed back and forth while standing, clutching slightly to Sawyers daypack. Thirty seconds! There was no time to think about his needs. There was no time to think about whether he was tired or not, whether he had to shit again. If he was ready to go to war. How he felt about killing. War was here, immenent, on the other side of the ramp. Now he could very much hear the exchange of fire, the way the enemy fired its AK's, and the slower semi-automatic burst fire of M16's and M4's. Then the ramp was down, Staff Sgt. Kurre was screaming go, go, go, or maybe move, move, move, it was impossible to say, and maybe not very important. When Conner stood, he suddenly felt entangled. Struggling, he realized that his helmet mounted NVG's had become entangled with the straps on Sawyers goggles. he bent back with a tug, and there was a loud tearing sound, and something fell to the ground, either Conner's NVG's or Sawyers helmet goggles. But there was no time to determine what it was. He was running, pounding the ground with his feet, Kurre was directing traffic, pointing in a direction "That way!" The night was hot and bright, overhead flares illuminating the world with the bloom of an artificial sun, sputtering for moments until rapid death. Then another.
He was stacked on a building. Someone was shouting at them, in arabic, inside. Lazirko was the first man, he gave it a hard mule kick. The door splintered, and fell of its hinges. Underneath was a wall of cinderblocks. With a pop pop pop, and a crack crack crack, Conner realized what was happening. They were taking fire from above, from the second floor. Kurre had his 16 up, and was firing through a window. "Get a SAW on that!" He screamed. "Cover that fucking thing!" And Conner realized
He was a
And raised the weapon deftly. It weighed less than it ever had before, somehow, and he slowly squeezed off a burst, then another, a braaap and a braaaaap, four or five rounds each, through the window, meanwhile the stack had peeled off the door, because there was no real way inside now, and others were firing. It was good to do this, to fire weapons at a something, a something that was trying to kill you. Everything was amplified more than usual, colors were brighter, he felt more alive than was previously reckoned possible.
"Get back!" Kurre said on the radio. "They bringing in a tank!"
A tank? Conner thought, feeling another thrill. And it was. An M1 Abrams wheeled up, the Marines scuttered to get to the minimum safe distance. The gun spoke, a clap of thunder that sent Conner's ears ringing. There was dust and debris from where the walled-up doorway had been, now stood a gaping hole. The Marines started to charge, discipline somewhat forgotten, not keeping proper dispersion, maybe, but trying to get in the hole, like sperm to a crevice, trying to get inside the objective, the building that needs to be cleared. Inside was the very strong smell of copper. The floor was slick with an unknown substance, and Sawyer skidded and fell, his feet sliding out from under him. Conner pulled him up from behind. They climbed the stairs to the second floor.
The platoon arranged themselves on the second floor of the building. The walls had been knocked down to make one large open room, and besides the obvious windows, slits had been hacked in the exterior walls to fire out of. Inside was half a heavy machine gun, on a tripod, and crates and crates of ammunition. Easter looked at it and whistled. "Is that what hit us?" He said. "Shit."
"Probably one guy with an AK, sir." Odle answered. "This thing looks like its mounted to the floor."
"Corpsman up!" Fonseca started screaming. "Look at Sawyer! Look at Sawyer!"
Staff Sergeant Kurre and the Corpsman went over to do just that. When Conner looked his heart skipped a beat. Under the light of the sure-fire flashlight, he could see that half the Marine's uniform was covered in blood. Kurre grabbed him and dragged him over. "Are you alright son?" He said, gently. "Where are you hit?"
"I feel okay." Sawyer said, his own heart in his throat. When they took of his vest and helmet, and looked under his shirt and trousers, there was no wound obvious.
"Hey Staff Sgt." Odle called out. "Look at the bottom of your boots."
Kurre looked and saw the whole thing thick with red gore. When he shined the light down on the floor there were red footprints criss crossing the cement. With his sure fire light, he went downstairs, and there he saw what the whole platoon had crossed, to get to their position. The insurgent was near liquified from the tank round. His blood and insides made a messy soup on the floor. There was a single bit of head and upper torse, which had landed somewhat intact, and Kurre could see the ugly details, how the glossy eye stared at him, behind the dead white skin, and behind it brains were visible, an entire section of brain, used to form whatever last thought the haaji had said before he stood behind a homemade wall that was no match for a tank. Kurre retched quickly. The vomit came up neat and bothered him little, and when it hit the floor it was not very distinct from the rest of the mess.
After the prolonged period of inactivity, and the sudden, violent movement that followed, there was another period of inactivity, that was shorter than the first one, but seemed longer thanks to the anticipation. During this time, Lt. Easter recieved new orders over the radio that his platoon was to stay inside the house for the rest of the night. The house was a major objective. The recon elements had seen the insurgents piecing together the machine gun inside, in the days leading up to the attack, and there was still a fear of the enemy retaking it and cutting off a choke point into the city. What was not known was that the gun had proven to be defective, and the insurgents had abandoned it, leaving behind only the token fighter who had been nearly disintigrated by the tank.
Conner had his SAW aimed down a field of fire that encompassed most of the intersection in front of the building. With the bipod legs extended, the weapon was resting comfortable in a firing position, with him prone on the floor. But everything hurt now. A low ache permeated his body, from every position it could. He was tired. He would wake suddenly only to wonder how long he had been out, and check the fields of fire, to see if anything had changed. He would check his watch, and it always showed the same time, near enough to one in the morning. He no longer felt like he had to shit, and that in itself was a blessing.
Next to him Ryan Sawyer was trying very hard not to thing about the very literal bloodbath he had taken, up the steps. He was covering near the same fields of fire as Conner, with his M203 grenade launcher. His night vision was gone, and he had torn off the head mount and put it in his daypack. In some part of his mind he was wondering how much trouble he would get into for missing the useless NVG's. Maybe his pay would be docked, the thousands of dollars they cost. When he looked around he could see that no one else in the platoon was using them, except for the Lt., who stared out of it while raising the single monocle to his eye, as if he were some sort of sea explorer for queen Elizabeth, and testing a spyglass for pirates.
His mind wandered. What had really happened, this night, anyway? He had gotten into an ill-smelling vehicle with no windows. He had ran outside and shot his weapon into a window, after someone had shot at him, which he felt but did not witness. A tank had fired through a door and he had climbed up a flight of stairs, through the tank-hole, and laid on the floor, where he had proceeded to fight sleep while staring out a window at an intersection.
What was the bigger story? Behind all this mess, what was the 'task force' doing? Why was this building important? Why was this street important? Why did this sad little town, this ingrateful little city of Fallujah, matter at all? Two Blackwater employees had been dismembered, torched, and hung from a bridge. Who were they?
Who was he?
A screaming comes across the street. The RPG goes fweeeeeeoooooohhWHYPGH and detonates on the first floor of the building across the way. Someone yells "Contact!" Unnecesarily, Conner is already firing. He can see right to the building where the RPG came from, and lines up his sights right on it through the scope, giving disciplined bursts. More fire is coming back, from the other side of the street, sounds of RPK's and AKs Another fweeee of an RPG, this one caterwailing off harmlessly above. "Talking guns!" Kurre snaps.
The Marine Corps fire discipline, as evidenced by the concept of talking guns. A fire team, or squad, or platoon, is firing on the same objective. One SAW lets out a rrrrrrrt burst, and when its finished, another SAW lets out a rrrrrrrt in response. The devestation that follows, a target, decimated by continous machine gun fire. The platoon is doing its job.