First light chow. The Arulco sunrise paints the beach in primary colours; I've been awake watching the horizon change for three hours. Simmons is stripping and cleaning his guns and Sheppards' doing morning calisthenics. Me, I'm making food. Don't know how those two weird fuckers could have anything else on their mind. Got us two rabbits in a figure-four trap overnight. It ain't great and it ain't pretty - I hate seeing rabbits with crushed skulls and they don't got much meat on them besides - but fresh meat sounds real good when all you have to eat is rice and beans, sometimes bread and nuts if we're lucky.
One time, a little after we liberated Chitzena, a couple of the locals rounded up a basket of fresh fruit for us. I think it was pretty much all they had; we tried half-heartedly to refuse, but we were salivating too hard to say "no" more than once. That was a damned good meal. But I digress. I take the heads off the dead rabbits pretty quickly cause I don't really want to deal with them so much as I want to eat them, then I skin them and throw them on the spit. The spit we made out of two bipods, a cleaning rod and some superglue. I'm no chef and I'm no fucking mechanic, but I'm a mercenary who works in-country off whatever he can find and that means I gotta be resourceful. Essential tools of the trade and all that.
Sheppards' a vegetarian. Can you fucking believe that? The goddam weirdo fucking loves death, reveres it like it's an idol he carries around in his pack (maybe he does) and yet he won't eat meat. Don't ask me how he gets by on just berries and nuts and fuck anything else we find in the bush doesn't have a face. We're already on a lean and I mean lean diet in Arulco and that's just living off the land as best we can, never mind crossing your best source for protein off the list. Simmons teases him gently about it while we're cooking the rabbits. "Hey, Sheppards," he says, "If you respect death so much, you should eat the animal that died for you. Doesn't make any sense not to." Most I've heard Simmons talk in three days.
Sheppards responds in a way that only Sheppards can. The whole time Simmons is talking Sheppards never takes his gaze off him and man, I've killed a hundred times over and survived nightmares that would make most men shit their pants with catatonic fear but the way Sheppards looks at you just chills you down to your fucking soul. There's a long oily pause that saturates the air before he finally speaks. "'Men fed upon meat, and drinking strong drinks, have all an impoisoned and acrid blood which drives them mad in a hundred different ways. Their main insanity express in the fury of shed the blood of his brothers and to devastate fertile lands to rule over cemeteries.' Voltaire, 'The Princess of Babylon'. Death is the perfect state of existence for the soul. To eat of the body that you have liberated of its spirit... I call it defiling, poisoning."
Simmons doesn't say anything, just takes his rabbit off the spit and bites a hunk off.
"I call it survival," he says.
So Sheppards goes down to the waterline to get us some water, while Simmons and I have rabbit for breakfast. Before we cleared out Cambria, and got donated these big medical-grade buckets by the hospital, we used to drink water distilled out of our fucking helmets. It was gross, to say the least. I could swear I could taste Sheppards' hair in it. Sheppards' got this long greasy mane - Simmons says he caught him combing engine oil through it one morning - that only gets washed when we're close to water, which is to say never, aside from today. I buzzed my head the day before I got on the chopper to Arulco. That was three weeks ago, so I guess it's getting kinda long and feathery now; longer than I like it, anyway, and Simmons keeps his pretty short too, because that's just what men do. But Sheppards... I don't even know, to call him a man doesn't quite seem to cover it. He defies the description of "man", and "soldier" for that matter, and sometimes even "human", every chance he gets. He hasn't so much fought this war as he has glided through it. I watch him fight, sometimes, catch glimpses of his face when he's got a gun to his shoulder and firing, and the weird bastard's smiling. Smiling, and sometimes reciting litanies to himself, while he empties round after round into the enemy.
I've never seen him smile outside of combat.
I swear one time he stood up when we were taking heavy fire - stood the fuck up like they were throwing snowballs at him and not bullets - and just strode over to the enemy lines like a goddammed angel of death, and systematically slaughtered every single one of them at near point blank range. Didn't get touched by a single shot. Granted, a few minutes before, I'd taken a knock on the noggin from a bullet that made a pretty mess of my kevlar bucket, so maybe it didn't really happen, but he looked pretty fucking terrifying at the time.
Sheppards comes back with water. He's got two of our big buckets on a stick hung around his shoulders. He took some time to take a swim, so he's stripped down to his boxers and he's unbound his hair, which is halfway down his back and dripping off twice as much water as the rest of him. Coming out of the water, he looks like a swamp-thing, the terror of a 50's B-movie. It's almost comical. I'd laugh if everything about Sheppards wasn't so fucking off-putting. He's kinda limping; dude caught a bullet just above the kneecap two days before, clearing out a warehouse in Alma - that alone seems to prove he's not invincible, but I'm not so sure. Don't know why the fuck he's swimming, he's taken off the dressing and the saltwater in his wound must hurt like fucking hell. Or I guess so, anyway. I'm not convinced Sheppards actually knows what pain is. There's room enough on the fire for him to prop up the buckets on two of the spits.
Distilling water isn't difficult, but it's a process that requires a lot of attention. We have heavy metal canteens that we place in the middle of the pots. The water level isn't high enough in the pot to reach the mouth of the canteen, so none of it can slosh in. We put the pot on the fire so that the water boils, then we just place something over the top (we use a piece of scrap metal that we dented inwards so that it curves toward the mouth of the canteen) and let the condensation drip back into our canteens. Don't taste great, but it keeps us alive.
So that's our water done. When it's cooled enough to drink, we eat breakfast in silence. We do everything – I mean everything – in silence. Something I had to get used to on this whole Arulco job. I'm no big fan of chatter, but you know what I'm talking about when I say there's something warm and fitting about breakfast talk. You wanna know what our breakfast talk is? "Good meat." Fuckin' "good meat". That's the most I've ever gotten out of these bastards, and that was Simmons on a day where I guess he was feeling particularly talkative and cheerful. Laconic doesn't even begin to cover it.
So look, let me tell you something about Simmons and Sheppards. I've been working as a mercenary for coming up on twelve years now. It's etched in literally every single one of my scars, every foe I've put to ground, every morning ache, every time I've looked up at the sky and down at the dirt and questioned why and answered "fuck it". Twelve years and I've served with a lot of weird fuckers. I mean a lot of weird fuckers. One guy in Afghanistan who tried to sell me an ear he cut off a guy who'd tried to stab him that same morning. A guy in Bosnia who lubed up his bullets with Vaseline before he loaded them into cartridges because he swore up and down it went through a guy's armour better. A bitch in Sierra Leone that tried to screw me while I was sleeping, then tried to shoot me when I woke up. Shit like that. But nobody, nobody ever gave me the creeps like these two bastards do. I mean the creeps, really the creeps.
Now let me tell you something else about Simmons and Sheppards. There aren't two other souls on this whole goddam planet I'd rather have at my back when shit gets dirty barbed, and believe me, I've spent a long time looking.
The one thing I don't like about them, though, is the stupid codenames they have for themselves. I call them "codenames", they insist that they're "callsigns." Less James Bond and more Top Gun, or so says the implication.
Whatever. What kind of stupid names are "Shadow" and "Reaper", anyway?
I go for a wade myself. No open bullet wounds on me for the ocean to stab, and I guess I could use the splash. I'm down to my boxers and I'm reminded once more of how Arulco would be a great getaway for seventeen year old girls with big breasts and bigger wallets if the inhabitants could figure out how to stop putting holes in each other. What I mean to say is that it's gorgeous. Warm as hell. I'm up to my waist in the Atlantic before I can even give it too much thought and it's almost like taking a bath.
I go under.
Something about the fucking ocean, man – after all, we were all born there, or whatever. Maybe it's just being in contact with enough water to bathe in for the first time in weeks.
I get out of the water and Simmons is doing his stubble with a straight razor. It was a nice find – antique in great condition – to grab out of the officers' barracks in Alma, and Simmons and I have been better off for it. Sheppards, not so much. No blades shall touch that unholy mane and beard of his. Pretty sure they wouldn't make it within half a foot before tearing off in fear, anyway.
I ask to borrow the razor and Simmons just nods. He splashes some lake water on his face and hands it over. First time I've ever seen him with the camo paint off, and even then it's not all the way. The naked pink skin on his jaw and cheeks makes his face look like a tree with its pants down. Funny, eh?
I do my own face carefully, cause we don't have any shaving cream or nothing. It feels damn good to get rid of the itchy whiskers. You can't beat the feeling of a freshly shaven jaw. I finish with my face and do my head too, just because it's been on my mind. Takes me just inside twenty minutes, by which time most of our shit has been packed up and squared away for the hike ahead of us. I give the razor back to Simmons, who's just finished up covering his face again with that camo paint of his, and the rare hint of real skin is gone again underneath the mask of jungle colours. We're checking our gear then putting out our fire and we're on the hump.
I'm newly bald again and loving it.
It's an off day for us, which means no shooting unless shot at (unlikely), lots of maintenance time (likely) and a whole lot of fuckin' nothing (definitely). We got two modes of operation in Arulco. Uptime and downtime. Uptime is when the lead's singing, when we're slitting throats and stabbing hearts and generally doing our part to make this island a little less of a shithole. Downtime is everything else. I've fought wars – well, more conflicts, really – when it's less clear which is up and which is down. Organization is fucked and you don't know if you're home safe with reinforcements just a call away or ten miles into deep shit with nothing but the grenades on your belt and the bullets in your gun to keep you out of hell. That can get tense.
It's easier in Arulco because we know we're always behind enemy lines. Just trust me when I say you get used to it and it becomes something of a comfort.
What's shitty though is that easy means boring. I mean, it would be fine if we could kick back and relax with some stogies, booze, you know how it is – but that's suicide, and we're smarter than that. Sure, we've come across luxuries like that every so often, but we know better than to partake. Still, brother, I can't tell you how much it hurt to sell a perfectly good bottle of Southern Goddam Comfort to some dumbass local who somehow got away with paying me a third of what I asked for using a combination of pidgin English and mildly offensive hand gestures.
Like I said, though, it's an off day, which means we're humping it fifty klicks northward, back to Drassen, which we haven't seen in two weeks. Drassen was considered strategically critical by command (command being simultaneously our employer, intel and only source for whatever loose orders we get) and so it was suggested that we take it immediately after making contact with the rebels on day one. I keep saying suggested because you do not tell a merc in the service of AIM how to do his job, or try to order him around. No sir, you point him in the right direction and you wait for him to give you the results you want. That's how we've always worked and that's just the way we like it; that's why we are the single most sought-after private military contractor on this earth, and most importantly that's why you ain't never heard of us.
We're heading back to Drassen because the pager I carry, our only contact with command, made one of its very rare buzzes late last night. The short message informed us of an ex-helicopter pilot, one codename "Skyrider" (I mean, and I mean fucking seriously, where do they get this shit from?) who, it was understood, resided in the swamp around Drassen and who, it was assumed, would be able to pilot the helicopter that we'd heroically liberated from Her Royal Clutches which currently, to the best of our knowledge, remained grounded and thoroughly without a pilot.
The general consensus amongst the talkative bunch I shared the beaten Arulco roads with was that traveling in a helicopter sounded like a damned fine idea.
So off we go.
I'll spare you the play-by-play of the ten hour march and just give you the thrilling details: We entered the swamp, Sheppards stepped on a frog, and (I swear to Christ I am not making this up) he made us wait by the side of the road while he apologized to the frog's soul, took his helmet off, and kissed its corpse.
We had encounters with the enemy zero.
The rabbits gave us gas.
There is a lot and I say again a lot of swamp around Drassen, and we spend the whole afternoon searching for a single small cabin with a hermit in it to no avail. Big fucking surprise. The sun sets pretty quickly and as it drops so does our visibility. Pretty soon we have to pack it in, because we ain't going to find no Skyrider today and we'd best concern ourselves with picking out a good spot to camp so as we don't get ambushed, or too fucking wet in the swamp.
So we do a lot of the same shit and we pack it in. Simmons has first watch.
I'm staring at the stars. It's another crystal clear night. I mentioned before that this country was beautiful and I meant it. There is hardly any light pollution in any of the villages, let alone out here in the bush where there ain't civilization for miles. Arulco sky is so clear at night you get the feeling you could see into infinity if you stared long enough, and brother, let me tell you, I've been staring for weeks. Like no other place on earth. That's a fact.
But then I start thinking about the villages themselves. You can't believe the poverty even if I describe it to you. And I mean, I fucking mean, Amnesty International commercials don't got shit on Arulco. You ain't never seen kids with stares like iron cause they ain't had a solid meal for weeks. You ain't never seen those same kids watch crows feed on dead bodies in the street, then kill those same crows with stones and pick them apart with their bare hands to ration out a meal for the whole family. You don't know it. You ain't lived it.
Sometimes I think our cause is noble and just. I get all full of righteous indignation when I see these hungry, beaten, sad and broken people, so far past desperate that they're just apathetic now, and it makes me want to plug every son of a bitch that's ever wronged them. Over and over. But I tell you – and this you just gotta roll with – I ain't the brightest star in the sky, but even I know that's a shit excuse for fighting a war in a country. I mean really, when you're a hired gun you don't have a whole lot of cause to really help people, and that ain't exactly the first thing on most hired guns' minds neither. Most of us just use that as an excuse to stretch out our trigger fingers. We're bloodthirsty killers to a man, not people of amnesty. We just bring the flood. It's the poor damned people that have to make something of the mess we left behind, and no amount of bullets is ever going to put food on a starving family's table or make a revolution go the right way.
I swear, man, it's the country that gets to you, it's the country.
Before long my eyes are getting heavy and then I'm back in the streets of Cambria, so far out of it that it takes me a minute to remember why there are people lying in the dirt roads with their hands over their heads or cowering in the doorways of hovels, that -
oh yes -
I'm in the middle of a war, I'm a soldier, I'm fighting to protect these people, but why does my head hurt so much? and at some point the noise that fills the air has stopped, shrunk away like a low tide, and filling the silence instead comes the ringing of my own ears, a piercing pitch I feel in my teeth.
I manage to roll onto my back and there's nothing above me but early morning sky and then Simmons is there, tugging at my helmet, waving his hands in front of my face and asking me short and sharp questions, ever the detached professional but in his eyes underneath those layers and layers of camo paint there's real concern. Checking for signs of concussion, I think, though thinking comes slowly. He has a look at my wound and he tells me I'll be okay, the bullet only scratched my skull, the hospital's just a ten-minute trek away and if we leave now we can make it before Deidranna's troops even think about a counter-attack. So he hauls my arm under his shoulder and we're off.
My legs aren't steady, but his are, and even though I can't walk that much he don't have no problem carrying me.
The crows are on the bodies within the hour.