The Unknown Soldier

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  • 1. The Unknown Soldier
     
    Strange, that I'm so calm. I've waited for this for as long as I can remember.
    Private First Class James Miller of Second Platoon, Alpha company opened his eyes and looked up, out through the open starboard doors of the Blackhawk helicopter. The roar from the rotors drowned out all other sound, but absorbed as the grey wolf had been in his introspection, he had barely heard them. Before long, the dunes flashing by below mesmerized him and he lapsed deep into thought again. A question surfaced in his mind, the same one he'd been asking himself since he deployed.
    Am I afraid?
    Even now, minutes from what could well be the denouement of his life, he had no answer.
    You said you were fearless. You said you had nothing to lose.
    And yet, he couldn't banish his restlessness.
    The Marine looked around at his squad. The others were every bit as new as him. And all of them looked as uneasy as he felt. Excepting for Staff Sergeant Fenix. The bear's face betrayed no emotion. His grey eyes were cold as ice and hard as flint.
    The plan was straightforward, at least. Their target was a high-ranking Taliban official, one who was responsible for the deaths of many Coalition troops in the province. Intelligence gathered by a drone had indicated he was taking refuge in a large warehouse to the south of his platoon's insertion point. The entire company was going to come into play, deploying around the area to close off all exits. First and Second Platoons would then storm the warehouse and attempt to capture the target alive.
    Miller slipped his paw under his body armor, and drew from his breast pocket a small photograph. For a moment, he wrestled with his emotions as the memories resurfaced. Then with a force of will, he subdued them. He closed his fingers around the image and stuffed it back into his fatigues.
    Beth.
    The wolf scowled. No. I have nothing left to lose.
    The pilot's voice came through the speakers then, just loud enough to drown out the engines. " Thirty seconds."
    James gripped his rifle hard. Now was no time to let his mind wander.
    He was jerked roughly back in his harness as the slick banked sharply to port. A rocket-propelled grenade streaked past the helicopter's starboard flank, so close that he could smell the burning fuel. The pilot shouted something, and the wolf became aware of another sound, the distinct clatter of automatic weapons fire. The desert landscape they had been flying over was gone – a whitewashed limestone cityscape had taken its place. It had begun.
    Before the PFC had time to gather his wits, the ropes attached to the fuselage were released, and the Staff Sergeant barked an order. All thought ceased as his training took over.
    " On the ropes! Go! Go!"
    Miller took the rope and slid down immediately, vaguely surprised when his feet hit the rooftop of a small apartment building. As soon as he released it, he dropped to a knee, shouldering his rifle automatically. The rooftop was clear. He moved to the low wall at the edge as he heard the other servicefurs touching down behind him.
    The Blackhawk turned and flew back toward the F.O.B.
    On the street below, First Platoon advanced toward the primary objective, firing their weapons as they went. Bullets sparked off the street at their feet.  Even as he watched, a Marine took a hit in the leg and fell. James looked for someone to shoot at but couldn't find a target.
    The SSgt. moved up alongside him and surveyed the situation, his Mossberg pump-action shotgun at the ready. " We need to get in position to cover our boys.  Let's move out and find a better rooftop!"
    Second Platoon descended via the stairwell and exited the building through a back door. Miller's eyes darted from shadow to shadow as they advanced through the alleys. Every sense seemed sharpened to a razor's edge. The air was still, stifling. Somehow, they located 1st without incident. They were stacked on the corner of the building across the street. Fenix flattened himself against a wall and called out to them. " Where's the fire coming from?"
    1Plat's sergeant, a stocky black bull, jerked his thumb over his shoulder. " Gunner's nest on the fourth floor of that hotel, about five buildings down! He's got us pinned pretty good!" He peeked around the corner, but withdrew his head quickly. A split-second later, a fresh burst of enemy fire sent chunks of concrete spinning out from the wall. " The fucker's on your side of the street. Do us a favor, will ya?"
    The bear nodded. " How's your wounded holding up?"
    The bull grinned. " Only a scratch. We patched him up and he's back on his feet already. Just focus on clearing the path for us, and we'll handle the rest."   The Staff Sergeant turned back to his platoon. " You heard him, let's get moving. Keep your eyes open!"
    They reached the building, and entered it quietly. Fenix signaled for James to take point. The wolf kept his rifle tight against his shoulder and in the firing position as they climbed the stairs, but they encountered nobody. As he reached the landing of the fourth floor, they heard a long, angry burst of gunfire from the room to their left. The door was ajar. At a signal from Fenix, Second Platoon moved silently into position. James heard the ready signal being sent up the line.
    Five. Four. Three. Two...
    He sprang into action the second the Staff Sergeant's paw hit his shoulder, using the weight of his body to shove the door open as he moved into the room. The insurgent gunner, a tiger, had his back to the entrance. Miller had a clear shot. There was no thought, only reflex, as his finger twitched on the trigger.
    The rifle kicked against his shoulder, and blood spattered the bricked-up window behind the enemy fighter.
    However, even as the body started to fall, the Marine became aware of other movement in the room. A second militiafur had been leaning against the wall to his right, and now leveled an AK-47 at James.
    Ah, Fuck.
    Even as he spun to face the new threat, the wolf knew that he was out of time.
    The insurgent had beaten him on the draw. And at this range, the enemy could not miss.
    Somewhere behind him, a shotgun roared, sending a three-foot gout of fire and sparks into the room.
    The second hostile was blown backward as his head and upper body seemed to fly apart. The rifle fell from lifeless hands and discharged three rounds as it hit the floor; three neat holes appeared in the plaster wall opposite.
    The sergeant racked the pump-action, and the spent cartridge struck the floor with a dainty clink.
    " Clear!"
    The Private blinked several times, and the bear clapped him on the shoulder. " You alright?"
    Miller shrugged his NCO's paw off, the adrenaline still rushing through his system in time with his pounding heart. " Yeah, I'm good."
    If I stop to think, I think I'm going to be sick.
    Fenix flashed a toothy grin. " You'll get used to it." He turned his back on James and activated his radio. " First Platoon, we took care of your little problem. You're in the clear."
    " Much appreciated, Alpha two."
    " Good luck. Out." The bear turned to the squad and shrugged. " Alright, people. Let's double time it to the objective, get there before them."
    They moved out of the building quickly. By the time they stepped into the street again, 1Plat had already reached the warehouse. In a flat-out sprint for the building, Miller watched as the Marines of the First Platoon, Alpha Company set a breaching charge and detonate it, moving in through one of the side doors. The sounds of shots being fired were heard, followed by a silence. James had lead Second Platoon to within a mere hundred meters of the objective when his headset hissed and he heard the voice of 1st Platoon's squad leader.
    " Control, this is Alpha one six. The building is secure but we do not have the package. I repeat, the target was not in the building."
    Fenix turned to Miller. " That can't be g-"
    His words were cut short by a massive flash of light from directly ahead of them. Before James registered what had happened, he heard the thunder of the explosion and the shockwave struck, picking him up and flinging him like a rag-doll against a nearby van. Then he couldn't see, couldn't breathe- a cloud of sand and debris had rolled over them. The wolf lay there in the stillness as the dust settled, his ears ringing. He finally struggled to his feet with an effort, coughing, trying to re-orient himself. He could see the silhouettes of other Marines picking themselves up all around him. Before long, his hearing started to return. They were shouting.
    " Son of a bitch, what happened?"
    " Motherfuckers! It was a fucking BCIED! The whole damn warehouse was rigged to blow!" Fenix was livid, his voice hoarse, his features contorted with rage and grief. " They're dead! First Platoon is gone!"
    Miller looked up. Where the warehouse had been mere seconds ago, a blackened, burning husk remained. Even as he watched, the roof and west wall crumbled inward. Thick black smoke coiled into the clear sky.
    The radio crackled, and a calm male voice was heard on the mission frequency. " Control to Alpha two six, we have lost contact with Alpha one. Sit Rep, over."
    " Control, this is Alpha two. The warehouse was a trap! A Building-Contained IED, sir!" Fenix paused, his voice catching. " First Platoon... They're gone."
    There was a long pause. The officer replied, sounding considerably less composed. " Control to all units: move to your primary extraction points, our slicks are on the way."
    " Wilco, command. Mission out."
    But during this exchange, James had been scanning the surrounding buildings. The fact that the warehouse was trapped would mean that someone was watching the area.
    A glint of light from a distant rooftop caught his eye. The Staff Sergeant was beside him, directing Second Platoon. The wolf knew what was about to happen.
    It was reflex. He was moving even as he saw the muzzle flash. He lowered his shoulder, roughly shoving the Staff Sergeant out of the way. The bear gave a shout, overbalanced and fell.
    In the same instant, Miller felt the bullet punch him hard in the chest, and he was knocked onto his back. He attempted to stand, but realized to his horror that his limbs would not respond.
    The SSgt. scrambled to his feet and saw him. " Jim? NO! Corpsman! CORPSMAN!"
    The wolf was suddenly aware of a warm liquid running down his side. He glanced down at himself and saw his armor and fatigues dyed a deep red. Terror seemed to constrict his chest as he saw blood flowing in pulses from the wound, boiling up through the hole in his plate carrier. The medic rushed to his side as the riflemen fired at the insurgent sniper.
    Miller was growing dizzy and tired. His vision swam; he was vaguely aware that Fenix and the Corpsman seemed to be talking in low voices. The words " arterial involvement" and " not enough time" reached him through his haze. His breathing quickened, his heart rate spiking. Fresh streams of blood stained his fatigues and ran into the street around him. God, I don't want to die.
    Part of him knew it was coming.
    He wondered at the fact that he felt no pain. It should hurt, shouldn't it?
    The Staff Sergeant was swearing now, frustrated.
    James felt himself slipping, and struggled to stay conscious. But it was futile. He perceived the world now as if from underwater. His senses weakened with each passing second. He put the last of his strength into lifting his arm, and thrust his paw under his armor, his muscles convulsing with the effort. His fingers closed around the photograph.
    Beth.
    He relaxed, and his eyes closed.
    ***************************************
    When James Miller opened his eyes again, his vision had cleared, and he was still lying in the street. Time seemed to have stopped. Grains of sand were frozen in clouds where Marines' feet had disturbed them. The servicefurs themselves were as statues – Unmoving and unblinking, frozen in the action of firing their rifles. Bullets hung in stasis, shimmering with heat. The world was devoid of color. The wolf saw that everything around him was in black-and-white, like an old photograph. A flash of brilliant light blinded him suddenly, and he shut his eyes to shield them.
    When he opened them again, he saw her.
    She was as beautiful as he remembered her in the best days of his memory, before the illness had taken her from him. Her brown hair framed her deep green eyes. Her rich orange fur gleamed in the light from the sun. The vixen gave him a sad smile and came to him, kneeling down beside him.
    He was dreaming. He was sure of it. " Beth, I – " He found himself unable to continue, so overcome was he with emotion.
    She reached over to him, took his helmet off and ran her fingers soothingly through the fur on his head. He closed his eyes, a tear rolling down his cheek. How long had he dreamed of feeling her touch again?
    " Do you remember what I told you the last time we were together?" Her tone was gentle, her voice soft.
    He looked up at her, and the memory of that night in the hospital room flashed behind his eyes. It was that night he had tried so hard to forget. " You told me not to throw my life away because of you. You told me to give myself another chance."
    " But you didn't listen, James. You joined the Marines, and you volunteered to be deployed. I didn't want things to end like this for you."
    " When you died, I had nothing left. I couldn't imagine replacing you with another woman, and promised myself I would never take another mate. I was angry. When we were together, I didn't need anything more. But with you gone, I needed to forget."
    She brought her paw to his cheek, and he pressed back against her hand. " I'm here now. And I won't go anywhere this time." She took his paw in hers, and he felt energy rush back into his limbs. He watched with amazement as the color returned to his body. She stood, and he stood with her, dropping his rifle and armor. A gate materialized in the middle of the street and swung open. Through it shone the same blazing light he had seen when she appeared. As they stood before it, hand in hand, he glanced over his shoulder at the spot where he had lay. There was a corpse – bloodied, broken and colorless as the scenery. It was a shell now, and nothing more. He put his arm around her shoulders, she put hers around his waist, and together, they stepped through the gates.