The Dawn of Tears
Chapter Four - The Difference Between Lessons and Life
Note to Readers: Military life is unlike civilian life in many ways. Boot Camp, or its equivalent, is where a military force takes new recruits and transform them into parts of the military machine. But, even as they take individuals and teach them how to act as part of a group, a unit, they never really remove the individual nature of human beings. In a parade of soldiers, you see hundreds of pieces moving together in unison, acting as a group. Follow those soldiers to their barracks and you will see their individual natures as they interact with each other.
People with no military experience don't often realize that simple fact. Henry and I never went to a boot camp, but placing two smart kids like us in a total military environment will yield a similar result. I spent so much of my time as a young man with military personnel that I absorbed the lessons they had learned in boot camp. There's another facet of mlitary training and life that isn't commonly understood by civilians.
Families are often the primary source of emotional comfort and aid for individuals. But for many, the military takes the place of family. They live together, laugh together, and face the horrors of the battlefield together. Even when they re-enter the civilian world, two old army buddies might meet unexpectedly, and for them no time has passed and the camraderie of the past will surface immediately. When you have faced death together, when you have put your life in their hands, and held their life in yours, there are bonds formed that few others will understand. When you have bled together, and killed together, you will always be closer than many are to their families.
"Okay, spread your legs apart just a little more." Sergeant Connors's voice was soft in my ear, barely audible really. I moved my legs like he directed and I felt his arms encircle me, bracing my arms. "Just like that."
I felt cold a bit as he stepped back, despite the heavy jacket I was wearing. I took a deep breath, let it out, stopped about halfway through and squeezed the trigger. The rifle jumped a bit, and I could feel it bite into my shoulder. My hands tingled, but I sighted on the target again, breathing like he'd told me to, and squeezed off another round. This time the rifle barely moved, and the magazine was soon empty. I took another deep breath, hit the release and pulled out the empty magazine, and then set the rifle down on the range's counter.
"I thought you said that you'd never fired a gun before?" Connors said with an admiring tone as the target was raised by the spotter, marking a nearly perfect pattern. To be honest I was amazed. Henry's target next to mine only had about half as many hits, and only three close to the kill zone. Although most of mine were outside the kill zone on the target, all but that first one had hit.
"I've never fired a gun before." I said in wide-eyed wonder.
"Let's see if it was a fluke." Corporal Gunderson said from nearby where he had been helping Henry. Henry was giving me a jealous look, which I returned with a smirk. He snorted then demanded another magazine Gunderson. Connors handed me another magazine as well, and I reloaded the weapon, pulling the charging handle with more certainty than I had the first time.
This time ten of the thirty rounds hit the kill zone, and all thirty hit the target. Henry did better as well, getting all of his rounds on the target and six in the kill zone. We spent another hour watching the soldiers in Connor's squad shooting, and I was impressed that Connors was the best shot among them all. When their time at the range was up, we walked back to the compound and returned to their tents where Connors handed me his rifle to clean. Gunderson did the same to Henry.
"You shoot them, you clean them." Connors said and I glared at him before beginning the task. I actually needed the practice, I thought, so it wasn't that big of a deal. Still, I didn't want the man to think I'd always agree with everything he told me. By the time we were done, it was only an hour until dinner, so we hurried back into our dorm room. However, before we showered and changed our uniforms, we took out the hidden print out that Henry had acquired the night before. We sat on his bed, heads bent together as we read the document. It was an abbreviated report for District Commanders and the news it contained was far more detailed than we had ever imagined.
XXXCOMPACFLT REPORTS LOSS OF COWPENS, FLINT, & BRADLEY TO UNKNOWN SUBLAUNCHED WEPS. FOUR TANKERS ALSO REPORTED LOSS PRIOR TO LOC WITH PEARL HARBOR. TWO TANKERS ALSO DAMAGED OR LOSS OUTSIDE ALASKAN WATERS. FRIGATES MONSHORN AND GARY REPORTED SUBMERGED CONTACT AND PROSECUTED WITH SUCCESS BEFORE CONTACT WAS MADE WITH ESCORTS. ONE SUB-LAUNCHED SSM WAS SHOT DOWN BY GARY WITH SM-1MR SYSTEM.XXX
XXXARG-12 REPORTS SUCCESSFUL ENGAGEMENT WITH MEXICAN TARGET PORTS. INITIAL RESISTANCE WAS MINIMAL. UNKNOWN SUBMERGED FORCES ATTACKED AND SANK WASP, LANDRY AND OKINAWA. MARINE LOSSES ESTIMATED AT 6,000 + NAVAL CASUALTIES NEAR 2000. ARG FORCES ARE PULLING BACK AFTER COUNTERATTACK BY MEXICAN ARMY FORCES. SECONDARY PLANS ARE BEING IMPLEMENTED. TWO TORPEDO BOATS AND 1 SUBMERGED CONTACT PROSECUTED AND DESTROYED DURING WITHDRAWAL.XXX
XXXALL EFFORTS TO CONTACT EUROPEAN BASED FORCES REMAINS INEFFECTIVE. COMMAND PRESUMES ALL FORCES HAVE BEEN NEUTRALIZEDXXX
XXXMID-EAST FORCES REPORT CONTACT CONTINUES WITH ELEMENTS OF IRANIAN AND SAUDI ARABIAN MILITARY FORCES. ABRAHAM LINCON AND ESCORTS ARE NOW RETREATING TO DIEGO GARCIA WITH EMPTY FUEL BUNKERS AND ALL TLAM INVENTORIES DEPLETED. GROUND FORCES ALSO REPORT LOW FUEL BUNKER LEVELS FOR ARMOR AND CREW TRANSPORTXXX
XXXALL DISTRICT COMMANDERS TO REPORT TO CENTRAL COMMANDS ASAP REGARDING FORCE STRENGTHS AND SUPPLY SITUATIONS. PREPARE OPERATIONAL PLANS TO DIVERT FOOD, FUEL, AND STAFF AS NECESSARY TO SUPPORT TANKER RETRIEVAL AND ESCORT OPERATIONS AS WELL AS POSSIBLE LAND OFFENSIVE TO SECURE MEXICAN PIPELINE AND RESOURCE FIELDSXXX
"Holy shit." Henry breathed aloud as we finished reading the papers. It was the first time I ever remembered hearing him cuss. "We're at war with who knows how many countries."
"Not only that but we're preparing to invade our neighbor to the south." I said, and then chuckled. "I wonder how well prepared they are to stop Americans crossing their border instead of the other way around."
"I didn't think things were this bad." Henry breathed. "Dad didn't even tell us any of this stuff!"
"I don't think he would have." I said. "He's up there in Sacramento right now trying to figure out what food stuffs, fuel, and people he can spare from this area to send to who knows where to do who knows what, meanwhile he still has to keep a couple of hundred thousand people fed, and have enough security to keep them from rioting when they find out what we just found out."
"We have to destroy these." Henry said, staring at the papers like they were fire. "No more printing them out. I'll just read them on the screen and tell you what I read later."
"You'll tell me everything." I stated, and he looked at me sharply. I knew what he'd been thinking, and he knew that I knew. He nodded slowly. It was our first fight in nearly a month, and not a word had been said beyond those few sentences.
That night while we were on duty I took a particularly messy form up to Captain Williams and asked for his help. He had grimaced at the form, trying to read the messy handwriting, and eventually helped me figure out what it had said. Then he asked me about the shooting range and we chatted for a few minutes about that adventure. The police lieutenant on duty, a nice older man by the name Campbell, started to tell a story about this son's first time with a gun that was truly hilarious. By the time I got back to our shared desk, it was a half-hour later and Henry had more than enough time to read the District Commander Advisory Notice without risking being observed by a casual passerby.
The next night, it was Henry's turn to distract the Captain by asking a detailed question on military protocol while I looked up the information.
The news in these updates was not good. By mid-week it became very clear that a state of war existed between the United States and most of the world. The US leadership did not, would not, or could not understand the demands of the other countries that the world's remaining supply of oil be shared. In the midst of this fighting, repairs on the damaged facilities, repairs that would have fixed the supply problems went undone. In fact, when the Iranian military forces approached a key port city in Iraq, US forces launched a missile strike that destroyed the facility completely, instead of just damaging it like it had been.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all refused to sell oil to the US, and the US retaliated by sinking any ships that attempted to leave those ports. The countries that had purchased the oil on those ships (at extremely high rates) retaliated by attacking the US ships blockading those ports. By Friday of that week, it was obvious to even Henry and me that the situation was about to explode into all-out war.
Colonel Jacobs returned late Friday night, while we were in the Operations Center and ordered Captain Williams to prepare two squads to travel to the local airport by 0700 hours. He looked over at us briefly as he gave the orders and I noticed he looked totally exhausted. Before he left, he also told Captain Williams to have us report to his office after our shift.
At 0415, we entered his office, tired, but no where near as tired as he appeared. He sighed when we entered after knocking (his secretary was hopefully still asleep), and motioned for us to sit in the seats in front of his desk. For a long time he sat there, just looking at us as if conducting an internal debate with himself.
"Boys, I haven't heard a word from anyone about what we talked about last time we were all in here." He said at last. "That tells me you both know how to keep your mouths shut, just like I had expected you would. Tell me, you've been living here with the military for several days now. I've heard you even started taking up shooting at the range. You've been meeting every day with soldiers and learning what they know. Do you think the military people you've met have the best interests of the people in their hearts?"
"Yes sir, they do." I replied instantly. "There's a few whiners, a few people who are in it only for what they can get out of it, but most of them care. I've heard a few talking in the mess hall about stuff that goes on while they are on patrol, and most of them care."
"I agree with Dylan." Henry said simply.
"How would you react if I told you that most of the world does not agree with the President's actions to bring America through this crisis?" He asked us, and my brain spun into overdrive. We couldn't reveal our knowledge of the extent of events, and through our discussions of the events themselves, I'd gained quite a bit of insight into how the Colonel and Pastor viewed the world. As I was thinking through these things, I noticed that Henry wasn't speaking, but instead looking at me. That surprised me for a moment since he usually took the lead in these types of situations, and then I understood. If he said anything, his dad would wonder if it was biased by the fact that Henry had lived with him all of his life. If I said something, Henry could agree or disagree and argue his points without his dad wondering too much about his motivations.
"Are they using military force to oppose us?" I asked, knowing the answer but putting the question out there so I could give my opinion more freely without revealing too much.
"There's been some pitched naval and land battles in the last few days." He said, not giving details but answer enough for my needs. Now how to answer using his dogma without phrasing it in such a way that it sounded odd coming from the lips of someone not raised with those beliefs.
"I'm not totally surprised." I said slowly, and in total honesty. "In times of crisis most people look to their own interests first, and often don't recognize that their neighbor might be the best person to help them solve the problem by sharing resources. It's kind of like what happened here when this all began. Everyone panicked, thinking only of their own needs and they lashed out, hurting their neighbors who might have been better able to help them. If any of the riots had reached the church, and burned it to the ground, how many thousands of people would now have no shelter and no food? We've been working on the reports of damaged businesses and the injured and killed people. Many of the businesses that were destroyed were restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, all places that could have met the needs of people through this crisis, but they were wasted and no longer contribute to helping people. It's the same thing except on the national level. These countries don't recognize that by getting America back on its feet first, we're the country best able to help them out."
"They've forgotten the lessons of history." Henry spoke up as soon as I paused. "During World War II, a lot of countries were devastated by the war, and it was America that rebuilt them. They don't realize that the sooner we get back on our feet, the sooner we'll be able to get them back on their feet."
"You know, we've been arguing about this all week." The Colonel said with a small smile. "A bunch of Colonels, Generals, and politicians in the room and not one of them made the point you just did as clearly as you both just did. I'm amazed and honored that you're my sons."
"God gave us these gifts, and it's our duty to use them." I said, knowing that adding the religious touch to the comments would secure even more respect from him.
"I see you've both been keeping on your bible studies as well as the military stuff." The Colonel's smile was broad now, and he looked less tired than he had earlier. I found myself feeling happy that I'd made him happy. To be honest, it had been his generosity that had put me in what was really a comfortable place. I didn't have to worry about my next meal, I was surrounded by adults in a safe place, and learning a lot of things that most kids my age would kill for. All in all, thanks to his kindness, I'd been very lucky during these times.
"A well-rounded citizen is an important contributor to society." Henry said, obviously quoting something, and from the Colonel's pleased expression it was something he'd either said or quoted before to Henry. I filed it away in my memory for later use if it was ever needed.
"The President will be speaking tomorrow evening to tell the country about these problems we're experiencing overseas." The Colonel said in a low voice, and I knew this was definitely something not too many people knew about. "He'll be announcing that disbursement of gasoline supplies will be delayed until the military issues are resolved. That could take weeks, or even months. Tomorrow, before the speech, two Air Force tanker planes will be landing at the municipal airport. One will be filled up with aviation fuel for jet aircraft, and the other with diesel fuel for military vehicles. The General in command of the state will be on one of the planes. I want you two to come with me and meet him there. Dylan, I want you to tell him exactly what you told me. He needs to hear it, and I want to have him hear it from you directly."
"You could just tell him " I started to say, but he cut me off with a cut of his through the air.
"No, it'll be better coming from you." The Colonel said. "I've told him how bright you both are and it is about time he sees that for himself. Now, the tanker trucks carrying the fuel will be arriving starting in the morning. There's almost fifty of them and it's going to be hard to keep this quiet."
"Especially since the airport is in the south part of town." Henry said. "It'll get worse when the planes arrive. They'll draw onlookers and when they see military planes taking on fuel they'll probably start rumors that we're taking it for our own good and screwing them over."
"Or worse yet, a riot." The Colonel said softly. "I need to ask you boys a question. You'll be going there with me, and you'll be in uniform, which means if a riot starts you'll both be targets along with every other soldier there. If I have side arms issued to you, do you think you could use them if you had to? A gun you're not able to use is only a weapon for your enemy to get and use on you instead."
For a moment I almost said no, but then an image flashed into my head of my mother's face, and the smiling faces of Cindy and April as they ate their cereal that last morning of normality before all this begun. A sharp pain in my hands recalled me to the present and I realized I was grasping the arms of the chair so hard the wood was biting painfully into my hand. I looked up and met the Colonel's eyes and nodded slowly.
"No, I don't think I'll have a problem if I ever had to use it for real." Was all I said. Henry looked at me for a moment with concern, but returned his gaze to his father and said he also would be able to use a gun if he had to do that. The Colonel didn't smile, but he did nod at each of his in turn.
"I won't say 'good', but I am satisfied that you both value your lives enough to defend them." He said quietly. "The planes arrive at noon, so be dressed and ready to go no later than 1100 hours. Meet me at the front entrance at that time. I'll be leaving with the General on the plane and not returning until Monday. Have there been any problems I should be aware of while I was gone?"
"No sir." Henry said and I shook my head in a silent 'no'. "Major Jennings has been keeping things running smoothly and there's been no major problem except the shooting and bombing our first night."
"Jennings knows how to follow orders." Colonel Jacobs said with a soft smile. "He's not terribly bright when it comes to thinking on his feet, but he does keep routine running well. Did you know we've taken in over two thousand veterans into active service this last week? Most of them are already out at the old Amory going through training and reorientation. We've actually managed to arm and clothe most of them as well with shipments from some of the nearby military bases."
"Wow, I had no idea." Henry said, and I knew my wide eyes said the same thing.
"We'll be moving most of them to the Bay area as soon as their trainers say they are ready." Colonel Jacobs said quietly. The larger cities aren't faring as well as we are. There have been daily riots and their forces in those areas have yet to attain the level of control we have here. It doesn't help that power is scarcer in the larger cities and food is almost non-existent now. We can't even ship in disaster supplies and MRE rations (Meals Ready to Eat) until some semblance of order is restored."
"That's bad." I said softly, imagining how horrible it must really be.
"Last night a convoy of about three thousand people tried to break out of Oakland and head inland." The Colonel told us, something we had not heard about. "They believed that the inland cities were hoarding food and not helping them out so they decided they'd get together and take what we had. The Air National Guard, and National Guard tried to stop them and they murdered an entire squad of troops on the highway. The Air National Guard's attack helicopters had to open fire. It was horrible."
"They deserved what they got." I said slowly, realizing that I really did believe what I had just said. I knew my father might not have understood it, but it was the truth. "They wanted to come and take what they could find, and if they had succeeded, thousands of people here would have lost what little they had, and probably their own lives. When someone does that, the only thing to do is to try to get them to stop. If they don't listen to you, you use whatever force you have to stop them."
"That sounds, almost bloodthirsty, Dylan." The Colonel said in surprise. Henry was looking at me hard. Something I'd been thinking all week really crystallized in me at that moment.
"Earlier Henry said that God gave us our intelligence and that we should use it or it would be a waste." I said, voicing my thoughts slowly. I was tired, but what I was thinking seemed to lend me the energy to speak. Did I really believe in God? Yes I did. I had always believe in a higher power. Did I believe the bible, and all these tenets of faith that Colonel Jacobs preached about? Not really, but did that matter in the long run? I did know one thing: The Colonel and his follower's faith offered a power, a strength that could have helped to prevent situations like my family's deaths and combined with my intelligence, I'd be a fool to waste that potential.
"Yes, he did." The Colonel said in the silence that followed my statement.
"Isn't the ability, the strength, the military force, we have at our disposal also a gift from God?" I said aloud, and saw him smile and Henry look at me with a worried expression. "Isn't it a crime then, a crime against God and humanity for us to hold back that strength when we can help restore order, keep people fed, sheltered, and alive? Those people had a chance to turn back, but instead they killed the very soldiers that were trying to help them. If they had gotten away with that, others might think that they could as well, and then more soldiers would die until there were no soldiers left. I wouldn't want those people dead, but if it came between choosing Sergeant Connors or a bunch of angry rioters bent on taking stuff that doesn't belong to them, I'll choose saving Sergeant Connors any time."
"What do you think about this, Henry?" Colonel Jacobs asked, and I looked at my friend who was staring at me in surprise.
"I really hadn't thought about it like this before." Henry said in a tone that made me realize he was speaking the absolute truth, something he rarely did in front of his father.
"Why not?" The Colonel asked. "You've grown up with me, in the church, and faced issues like this several times before."
"But never like this." Henry said slowly. "It's almost always been shades of grey. This is almost black and white totally. Still, I think Dylan's right."
"I happen to agree with him as well." Colonel Jacobs said with a smile. I realized suddenly that I didn't even know his first name. It was an odd thought, one I attributed to being so tired. Although I didn't want to, I yawned at that exact moment.
"You boys head on out and get some sleep." He said with a very fatherly grin. "We can continue this discussion on Monday when I return. Oh, I don't want to make a big deal about you two getting to church on Sunday when I'm not around. There's a unit chaplain and you can attend the service with everyone else not on duty. Your mom will just have to wait to see you both until next week."
"Yes sir." Henry said with a smile as we left. We walked in silence and continued that silence even when we reached our room and got undressed. Since we were going to the airport and didn't have to be ready until eleven, Henry set the alarm clock for ten, an hour later than our normal wake-up time and we both went to sleep, still lost in our own thoughts.
"Did you two maggots think you could sleep in just because it is Saturday?" Sergeant Connors' voice booming in our room was not the best way to wake up. I sat up with a jerk and glared at him before glancing at the clock. It was 0830, an hour earlier than our normal wake-up time.
"Connors, we don't have to be up until ten." Henry said from where he was sitting up and stretching. "Dad's taking us to the airport with him at eleven."
"That's why I'm here early." Connors said with a grin that made me want to throw my way-too-thin pillow at him. "We realized you both were missing your daily PT because my unit trains earlier in the morning. We discussed it and realized you two really should be PT'ing with us so we changed our times. We're doing it early today because we're the escort for your little trip to the airport. Now get a move on! You're making us late."
"What's PT?" I asked as I got out of bed and reached for a uniform.
"Physical Training." Connors said with a very evil smile. "You know, exercise."
"OH NO!" Henry said with a gasp. "We're runts, we don't need to run twenty miles with you guys. Really."
"Sorry lil' dudes." Connors said with that same evil grin. "Orders from the Colonel himself. You boys want to play soldier, he says you get the whole package and that includes physical conditioning. Put on the sweats we gave you the other week and meet me at the tents in five minutes. We need to teach you how to stretch out properly."
"This is all your fault." I groaned as I got dressed and Henry gave me a dirty look.
"I only said we should come here instead of wasting away at the church." Henry groused as he put on the sweat pants colored an army red. "You're the one who's gone all gung-ho hoo-rah Army."
"Shut up." I groused back as I pulled the sweater off and looked for my tennis shoes. "Where's my tennis shoes?"
"Probably the same place mine are." Henry griped, also looking. "I think someone took them."
"What do we wear?" I asked in confusion.
"Our boots, I guess." He sighed and proceeded to put his on. I followed suit and we were soon outside at the tents where everyone in Connors's squad was dressed just like were, including boots.
"I see you figured out to where your boots." Connors said as he grinned at us. "There's no use running in tennis shoes when if you need to run on duty you'll be wearing boots. Let's get started on stretching."
By 0945 every part of my body hurt. We had only ten minutes to shower and change before meeting the Colonel at the entrance, and to our great consternation, we were a minute late and found Sergeant Connors' entire squad waiting for us. He must have told the Colonel about our morning because he just grinned at us instead of chewing us out for being late. He stepped in front of each of us, looking us over like were on inspection.
"Your boots are dirty." He said when he was done checking over Henry. "One demerit each. Next time it'll be more."
"Yes sir!" We both said in unison, and he grinned, accepting two webbed belts from Sergeant Connors. He handed one to each of us, there was a weapon holstered in each one. We both took the weapon out, pulling out the magazine to check that it was loaded, and then pulling back the slide to make sure there wasn't a round in the barrel. We reloaded the magazine into the weapon, and then checked the ammo pouch to find two more magazines. He nodded as he watched us buckle the belts around our waist.
"You've trained them well, Sergeant." The Colonel said, and then paused to look at our boots again. "They just need to remember certain things."
"Thank you sir." Sergeant Connors said with another evil grin on his face. "I'll make sure they don't forget to at least wipe their boots down again."
"You do that, son." The Colonel said with a pleased grin, and I barely suppressed a groan. This was not going to be pretty. "C'mon boys, let's get this show on the road."
We rode in the humvee with the Colonel to the airport. It was a short ride, and we arrived almost forty minutes before the aircraft were due to arrive. The tarmac was filled with waiting tanker trucks, and a slowly forming crowd was visible on the far side of the airport. A full squad of troops was stationed there, watching the crowd carefully. They seemed docile for now, more curious than anything else. Still I know that I eyed them very carefully. In the past we'd I'd learned that crowds of people all too easily became dangerous.
The small terminal though was far from where they were forming. Another squad was stationed at the entrance to the terminal and concrete barriers prevented access as did the squad of troops stationed there. Connors' squad was at the terminal itself as the planes landed. The tanker trucks were lined up behind two signs, one saying "Diesel" and the other saying "AV Fuel". The planes lined up on those signs, and several troops got out immediately. A humvee drove up there, and three people got inside before it took off for the terminal. As it approached, the Colonel walked outside into the cold, blustery air and waited for the vehicle to come to a stop. We were right behind him and when the door opened as a man with three stars on his collar got out, everyone saluted, including us.
"At ease." The General said, smiling when he looked at us, raising his eyebrows when he saw the pistols. "Let's get inside for our talk, Jacobs."
"Yes, sir." The Colonel said and we followed him. Inside the small commuter terminal, Henry and I went to the coffee pot that had been set up, pouring four cups and making the coffee the way the Colonel had instructed us to earlier. We served the two men their coffee as they sat down in some chairs and the General motioned for us to also sit down.
"You know, dressing up your boys as a soldier doesn't make them soldiers David." The General said, and I finally learned Colonel Jacobs' first name.
"Actually the uniforms weren't my idea." The Colonel said with a smile.
"What about the pistols?" The General asked, and I decided to take a risky move.
"Would you really expect us to enter a potentially dangerous situation without the means to defend ourselves, sir?" I asked as politely as I could, and I saw that I had the General's attention now. "We're here, with soldiers, in a situation that easily could become violent and we are carrying side arms. We're not out there with the guards carrying rifles and playing at being soldiers, something we are nowhere near qualified to do, but we're in here with the District Commander and the General in command of this state. We've both been trained and qualified with these weapons and the only reason they'll leave their holsters is if we are in direct danger."
"You're qualified in that weapon?" The General asked, leaning forward with a small smile. "How about you explain to me how to strip it down?"
Henry answered him, and before he could say anything else I went through the process of reassembling the pistol. He nodded when we were done, but looked sharply at the Colonel.
"David, you'd give two kids guns and expect them to use them to kill other people?" He asked, and I could see a ghost of a smile appearing on the Colonel's face.
"Dylan?" He said carefully, looking at me in a silent order to share my thoughts from last night, or was that this morning? This graveyard shift had me confused and the days seemed to just run together.
Nevertheless I launched into the reasoning I had voiced last night, carefully choosing my metaphors so that they applied not only to the question at hand, not only to the situation with the rioters from Oakland, but to the international situation as well. When I was done, the General launched into a series of questions that I realized were aimed at two things, to test if these were my thoughts, and to see if I realized I was making references to the international situation.
"You've talked to them about what's been happening overseas." The General said after he was done.
"Only in vague terms." The Colonel replied. "They are both smart enough to understand not to reveal anything to others, including the soldiers they are around all the time."
"Which of you is smarter?" The General asked with a chuckle.
"He is." Henry and I said in unison, pointing at each other and all four of us laughed.
"David, you said you had to very bright young men here but I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see them for myself." The General said after laughing for a minute.
"That's why I insisted you meet them, and why I risked bringing them into a potentially dangerous situation." Colonel Jacobs said slowly. "Jim, I know it's highly unusual, but these are unusual times. Both these boys read their parents old college text books instead of their own coursework. Both of them could easily have passed the college entrance exams a year ago. They were wasted at the church, so I brought them where they could do some good. In a week, just a week, they've taken care of the census and resource allocation backlog so that the regular officers are now working on other things and these two have been doing all the work."
That was news to me. I hadn't known we'd been doing all of it ourselves. Still it made sense, using us to free up regular soldiers who could have done other things.
"Still, assigning them regular duties that full soldiers perform, I'm not sure." The General said, and I realized there was more on the table than I had been expecting. Henry realized it too and apparently knew better than I what to say at this moment.
"General, if I may?" Henry said and only continued when the General nodded at him. "I know that it must seem really odd to you for two kids like us to fill in roles normally taken by adults. I know it must seem like a desperate measure even, but even you have to admit these are desperate times. I don't think the United States has faced anything like this since the Civil War "
"Dammit, Dave!" The General snapped. "You told them about Utah and Las Vegas?"
"Uh, what about Utah?" Henry asked with a puzzled expression and the Colonel actually laughed.
"No, Jim I didn't tell them." The Colonel replied quickly between laughs. "However, now that you've said that much you better tell them or they'll do something underhanded to find out what you were talking about."
"Boys, this is Top Secret." The General said, emphasing those two words. "Right now only state commanders and people in Washington know this, as well as a few select District Commanders."
"We know how to keep secrets, sir." I said and he nodded slowly.
"Mentioning this to anyone will earn you a one-way trip to the stockade and I don't care how young you are." The General said sternly, and I believed him. "If you want to play with the grown-ups you better realize right now that the rules that apply to grown-ups will apply to you as well."
"I think we kind of get that picture already." Henry said as he patted the holstered weapon on his hip. The General just raised his eyebrow again before running a hand through his sparse gray hair.
"Yesterday the State of Utah declared itself an independent nation from the United States and renamed itself the Free Nation of Mormon." The General said and I felt rocked mentally by that news. "In addition, the city of Las Vegas experienced a few days of intense riots, running out the National Guard and Army units that tried to restore order. They also have declared themselves independent of the United States and we've received reports of raiding activities on nearby towns and supply centers. There's worry at the highest levels of government that if word of this spreads, other cities and states might follow them."
"That would be dangerous." Henry said in a flat tone. "Definitely something that shouldn't be spread around. Of course they'll have to be handled carefully after the oil situation is resolved."
"Okay, I'm convinced of your intelligence." The General said with a grimace and a shake of his head. "Now what were you saying before I opened my mouth?"
"I was going to ask you about the ROTC programs." Henry said. "I was going to ask you if you'd hesitate to accept recruits who were part of those programs."
"There's a crew member on one of those tankers who was part of the Air Force JROTC program in high school He graduated last June and was supposed to go to Air Force boot camp the day after all this crap started. He knew the officer in command of that plane and helped him get to the base when things went to crap. He was inducted into the National Guard and assigned to the air crew immediately when they were ordered to take off because I riot started near the air base." The General answered.
"Then think of us as JROTC cadets." Henry said. "Would you hesitate to use us to fill in spots, jobs that free up your regular soldiers to perform other duties? We're not talking about kidding kids in combat positions, or even in overly dangerous positions, or positions that they can't handle."
"You're right at that." The General replied. "Only a foolish commander refuses to use the resources available to his command when they are available, and it's very obvious neither of you are what can be called normal teenagers. Okay, David, I'm hereby commissioning them into well into a special JROTC, well say for now. Use them as you see appropriate, but be careful. I know they're your boys, but I'm still going to tell you to use them wisely. No other kids, either."
"Thanks, Jim." The Colonel said, standing as a door banged open and a man I recognized as a Lieutenant Rodgers, the commander of the squads guarding the perimeter entered in a rush.
"Excuse me sirs." The Lieutenant said breathlessly as he stopped and saluted. The officers returned his salute and he continued. "There's another crowd forming at the gate and their getting restless. I tried telling them to disperse but they didn't listen."
"I'll go." The Colonel said firmly. "Boys, stay here. If things get rough, make your way to Sergeant Connors position on the tarmac."
"I'll get back to the plane in case we have to bug out." The General said, looking at us before he turned to leave. "You two take good care of yourselves. I expect to be signing a recommendation for you two to West Point in five years."
"Yes sir." Henry and I said in near unison, saluting him. He grinned and returned our salute before taking off towards the tarmac entrance and the humvee that waited there. When I turned around, Colonel Jacobs and the Lieutenant were gone. I sat down suddenly as a wave of exhaustion hit me. Henry sat down as well, looking worriedly towards the door facing the entrance.
"I'm going to take a look." He said after a few minutes, standing and heading that way. I groaned as I stood and followed him. We reached the glass door and looked towards the gate about a quarter mile down the road. The Colonel was clearly visible talking with several people in a crowd of about a hundred. We couldn't see their faces from this distance, but things looked relatively calm and we both breathed a sigh of relief. We were heading back towards the chairs and the half-full coffee cups when I noticed something odd. The ticket counter for the only airline that had run a commuter service from the airport was abandoned as it had been when we came in, but the rubber mats over the entrance for the passenger baggage was swaying slightly. That seemed odd to me since no one was supposed to be in the building but us.
"Henry, look at the baggage belt." I said in a very low voice, and he looked, turning back to me with a curious expression. He nodded his head in that direction in agreement and we walked over to the counter. We squeezed the narrow section of the counter that passengers would slide their baggage through and approached the door that led to the baggage area. I was in the lead, and paused before opening the door, thinking about what could happen if someone had snuck inside who wasn't a soldier. With a deep breath, I reached to my waist, pulling the pistol out. A glance at Henry showed him wince before nodding and pulling his own weapon. Slowly and as quietly as possible we pulled the slide back, chambering a round. I noticed my hand was shaking slightly as I reached out and pushed the door open slowly. A scrambling noise could be heard as I poked my head around the corner.
"Freeze!" I shouted, cursing mentally as my voice cracked halfway through the word. I hoped the noise was a dog, or some other animal, but it wasn't. On the other side of the room, near one of the metal doors that looked out onto the tarmac were two figures. The metal doors were raised just a few inches, and one of the figures was lying prone, grasping a rifle pointed out the door. The other figure jumped up at my shout, wielding what looked like a baseball bat.
"DROP IT!" Henry shouted at the same time I yelled "DROP THE RIFLE!"
The figure with the bat, let out a yell and rushed towards us while the figure with the rifle seemed to be checking his aim. Henry's gun roared loudly in the room at the same moment that I pulled the trigger of my pistol. The effects of our shots were instant, and are forever etched upon my memory.
Henry's bullet tore into the right shoulder of the bat wielder who had been to my right, just as Henry was on my right. The would-be attacker fell to the ground with a shout of pain. My aim was a little better (Henry would later admit that he was aiming for the guy's chest, not his shoulder) and hit would-be sniper right where I aimed, his head.
If you've never seen what a 9mm bullet does to the head of human being, I'm not going to tell you now (considering that my readers live in an age where projectile weapons are nothing but a history lesson I hope no one ever learns what it was like). For a long moment, I just stared at the sight of what I had done, and realized that I had taken the life of another human being. My knees felt weak, and my stomach churned. A weird, disconnected part of my brain noticed that I was now losing everything in my stomach, vomiting it into a pile at my feet. I still had a grasp on the gun, but it was now hanging in a very loose grasp at me side. That same piece of my brain noted that Henry was leaning against the other side of the door, gun still grasped in his hand as he also vomited. I could hear gunshots in the distance, and then the clamoring of several people entering the terminal registered on my senses.
The weakness I'd been feeling left me in a sudden rush of energy as I turned around, gun gripped firmly in sweaty hands and knelt behind the counter, pointing my gun in the direction of the noise. It took me a split second to recognize Sergeant Connor and several of his squad mates, their rifles at the ready and pointing at us. My sigh of relief was clearly audible as I relaxed, returning my weapon to my side, but not holstering it.
"What's going on?" Connors' voice held a quality to it I had never heard before, and I realized that this was the combat soldier who had served two tours in Iraq, not the friendly and sometimes gruff man I'd come to know over the last few days. He approached slowly, and then turned as several more soldiers entered from the gate side door, followed by a very anxious Colonel Jacobs. I felt Henry sagging against me in relief, and my own knees started to shake.
"In in intruders." I managed to gasp out, feeling like I was going to collapse any moment. Sergeant Connors collided with the Colonel as they tried to leap around the counter to get to us. Connors blushed slightly, motioning for the Colonel to go first. The Colonel just nodded before rushing around the counter to our side. I saw him look over our heads at the side instead, and my upturned face caught his expression of surprise. He motioned the sergeant inside the room while he grabbed both Henry and I. His hands were firm as he guided us to the chairs and pushed into the seats. I collapsed into the chair, still grasping my pistol. A small corner of my brain noted that the soldiers were now guarding all the entrances and I shifted slightly to holster my weapon after putting the safety back on. I noticed that Henry had just finished doing the same thing.
"What happened, boys?" The Colonel asked softly, his face full of concern for us.
"After you left," Henry began in a very small voice. I looked at him and he looked far younger, like he was a six year old kid. I wondered if I looked like that as well. "we were going back to the chairs when Dylan noticed the mats around the baggage belt moving. We decided to check it out, and we both drew our guns just in case. I thought it was a cat or something like that, but you know it's like Connors said, 'better safe than sorry'. I remember that when we were watching the guys drilling at house searches and he was talking about never knowing what was on the other side of a door, a man with a gun, a woman holding her baby or the family pet and how if you weren't prepared you could either end up shot dead or having to live with the fact that you killed a baby and oh GOD, there were two of them. One of them had a bat and rushed us, the other guy had was looking through the scope of a rifle towards the tarmac where the General was heading and we just fired. Connors said you always take the target closest to you and the bat guy was on the right, my side so I fired. I was aiming for his chest, but I missed. Dylan's a better shot than I am."
"Dylan?" The Colonel's voice was soft, full of concern.
"It doesn't make it feel any better." I said softly, tears forming in my eyes.
"What doesn't make it feel any better?" Colonel Jacobs asked, his voice filled with sympathy.
"All that stuff I said earlier, about it being right to stop people from hurting others, even if you have to kill them." I explained disjointedly, the sight of what my shot had done replaying itself over and over again in my head. "It doesn't make it easier to realize that you've just taken a human life."
"Oh my poor boy." The Colonel said, rising from his seat and taking me into his arms. I started to sob into his shoulder. A moment later I moved slightly to the side so that Henry could join me, sobbing into his other shoulder. We both cried for a long time, but eventually exhaustion over took me, and I leaned out of the embrace, sitting back in the chair and taking deep breaths. I wiped my finger with the back of my hand I recognized a strange smell, the smell of a discharged weapon and I remembered the day the Colonel had told me about my mother. He'd had this smell on him and I suddenly felt ashamed. He, and most of the soldiers in the building had just seen me crying over something all of them had probably had to do in the last few days. How had they seemed so cheerful when they were with us at the base?
"I'm sorry for breaking down like that, sir." I said softly, and he looked at me sternly.
"Son, the only thing you have to be sorry for is that I put you in that situation." The Colonel said softly. "You're far too young to be put into such a situation. No kid should have to even think about having to kill another human. I don't know what I was thinking, I was letting my pride talk to me. There's a reason why it's considered such a grave sin. I should have "
"Enough, father." Henry's voice was firm, and it stopped the Colonel's rambling. "You were right earlier today, not now. Right now you're thinking like a father, not a Colonel."
"Henry's right, sir." I said after taking a deep threat. "I'm sorry, I didn't think it would be so messy. It just threw me for a loop, sir. It's true we might not be here if you hadn't been so proud of us, but who knows what would have happened if we hadn't been? What if we hadn't been shown how to use a gun? What if we hadn't had them with us? You're right, no thirteen year old kid like us should have to be in that situation, but we were. The thing is, we were prepared, and equipped to deal with the situation. It's just that we lost it afterwards."
"The first time I ever shot someone, during the war, I puked my guts out on my boots." Sergeant Connors' voice was soft, but held a firmness to it that was somehow reassuring. "After I got done puking, I got up and moved forward with my unit. That night as I lay trying to get to sleep, I couldn't help but see that moment over and over again in my head. I was twenty-three. That's ten years older than you both. If you added your ages together you'd barely equal my current age. Trust me when I say that no on is ashamed of your reaction to the first time you killed a man."
His words, actually the last four of them hit me hard. Killed a man. At least Henry had only injured the one he shot. Not me. I'd killed someone. I was a killer, something my parents had always abhorred, a human who had killed another human. My words of this morning, and with the general came back to haunt me and I imagined three thousand people torn apart by bullets on some highway. My words had seemed so true, so right in those moments but now, faced with the gruesomeness of having taken another human's life, they seemed dull, lifeless. Until Sergeant Connors spoke again.
"The General was just exiting the humvee when the pistol shots were heard." Sergeant Connors said, looking at my face. For a second I thought he had been reading my mind, but I realized he'd just been reading my thoughts as they crossed my face. "If they hadn't shot the sniper, the General would be dead right now, a bullet in his brain instead."
That was the moment that I realized that my words had been right, but now I had a new understanding of them. Sometimes doing the right thing was as gruesome, as gory as what those others would do if you didn't stop them. These were hard times, I knew that already, but now the lesson hit home. I leaned back in the chair, took a deep breath, looking up at the Sergeant and the Colonel. I could feel Henry's eyes on me as if looking for someone who wasn't there anymore. I turned and smiled at Henry weakly, and he seemed to relax a bit.
"It was the right thing to do." I said. "Even if we'd have gone for help, it would have been too late."
"What I wonder is how they got in there?" Henry said slowly.
"I'm not sure, but we'll question the survivor." Sergeant Connors said slowly. "He's a bit young but I think there's no doubt he was a part of this. It shouldn't take long to get what information he knows."
"I want to see him." I said, standing suddenly.
"I think you've already seen the results." Colonel Jacobs said in a soft voice and I winced. "You don't need to see the body again."
"No, not the sniper, the one who survived." I said. "His voice there was something familiar about it when he cried out in pain."
"Bring him out here, Sergeant." The Colonel ordered. "Also find out how things are going on the perimeter. We fired some warning shots when we heard gunfire from the terminal and the crowd scattered. I want to make sure things stay secure, and also find out what the status is on the fuel transfer."
"Fuel transfer will be done in a half-hour, sir." Corporal Jungerson said from his position by one of the doors.
"Here he is." Sergeant Connors said, pulling a whimpering form dressed in dirty clothes in front of him. The assailant's hands were tied behind his back and he was whimpering in pain from the wound in his shoulder. His right side was bloody from the wound in his shoulder, but his face in the clear light of the terminal was immediately recognizable.
"Eric Turner." I said in a very flat voice. Everyone looked at us in surprise, including the schoolyard bully. He stared at me, not recognizing me for a moment, and then his mouth went wide.
"But but you're dead!" He shouted in surprise, and then whimpered in pain when the Sergeant tightened his grip on him. The Colonel reacted with disgust.
"Get this filth out of here!" The Colonel said quickly, and his order was immediately obeyed. "Boys, let's get you back to the base. The Good Lord doesn't give his people tasks they can't achieve, but there's no reason to tempt fate."
He gave each of us another hug before having Sergeant Connors and another soldier drive us back to base. The Colonel of course, had to stay because he was leaving on the plane, going back to Sacramento for another two day. It was almost interesting looking back at the terminal of the airport as we drove off, thinking of how the events in the building had forced me to put my beliefs, my opinions to the test.
During the drive back I contemplated what the school yard bully I'd known for the past year possibly could have done to end up where he had tried to help kill a General.
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