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DENVER, COLORADO, USA

[We have just finished dinner at the Wainios. Allison, Todd’s wife, is upstairs helping their son, Addison, with his homework. Todd and I are downstairs in the kitchen, doing the dishes.]

It was kinda like stepping back in time, the new army, I mean. It couldn’t have been any more different from the one I’d fought, and almost died with, at Yonkers. We weren’t mechanized anymore—no tanks, no arty, no tread jobs 1 at all, not even the Bradleys. Those were still in reserve, being modified for when we’d have to take back the cities. No, the only wheeled vehicles we had, the Humvees and a few M-trip-Seven ASVs, 2 were used to carry ammo and stuff. We hoofed it, all the way, marching in column like you see in Civil War paintings. There was a lot of references to “the Blue” versus “the Gray,” mainly because of Zack’s skin color and the shade of our new BDUs. They didn’t bother with camo schemes anymore; in any case, what was the point? And, I guess, navy blue was the cheapest dye they had back then. The BDU itself looked more like a SWAT team’s coverall. It was light and comfortable and interwoven with Kevlar, I think it was Kevlar, 3 bite-proof threads. It had the option of gloves and a hood that would cover your whole face. Later, in urban hand-to-hand, that option saved a lot of lives.

Everything had kind of a retro feel about it. Our Lobos looked like something out of, I don’t know, Lord of the Rings? Standard orders were to use it only when necessary, but, trust me, we made it necessary a lot. It just felt good, you know, swingin’ that solid hunk a’ steel. It made it personal, empowering. You could feel the skull split. A real rush, like you were taking back your life, you know? Not that I minded pulling the trigger.

Our primary weapon was the SIR, standard infantry rifle. The wood furniture made it look like a World War II gun; I guess composite materials were too hard to mass-produce. I’m not sure where the SIR supposedly came from. I’ve heard it was a modcop of the AK. I’ve also heard that it was a stripped-down version of the XM 8, which the army was already planning as its next-gen assault weapon. I’ve even heard that it was invented, tested, and first produced during the siege of the Hero City, and the plans were transmitted to Honolulu. Honestly, I don’t know, and I so don’t care. It might have kicked hard, and it only fired on semi, but it was super accurate and it never, ever jammed! You could drag it through the mud, leave it in the sand, you could drop it in saltwater and let it sit there for days. No matter what you did to this baby, it just wouldn’t let you down. The only bells and whistles it had was a conversion kit of extra parts, furniture, and additional barrels of different lengths. You could go long-range sniper, midrange rifle, or close-combat carbine, all in the same hour, and without reaching farther than your ruck. It also had a spike, this little flip-out job, about eight inches long, that you could use in a pinch if your Lobo wasn’t handy. We used to joke “careful, you’ll poke somebody’s eye out,” which, of course, we did plenty. The SIR made a pretty good close combat weapon, even without the spike, and when you add all the other things that made it so awesome, you can see why we always referred to it, respectfully, as “Sir.”

Our staple ammo was the NATO 5.56 “Cherry PIE.” PIE stands for pyrotechnically initiated explosive. Outstanding design. It would shatter on entry into Zack’s skull and fragments would fry its brain. No risk of spreading infected gray matter, and no need for wasteful bonfires. On BS 4 duty, you didn’t even have to decap before you buried them. Just dig the trench and roll the whole body in.

Yeah, it was a new army, as much the people as anything else. Recruitment had changed, and being a grunt meant something very different now. You still had the old requirements—physical stamina, mental competence, the motivation and discipline to master difficult challenges in extreme conditions—but all that was mouse farts if you couldn’t hack long-term Z-shock. I saw a lot of good friends just lose it under the strain. Some of them collapsed, some turned their weapons on themselves, some on their buddies. It didn’t have anything to do with being brave or anything like that. I once read this British SAS survival guide that talked all about the “warrior” personality, how your family’s supposed to be emotionally and financially stable, and how you’re not even supposed to be attracted to girls when you’re real young. [Grunts.] Survival guides…[Jerks his hand in a masturbatory movement.]

But the new faces, they could have been from anywhere: your neighbor, your aunt, that geeky substitute teacher, or that fat, lazy slob at the DMV. From former insurance salesmen to a guy who I’m damn sure was Michael Stipe, although I never got him to admit it. I guess it all made sense; anyone who couldn’t roll wouldn’t have made it this far in the first place. Everyone was already a veteran in some sense. My battle buddy, Sister Montoya, fifty-two years old, she’d been a nun, still was I guess. Five three and a buck even, she’d protected her whole Sunday school class for nine days with nothing but a six-foot iron candlestick. I don’t know how she managed to hump that ruck, but she did, without complaining, from our assembly area in Needles, all the way to our contact site just outside of Hope, New Mexico.

Hope. I’m not kidding, the town was actually named Hope.

They say the brass chose it because of the terrain, clear and open with the desert in front and the mountains in back. Perfect, they said, for an opening engagement, and that the name had nothing to do with it. Right.

The brass really wanted this test-op to go smoothly. It’d be the first major ground engagement we’d fought since Yonkers. It was that moment, you know, like, when a lot of different things all come together.

Watershed?

Yeah, I think. All the new people, the new stuff, the new training, the new plan—everything was supposed to sort of mix together for this one first big kickoff.

We’d encountered a couple dozen Gs en route. Sniffer dogs would find them, and handlers with silenced weapons would drop them. We didn’t want to attract too many till we were set. We wanted this to be on our terms.

We started planting our “garden”: shelter stakes with orange Day-Glo tape in rows every ten meters. They were our range markers, showing us exactly where to zero our sights. For some of us there was also some light duty like clearing the brush or arranging the ammo crates.

For the rest of us, there was nothing to do except wait, just grab some chow, recharge our camel packs, or even snag some bag time, if it was possible to sleep. We’d learned a lot since Yonkers. The brass wanted us rested. The problem was, it gave us all too much time to think.

Did you see the movie, the one Elliot made about us? That scene with the campfire and the grunts all jawing in this witty dialogue, the stories and the dreams for the future, and even that guy with the harmonica. Dude, it was so not like that. First of all, it was the middle of the day, no campfires, no harmonica under the stars, and also everyone was really quiet. You knew what everyone was thinking though, “What the hell are we doing here?” This was Zack’s house now, and as far as we were concerned, he could have it. We’d all had plenty of pep talks about “The Future of the Human Spirit.” We’d seen the president’s speech God knows how many times, but the prez wasn’t out here on Zack’s front lawn. We had a good thing going behind the Rockies. What the hell were we doing out here?

Around 1300 hours, the radios started squawking, it was the K-handlers whose dogs had made contact. We locked and loaded and took our place on the firing line.

That was the centerpiece of our whole new battle doctrine, back into the past like everything else. We massed in a straight line, two ranks: one active, one reserve. The reserve was so when anyone in the front rank needed a weapon recharge, their fire wouldn’t be missed on the line. Theoretically, with everyone either firing or reloading, we could keep Zack falling as long as the ammo held out.

We could hear the barking, the Ks were bringing them in. We started seeing Gs on the horizon, hundreds. I started shaking even though it wasn’t the first time I’d had to face Zack since Yonkers. I’d been in the clean and sweep operations in LA. I’d done my time in the Rockies when the summer thawed the passes. Each time I got major shakes.

The dogs were recalled, racing behind our lines. We switched over to our Primary Enticement Mechanism. Every army had one by now. The Brits would use bagpipes, the Chinese used bugles, the Sou’fricans used to smack their rifles with their assegais 5 and belt out these Zulu war chants. For us, it was hard-core Iron Maiden. Now, personally, I’ve never been a metal fan. Straight classic rock’s my thing, and Hendrix’s “Driving South” is about as heavy as I get. But I had to admit, standing there in that desert wind, with “The Trooper” thumping in my chest, I got it. The PEM wasn’t really for Zack’s benefit. It was to psych us up, take away some of Zack’s mojo, you know, “take the piss out,” as the Brits say. Right about the time Dickinson was belting “As you plunge into a certain death” I was pumped, SIR charged and ready, eyes fixed on this growing, closing horde. I was, like, “C’mon, Zack, let’s f**kin’ do this!”

Just before they reached the front range marker, the music began to fade. The squad leaders shouted, “Front rank, ready!” and the first line knelt. Then came the order to “take aim!” and then, as we all held our breath, as the music clicked off, we heard “FIRE!”

The front rank just rippled, cracking like a SAW on full auto and dropping every G that crossed the first markers. We had strict orders, only the ones crossing the line. Wait for the others. We’d trained this way for months. By now it was pure instinct. Sister Montoya raised her weapon above her head, the signal for an empty mag. We switched positions, I flipped off my safety, and sighted my first target. She was a noob, 6 couldn’t have been dead more than a year or so. Her dirty blond hair hung in patches from her tight, leathery skin. Her swollen belly puffed through a faded black T-shirt that read G IS FOR GANGSTA. I centered my sight between her shrunken, milky blue eyes…you know it’s not really the eyes that make them look all cloudy, it’s actually tiny dust scratches on the surface, thousands of them, because Zack doesn’t make any tears. Those scratched-up baby blues were looking right at me when I pulled the trigger. The round knocked her on her back, steam coming from the hole in her forehead. I took a breath, sighted my next target, and that was that, I was locked in.

Doctrine calls for one shot every full second. Slow, steady, mechanical-like.

[He begins snapping his fingers.]

On the range we practiced with metronomes, all the time the instructors saying “they ain’t in no hurry, why are you?” It was a way of keeping calm, pacing yourself. We had to be as slow and robotic as them. “Out G the G,” they used to say.

[His fingers snap in perfect rhythm.]

Shooting, switching, reloading, grabbing sips from your camel pack, grabbing clips from the “Sandlers.”

Sandlers?

Yeah, the Recharge Teams, this special reserve unit that did nothing but make sure we never ran dry. You only had a certain number of clips on you and it would take a lot more time to reload each individual clip. The Sandlers ran up and down the line collecting empty clips, recharging them from crated ammo, and then passing them out to anyone who signaled. The story is that when the army started training with RTs, one of the guys started doin’ an Adam Sandler impression, you know, “Water Boy”—“Ammo Boy.” The officers weren’t too jazzed with the tag, but the Recharge Teams loved it. Sandlers were lifesavers, drilled like a f**kin’ ballet. I don’t think anyone that day or night ever found themselves one round short.

That night?

They just kept coming, full on Chain Swarm.

That’s a large-scale attack?

More than that. One G sees you, comes after you, and moans. A click away, another G hears that moan, comes after it, and moans himself, then another one another click away, then another. Dude, if the area’s thick enough, if the chain’s unbroken, who knows how far you can pull them in from. And we’re just talking one after the other here. Try ten every click, a hundred, a thousand.

They started piling up, forming this artificial palisade at the first range marker, this ridge of corpses that got higher and higher each minute. We were actually building an undead fortification, creating a situation where all we had to do was pop every head that popped over the top. The brass had planned for this. They had a periscope tower thingy 7 that let officers see right over the wall. They also had real-time downlinks from satellites and recon drones, although we, the grunts, had no idea what they were seeing. Land Warrior was gone for now so all we had to do was concentrate on what was in front of our faces.

We started getting contacts from all sides, either coming around the wall or else being drawn in from our flanks and even rear. Again, the brass was waiting for this and ordered us to form an RS.

A Reinforced Square.

Or a “Raj-Singh,” I guess after the guy who reinvented it. We formed a tight square, still two ranks, with our vehicles and whatnot in the center. That was a dangerous gamble, cutting us off like that. I mean, yeah, it didn’t work that first time in India only ’cause the ammo ran out. But there was no guarantee it wouldn’t happen again to us. What if the brass had goofed, hadn’t packed enough rounds or underestimated how strong Zack would be that day? It could have been Yonkers all over again; worse, because no one would be getting out of there alive.

But you did have enough ammunition.

More than enough. The vehicles were packed to their roofs. We had water, we had replacements. If you needed a fiver, you just raised your weapon and one of the Sandlers would jump in and take our place on the firing line. You’d grab a bite of I-Rations, 8 soak your face, stretch, drain the weasel. No one would ever volunteer for a fiver, but they had these KO 9 teams, combat shrinks who were observing everyone’s performance. They’d been with us since our early days on the range, knew us each by name and face, and knew, don’t ask me how, when the stress of battle was starting to degrade our performance. We didn’t know, I certainly didn’t. There were a couple times I’d miss a shot or maybe take a half second instead of a full. Then suddenly I’d get this tap on my shoulder and I knew I was out of it for five. It really worked. Before I knew it, I was back on the line, bladder empty, stomach quiet, a few less kinks and muscle cramps. It made a world of difference, and anyone who thinks we could have lasted without it should try hitting a moving bull’s-eye every second for fifteen hours.

What about at night?

We used searchlights from the vehicles, powerful, red-coated beams so it didn’t mess with your night vision. The only creepy thing about night fighting, other than the redness from the lights, is the glow a round makes when it enters the head. That’s why we called them “Cherry PIES,” because if the bullet’s chemcomp wasn’t mixed right, it would burn so bright it made their eyes glow red. That was a cure for constipation, especially later on, on nights when you pulled guard duty, and one would come at you out of the dark. Those glowing red eyes, frozen in time the second before it falls. [Shivers.]

How did you know the battle was over?

When we stopped shooting? [Laughs.] No, that’s actually a good question. Around, I don’t know, 0400, it started to taper off. Heads weren’t poking out as much. The moan was dying down. The officers didn’t tell us that the attack was almost over, but you could see them looking through their scopes, talking on their radios. You could see the relief in their faces. I think the last shot was fired just before dawn. After that, we just waited for first light.

It was kinda eerie, the sun rising over this mountainous ring of corpses. We were totally walled in, all sides were piled at least twenty feet high and over a hundred feet deep. I’m not sure how many we killed that day, stats always vary depending on who you get it from.

The dozer-blade Humvees had to push a path through the corpse ring just to let us get out. There were still living Gs, some slow ones who were late to the party or who had tried to climb up and over their dead friends and had slid back down into the mound. When we started burying the bodies they came tumbling out. That was the only time Señor Lobo saw any action.

At least we didn’t have to stick around for BS duty. They had another unit waiting in reserve to clean up. I guess the brass figured we’d done enough for one day. We marched ten miles to the east, set up a bivouac with watchtowers and concertainer 10 walls. I was so damn beat. I don’t remember the chem shower, turning in my gear to be disinfected, turning in my weapon for inspection: not one jam, not the whole unit. I don’t even remember slipping into my bag.

They let us sleep as late as we wanted the next day. That was pretty sweet. Eventually the voices woke me up; everyone jawing, laughing, telling stories. It was a different vibe, one-eighty from two days ago. I couldn’t really put a finger on what I was feeling, maybe it was what the president said about “reclaiming our future.” I just knew I felt good, better than I had the entire war. I knew it was gonna be a real, long-ass road. I knew our campaign across America was just beginning, but, hey, as the prez said later that first night, it was finally the beginning of the end.