Semper Fi, Mr S.

He sat in the dirt just below the top of the slight ridge that formed the perimeter of a small depression, the area known as the military crest, high enough to rise and look over the top if need be but low enough not to be seen from outside. The depression itself was oval in shape, the ridge a bit lower on the distant end, about 500 meters on the longest dimension and about 50 meters deep. The ground was a mixture of incredibly fine dust, known as loess, potato sized rocks and scatterd blades of camel grass. Desert pavement was the term that percolated up in his memory from the geology classes he had taken to satisfy the science requirement his major demanded. It had the burnt smell characteristic of the area with a slight tang of hot metal and rose in small smoke ring like puffs when one walked through it. He considered briefly how intimately smells tied into memory, the smells of this desert reminding him of other deserts he'd spent time in and the people, in particular one person, he'd been in these places with . He smiled and thought of her as he recalled how she smelled, clean, more than anything else. She wasn't terribly oriented towards perfumes or colognes and usually smelt slightly of soap and shampoo. She certainly smelled better than anything he'd dealt with recently, especially himself. Shifting his weight while reaching for one of his extra canteens, an unpleasant fugue rose from his body and assaulted his nose. The stench came from old sweat dried and rewetted by fresh sweat over and over again coupled with rancid body oil, fatigue, camouflage paint and assorted dirt.Whenever he moved his arms an almost palpable cloud rose from his armpits and open collar rolling over him along with the released body heat. "It's pretty bad when you've reached the point of offending yourself" he thought with a lopsided grin. This was a definite downside of an profession that involved lengthy walks, in combat gear, with the added bonus of a healthy dose of fear. The fear was always there, in the background, but one learned to master it, use it as a tool for survival and the odd smell it lent to sweat became just another facet of the job. Fear was good, if controlled, truly fearless people were generally crazy and had a tendency to get people hurt or worse. He thought of his friend Kim and how she did such a good job of concealing her fears (he knew of them but was always gentle with the knowledge), while continuing to function. Despite being a singularly tough girl she still would definitely not approve of this. Smells were one of her pet peeves, he shook his head slightly, smiling, as he thought of her signature "Oh, gross" expression, mouth lopsided, bright green eyes squinting and tongue sticking out to one side usually accompanied by the phrase :Ooh, Gorchy". He'd seen the expression often enough in places ranging from garbage dumps and fast food restaraunts to the time he'd announced that he required fungal medication in an outlet of a well known chain of big box megastores. For quite awhile the two of them had shared a rather peculiar hobby that took them to a wide range of odd places in far flung areas of the world in a manner and purpose not unlike Sherlock Holmes. They had continued with it into college but had slacked off quite a bit as the academic workload grew and finally reduced to rare occaissions as he entered the service and she started graduate school. They had remained close, despite the distance, writing regularly and exchanging phone calls as well as emails whenever possible.

Pulling his sweat towel over his head he leaned forward, drew his knees as close to his chest as his equipment permitted, then placed the canteen next to his left ankle and draped the towel over his head and knees. He slid a small Maglight from it's pouch on his load bearing equipment and, twisting the lense cap, shown it into his helmet which lay upside down between his knees. She smiled brightly at him from several laminated photographs he'd stuck in the helmet's sweatband. One wasn't supposed to bring personal items on patrols but the rule wasn't rigidly enforced and all but a few carried some sort of momento such as the snapshots with them. The pictures were from various periods in their lives, starting in high school, up to his last leave. In the most recent pictures her almost luminous red hair was drawn up in a ponytail, a style she had largely adopted in college, though he'd never told her so he especially liked that look and the elegent appearance it gave her neck. This was particularly true when she wore the chokers she was fond of. One of the these featured was a choker he'd sent her during a deployment to Italy and sported a hand carved cameo on a black velvet band. Sharp as she was she hadn't guessed why he wanted a profile picture of her until he'd sent the gift.

He drew a folded map from the left thigh pocket of his utilities and directed the light's blue filtered beam on the paper. Consulting a hand held global positioning unit he darted his eyes over the map insuring that he knew where he was and where he was going. Staying found was vital in a place like this and straying out of bounds could have both catastrophic and tragic consequences. With a last glance at the map and his pictures he turned the light off and put it away. Flipping the sweat towel back around his neck he looked carefully around verifying the terrain around him with what he had seen on the map. Satisfied that he knew where he was he picked up the canteen and shook a bit of fruit drink powder into it from a pouch he kept in a pocket of his flak vest. The fruit flavor killed some of the chlorine taste of the treated water and made it a bit more palatable, tepid that it was. He wondered how she'd react to this. She took a dim view of his addiciton to fast food, faux Tex-Mex in particular, frequently trying to get him to improve his diet with limited success. A whimsical look passed over his face as he considered how often fast food dining had been coupled with events in their lives both together and seperately. Their missions together almost always started and ended either at his favorite fast food establishment or at her parent's table the latter often featuring pizza or takeout dictated by the family's hectic schedules. He'd announced his decison to sign up for the Naval Reserve Officer's Training Corps over a meal of his own personal invention, nachos covered in taco filling and wrapped in a tortilla, as well has imminant departure overseas several years later. She had been simultaneously amused, incredulous and disbelieving, the emotions playing rapidly over her face when he told her about the NROTC. She had finally settled on the common feminine reaction of "silly guy stuff" that she applied to his enthusiasm for video games and other transitory fascinations. She had assumed, for the first year or so, that this was going to be another in his long line of fads. Unlike his other interests over the years this had not proven to be a case of quickly embarked upon and just as quickly forgotten. He could not honestly say why he'd signed up initially. He had certainly never considered this sort of thing before and had always assumed he would just drift into something involving food. Partly it had to do with the changes in his life that had made the transition from high school to the college culture that first year a particular pleasure. For the first time in his life he had developed a wide range of friends. The high school "food chain" of which he had been on or near the bottom was suddenly irrelevent and the manifold cliques vanished. Socializing was suddenly across broad groupings of people and based more on mutual interests than scoring points. He had basked in the newfound mobility and quickly had a large circle of friends, acquantences and study partners. While he still spent more time with the girl of the pictures than with any other single individual they shared many friends as well as having their own and he began doing things with other people as well. Several friends from his classes were members of various componants of the college's ROTC program. He found their tales of summer and weekend training not dissimilar to the missions that he and Kim shared. One week-end she was occupied with writing a paper and he was at loose ends. A lab partner had casually mentioned that an opportunity existed to participate in a field exercise, termed an FTX, that weekend and since the greater focus that had developed following a rather lackluster first semester had caused him to keep his work up to date and thus the weekend open he had agreed to give it a try. Dissimilar schedules due to different majors were placing the two of them with more and more mutually incompatible weekends and she had trouble concentrating on her own work when he was loafing around with little to do. Over a hurried fast food get together and study session for one of the few classes they had together he had mentioned an interest in participating in the exercise. Distracted by the work at hand she had said that sounded like a good idea before they concluded the session and departed for their respective dormitories. The weekend had been fun and he had discovered an affinity for field operations. This had surprised him a bit since generally he as expected to provide support rather than direction on the missions that the two of them undertook. It had finally dawned on him that out of respect and affection he let her take the lead and the limelight even when he was capable of doing the job at least as well. In retrospect the times he had been out on his own he had routinely performed quite well. In the field exercise it was assumed that if he was there he would perform to the best of his ability. He had discovered that he enjoyed overcoming the challenges and the opportunity to seize initiative.

He couldn't say why he had signed up with the Navy, since his initial experience had been with the Army, maybe it was the uniforms, regular hot meals or the sword that was a feature of the dress uniform, it had certainly grown on him, though. His astigmatism had prevented him from making the initial cut to fly and the video game like AEGIS displays he had seen on summer cruises appealed to him. He had continued to join the weekend FTXs and had even attended the Army airborne school, one of many midshipmen that did so, joining the ROTC Ranger componant as well. He had commissioned under the fleet option program where he would spend a couple of years in the surface navy with an option to go into aviation later now that laser vision improvements had been approved. His first year as an ensign after the various schools that followed comissioning had been spent on an elderly amphibious ship where he had run into a classmate who had gone the Marine Corps route. They had quickly become liberty running mates and had been together when he had ordered the cameo choker at the factory. The ancient ship had been decomissioned when they returned from the Mediterannean, a year earlier than planned, due to engineering plant problems that had rendered her beyond cost effective repair. Another ship, newer and more capable would be completed in a couple of years but meanwhile most of the crew, beyond those assigned to the new ship's precomissioning crew, was dispersed to other assignments.

Suddenly in need of a billet he had applied for one of the riverine units being stood up for the latest crisis. The six months of schools had given him ample opportunities to see his favorite redhead since they could still readilly call in rides from people who owed them favors when he didn't have the funds for airline tickets. After completing the gunboat, SERE and desert survival courses he had deployed into theater with his newly assigned unit. He had been assigned to the coastal surveillence section headquarters rather than a boat crew intitially, growing bored with routine command center watches and with little opportunity to do much else, he had applied for one of the liason jobs with the marines. Upon acceptance he'd gone to the in country fire control school and received a quick instruction in infantry operations from the marine division responsible for the sector his coastal warfare group was assigned to. He certainly wasn't bored now, having operated with the marine company as a member of the ANGLICO team that directed supporting fires and air strikes. His own specialty here was calling in cruise missile strikes, long range bombardment rockets and, when they were close enough to the coast, naval gunfire. Lieutenant Murphy, his boss and an aviator, handled the air side of things but had trained him in the basics of that skill as well. Each of the controllers had his own team of three men, one radio operator and two security and designator operators. Murphy's team was especially fearsome, though they were friendly enough back in camp, they were all combat veterans and out here moved with a flat eyed efficiency that he had never encountered before and had no desire to be on the receiving end of. Oddly the quietest, most polite member of the trio, the Warrant Gunner's Mate who was also in charge of the team's weapons, had also seen the most action and was the most decorated member of the team. Murphy's team was presently with the headquarters platoon while his own was with the third and weapons platoons.

Looking idly about he could see, even without the night vision goggles, the slight glint of metal where paint had worn off items on uniforms or 782 gear. Now and again there was a brief sparkle from the lenses of the various optical devices the men carried. The weather was clear, tonight, permitting the half moon to provide a good bit of illumination. It was starting to get cold in that peculiar fashion of deserts, freezing at night and sweltering during the day. He drew the sweat towel closer around his neck in response to the chill. Strangely he was still sweating from the exertions of the last couple of hours in spite of the falling temperature, which only seemed to exacerbate the greasy sensation of dirty clothing and the need for a bath. Fortunately the Gunner had taught him the folly of wearing undershorts on patrol since they bound and had a tendency to promote fungal infections so there was less chilling moisture close to his skin. They conducted most of their patrols during the night when their technology gave them a significant edge over the hostiles. There was a bluish flicker in the distance and he felt a slight vibration through the soles of his boots and seat of his pants. "Someone's having a rough time out there" he thought and held the radio handset to his ear. His radio man looked up quizically then returned his attention to the ration candy bar when his controller gently shook his head. Traffic over the fire control net confirmed that the MLRS batteries were working over a hostile position. Things weren't always at a distance he mused, recalling the peculiar pop and snap that bullets made coming your way, the brief firefight earlier had been close enough that it seemed almost as if he might be hit by the dust raised by the hostile's muzzle blasts. He was glad she wasn't here, as capable as she was in a fight, the stakes here were orders of magintiude beyond anything they had faced in the past. Besides, somebody needed to look after his pet while he was deployed, this was hardly the place for a sensative animal.

A shadow moved near his right side. "The el tee's about ready to move, Mr. S" it informed him in a soft voice.

"Thanks, Gunny" he replied soto voco to the Gunnery Sergeant, or Gunny who assisted the platoon commander and slugged down the remainder of the water in the canteen to prevent it from making noise as he walked.

He massaged the kinks out of his ankles through the canvas of his boots, returned the handset to the radioman and refastened his flak vest and load bearing equipment. He shrugged is shoulders to settle his gear and reflected thankfully that operating as dismounts permitted light marching order without the added weight of rucksacks. He put his booney hat on and placed his helmet over it before squatting down to retrieve his rifle. While he still carried the pistol he had been issued he had, in common with most of the other officers, acquired a rifle through the Gunner. The rifle was something of an antique, a Stoner Automatic Rifle, it was a relic of another era and fired the same round as did the squad machine guns rather than the smaller round of the general issue rifles. Other than permitting engagements beyond pistol range when needed, carrying the rifle permitted them to blend in with the rest of the troops and made it harder for the enemy to target them specifically. Petty Officer Flores, his radio operator or RTO, rose with him. He looked around to insure that he hadn't left anything behind and making a pumping motion with his fist, informed the remaining two members of his team that it was time to go. They nodded and began the process of arranging their own gear before standing up. He walked the short distance to where they stood, stumbling over a potato sized rock as he reached them, almost instinctively Moore and Harris, the spotter and security team members, caught him by his load bearing equipment preventing a fall. They had grown rather used to him over the course of his membership in the team and were quick with saves when he tripped over himself. They followed him over to Lieutenant Diebold, the platoon leader, and stood in a loose circle nearby while waiting for the platoon to start patrolling to the assembly point for extaction back to base. Diebold looked up from his whispered conference with the Gunny, smiled and nodded, before waving his hand vaguely to the East. Weapons at the ready the first and second squads formed staggered echelons and pushed off eastwards towards the assembly area. Each squad detached a flanking fire team while the third and weapons squads followed the command group that the ANGLICO party accompanied, the third squad providing a rear guard. The purposeful walk quickly disippated the muscle stiffness and soreness that had built up during the rest break. There was little sound other than the thud of boot soles on the ground, the creak of webbing and the clink of buckles and weapons. They followed a curving, indirect path down the face of the hill, someone had once told him that the practise derived from William Rodgers' French and Indian Wars dictum to never return to camp by the same route twice. Whatever the reason it made it harder for the other side to emplace an effective ambush. Reaching the base of the hill and flatter ground the lead squads fell into lines perpindicular to the general line of march. The first squad pushed off while the second squad assumed prone positions weapons sweeping the terrain in front of them. When the first squad reached a small rise they too assumed a combat stance. One thing he had learned was to recognize the slightest irregularity in the ground around him. Second squad rose and moved on, the remaining troops following behind at a seperation of several hundred meters. Second squad resumed fighting positions at yet another rise while third and weapons moved through first then second. When third and weapons squads reached their own rise they too found fighting positions while the others moved forward. The process was repeated over and over, he recalled the term bounding overwatch to describe the method, until they closed on the rally point. Moving up the face of yet another small rise the platoon topped the crest then spread out along it's length before facing the direction they had come and settling into fighting positions. The other platoons of the company closed in from two different directions and assumed their own positions forming a rough circle around a quarter kilometer across. Meanwhile a squad from each platoon patrolled away from the lagger to around rifle range away. They followed a pattern similar to the petals of a daisy, called a Malay Fan, checking for hostile forces. The squads would continue a patrol rotation until they left. Thudding rotors announced the arrival of the attack helicopter security element who began scouting the area far beyond the company perimeter, looking for mortars or other threats.

Spotting Murphy he leaned over to Moore and whispered "I'm going to check in with the boss, you've got the watch" and began scooting down the slope, he wouldn't stand until he got far enough down to emain concealed from outside view. Moore nodded in reply and resumed scanning the horizon with his binnoculars.

Murphy looked up warily as he approached, relaxing visibly as he sat down, "What's the good word, Ron-san?" he enquired.

"Nothing to report, Murph" Ron replied.

"Good, I prefer that to someone screaming, run, they're right behind me" Murphy said.

"Boss and I are too big to hide behind anything, we'd have to fight" added Jones, the six foot eight senior spotter "probably get another medal".

"You've already got plenty of medals" Murphy said, Jones had won the Navy Cross in an earlier war "I'd just as soon nail the bad guys from a distance".

"See anything out there, Mr. Stoppable?" Murphy continued "We had a pretty dull walk, sounded like somebody out East was having a bad day though".

"I heard it on the artillery net, MLRS had a mission against a troop concentration, glad it was over there. I haven't seen anything since that farm yesterday".

"Those folks did not seem real happy to see us"

"I got nothin' but love, they didn't have to give us the 'tude"

"Well, I expect that they learned the error of their ways, nice spotting, by the way"

"Just givin' them the mad moves"

"Tis better to give than recieve, I always say."

"You're just a generous kind of guy" Captain Bourke, the company commander, said by way of announcing his arrival.

"Yeah, I'm a real humanitarian" Murphy returned "Young Mr. Stoppable here seems to be distressed over the lack of action."

"We can't provide the level of entertainment we had on the last patrol every time we go out, you know, it would play hob with the supply of local talent" said Bourke, squatting down opposite Murphy "Besides, think of all the fresh air and exercise"

"I've had plenty of exercise, the fresh air angle is losing it's charm" Ron interjected, pointedly sniffing at his arm pits. The other officers smiled at him.

"Mr. Stoppable, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it" they said in unison, cracking up.

"In the immortal words of Dixie Lee, 'It beats working for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith' "

Ron cocked an eyebrow, looking back and forth between the other two.

"Squadron mate of the esteemed Mr. Murphy" Bourke explained.

"He became somewhat disillusioned with the brockerage racket and joined the Nav' . He says that Merrill Lynch bit everytime things get silly" Murphy amplified.

Ron nodded, once again marvelling at the variety of personalities he'd encountered in the service, it was far different from what he had expected.

"Tracks are almost here" Bourke said, standing "Saddle up pretty soon". He walked off.

"Pass the word, Ron" Murphy said, beginning to clean his finger nails with an ancient KaBar knife, rumored to have belonged to an uncle who had fought on Guadalcanal during the Second World War "Keep 'em sharp".

"Booyah, Murph" with an exagerrated salute, he departed.

Back at his post, Ron sat on the ground and scanned the horizon through his binnocculars. Flores, the radioman, sat slightly downslope from him, the security team arrayed to either side.

"Tracks here soon, sir?" Flores inquired.

"Not much longer, Petty Officer Flores, not much longer" Ron said "Why, hot date?"

"Nosir, but hopefuly a hot shower"

"Works for me" they both smiled. Ron resumed his scan, stopping once in a while to watch the helicopters dancing around the near hoizon. Several men on the far side of the laager suddenly looked off to something he couldn't see. Soon plumes of dust appeared, glowing in the light of the rising sun.

"Ride's here" Ron said to PO Flores "We'd best get ready to go".

Four columns of tracked vehicles, the huge amphitracs or amphibious tractors, were preceded and flanked by a screen of smaller wheeled vehicles from the recconaissance company. The recon vehicles split off and formed a cordon for the main body, turrets tracking watchfully around the horizon, while the main group approached the laager in column. A man from each squad trotted across the depression to meet the arriving tracked vehicles. Entering the laager each vehicle was met by it's ground guide who led it to the squad to which it was assigned where they parked in hull down postures and awaited their troops.

Depositing his share of the extra SAW ammunition in the steel fifty caliber box strapped to the gear racks on the port side, Ron stepped to his spot in the vehicle and shed his load bearing equipment. He sat in the sling seat and pulled a ration componant from his right leg map pocket in one motion, flopping in the seat and raising a small cloud of the ubiquitous dust, he leaned back. The last of the squad members filed in, dumped their gear, assuming their seats. The squad leader, Corporal Froelich, sat in the commander's seat behind the driver and looked back into the troop compartment.

"Sound off" he said loudly to overcome the rumble of the diesel.

Once he was satisfied that everyone was present he donned his CVC and stood up in commander's cupola. The vehicle started to move and Ron poked his spoon into the green retort pouch beginning to eat the stew. There was a prolonged jerk as the vehicle turned in it's own length, a maneuver the armored types called a neutral steer, before setting off with the other platoon vehicles. Finishing the food Ron rolled up the pouch and stuck it and the spoon in a blouse pocket. The gentle rocking of the vehicle made him drousy and he leaned back against the bulkhead. The SAW gunner, he thought his name was either Rothschilde or Rabbinowitz, had already succumbed to the motion and slept. His head fell on Ron's shoulder and the compounded reek of both of them assailed his nostrils. Ron thought of the times he and Kim had traveled to and from their own missions. They had a broad network of outstanding favors that were the basis of their transportation and often set them to traveling in various cargo platforms. Enroute to the operations they typically were busy with mission preparations, at least she was, checking gear and making final plans. Retrograde trips were a bit more relaxed with Ron usually goofing off and Kim doing homework initially. Eventually she would get done with her work or the fatigue of the operation would catch up with her and she would close her books. He was usually flaked out by then, either on the seats or cargo, comfortably idling. She had a minor ritual she typically followed about then, standing and shaking out her hair, stretching and kicking her shoes off. She would then make her self comfortable in the adjacent seat or nearby cargo and drift of to sleep. After a few minutes she would roll over on her side, her face against his chest, softly snoring into him. He had made a point of not mentioning the snoring even when he was teasing her. Nor did he mention her tendency to drool on his shirt at these times explaining the wet spot on his shirt as a spilled drink the one time she asked. No matter how you cut it she was a big improvement over the SAW gunner as a seat mate. He would shift gently shortly before arrival, while she was still asleep, keeping her ignorant of the sonambular cuddles lest she be embarrassed. He figured that made him an economy sized Cuddle Buddy, filling the slot of the stuffed animal she normally slept with. He had been given worse duties, past a doubt, then and now. On that note he shoved the SAW gunner over agianst the assistant gunner, both of whom snorted and continued sleeping, while he started to wipe the camouflage paint off of his face with the sweat towel. Looking down at his boots he noticed that the reverse leather had worn shiny and the lugs of the soles were nearly flat. Time for a new pair, he thought, how many of these have I gone through? Couple of pair, at least, the terrain was rough on footwear. Some days I could use those supersonic shoes Kim had a couple of years ago. Might actually get everything I needed to do done. It seemed like everyone in the world wanted something reported on or tallyed. It was getting hot in the track and the men had cracked the elongate deck hatches open to provide some more ventilation. Dust blew in with the warm breeze.

The track continued to rumble across the desert, bumping and swaying as it encountered irregularities in the ground. Ron's thoughts continued to drift to other points in his life. Drawing a canteen cup of water from the Igloo cooler mounted behind the weapons cupola he wished there was some place out here he could get a Super Slurpster. He, Kim and their other friends had a complex set of bets and joke penalties that revolved around sodas. He speculated on how many he owed her now, probably a palette of the stuff. With Murphy and the rest of the wardroom here the same sort of thing went on with beers. Either would be great just now, the chlorine flavored water being less than satisfying, for some reason ice was also hard to come by back in camp. He remembered one supply run to the naval facility in Bahrain where a cold beer and iced tea with actual ice in it could be had in the club. He and Murphy had both ordered the tea as well as beer and sat at the bar for most of an hour, entranced by the ice, until it melted and they ordered again. The bartender, a British expatriate, was long used to troops coming down off the line and accomodated their bizarre fascination.

The vehicle waddled to one side, clearly turning, Ron got up and duck walked to the commander's position. He leaned against the engine housing while a fine sprinkling of dust filtered down from the open command hatch, forming a golden patina over everything. The squad leader looked down through the hatch when he sensed him squatting there. The track commander pulled his helmet to one side and pointed ahead.

"Coming up on the ville" he shouted.

Ron nodded and tapped the man's right leg in acknowledgement. Consulting the MTDS or Marine Tactical Data System console he made quick notes on his map. The village was displayed in topographic map symbology while the company's vehicles were presented as arcane blue symbols on the gray screen, hostiles would have been in red. This was where things got tense. In the open country they could run around pretty much wherever they wanted to go. This vastly complicated the targeting problem for any would be ambush. Once they entered built up or agricultural areas they stuck to the roads out of consideration for the locals. Once they were on the roads they were much easier to target, especially in towns, where the roads that the big tractors could pass down were few in number. Another sign that they were on the road was the increase in dust drifting in the hatches with the increase in the vehicles' speed, most of the roads in this area being gravel or dirt and the vehicles in column raising it in clouds. The squad started putting their LBE back on and an air of tension filled the vehicle. This was where things tended to get exciting if they were going to. The microdrones that the column employed to warn of danger were of limited use in built up areas so the controllers flew them off to areas in the perimeters of the approaching town. Ahead, the reconaissance platoon would be deploying, the MK1 eyeball being the most effective sensor here. They would, however, also be launching their small wheeled autonomous reconaissance vehicle. The small land drone, looking much like the Bananna Buggies seen on the old Bananna Splits kids show, was known by the company as Fred. It was hoped that Fred would provide advanced warning of any bad guy activity. The machine had a collection of cameras and other sensors to provide it's operators a view of the ground ahead.

The track suddenly lurched to the right, it's weapons turret whining as it trained. There was a pronounced clank as the breech of the grenade launcher cycled.

"Scouts have taken an IED, one vehicle immobilized, two WIA no KIA, orders are to deploy and form a perimeter. Looks like the gomers waited for Fred and the first squad to go by and hit the LAV" the squad leader shouted as he dropped into the compartment. Symbols flashed on the MTDS screen and radios crackled to life.

Ron and the rest streamed out the sallyport in the ramp that formed the back bulkhead of the track, not bothering with the time consuming chore of opening the ramp. Ron pounded for the berm that ran alongside the road, helmet in one hand, rifle in the other. He pancaked onto the berm, followed by his team. The Marines spread out, by fire team, to either side. The squad immediatly behind them had taken the other side of the road. He noticed that there was a gap between the squad he was with and the next one back down the road. The popping sound of rifles, thud of machine guns and crack of RPGs filled the air. Flying bullets made a buzzing sound as they passed and a snapping sound if they were headed your way. His nostrils filled with the chemical stink of powder and explosives. This was decididly uncool.

Far ahead the attack helicopters executed chandelle turns and swept back in the stacked trail formation. They fired a sheaf of rockets at a building that seemed to be the source of much of the fire at the head of the column, collapsing it. More fire erupted from positions all along the road. Bullets striking the track sounded, for all the world, like someone tapping a large coin on a counter top. The scout platoon was starting to fall back on the main body.

Murphy came up on the local fire control net "Nearest available air is thirty minutes out" he said "See what you can do"

"One Uniform November, this is golf niner whiskey" Ron called the fire control center "request fire mission, over"

"Golf niner whiskey, this is one uniform november, no assets available, I'm passing you to tango one sierra, over"

"Roger one uniform november, break, tango one sierra, this is golf niner whiskey, over"

"Golf niner whiskey this is tango one sierra, roger, over"

"Tango one sierra, this is golf niner whiskey, fire mission, hostiles in the ville, we are taking fire, over"

"Golf niner whiskey, this is tango one sierra, roger, send your traffic, over"

"Tango One Sierra, this is Golf niner whiskey, shackle, fire mission three seven romeo 451776 break 3318890, I say again, three seven romeo 451776 break 3318890, unshackle, execute, over"

"Roger golf niner whiskey, this is tango one sierra, I copy your shackle three seven romeo 451776 break 3318890, unshackle, over"

Ron's finger traced the coordinates against his notes and double checked the reference against the grid on his map. "Tango one sierra, solid copy, shoot".

A hundred miles away, in the darkened confines of the ship's combat information center, the Tactical Action Officer double checked the grid coordinates that the Gunnery Liason Officer whom Ron had spoken to had passed to him before entering them into his own console. Everyone in the room was illuminated from below by sensor scopes and small, red or blue desk lights. It gave people a bizarre appearance not unlike the "villain light" popular in films and TV, enhancing facial features in strange ways. The TAO looked at the range rings on his own console's display.

"He's out of range for RAP, GLO, go with bulldogs" The TAO said pronouncing GLO "Glow", referring to the rocket assisted projectiles or RAP rounds for the ship's gun. Bulldog was the proword for surface to surface missiles.

The targeting coordinates appeared as styleized symbols on the flat panel plasma display that portrayed the map of the target area. Checking his loadout display the GLO called Ron over the radio.

"Golf niner whiskey, this is tango one sierra. I have SLAM ER and BGM - 109 with CBU, over" CBU were the cluster bomb munitions that the missiles could dispense. They could saturate an area the size of a football field with explosives and shrapnel. SLAM ER was a powerful bunker busting missile.

"Roger request two SLAM and four BGM, over"

"Roger golf niner whiskey, this is tango one sierra, interoggative laydown, over"

"Tango One Sierra, this is Golf niner whiskey, shackle, laydown three zero zero, unshackle, over"

"Roger golf niner whiskey, this is tango one sierra, wait"

He entered the route way points through which the missiles would travel, these appeared as white dots connected by thin white lines that ran back to the own ship symbol, a blue circle with a cross hairs in it. Satisfied, he uplinked the data to the Naval Tactical Data System, informing the other ships in the force as well as the early warning aircraft of his actions. He scanned the displays as well as his own scope, observing the unprocessed data referred to as skin paints, for vessels and aircraft in the danger zone. After taking a sip of coffee he called Ron on the radio.

"Roger golf niner whiskey, this is tango one sierra, standby for shot, IP will be shackle three seven romeo 451778 break 3318888, unshackle, over"

"Tango One Sierra, this is Golf niner whiskey, shackle three seven romeo 451778 break 3318888, unshackle, over"

"Golf niner whiskey, this is tango one sierra. Solid copy, standby out".

"Captain, TAO, I am preparing to engage hostiles with SLAM and Tomahawk. I'd like to send the drone for BDA"

"Very well" the shadowed figure at the far side of th compartment said after looking at the display briefly.

"Bridge, TAO, standby for missile launch, two SLAM, four Tomahawk bearing zero seven zero and Romeo drone, same bearing"

On the bridge the Officer Of the Deck, Junior Officer Of the Deck and lookouts scanned the the sea and sky along the bearing.

"TAO, Bridge, range clear"

"Flight control, TAO, standby to launch Romeo Delta" He said into the 21 MC speaker.

"TAO, Flight control, roger"

Aft, by the flight deck, the hanger roller curtain opened and a figure in a white jersey and khaki trousers, wearing an odd looking white helmet emerged. The figure, the landing signals officer, looked around then turned to face the hanger. Pointing with one finger at the hanger she made a sweeping gesture with her arm towards a spindly contraption near the fantail, stepping to one side as she did so. Men and women in blue jerseys, life jackets and the peculiar helmets called cranials over their normal uniforms walked alongside a missile like object, painted in a dappled pattern of greys and blues, carried in a yellow cradle by a forklift. All the activity was under the direction of the flight deck supervisor in yellow. While the handlers steadied the drone fuselage on the forklift, the operator deposited it on a spindly, open truss girder catapult near the back of the flight deck. Four more blue shirts carried the wings alongside, a team of green shirted maintenance people following, dragging cables as they went. Once the drone was in place on the cat the green shirts attached the wings and connected umbilical cords to the fuselage. Purple shirt refuelers drove up in an ATV sized fueling truck and began filling the tanks. When they and the green shirts withdrew a pair of ordnance specialists, clad in red, inserted squibs into the catapault's impulse cannisters. Finally a brown jerseyed plane captain walked around the drone, testing the flight surfaces and removing safety pins and locks as he went. Walking to the base of the tower inset above the hanger door he held the various safety devices up for air boss to see, that individual replied with a salute and the plane captain handed his load to one of the plane handlers and returned to the drone. Attaching a lanyard to the launcher he moved to a point roughly thirty feet away and faced the LSO, saluting with his left hand.

"TAO, flight control, ready for launch"

"Drone control, TAO, flight deck is ready"

"TAO, Drone Control, powering up"

The drone operator began going through his launch checks and determined that the machine was capable of flight.

"TAO, flight control, drone control is ready for engine start"

"TAO, roger"

"Flight, roger"

On the flight deck a loudspeaker came to life.

"Standby for engine start, stand clear"

The plane captain gave the LSO a thumbs up, who passed one to the tower. The drone's engine emitted a puff of smoke and began an ascending whine.

"TAO, Drone control, telemetry is good"

"Roger, you are clear for drone launch"

A green light came on in an array on the tower and the LSO circled her hand over her head then pointed out to sea. The plane captain gave the lanyard a hard pull and with a bang the cradle carrying the drone raced down the catapult. Reaching the end the drone climbed into the air while the cradle seperated and fell into the sea. The plane captain threw a smoke buoy into the water near where the cradle floated to facilitate later recovery. The drone circled twice then flew off in the general direction of Ron and the Marines. Forward, a group of sailors waited by the ship's rigid hull infaltible boat, or RHIB, to recover the launch cradle.

"TAO, bridge, drone away to starboard. No obvious problems"

"TAO, drone control, aircraft is operating normally, enroute to target"

"Captain, drone's away"

"Weapons control, TAO, with two SLAM and four Tomahawk CBU, engage my coordinates" he said, softly into his lip mike "range is clear".

"TAO, Weapons control, Bulldog affirm" weapons said.

The missiles had accepted their targeting data and were ready to launch.

"Bulldog away" weapons announced as the missiles left their vertical launch cells with loud bangs rather than the whoosh one heard in the movies.

They rose into the air on their rocket boosters, wings folding out from the fuselage, turbojet engines starting with a whine. Bulldog was the brevity code, or proword, for a surface to surface missile, there was a whole litany of such terms intended to provide clarity to radio conversations.

"Pass to golf niner, give him a time on target. Bridge, TAO, all rounds expended, drone away. Clear to commence recovery operations" the TAO shifted his attention back to the overall picture. The AAWC, or Anti Air Weapons Coordinator, nodded to an Operations Specialist in his section of CIC. The OS spun the track ball on his radar console and moved the cursor over the skin paints of the missiles then keyed the adjacent hook switch. Shortly a series of half circles enclosing a capitol "M" appeared on the plasma screens covering the sector where the ship was located. Soon another half circle with a capitol "D" marked the drone. The same symbols appeared, colored light blue, on the flat screen NTDS displays. The AAWC added lane lines for the weapons flight path then returned to the overall air picture. The same symbols appeared on the screens and radar scopes of all the ships and early warning aircraft in the area. Selected ground units would also be linked via the MTDS or Marine Tactical Data System. Across the room other OSs updated the plexiglass verical plot and tote boards using grease pencils. These served as back ups and summaries for the plasma screen NTDS panels and sensor scopes.

The TAO and weapons would check the missiles and drone periodically until they arrived. Ron called Murphy to advise him of the inbound missiles. Murphy in turn passed it along to Bourke. Word made it's way down to the individual members of the companies by radio and word of mouth.

Things were getting noisy alongside the road. The attack helicopters were working over an unseen target, but the two of them could only be in so many places at once. There were plenty of bad guys to go around and Ron kept busy. Something was on fire and the oily smoke added to the cacophany of smells.

"Bulldog away, two SLAM, four Tomahawk" the distant GLO called after a pause of several rather tense minutes "Time on target twelve mikes, IP in one one point five".

Ron acknowledged the report, consulted his watch and fired a burst from the rifle over the berm. There wouldn't be any point in looking for the inbound missiles, they made almost no noise and were too small to see more than a few thousand yards away. Their arrival would be announced when they detonated.

"This would be really cool if they weren't trying to kill us" he shouted as the streams of tracers, green from the hostiles and red for the Marines, arced back and forth.

"On your right" he yelled gesturing at the DPM crew trying to maneuver around the squad's flank. The enemy machine gunners disappeared when the nearest fire team engaged them.

Ron looked at his watch again, alarmed that only a couple of minutes had passed since the missile launch, there was plenty of time for things to go badly wrong before they arrived. The Fearless Ferett watch had been a gag gift from Kim when he deployed, the Ferett looked like he was making semaphore signals as his arms moved around the watch face. Ron wondered how the Ferett would handle this mess. He tapped a fresh magazine against his helmet to settle the rounds and switched it with the nearly empty one on in his rifle. Something exploded nearby, the burnt match smell wafting over him, he looked around quickly and saw nobody down. The automatic grenade launcher of the nearby track rumbled, his eyes watering from the acrid smoke, the sound loud through his earplugs. The muzzleblast flapped the sleeves of his blouse while the rounds made a string of flat cracking sounds in the distance. So far they seemed to be holding their own, although there did appear to be a something of a surplus of hostiles, the fire from both sides maintained it's intensity. Sand kicked up and rained down as it was tossed into the air by concussions, bullet strikes and fragments. Ron settled his goggles more firmly over his eyes and looked around. It was always amazing how little you actually saw. Only rarely did anyone on the other side appear, mostly their presence was indicated by the dust raised by the muzzle blast of their weapons.

Murphy called again "reaction force is on the way, they should be at the other end of the ville in about half an hour, the bad guys may be counting on that, though. I've got your missiles on the MTDS, they're feet dry, should be here soon". Feet dry meant they had crossed the coast, Murphy was ensconced in the FISTV or FIre Support Team Vehicle. The machine's multiple sensors, MTDS consoles, radio nets and assisting crew probably gave him a better picture than Ron had from his huddled position behind the sand berm. Ron hoped so, anyway. It would be of considerable comfort if someone knew what was actually going on.

"I'll see if I can get some more fire on that end, spoil the surprise" Ron busied himself with his map and gps for a few minutes then carefully peered over the top of the berm, using his ranging binnoculars to double check the distance and bearing to the far side of the hamlet.

He made a mark on the map and pulled a circular slide rule from a pocket on the range finder case. After having Petty Officer Flores double check his math he called the ship again and repeated the spotting procedure he had performed earlier. Ron eavesdropped as the Reaction Force's own ANGLICO made his request for supporting fire.The distant ship began the cycle of launch preparations again, this time without the drone launch, they would use the same drone for both Bomb Damage Assesments. He marked the laydown and impact areas on the map in pencil, using a green plastic template. He annotated the danger areas then checked to see if any friendlies lay within those bounds.

"Four SLAM eight Tomahawk inbound, six on either side of the road, TOT is in 28 mikes" he passed to Murphy, who advised Bourke and the reaction force. It would probably take that long to get the company moving again on this side, since a methodical search of the area would be needed.

The reaction force cautiouslly approached the far side of the hamlet several minutes later, pausing to formate about a kilometer out, they awaited the missile barrage.They fired the vehicle mounted weapons against any building that had shots coming from it. The heavier long range weapons of the vehicles, tank cannon, machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, light cannon, chain guns and antitank missiles had an advantage against the small arms and rocket propelled grenades that the hostiles fielded. An apparent recoiless rifle was quickly swamped by multiple weapons that engaged it the first time it shot.

"Everybody cover, weapons on target in 1 minute" Ron passed over the company net. He looked around as acknowledgements were made, sequentially, over the radio. The volumn of fire from his side increased in an attempt to fix the enemy in place for the missiles. Men double checked to insure that their helmet straps were undone.

Two kilometers away the first missiles reached their IP, or initial point and began climbing to attack altitude. Ron knew they were there but could not see them. The drone had passed through the IP and assumed an orbit above the missile's attack apogee altitude. The intelligence team aboard the ship tensed as the TAO began the countdown to impact. The tomahawk were making final course corrections as the sensors insured that the munition laydown would be corrected for wind and line up along the right heading. Ron briefly thought he heard the whine of the engines followed by the pop of the explosive charges that opened the cluster bomb containers. He checked the men around him to ensure they wouldn't be exposed and had their chin straps unfastened. He wrapped his arms over his head and hunkered down. The submunitions sprayed out of the Tomahawk cluster containers while the two SLAM drove towards the ground. The submunitions formed a huge oval centered along Ron's selected laydown azimuth. Some burst in the air, spraying fragmens, while others headed for the ground, a number were fitted with infrared sensors and dove towards sources of heat within the laydown area. The ground shook from the blast of the two SLAM warheads and ground burst bomblets, someone's white pick-up truck burst into flames as one of the infrared guided projectiles nosed into the engine compartment. The secondary explosion and pop of burning small arms ammunition led one to believe that the truck was probably not loaded with hay bales, he rose several inches from the soil as the shock waves rolled over him.The tracks rocked on their suspensions. All manner of junk flew though the air, an aluminum light truck mirror bounced off the track and landed nearby . The sound was so overwhelming that it was felt rather than heard. The first wave of missiles had arrived and the tree line had disappeared. No one moved for a few seconds, stunned by the blast.

"Nice shooting, Tex" Murphy called over the radio.

Fire from the other side had been reduced to scattered shots. All around him men started to rise. Fire teams began fanning out away from the road, hunting hostiles, the engines of the tracks started coming back to life. He and his team moved alongside their assigned vehicle, waiting for the order to move. He leaned against the hot metal and considered the view. Naccos would go pretty good, right about now, he thought. The track driver pounded the side of the vehicle. Time to move. Ron and the team walked alongside the track, their infantry fire team off to one side as the column moved towards the hamlet again, troops of the company patroling either side of the road. He passed data back to the supporting ship as the patrols informed him of the results of the missile attack. The ship's intelligence team continued to annotate their photographs and maps. They would pass their results to the company and battalion intelligence officers. Eventually it would filter down to Ron. Hostile weapons were collected and stored on the command track. They would be inventoried later. Someone handed Ron a badly bent manufacturer's logo from the doomed pick-up. The ship's drone dove down and buzzed over the road, making a pattern similar to someone mowing a lawn as it gathered information about the missile strike. After about fifteen minutes it climbed away to prepare for the next salvo. Meanwhile one of the company's microdrones buzzed in to augment the collection of strike information. The device was about the size of a large RC airplane and made of tan plastic. Someone had put sticker featuring Mira Nova from the Buzz Lightyear cartoon on the side of the nose after the fashion of WWII aircraft. A cluster of cameras lay behind a series of plastic windows in the drone's belly and in a bubble on it's spine.

He could see the dust plumes of the reaction force ground element in the distance and faintly heard the rotors of their helicopters. Both columns halted as the appointed time for the arrival of the second wave of missiles approached. From this distance it wasn't near as dramatic as the first wave. Tall columns of smoke and dirt, a whump sound as the SLAM missiles exploded while the fire cracker crackle of the submunitions played a backdrop, a jarring through his boots and it was over. The column moved into town, the watchful infantry alongside.

The realtime video feed from the drones showed the bloom of the missiles and submunitions, the blasts obscuring the ground from the watcher's view. Once the dust was blown away by the light wind they began making cryptic notations on maps and still printouts of the camera feeds. Switching one screen to enhanced ultraviolet the ship's intelligence officer spoke to the drone operator.

"Drop down and tighten your orbit" She said, gesturing at the video display "lock the number two turret on that point".

Ron looked up, briefly, as the drone whined overhead taking it's photographs.It's task completed the drone turned towards the sea for an eventual net recovery on the ship. The drone operator rocked the wings in farewell as it left. Ron would check with battalion intel later to see if they had gotten copies. He called the ship on the radio.

"Good shooting guys. Right on target, pretty much wiped them slick. Big Booyah, beers on me back in the world, I'll call if we need you again".

"Anytime, golf nine. We'll be appearing daily through the ninth, roger on the beers, check you in Sandy Eggo. Stay safe. Out". Back on the ship the combat systems team relaxed a bit while they waited for the next call. Soon they would have to fall back to the underway replenishment area for resupply of weapons, supplies and fuel.

The heliborne componant of the reaction force deployed on the far side of town, overwatching the ground componant who were edging in towards the hamlet's center. The clearing operation was anticlimatic, few hostiles having survived the missile salvos, those who had were dealt with quickly. A small column of bewildered looking prisoners was led to the rear of the column, they would be processed later, now they would be loaded into trucks. Joining the reaction force the company led the way out of town, the reaction elements falling into column as the tail passed them, the bombed LAV under tow by a tank recovery vehicle. A kilometer away from the ville the column paused and the troops re-entered their vehicles. The drive back to the base would take most of an hour. Ron busied himself at the track's MTDS console, annotating strikes and known hostile positons from his map and memory. His chore done, he climbed up into the now open roof hatch on the port side and positioned himself slightly behind the commander's cupola. The monotanous brown and tan landscape rolled by, the view broken by periodic herdsmen with their animals, usually in the distance. Dust swirled into his face and turned into streamers of mud as they mixed with sweat. They were away from the agricultural area fed by the ville's springs and people were few and far between here. The hot breeze created by their vehicle's motion washed over him providing some measure of cooling. He shifted slightly to stop the shoulder holstered pistol from digging into his chest. There seemed to always be a haze in the air either from dust or the fires that were perpetually burning somewhere. The column descended the coastal scarp and a wall of humidity seemed to create a physical presence as the rolled downhill. The glint of sun on water marked the distant sea. Sandbagged sentry towers of the camp perimeter slowly rose over the horizon and the foul smell of the tidal flat or sahbka struck his nostrils. He could see the flanking parties from the camp off to either side. There was evidence that the engineer vehicles had swept the approach roads recently. He could see a couple of the smaller gunboats from the distant main base patrolling at the edges of the wide mud flat.

The companies rolled into the camp with an escort from the camp security force. The vehicles ran to the motor pool revetments while the recovery vehicle towed the wrecked AFV to the maintenance area. The men disembarked from their vehicles and removed the ammunition from their weapons, they dry fired the weapons into large barrels staged around the vehicle lines. Weapons now safed they formed in groups for debriefing before turning in their excess ammunition and heading to their squad areas. In the debrief tent they sipped coffee and snacked on pastries while awaiting their turn at the intel tables. There was a murmer of conversation and some light horseplay but most of them were far too tired to do more than stand and wait their turn. Ron's team went to the table where one of the debrieffers waited. Ron copied the data on his maps to intel maps and gave the debrieffer a synopsis of the week's actions, focusing on the battles at the farm and the village. Later he would write up a complete report and include the original map with it. The debrieffer had some satellite and aerial photographs that Ron annotated with a grease pencil while snagging his own copies for his own write up. His task done he went back by the snack table then walked outside. Finding a small patch of shade near a sandbagged diesel generator trailer he sat down on a low wall of sandbags, chewed doughnuts and drank coffee while he waited for his men. One by one they left the tent and joined him. As the last appeared he stood and spoke.

"Well done, guys, clean your weapons and stand down."

They gave a weak cheer and headed for their tents. They would break down and maintain their tools, head for the showers and then chow.

He hauled his gear to the headquarters tent he shared wih Murphy. The term "headquarters" made it sound much more oppulant than it was. It was an octaginal canvas affair about 16 feet across with a small extension on one of the flat faces to form a sort of tiny bedroom. Perusing the clipboard that hung from the center pole he determined that he was the duty ANGLICO for the day.He stowed his equipment in the makeshift shelves they had cobbled together from salvaged palletes and changed into gym shorts and a novelty tee shirt with a Doctor Dementor's Gift Shop logo and a picture of giant dachshunds on it. Kim had brought the shirt back from a mission she had conducted, initially without him, but they had finally completedtogether with the help of a singularly odd collection of companions. He sat on the camp chair, spread an old poncho on the desk and prepared to field strip his weapons. Kim looked at him from a studio style head and shoulders photograph in a stand up frame on the desk. He was just beginning his tasks when Murphy wandered in.

Vigourosly scratching the seat of his pants Murphy said " You did OK out there" from his pockets he produced a handfull of beer bottles.

He sat a couple of Cooper's Pale Ales on Ron's field desk "have a beer".

Murphy had a phenomenal ability to ferett out sources of beer.

"The Australian EOD team had a couple to spare, enjoy" He said, stripping off his gear in the bunk annex of the command tent.

Opening a beer Ron moved his gear to the cot in the vestibule and resumed cleaning preparations. The odor of gun solvent quickly filled the tent. Time to do laundry, he noted.

"Well, you've got the duty" Murphy said, with a glance at the clipboard. He began reassembling and dry firing his own rifle and pistol. "I'm going to catch a shower". Collecting his shower kit he strolled out of the tent.

Ron continued to work on his own gear. He thought of the old days and marveled at his own lack of direction. Back then he probably would have been distracted and abandoned the task at hand, earning a frustrated stare from Kim. Carefully disassembling his arms he laid the componants out in the fashion dictated in training, carefully cleaning and lubricating each piece before reassembly. He cleaned the blade of the hunting knife that he carried and applied a whetstone to the edges. He didn't expect to run about engaging in knife fights like some sort of comic book hero but the thing was useful for a host of mundane tasks like cutting lengths of parachute cord and opening ration pouches. Weapon maintenance complete he sat at the field desk by the tent pole and began to write on a GSA lined pad, pausing for sips of the beer between thoughts. The shadows began to lengthen and it started getting darker in the tent, power for things like tent lights, called hotel power, was a bit uncertain this early in the evening and Ron didn't feel like trekking over to the recreation or mess tents, which had steady supplies of power, going through the process of lighting the multifuel lantern was more effort than he wanted to expend as well. He picked up the notepad, beer and writing equipment and went outside. There was a small collection of lawn chairs, camp stools and crates arrayed by the nylon fly that they had rigged over the tent entry. He sat his supplies down on a box and erected a lawn chair. Sitting down he resumed writing. He was about halfway through with his letter when Murphy reappeared.

"Traypack beef stew for dinner, there'll be sliders for midrats" he referred to the prepackaged meals, similar to giant TV dinners for 12 that they often dined on, not bad but anything can get monotanous over time. Midrats were rations prepared for the 8 to midnight watch section and the midwatch, or midnight to 4 AM, section, sliders being the ubiquitous hamburgers made from preformed patties. The actual meat content of the patties was the subject of much debate, apparently going back before anyone he'd ever met could remember. One school of thought maintained that they were rejects from a famous chain of hamburger joints while others focused on the relative soy to beef content of the patties. Regardless of camp and philosophy just about everybody ate them to get a break from the cycle menu.

"I'll pass" Ron said "I had a package of stew on the way back, I might try the sliders if I stay awake that long. Sure wish thay had Nacco traypacks." he closed the notepad and sat it aside.

"This is one of my favorite times of day out here" Murphy said arranging himself into a lawn chair and propping his feet up on an empty 20mm ammunition box, he was dressed ina pair of oil stained formerly khaki GI swim trunks, termed "UDTs", a black T shirt with the logo from the 60s TV show Batman on it and a pair of worn out boots, laced to the ankles "I like the texture of the air, it's unique to the desert that way, the quality of the light and the overall stillness. Wish I could get a photograph to show the way it really is. Other than that, this place kind of blows, there's nothing to do in town, we can't go explore the countryside and it's way too much work to get a drink. On top of all that, there's no surf and the fishing stinks. I suspect that it bores the locals, too, it's probably why they divide their time between murdering each other and inventing religions".

"You inventing a religion?" Bourke materialized from between the tents, the other officers in tow. Along with men from their own company they were accompanied by "Big Doc", the battalion medical officer, Edwards, the battalion force recon team leader and several others whom Ron recognized vaguely from briefings but didn't know. Big Doc, perversley, was about 5' 3" tall and had the general appearance of a Saint Patrick's Day cartoon leprachaun.

"Why not? Everyone else out here has" Murphy thought for a moment and fortified himself with another swallow of beer "This will be our sacred day, every..., What the hell is today, anyway?"

"Tuesday"

"Splendid, every Tuesday will be a day off to be spent in the contemplation of alcohol" He raised the beer bottle overhead and made an attempt at a mystic gesture "we will fight for universal happy hours and dollar beer every day".

"Speaking of which"

"Usual place"

The new arrivals rummaged in the disreputable Marmite can that served as a cooler.

"Ice! Where'd you get ice?"

"That was my contribution" Big Doc offered "That and some grain alcohol"

Everyone looked at Murphy.

"Tomorrow, if we don't have another patrol, top chop said he would chip in some orange juice, he's going to chill it down in the big cooler" referring to the senior supply officer or chop.

"Ropeyarn tomorrow" Bourke said, scratching intensley at the dense pelt of red hair on his chest, he hadn't bothered to button his shirt " you two jokers can sleep in even more than you already do, just came down from battallion". Ropeyarns were the traditional days off for the Navy and Marine Corps. Originally a time for sailors to mend and wash clothes they had become a day for sleeping in and general sloth.

"Prickly heat again?" Big Doc enquired "It would heal if you'd quit scratching so much"

"Catch 22, if I leave it alone, it itches, if I scratch it, it itches. Scratching gives me something to do. The talcum powder doesn't seem to slow it down much. Meanwhile I'm going to stick to topical anesthetic" Bourke replied, opening another beer.

"As long as it doesn't get infected, I don't want to have to shave you, I'd have to go buy sheep shears from the locals. I think I'll join you on the anesthetic".

Bourke made a rude gesture and sat down on a crate. Someone tossed him a piece of ice and he began massaging his chest with it. A blissful expression spread across his face.

Opening his eyes he looked at Big Doc "What was in it?"

"Nothing exciting, we had some heat fibrile preventative meds shipped in. It just kept them cold until we could get them in the refrigerator".

Bourke resumed rubbing the ice on his chest, a look of exstacy widening nearly as rapidly as the puddle of water on his chest.

"It's pretty good of battalion to give us a ropeyarn" Ron said.

"Guys have been working pretty hard, they need some down time" Bourke replied "Rumour mill says we're getting AEVs starting next week. They're going to do the turn over a company at a time. ".

"I hadn't heard about the AEVs" Ron said, referring to the Amphibious Expeditionary Vehicles that would replace the old AAVs.

"It'll be a big improvement, faster, better armed and armored, all the new high tech stuff, longer range, air conditioning"

"Air conditioning? I vaguely remember that"

Ron thought of the pleasant weather that seemed to be the norm back home in Middleton. It was usually just warm enough for Kim to wear her trademark crop top shirts, a fashion that they had eventually discovered her father did not entirely approve of. He wondered what she was doing right now. Probably studying. She had always been an assidious student, more so now that she was doing graduate work, always getting her assignments in early as possible. Let's see, it's almost 8 here, so back there it would be, hmmm, nine in the morning? Probably in class, best not call, even if he could get a line.

A runner from battalion headquarters walked up to Murphy and handed him a piece of paper. Murphy scanned the page and turned to the group.

"There is a night overwatch tonight, departure at 0200. It's a platoon op in support of Delta Company from Second Battalion. They need someone to watch the backdoor. Ron, you've got the duty, so you're up. Good thing you checked out on the FIST, it'll make your life easier."

"At least this time it won't be my honor to walk" He replied, smiling sardonically.

"Well, you know what the reward for a good job is, sportsfan"

"Yeah, another job, guess I'd better alert the team and get some rack time." He left the group to prepare for yet another day. With a little luck he would be back in time for the party. As had often been remarked, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

12,000 miles away and two weeks later the redhead from Ron's pictures collected her mail and walked upstairs to her apartment. Opening the door and dropping her backpack on the coffee table she walked into the second bedroom that she used as a study. Tugging the scrunchie from her pony tail she slipped her shoes off and flopped down in the old bean bag chair in the corner. Sitting cross-legged she started to sort her mail. Setting aside a couple of bills and a letter from the graduate association, her expression brightening as she keyed in on the letter that was marked "no postage operation anaconda" in place of a stamp.

" We've got mail, Rufus" she said to the small pink creature in the maze of colored translucent tubing that occupied one side of the room.

He chittered and ran across from the open door of the habitat. As he sat on her shoulder she lay back in the bean bag and pulled the letter from the envelope. She began to read:

"Dearest Kimala;

I had a busy couple of days..."

Alternate Ending

The red phone rang and Kim leaped to answer it, holding the handset to her ear she exclaimed "Ron's in trouble, Rufus! "

"Holy Mackeral! What am I wearing, and where did these come from?" she said, her green eyes slightly bugged out, for she was wearing what appeared to be one of Stripperela's old outfits and had somehow acquirred Lara Kroft's chest .

Shaking her fist at the author she continued "You've been reading that mature stuff over at Fan Fiction Net again, haven't you? Aren't you a little old for this teenage fantasy junk? C'mon Rufus, let's go help Ron!" She wobbled forward on ten inch spike heels.

"Righto" Rufus replied, sounding remarkably like Sean Connery "We must see what Q, er Wade, has for us."

Together they raced for the closet door and leapt onto the Batpoles.

Ron heard a sound over the din of a chorus of Men of Harlech and looked up to see the great zeppelin Deux Ex Machina, flagship of the 1st (Desperate Plot Device) Unexpected Rescue Airwing. She rumbled in on her mighty ion engines, escorted by Kommando Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, while Ace Rimmer flew top cover. On the bridge Capt. James T. Kirk cast a steely glance at the action below.

"Take her down!" he said resolutely.

"It is time, prepare the troops" stated Admiral Hornblower from the flag bridge.

As the great airship neared the ground, the assault force jumped from her landing ports, suspended by Mary Poppins' umbrellas.

"They're away" said Kirk "and they would have gotten a great deal on lodging if they'd checked Priceline dot com".

There was a gasp from everyone on the ground including the Bad Guys (TM).

"Why they're" said Murphy

"Utterly" continued Burk

"Perfect" concluded Ron

Yes, they clasped their hands together and held them to their chests, for it was the 4077th Special Literary Metaphore Assault Brigade, the Fighting Mary Sues. They were perfect in every way and friend and foe alike stopped to gaze upon them in their deliciousness. The enemy host, from Cetshawayo's Impi to the hordes of Sauron, from the SS and those goofy robot things and their Hula Hoop tanks from that one Star Wars movie, to the renegade bikers, stood frozen at the sight, then, to a man (or cheesy special effects gizmo), swooned, such was the magnificence of the Mary Sues. Even down by the river, where Obi Wann Kenobi and the rebels were being forced to build a bridge, their captors collapsed in transports of delight. Obi Wann and the rebels formed fours and marched off, whistling Colonel Bogey, pondering the curious ways of the farce. Yes Drakken and his cohorts, Fearless Leader and Fu Manchu, in their bunker, were not immune and were soon staring, starry eyed and enraptured, at the Mary Sues. Darth Vader twirled his moustache and cried "curses. foiled again!" and made good his escape in company with the Kaiser, all the while wondering what the deal with having to wear a cape was.

Forward came the Mary Sues, John Carter, Prince of Helium, Jedak of Jedaks, Warlord of Mars, Husband Of Deja Thorus, Greatest Swordsman on Two Planets, Honorary Toastmaster and owner of the galaxy's longest business card, strode at their head. All was swept before them and everybody loved them with a deep and pure love like no other.

"Just in the nick of time" John Carter announced "it's our idiom, you know."

His Spider Sense tingling, Ron turned to see Kim trailing along with the Mary Sues.

"What on earth are you wearing?" he enquired.

"I think it's Xena, Warrior Princess" she replied, glancing at the spike studded bustier "I'm pretty sure the boots are from an old Kiss album cover. You should have seen the last outfit, he's been reading those stories again. At least the rest of me is back to normal".

"Well, it's, uh, different" Ron said, starting to run his hand over his hair until he discovered that he now sported a horned helmet. He looked down at himself."I guess it was bound to happen, eventually, what's this getup?"

"Frank Frazetta, I think" Kim said speculatively "how many people reading this would have ever even seen the jacket from a Molly Hatchett record?"

"This is all very confusing" Rufus opined, having morphed into a reasonable facsimile of Tars Tarkis, though retaining the Connery burr.

The sun, which had been high over head, suddenly began to set.

"Well, speaking of metaphores" Ron said.

"Why not?" Kim returned

"Shaken, not stirred" Rufus finished.

In the background a chorus was softly singing "Happy Trails". Ron and company swiftly mounted their Tyrannosaurs, the dinosaurs respelndent in Gucci furniture and rode off into the sunset.