When he dreams, it’s always of the desert.
Of the sun, baking him slowly and turning his skin into blistered rawhide. Of the wind, scouring his flesh as effectively as steel wool. Of the sand, encrusting his skin so deeply he knows it is possible to drown in a pool of miniscule golden grains.
Dusk descends, and the sky is breathtaking in its intensity: gold and pink, orange so deep it could be pure flame. A disorienting paradox; hell should be ugly and bleak and without hue. That such brilliance washes the horizon infuriates him, an empty promise no one will keep. The mockery of night is no better: stars glitter like a sea of diamonds, and the thick, glittering twist of the Milky Way pulses as if sentient. It tempts him to believe.
In something. Anything.
With every return to this patch of earth, he notices details he missed. Little things: the faint vibration beneath his feet as the helicopter approaches, the small hole on the bottom of his left boot, the Boston Red Sox bandana Hogan is wearing. Nothing of significance. Nothing important.
Nothing that will stop what is to come.
“Fucking wind, fucking sand, fucking shit hole!” someone snarls.
Kent, maybe. Or Hogan. He doesn’t know. The wail of wind that surrounds them like a keening child is almost deafening, the sand a maelstrom that swallows them whole. His eardrums throb to the beat of the rotors of the incoming Apache helicopter.
“Life with Alpha Team 6 sucks ass today,” another adds.
No one disagrees. They are exhausted. Homesick; heartsick. Tired of the sun, the sand, the blood. The rhetorical struggle in which they find themselves engaged: one god pitted against another, a fruitless argument over existence where death is the only victor.
“They’re early,” Hogan mutters. His hands are chapped and blistered as he straps the wooden crates tightly together. The lettering painted across the top of the warped wood is oddly beautiful; a biting irony. “Command confirmed 2100.”
Hogan’s unease trips his own, a switch that immediately puts him on full alert, but they can see nothing beyond the whirl of sand and darkness. The sky is hazy, an endless black blur broken only by the infrared lights mounted on the copter’s steel frame as it grows near. Next to them, Kent and Rye are carefully stacking the last of the crates, their faces stark with tension behind the bandanas they wear in effort to hold the sand at bay. Pale with dehydration, skin reddened and chapped, limbs fatigued from swimming through sand.
These are his men. His brothers; his family. They have followed him relentlessly, with such unwavering belief it astounds—and sometimes shames—him. Into every nook and cranny of this godforsaken country, down every IED and mortar strewn road. Without question or protest. They are good men. Men he would die for.
He claps Hogan on the shoulder, but when he speaks, his reassurance is harsh, crushed glass in his throat. “Could be the storm.”
Hogan shakes his head once, a decisive rejection. “Feels wrong, boss.”
He knows he should turn away and conduct another security sweep, but the power of Hogan’s rebuff uncoils and stabs deep, rooting him to the hard desert ground he occupies. They remain alive in this land of sand and death only because they do not discount their gut; instinct is a far more useful tool than any weapon they’ve been given. And he trusts Hogan’s gut.
He squints at the incoming copter, seeking reassurance through the surge of sand and grit, but his heart pounds with breathtaking force. The winds grow stronger, a wild, feral howling that feeds his growing disquiet. Foreboding whispers down his spine as he glances at the crates—simple wooden boxes that house death. Coveted and hunted by every faction under the sun, from pole to pole.
The Apache is upon them now; he can feel the steady whoosh whoosh whoosh of the rotors pulse inside his skull. His gut is thick with acid. Deep inside, where his soul clings to tenuous life, a cry of panic wells.
“Fall back.” He gives the order abruptly, instinct pushing through protocol. “Get to the fucking ridgeline. Now.”
The stark wall of sandstone is steep, but riddled by narrow canyons and deep crevasses in which to hide. They know these hollows intimately, as familiar with them as with the underbelly of their armored Humvee or the firing mechanisms of their weapons. They are the only haven to be had in this hellish land.
“Boss?” Rye questions.
“To the ridgeline,” he repeats and steps next to the crates. Inside his skin, dread swells like a corpse bloated by death. “Go.”
His rank overrides the argument he can see in their gazes, pitting their need to stand with him against the indoctrination of their training. That disapproval is the very thing that leads him to protect. He goes first. Always.
His men fall back as the Apache lands. The sandstorm is intensified by the circling blades, and he is swallowed by a suffocating golden cloud. Grit fills his throat as he lifts his night vision goggles and straps them into place. Blood roars in his head, a dizzying rush as the sand pummels him.
The copter bobs as it hits the desert floor and creates fresh chaos. A brutal storm of sand and rock and desert scrub pelts him, tearing unprotected flesh. Poppy petals whirl into flight like confetti. Behind the thick lenses of his night goggles, he tries to make sense of the figures who are jumping from the copter.
He can hear nothing but the rotors—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, the jackhammer of his pulse, the sickening rush of his blood. As he watches the figures grow closer, Hogan’s words are a drumbeat in his skull.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Two things happen in that moment. First, he realizes the Apache is not powering down; the rotors circle ceaselessly, their speed unabated. Second: the men who have disembarked the copter are not wearing fatigues. Or SEAL gear. Or any military issued wear.
He turns; his gaze clashes with Hogan’s as the first the bullet tears through his flap jacket, burrowing into his back to pierce his left lung. A cry of warning lodges in his throat, coated by blood and fury.
But it does not escape.
The second bullet plows into his right hip and drops him where he stands, next to the crates. Fire bursts to life in his lungs. His breath whistles through his lips, and he can feel blood, warm and wet, streaming down his back, his thigh, filling his lung. He rolls over, and his hip threatens to separate from its socket. He flirts with oblivion, but in his brain the knowledge that if he sleeps, he dies hammers at him. So he grits his teeth and blinks it away, blood spewing from his mouth to sprinkle the sand like flower pollen. And he focuses.
His weapon is heavy, but he clasps it tight, squeezing so hard the steel cuts into the flesh of his palm. It steadies him. Behind him, Hogan is screaming—fury given sound —and regret threatens to undo him. He forces himself to his knees, but his hip gives and he wobbles like the Yoda bobble head Rye once glued to the dash of their Humvee. He wrestles for breath, struggling to suck in enough oxygen to stay conscious. Blood pools next to him, black and oily in the night.
He lifts the SSAR-15 and fires, but his aim is wild, an unsteady arc that sends his shots sharply to the right; he kills nothing but a stray Creosote bush. He grasps futilely at the sand in effort to find purchase, but the grains collapse beneath him. He pulls the trigger again and knows a fleeting, intense moment of satisfaction as three of the bodies heading toward him fall. But when he moves to fire again, buoyed by his small success, a third bullets shatters his right forearm and a broken, enraged sound tears from his throat, expelling the last of his remaining air. His hip gives, and he falls back, his body convulsing beneath the onslaught of blood loss, oxygen deprivation and massive trauma. His weapon disappears into the sand.
Darkness beckons, but he clings to the only lifeline left: consciousness. His goggles are askew, but he can see the booted feet of the men who have come for the crates, who will take them.
Steal them. Sell them. Use them.
They speak in low, guttural tones of Arabic, but he doesn’t recognize the dialect, can’t make sense of their words, and as they step over his body, one of them kicks his wounded hip hard enough to shatter what little is left holding him together. It is everything he can do not to react. To stare sightlessly into the storm, unblinking, blood seeping from his mouth to drool down his jaw. To deny himself breath.
Because he will live; there will be vengeance. Violent, malicious, soulless retribution.
A laugh echoes around him. Husky, low. And there is something in that sound that marks him, a wound deeper than any other, a memento more effective than any of the scars that will mar him.
I will know you. And death will follow.
The crates are gone, leaving nothing but perfect squares stamped into the sand. The Apache lifts, abandoning the bodies of the fallen to the harsh desert landscape, where they will be perfectly preserved in their murderous glory by the dry air. A licentious act—symbolic of identity—and he tells himself to remember. As the Apache fades from sight, a plume of glittering gold sand drifts down over him like a silent eulogy.
Hogan is sprawled on the sand only a handful of feet away; he is missing most of his skull. Just beyond him, Rye lies in a pool of blood so profuse it seems impossible that it was ever contained in only one body. Kent and Axel have fallen to his left, their heat signatures fading into muted splotches of pale pink, weapons still clutched in hand.
War has taught him that life is altered in an instant, a span of time so quick it cannot be comprehended, but still, he is stunned they have disappeared so quickly, so thoroughly, from existence. Erased. And the rage that has kept him awake and alive steeps into every breath, every cell, until his pores bleed black with hate. Purpose is born; a need for vengeance so deep there is no consideration of failure.
Live. Live to kill.
Around him, the night is as black and still as the death that has come for them. There is no sound beyond his own rasping battle for air—no moans or groans or twitching limbs. No hope.
All but him.
The temptation to follow beckons sweetly, but he does not deserve to live a life none of them will have. He is their leader; none should have gone before him.
And for a moment he can only think it is better to let his blood stain the hard desert ground here, now, than to exist in the shadow of their obliteration. Better to give up than to go on.
But the purpose born within him will not allow such an easy end.
Get the fuck up and live. You have people to kill.
Retribution must be his lifeline. That his vision swims with inky streams, and his thoughts break apart, shattering as quickly as his bones have beneath the onslaught of bullets, makes no difference. He will push himself to his feet. He will make it to the village beyond the ridge.
Because he is the only one left. No matter his pain, his rage, the grief that chokes him like a murderous hand. He is all there is: the only one who can sound the alarm that the crates have been taken. The only one for whom blood will be the sole recompense.
As he reaches out and pulls himself across the barren land—like fucking nails, shredding his flesh—his eviscerated soul is rewoven, dark and feral and starved for vengeance. Justice.
Life for life.
Someone he trusted has betrayed him. Someone he will find. Someone he will kill.