“Sarge! What do you miss the most?”
His question barely registered above the noise of the engines. He held his helmet as they bounced up and down in the back of the Humvee barreling down the pocked and cratered highway.
“Joe, what do you think I miss?” their sergeant, Luke, shouted back at him. “I miss snow.”
Sweat beaded on his forehead, running down his neck, dampening his collar. He pulled on the edge of it in a vain attempt to release the heat, revealing the corner of a black tattoo hidden by his uniform.
Seth was the youngest in their unit, equipped with a mouth not even a mother could love. The butt of his rifle was pressed to the floor like an anchor. He held onto it tight as if it would keep him from getting tossed out.
“That’s stupid. Snow?”
Joe slapped the kid on the shoulder, “Ain’t stupid, kid. Those civvies out there think the damned snow plows leave a mine field in their neighborhoods. Get it?”
“Maybe they should try drivin’ through a minefield like us, eh?” Seth chimed in agreement. Out of the other eight in their unit he looked up to the worst example possible: Joe.
“Send them out with the tapper and I bet any one a’dem will be cryin’ an’ cryin’ for their mommies and wettin’ their diapers.”
“Don’t you forget who we’re out here to protect,” Luke handed his canteen to his comrade. Joe took a swig and handed it back.
“Protect ’em? Luke, there’s a name for people like you.”
Seth said, “Idealist.”
“Seth is right. Eye-deel-ist,” Joe echoed. “The civvies are protestin’. They been protestin’ us for ten years now. If the Maker wants ’em the Maker can have ’em.”
“Ox there,” Luke pointed to a bear of a man sitting at the end. Time had forgotten his real name because the name ‘Ox’ stuck so well. “Ox hasn’t forgotten what we fight for. Ain’t that right, corporal?”
Nestled in the palm of his large paw was a scratched up golden locket. The cherubic face of his five year old stared back at him, smiling that little smile that only little girls could smile, the smile that warmed the heart of the meanest bastards.
“I fight everyday for her,” he looked up at the rest of them. “No one from Stirling gets over our border on my watch. So don’t any of you screw it up either.”
“Maker’s hell,” Joe spat on the floor. His helmet barely stayed on his head with the sudden dip in the road leaving them all weightless, if only for a split second. “Get it straight. Civvy men are good for target practice, and we all know what civvy women are good for.”
The brakes squealed, jolting everyone. They smashed together like a human accordion. Each grabbed the man next to him to stop from falling into the aisle or flying into the back of the cab.
The truck following them squealed, almost pancaking them. Black smoke was billowing out from a shelled town a mile down the road. Buildings smoldered, gaping with shattered walls crying into the air like jagged rows of broken teeth.
Ox was the first one out of the Humvee.
Joe shouted from the back, “Who did this? The Free-borns?”
“No,” Ox was kneeling by a large crater in front of the truck alongside the driver. The hole was still warm. “This isn’t their artillery. It’s ours. It was the 82nd.”
The streets could barely be called roads. Uplifted concrete and broken asphalt was almost as difficult for the vehicles to navigate as the fallen debris.
They stopped next to a cafe near ground zero of an artillery barrage. A twisted sign informed them that they were at the intersection of Pine and Heinshaw. Smoldering before them was a large impassable pit of ruin. The pungent smell of burning metal putrified the air. It was so foul each man had to hold a rag to his face.
“May the Maker damn the 82nd,” Seth looked over the edge into the inferno. “That smell… are they using chems?”
“Look there,” Ox pointed to a burning corner of the impassable wreckage.
Tucked behind the debris of a car, twisted and warped beyond recognition, were the remains of several civilians. A child’s blistering lifeless hand lay limp, burning underneath the detached car door. One look and Seth covered his mouth, but it was too late. He finished puking behind their vehicle.
Joe snickered at the kid’s misery, and slapped Ox’s arm, which was almost as big and round as his head.
“Take a peek at Luke over there.”
The ensuing conversation between Luke and their commander was heated. Whatever it was, Luke was holding back. He held his arms crossed, jaw clenched.
“Three border towns,” Joe spat on the ground. “Three border towns laid to waste by the 82nd so far, and each time Luke and the C.O. are in the back shootin’ the shit.”
“Any idea what they talk about?”
As they watched, Luke went for his pistol, hesitated, and put his hands in the air. Their commander did likewise.
A man barely fifty armed with a revolver and dressed in sullied clothing held his teenage daughter behind him as he trained the deadly weapon on their commander.
“Put the weapon down!”
Ox, Joe, Seth, and three others had their rifles cocked.
“Don’t do anything you’ll regret. Look at the colors. We’re from Myrmidion.”
While Ox was creeping closer Joe was circling around the side for a clean shot.
“So were the others!” the man shouted back.
A dozen townsfolk were in the alley, shouting at them to leave.
“We have medical,” Luke said. “We can patch up you and your daughter, and whoever else.”
“Leave our town. We’re not part of this– Stay back!”
When he turned to shoot Ox, Luke twisted the gun backward, removing the threat of his itchy trigger finger and locking the man’s finger in it just shy of breaking it off. The man fell to his knees.
The commander and Luke pulled out their pistols, holding them on the others in the alley allowing the rest of the unit to run into place.
“What in the Maker’s name is going on?” Ox grabbed Luke by the shoulder as he brushed past him. “There’ve been no survivors before.”
“Yea, Ox. The 82nd screwed up,” he muttered darkly, then began barking orders, “You, you, and you you’re with me and the commander. Get in that truck. Ox, you’re in charge here. Seth and Joe you’re with Ox.”
“Luke, someone has to stop the 82nd. Enough is a enough!”
“Ox, that’s sergeant. Get it right,” he growled back. “You’re staying here and guarding the civs until we return with enough trucks to transport them, understood?”
“Is this the example we want to set for our daughters?”
Luke pushed Ox backward. The large man fell back a couple steps if just for being surprised. Not a single man could push Ox around unless he allowed them.
“Don’t play that card with me, corporal. We’re going to get the commander the rest of the way to Fort Bein. By noon tomorrow we’ll be back with transport.”
Luke started toward the Humvee. He opened the passenger side door, and paused a moment. “Ox, for tonight remember who the real enemy is. Forget the 82nd.”
The sun fell below the horizon leaving the small town of Loch Haven shrouded in darkness. The shelling it had taken merely seventy two hours earlier had left the town without power, and the only running water bubbled out of the faucets as a thick brown sludge.
Ox had ordered that they barricade the nearby cafe. It was one of the few buildings within three blocks that had enough structural integrity to protect the three of them and the dozen or so civilians from the elements.
“Babysitting civvies wasn’t in the job description,” Joe and Seth cursed, but they shut up. A single menacing glare from Ox was enough to nail shut the biggest mouth.
Piles of clothing and blankets were being used for beds. Others used the padded seats inside of the booths. Ox sat at the diner’s bar with his rifle laid on the counter. As he finished off the last of the room temperature frozen fries he took out his locket.
The father from earlier grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge behind the cash register. Two swigs later he was standing across from Ox.
“I never introduced myself. Nathan.”
He extended his hand. Ox looked at him dubiously, and took it. The man’s hand was no larger than a child’s in his.
“Dale,” he said. “But everyone calls me Ox.”
“I noticed. How old is your daughter?”
“Leina is five. If you ask her she’ll say five and a half.”
“May I see her?”
Ox handed over the locket. Resting his hip against the counter, Nathan smiled pleasantly at the tiny black and white photograph.
“Beautiful girl. She’s almost a dead ringer for my daughter, Annika.”
In a nearby booth his daughter was curled up asleep. She swatted an insect, and pulled her blankets tighter, which only uncovered her feet.
“And how old is she?”
“Seventeen next month. I can’t believe you’re eating those fries. Eating one of those uncooked is like eating a soggy sponge. How can you do it?”
Ox grabbed one of the fries. It fell limp. He rubbed it in the smear of ketchup on his plate and popped it into his mouth.
“Ain’t no secret to it. Eat the government issued crap for long enough and everything else tastes like the Maker farted it out.”
He took the locket back from Nathan and took another longing look at it. “Explain this, Nathan. You all got the presidential directive, didn’t you?”
“You mean the one that bastard issued saying we should abandon all towns and settlements bordering Stirling? Yea, we got it. Didn’t much care for it.”
“If you left Loch you wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“If we left Loch we’d lose our homes.”
“Have you looked around recently?” Ox waved around at the destruction outside the window. “You’ve lost them anyway. If you claimed refugee status the president would’ve given you new homes and free jobs to boot.”
“Perhaps he would have. Perhaps not.”
He finished his bottle and tossed it on the counter behind him. It bounced around for a second before pirouetting off of the edge, clattering to the floor.
“I’m guessing you enlisted so you could have a business for you and your daughter?”
“Our businesses are here. If we left we would have been abandoning everything I already built for Annika. Those boys of yours from the 82nd thought they’d enforce the directive and clear us out for simply not listening. We survived. We’re weathering this war.”
“You’ve got guts. No brains, but you got guts.”
“Quite frankly you boys have me afraid to fall asleep. May I ask you a question?”
“Are you here to finish us off?”
He lifted his rifle off of the counter throwing the shoulder strap over his neck. Ox cocked it and the glimmer in his eye told Nathan everything he needed to know even before Ox reinforced it with six words, “I’m here to finish the 82nd.”
The desert heat dissipated leaving all of them shivering. Joe and Seth stood at the door to the cafe whispering between one another, blowing into cold hands. Ox now stood with them, waiting for Nathan to catch his sleep.
“Did you get her name at least?” Seth asked.
Joe whispered back, “Annika. Hot young thing. She’s the kind of girl–“
Ox thumped him in the chest, hard.
“She’s the kind of girl you stay away from. I don’t want to see either of you sick bastards near her. Understand me?”
“Yes sir,” answered Seth.
Joe wheezed, “A’course, sir.”
“It’s getting late. Seth, you take the first four hours. Joe you take the second. I expect to take over before sunup. Clear?”
When they made it clear that they understood Ox finished with a warning.
“Just because this place is dark and burning it don’t mean those Free-born scumbags aren’t lurking about. We’re just babysittin’ until Luke gets back.”
Booths weren’t comfortable for a man his size. He uncurled his sleeping bag and laid in a corner using his pack as a pillow.
The mists of dream brought him home that night. A carousel decorated with scores of white glistening unicorns with large flowing rainbow manes spun wildly behind his wife and his daughter. They beckoned him to come play. He snapped pictures of them as they laughed, jumping on the spinning stampede. Up and down, they went. Up and down. Up and down. His wife fell and she had vanished below the horses as he tried catching her. A wave of reality swept over him.
This was an impossible memory. She died during childbirth.
Pistol in hand, he awoke pointing it at an empty room.
In the middle of the street Nathan held a pistol on Joe who was screaming and clutching at the gaping hole through his kneecap.
“Don’t think about it!” he shouted at Seth. The kid obeyed, dropping his firearm to the ground.
“Nathan, lower your weapon,” Ox bellowed.
The barricade near the door protected him as he prayed for things not to get any uglier. The townsfolk were gathered behind Nathan.
“Ox, you don’t know what they did.”
“Doesn’t matter, Nathan. Put… down… that… gun.”
Joe was screaming, “Shoot him! He’s crazy, Ox. The man’s crazy!”
Then it dawned on him. The townsfolk weren’t gathered behind Nathan. They were gathered around Annika. Over their shoulders he caught a glimpse of her cut and scraped face. Blood was smeared across her lip.
He crept further into the scene. Each step brought more grisly awareness of the situation.
“Shut up, Joe. What did you do?”
Up close he could see the tears streaming down Nathan’s face. Ox held out his hand begging for his weapon.
“Nathan, your gun. Tell me what happened.”
“They hurt her, Ox. These two hurt her… Maker forgive me.”
“Please Nathan, hand me the gun. Let’s sort this out.”
He looked over at Annika’s tear soaked face. Her shirt was in tatters. Her pants were torn. The woman holding her had wrapped a blanket about her. A sickening pit grew in his stomach, swelling up into his throat.
Nathan took a deep breath. Tears streamed down his cheeks. His hand trembled in his rage. His finger was tightly wrapped around the trigger.
“Ox, what would you do if she was your daughter?”
Ten minutes past noon the caravan pulled into Loch Haven. The massive trucks pulled up in front of the diner forming a wall of green canvas and metal.
Luke stepped out of the first truck, ordering the men to gather the survivors. Loch Haven’s survivors stood outside staring off into the distance as if in a trance. Hardly twenty-four hours had passed since he had that tussle with Nathan, and the fear in the man’s eyes was an entire shade different. The man hugged his crying daughter close and walked to the truck.
Two bodies were lain out on the concrete, covered in blankets. Combat boots stuck out from underneath telling the story of what had transpired. White flowers were spread on top of them to usher them to their final destination be it the Maker’s Paradise or one of His many hells.
Inside, sitting at the counter was Ox, hunched over, polishing his rifle. When Luke entered he stood at attention.
“Had a situation last night?” he saluted back, putting him at ease.
“Free-borns. I see.”
He looked around the room from where he stood, considering the response. “Show me the bodies.”
“They looked to their dead.”
“Bullshit,” Luke reached back, closing the door. “What if I told you I was three blocks away, in that direction, about seven o’clock this morning with a pair of binoculars. What would you say I’d find below those sheets outside?”
Ox swallowed hard.
“You’d find justice.”
He smirked, “Good answer. Take a seat.”
“Luke, before you put me before the gun all I ask is that I get to see Leina one last time.”
He grabbed a stool next to Ox and chuckled saying, “Why would I order your execution? As you said, you delivered justice.”
This was not the reaction he had prepared for.
“I don’t understand?”
“Joe and Seth have done this shit before. When I saw that man’s daughter yesterday I knew they’d do something awful if given opportunity. I sat back with my fingers crossed praying you’d make the right decision.”
Ox slammed his hammer-like fist on the counter.
“You knew they’d rape her?!”
“Don’t blame me. You could have woken up when they followed her to the bathroom. You could have woken up when they dragged her through the back door. You could have prevented this. The Maker, through His wisdom thought you needed to sleep through that. Honestly I wish you would have shot them before they ruined that poor girl’s life.”
He reached into his vest and produced a medallion. It was an open hand crossed with a sword. He slid it toward Ox.
“I’m part of a brotherhood whose vision is to end these injustices. I’d like to bring you in.”
He took the brass medallion between two fingers. It reflected brightly in the dim light. In the last two years Luke had never steered him wrong. As he thought of Annika, all he could see was Leina’s face bruised, beaten, crying instead of hers.
“Toss in the 82nd and I’m yours.”