Disclaimer: You should be read up on "Big Sister" up to Chapter 7. Bad language and violence ahead.


December 10th 2004, 0930 AST (Zulu + 0300)

14 miles southeast of Fallujah, Al Anbar Governate, Iraq

6th Engineer Support Battalion, USMC


It was an empty ditch next to a sandy road, and as good a place for taking a piss as any, really. Private John Magee stood at the top, legs slightly bent, and had just managed to open the fly of his pants. Around him, ancient fields stretched away from the road, with the occasional small cluster of buildings and shacks, but there were no people working them to watch his deed. Wearing 40 pounds of gear and armor, with a rifle dangling from its sling and smacking him in the side whenever he made a sudden move, the entire affair was proving to be rather difficult to execute. Having his new teammates just a few feet away in their parked Humvee and their eyes on his back didn't help his anxiety either.

"Don't get sand in your lady parts now, Maggy!" shouted one; John tried to ignore it.

"This is taking forever," another added. "You gotta learn how to execute a tactical roadside piss, boot."

"Can I just have a minute here, guys?" John shouted back.

"You've had your minute already!" the first one replied. "Come back in and just piss your pants on the way!"

"I'm the gunner, you moron!" John shouted. "I'd piss on your head." Having finally gotten into position, he started to relieve himself into the ditch, wetting the slightly damp ground at the bottom.

"Don't promise that to Pieper, boot, he's into that shit."

"Fuck you, Diaz," PFC Jimmy Pieper – the driver – yelled.

"You ain't gotta pretend, man, you know I'm cool with perverts. I've got 50 gigs of the sickest shit on this planet squirreled away for morale and recreation. Goes for you, too, boot. Mi harddrive es su harddrive."

"Everybody shut up!" came the third voice. It was that of a woman, barely, the team leader sitting in the passenger seat of the Humvee. Underneath the gear and the grime, the best indicator for her gender was a lack of stubble. "Magee, what's the holdup?"

"Coming!" John shouted. At least zipping up was quick and didn't get anything caught; he jogged back to the Humvee and got inside. Along the way, he earned a small glare from the team leader – Lance Corporal Sara Corvus. Jimmy Pieper up front just gave him a dirty grin and shifted into gear.

"Why'd you drink that much anyway?" Pieper asked as the Humvee started rolling down the road. "You drink all day, you piss all day, that ain't rocket science."

"Sergeant said four quarts of water a day," John replied, earning a nod from the last member of the fire team – PFC Mike Diaz. "Hydration."

"Fuck hydration, we got air con," Pieper opined. "Hey, Lance –"

"Shut it," Corvus snapped back. "And no music, either."

"Damn, what crawled up your ass today, Lance?" Pieper asked. "You don't like bridge recon anymore? Is it us? We can change! We can become all sophisticated and emotionally honest and shit, I know you chicks dig that."

"Wow, that's some nice things coming out of your mouth today, Pieper," Corvus replied. "Suck any good dicks lately?"

"Hey, now," John said.

"The Corporal's hung over, boot," Diaz said. "First thing she'll recon today is the side of the bridge to get rid of her breakfast and feed the local ecosystem. 'course, with those DFAC eggs she loves so much, that'll probably kill everything downstream. Little shock and awe for those hajji fish."

"Uh, Corporal," John said, but trailed off when he saw Diaz look at him, as if to rescind the previous nod.

"What?" Corvus said, then pinched the bridge of her nose. "Look. I was drinking last night and I feel like shit now. Diaz is a dick, but he's right."

"See, Maggy?" Pieper said.

"And Pieper's just a dick," Corvus added. "Further questions, marine?"

"Well," John said, gathering some courage, "I'm just getting the impression I'm the only marine who actually wants to be out here. You know, doing the job, giving a damn? So I wanted to ask what's up with that."

Corvus groaned.

"I got this, Corporal," Diaz said, then turned to face John. "Look, boot, don't tell us about motivation on your first fucking ride. We talk a lot of shit, get used to it. Shut up and learn. You want 'All Oorah, all the time!' motards, get yourself to the road crews. We're out here alone because it keeps us away from the bullshit."

"The bullshit, huh?" John asked, already half suspecting the answer. "Okay, whatever, I'm game. Tell me about the bullshit, that I may learn from your wisdom, sensei."

"The bullshit, that's right," Diaz said with a nod. "The bullshit is everywhere, my son. It surrounds, and in small doses, nourishes us. Where it pools and becomes concentrated, though, the mean green weenie emerges from a whole stinking lake of bullshit and goes straight for your culo like a laser-guided fucking supersonic missile. You want to hear about bullshit? There's our fearless leader coming up on being an eight-year Lance Corporal, and every morning on the way to the motor pool I have to watch her salute four-year Sergeants from fucking Intel with a straight face. Two paygrades higher with half the time in the fleet. Breaks my fucking heart. So, what's wrong here, boot? See, Intel gets to promote everything with a pulse while we have to fight for every stripe. Maybe our pipeline would suck less if we had more than half our guys leave after their first tour, too. Maybe that would help! Thoughts, Pieper?"

"Good start, Diaz," Pieper replied, "but it'll only really be equal if we get to stay on base all day for sucking on staff cock and writing awesome EPR bullets about our kickass slideshows!"

"Oh," Magee replied. "Okay, I'll give you that. But our own promotions - I mean, the scores –"

"Yeah, we all looked at the cutting scores today, boot," Diaz said. "Lance to proper Corporal for us engineer types is sitting pretty at 1450."

"See, that's good information, because 1450 - that's doable," John countered. "And you didn't even have to make a dick joke to go with it."

"Of course it's fucking doable," Diaz replied, "and guess what, our fearless leader does go above and beyond that. But no promotion for her, either! See, something as simple and straightforward as score just doesn't matter if your CO has kept you non-rec'd since before we all deployed to this hajji shithole. And that's why, after more than 7 years in the Fleet, our beloved Lance Corporal Sara Corvus -"

"- second award and richer in experience for it –" Pieper added.

"- is not developing professionally and as a warrior in this corps."

"Any particular reason for the non-rec?" John asked. "If that's not too private…"

"Drinking problem," Pieper said. "And some attitude. That's it."

"A shitty reason, just more proof the brass hates her," Diaz said. "I've seen plenty of marines skate on shit like this. Now, there was her telling us to skip the Master Guns's Jesus brief last month in favor of doing our jobs outside the wire. Which we do give a fuck about, boot, just to clear that up. But, yeah, that went over well. The Corps has its head so far up its own ass that it preaches Chesty Puller and then tells us we can't have hands in our pockets because it looks unprofessional. Like anyone gives a fuck."

"I get it, guys, I'm a regular fucking tragedy," Corvus said, cutting the chatter off. "Another fine Marine Corps day, fuck my life, yadda yadda yadda. Enough already. I think Magee got it about five minutes ago – so can you two stop fucking complaining on my behalf for a few while we're working? Pieper, how much further?"

"Still one klick out," Pieper replied, switching to business mode.

"Copy," Corvus said. "Magee, get your ass up to the turret. Diaz, just shut up."

"Copy that, Corporal," Diaz said. John gave him another look, then maneuvered himself off his seat into the middle of the passenger cabin, climbing up into the ring-shaped hole in the roof – the machine gun's turret mount, and affixed to it the heaviest firepower within the next 5 miles. He steadied himself, leaning against the back of the turret ring.

The ride was bumpier than going on a paved road through a city at convoy speed, but John coped well enough; he had his goggles drawn over his eyes already, but got himself a nice faceful of sand before he thought to draw up his shemagh to cover his nose and mouth. Gloved hands reached for the controls on his weapon – the M2HB heavy machinegun or "Ma Deuce", a beast of a gun. The M2HB fed from a heavy steel can mounted on its left side, eating cartridges that were almost as long as John Magee's hand. John, ever eager to make a good first impression, had actually listened to the advice of his predecessor and checked the gun prior to leaving the base – barrel, headspace, timing, all properly adjusted, and besides, there was no chance to do any of that now, not in a moving vehicle on a dusty road. Instead, John just enjoyed the satisfying feeling of grabbing the charging handle and pulling it back with gusto, chambering the second round of the belt. The first was an empty casing, for safety while loading the belt, and it fell out the right side of the weapon, together with its portion of the belt's disintegrating links. He would have heard it ping off the metal roof, if the Humvee wasn't so loud by itself.

"Did you just charge the Deuce, Magee?" Corvus shouted from below.

"Uh," John stammered. "Yes, Corporal, M2 is charged and ready to fire!"

"Don't do that again!" Corvus shouted back. "We're all holding our fire like good little marines! Everyone acknowledge."

"Holding fire, Corporal," John said.

"Holding fire," Diaz said.

"Holding my dick," Pieper replied.

"Oh, thanks for that, Pieper," Corvus shouted.

"What? I've got both hands on the wheel, Corporal. Couldn't shoot a hajji if I tried right now. 'cause, if he gets in our way -"

"This ain't GTA, papi, remember that," Diaz said.

"I'm just kidding, dude."

"No, you're just shutting up," Corvus said. "Both of you, Jesus fuck. Do you see anything, Magee?"

Private John Magee was still impressed by the thought of being deployed so close to a legendary river, the Euphrates – the Western-Southern border of Mesopotamia, cradle of civilization. Standing on the artificial island in Camp Baharia, an ex-vacation resort for the Ba'athist regime's faithful, he had looked south and thought that he was only a few miles away from the stuff of legend. Now, his first look "up close" was a vague blue line in the distance, obscured by clusters of palm trees and the dust kicked up by their vehicle. Their goal was a long, low-slung bridge crossing the river ahead. In a land chiefly divided by its major rivers, controlling bridges mattered.

"Magee!" Corvus shouted. "Report."

"We're good, Corporal!" John replied.

Where the road ended and the bridge began, the density of palm trees increased; it looked like a small grove planted there. However, John could also see the upcoming heartbreaker. The bridge was demolished not far from their northern approach, which made this road a dead end for the time being. The Humvee slowed down gradually and finally came to a rolling stop about a hundred feet away from the bridgehead.

"Diaz, with me," Corvus said. "Keep your eyes open, Magee."

"Copy," both men said, almost in unison. Pieper settled back into his seat and turned the A/C up a little.

Corvus and Diaz climbed out of the truck and walked off toward the demolished bridge. Corvus kept her rifle swinging from its sling, being that she was busy browsing one of her front pockets for her notepad. By contrast, Diaz gripped his rifle tightly, and his eyes continually scanned the surroundings.

"What's the boot's deal?" Diaz asked.

"I don't know," Corvus said. "But he seems decent enough."

"Decent's not good," Diaz replied. "We're light as is, Lance."

"We'll manage."

The river was straight ahead, down a steep slope. Corvus's eyes were on the bridge. With a few glances, she staked out the major operative parameters and jotted them down on her notepad. Stone arch bridge, two lanes, major damage along multiple arches, impassible to all traffic. Total span: 1,200 feet.

"That damage looks recent," Corvus said.

"Fucking hajjis," Diaz muttered.

Corvus rolled her eyes. "We call them 'insurgents', Diaz."

"I'm just calling this spade a fucking shovel, Lance."

"No, you're working your way through some sort of 'Hajji' quota and I don't like that," Corvus said. "If you talk that way around us, how are you going to act when we run into anyone out here? Not very fucking professional, I'll bet."

Diaz considered that for a moment. "Nice speech, Lance," he said. "Coming from you."

"Yeah, but I'm still right, and most of all I don't want Magee to get up to this, too," Corvus said. "Come on, we have to look at the abutment."

The two of them seemed to disappear down the slope, and back at the Humvee, John grew a little tenser on the M2HB. He felt a little like a dog abandoned at a rest stop, being that he was in the rough geographic center of nowhere without his team leader in sight. It wasn't that he had grown overly attached to Lance Corporal Corvus in the two hours he'd known her, but being a Private without someone around to bark orders at him felt distinctly wrong.

"Yo, Maggy!" Pieper shouted from the cab below. "You wanna listen to some tunes while the Lance is away?"

"Yeah," John replied while his eyes still tried to focus on that elusive "enemy" he'd been told would be out in the desert in force. "Yeah, that sounds good," he added.

"Okay," Pieper said. "We got Panthera, we got Megadeth, Metallica -"

"Do you have any classic rock?" John said.

"Lemme check!" Plastic hit plastic a few dozen times as Pieper audibly sorted through his stack of CDs. "We got Allman Brothers, and we got Bon Jovi, if that counts."

"Allman Brothers!" John said.

John didn't see the muzzle flash, but felt something stab through his vest just the same. He had no frame of reference and didn't know what to expect – the pain was slow in arriving, it seemed. Mostly, he felt pressure, as if his armored vest was suddenly a few sizes too small. It was only when the distant sound of the gunshot arrived half a second later that his brain fired the "You done got shot, moron" routine. His legs sagged under him, and then he crumpled down the hatch and fell onto the Humvee's backseat row.

Jimmy Pieper really wanted to shout "Fuck!" The problem was that the gunshot (singular) had been used to signal several more insurgents (plural) to pop up from their hiding places in the field to the east and start hosing down the Humvee with bullets (lottaleadal). And while Pieper had never been top of the class in, well, anything, God had blessed him with slick reflexes. The "Fuck!" vocalization was held up as low priority, and his body instead used the split second to hurl itself through the cab and against the passenger side door, flinging it open and dumping Pieper into the dust. Pieper scrambled for cover behind the rear wheel assembly before the autopilot disengaged.

Then he shouted "Fuck!"

At the bridgehead, Corvus and Diaz reacted, too. Diaz easily snapped up his rifle and sent single shots into the field, howling "Contact east!" all the while. Corvus was slightly behind him, having to drop her notepad and pen and only then bring her rifle up. The urge to sprint back to the Humvee together was great, but Corvus stood her ground. Staying with Diaz would have made them, effectively, one single target, but this way, every step Diaz took opened up their field of fire more and took him closer to the Humvee.

However, two guns were not enough to properly suppress the whole field. Better than nothing, sure, but not enough. The return fire came swiftly; Corvus felt several bullets whip past her and one dinged her helmet. The sudden realization that she was still standing – and with that, silhouetting herself against the river behind her – was enough motivation for Corvus to hit the deck and roll to the side, tumbling down the slope a little until she managed to arrest her movement. That left only Diaz firing, and when Corvus managed to crawl back up the ridge, it was just in time to see Diaz get slugged by multiple hits and tumble to the ground, a little shy of halfway to the Humvee. More shots buried themselves in the ridge next to her, and she slid down again behind cover.

Pieper winced when his friend went down. He had shared a glance with Diaz just before that, and now things were looking – well, insert your favorite colorful way to say "very bad". To make matters worse, his carbine was still inside the Humvee. He figured there were at least five attackers, plus the sniper, all waiting for any sign of movement from behind the most conspicuous object in a five-mile radius. It was funny how his brain could get him out of immediate danger and assess the same quite accurately, but couldn't spare the neurons to grab his gun before making him bail out. At least the enemy fire had stopped for the moment.

"Pieper, come in!" Corvus's voice called through his helmet radio. "Need your status!"

"I'm up, Lance," Pieper replied, "but my M4 is in the truck."

"You got eyes on Diaz and Magee?" Corvus asked.

"Maggy went down first, no eyes on him. I can see Diaz moving, but he's down and he's exposed. Where are you, Lance?"

"Pinned down behind the ridge," Corvus said. "Pieper, if I cover you, can you get Diaz?"

Pieper froze for a second and looked right at the distant body of Diaz, slowly rolling in the dirt. Well, could he?

"You read me, Pieper?"

"Negative on the rescue, Lance," Pieper replied. "Can't reach him."

"Can you get your gun?" Corvus asked.

"Yeah," Pieper said. "Yeah. I think I can reach the Deuce, too."

"No, that's too risky," Corvus said. "They probably still have the sniper zeroed in on that, he'll shoot you before you can do us any good."

"Please say you got a plan, Lance."

"Yeah. Yeah, I have a plan. I cover you, you get into the truck and grab your gun and the survey kit. Then you're going to get on the binocs and spot for me. If we're lucky, I'll have a shot at the sniper. Once I take him down, I can cover you again, you grab the Deuce and lay down some fire."

"Okay," Pieper said. "Right, I got it. Just say the word, Lance."

Back at the bridgehead, Corvus slapped a fresh magazine into her rifle and took a few deep breaths. She rolled onto her belly, drew up her right leg and dug the boot into the slope beneath, finding purchase in the loose soil after a few inches of travel. "Go go go!" she shouted into the radio, then stood up and opened fire at the field, gaining the brief satisfaction of seeing a few men drop into the dirt to avoid her attack. But it didn't take long for the return fire to come and force her back down; her eyes registered a distant muzzle flash way out in the field just before the sniper's shot whistled past her head. While bullets slammed into the dirt above her, Corvus quickly stripped the magazine and fed another fresh one.

"Pieper, come in," she radioed. "What's your status?"

"Yeah, I got it," Pieper said. "Maggy's bleeding, it's pretty bad, Lance."

Corvus allowed herself a singular "Fuck!", then got back on the radio. "Copy that, Pieper. I need that sniper spotted ASAP. I think I got a shot."

"You sure you can take him out?" Pieper asked.

Corvus chuckled softly. "Every marine's a rifleman, right?"

Corvus craned her head around, looking for a better vantage point than her current position. The slope to the right of her seemed to come up a little higher with a bit of brush on it; not much, but she wasn't in the position to go looking for a better perch. She inched forward, going up the slope to the small bump. It didn't feel good to drag her rifle through the dirt in the process, but holding it in her arms would have caused too much visible motion. Intermittently, bullets struck just a few feet to her left where she'd gone down the slope, but as far as she was concerned, this was a good sign. For one, it meant they were unsure how to proceed and running too low on ammo to keep just hosing down everything. And it meant they hadn't spotted her new position – that gave her one shot before the inevitable counterfire. Gingerly, Corvus maneuvered her rifle past her and to the front, poking its muzzle out of the brush and setting the stock against her shoulder. Her rifle didn't have any hi-tech optics, just the iron sights. That suited Corvus just fine - it was how she had learned to shoot. At least the slight elevation advantage helped her gain a better view of the fields to the east, and with a bit of focus, she managed to spot five men lying in wait, none daring to fire. Her breath slowed down. If they saw her before she could take out the sniper...

"Son of a bitch sighted," Pieper radioed. "Reference point is cluster of four palm trees east-north-east, one with white...something...on the bark."

Corvus's rifle swung almost imperceptibly. "Got it," she whispered. She could barely make out the white splotch in the matchstick collection with the sun almost dead behind the sniper. 400 meters, she estimated.

"Ten meters to the left, small hill. Covered under a green blanket."

Again her rifle wandered slightly. Her eyes strained to make out anything on the hill, until she followed the contours and found that the top didn't fit the hill's natural curvature. With that spotted, the small black spot had to be the shadow under the blanket where the sniper was looking through. She couldn't make out a rifle or a face at all. "Target in sight. Range?"

"420 meters," Pieper radioed back.

Corvus worked the shot in her head. At that range, bullet drop was a big factor; Corvus had qualified on point targets at 400 meters at the range and adjusted her aim upward according to that. Sure, the air here was a little less dense, given the higher temperature, but she hoped that wouldn't throw off her aim too much. The mechanical accuracy of her rifle couldn't be helped, so she decided against worrying about it. That left the wind.

"Any wind?" she whispered. "Check the palm trees."

"It's the desert, Lance. They're...swaying to the left a little."

Corvus made a scientific wild-ass guess and shifted her aim a smidge to the right.

Corvus sharpened her eyes and tuned everything out. Her mind cleared as if by magic. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out and hold it...hold it...

She smoothly pulled the trigger. The muzzle flash snapped her back to reality, and she pushed off again, rolling and taking another tumble down the slope as the remaining opponents opened fire at her perch. This time, the tumble proved harder to stop, almost taking her into the Euphrates before she managed to arrest her fall. Corvus was bruised, breathless and doped up to the gills with adrenaline. Then there was Pieper shouting in her ear.

"Holy shit! Holy shit!" he whisper-shouted over the renewed gunfire; muffled sounds of him scrambling back to cover behind the Humvee carried over the radio. "You got him, Lance! Oorah! Scratch one camelfucker!"

At this point, the attackers must have realized that their plan was completely off the rails, and that there was nothing to gain from waiting any longer. Shouts mixed with gunfire; Corvus didn't have to listen to Pieper panicked call to know what was happening. They were charging without any sense of restraint, playing a whole damn concerto in 7.62x39mm. They still focused their fire on the Humvee, and the best Pieper could do was cower behind it and pray to God that the dozens of bullets with his name on them wouldn't get through.

Lance Corporal Sara Corvus figured she had ten seconds before they would overrun her position and kill her. She decided to make the most out of them.

Others might have bellowed a mighty war cry, but Corvus stayed silent when she scrambled up the slope and started firing. She was deep in the zone; saving her team was all that mattered. With her first look at the situation, she made out six men with Kalashnikov rifles on the move towards Diaz. Her eyes locked onto the one closest to her fallen team mate, and her aim followed. She pulled the trigger, and a three-round burst screamed downrange. Two bullets hit the man in the chest, ending his life; one flew just past him and nicked another one's arm. Her eyes flicked to the next target and her gun followed. Again, she pulled the trigger, and another man dropped to the ground bleeding. She saw bullets fly past her and imagined that she could see the scars the rifling had left on them. There was fear, yes, but it couldn't compete with a much stronger feeling: being in control.

In the middle of the hailstorm, four bullets hit her. Three flattened against the strike plate in her vest, the fourth buried itself in a magazine pouch. She kept going.

Of the four men that she still recognized as moving targets, two were making the smart move, dropping down on their bellies to reduce their profile. It didn't matter. That still left two easy targets and more than enough rounds in her magazine to cut them down. She sprayed them with supersonic lead, turning one's neck into a vague pink cloud of meat and blood suspended in the air for one horrifying moment, while the other took several bullets to his side and spun out in a brutal mockery of a pirouette. She had reached Diaz, who was now doing his damndest to get to his feet and grab his own gun to help her. Her rifle gave up on the home stretch, choking three bullets away from an empty magazine on a misfeed. Corvus had no time to fix that, but that didn't stop her either. She had to get Diaz and herself to the Humvee. Nothing else mattered.

She took two more rounds to the chest and another on her helmet while she dropped her rifle into its sling and drew her pistol from the holster strapped to the front of her vest. Her left hand snagged the "Oh shit!" handle on the back of Diaz's armor without her having to look and pulled him to his feet. Her pistol snapped off round after round at the remaining enemies. It didn't nearly match their remaining firepower, but such pesky details were kept carefully at bay by her mind, focused as it was on dominating the situation as long as possible. Diaz added a few hip-fired bursts from his rifle as the two of them moved toward the Humvee. By now, the return fire was weaker, less focused on trying to hit them and more to entertain the illusion that the insurgents were still in the fight. Finally, they made it behind the relative safety of the Humvee. Corvus helped Diaz lie down on the ground, and only then let her exhaustion catch up with her.

"Lance! Lance!" Pieper screamed somewhere in the distance; Corvus fought her throat for breath. "They're retreating!"

"Diaz," she croaked, reaching for her own armor's quick release. "Check Diaz." She finally got her vest off, took a look at it and skipped counting the impacts. What little she could still feel of her chest felt like an elephant had stood on her, but her shirt was still intact – nothing had gone through the armor. Suddenly, monkeying around in 40 pounds of battle rattle every day felt justified. Sporadic gunshots still flew over the Humvee, but those were the last gasps of a failed assault turning into a rout.

"I'm good," Diaz said, raising his voice. "No thanks to your ass, Pieper."

Corvus gave Diaz a quick glance. More than anything, he looked angry, even sitting down with his right leg stretched out. It looked at least one bullet had managed to hit his leg, and a corresponding bloodstain was working its way down his uniform pants. It wasn't pretty, but taking into account that Diaz was still very much conscious – albeit a little wobbly – it probably hadn't done too much damage. That just left Private John Magee.

"Get some pressure on that wound," Corvus said, then looked over to Pieper. "I need eyes on the bad guys, Pieper."

"Uh, yeah, Lance, on it!" Pieper said.

Corvus unhooked the rear door of the Humvee and climbed inside. The left side of the truck – parked as it was facing the enemy – was a mess of spiderwebbed glass, ruined panels and loosened interior lining. The truck listed to the left, indicating that the tires hadn't gotten off lightly, either. Fortunately, few bullets seemed to have actually penetrated into the cab; just a few interior spiderwebs on the right and a shot-off rearview mirror. John was still lying crumpled up in the middle of the cab, with some blood leaking through a hole in his vest. Corvus grabbed him under his arms and started pulling him free. The gunfire that had filled the air just half a minute ago was gone.

"They're running away, Lance," Pieper said, peering over the hood of the Humvee with his carbine at the ready. "Fuck. I thought we were gonna get our dance cards punched for sure."

"Probably, but they'd have killed you last," Diaz said.

"Are you going to be a cock about me not lying in the dirt next to you? Is that your thing now?"

"Little cover fire from you would've been nice, that's all I'm sayin', papi."

"I was just slightly busy drawing all the fucking Hajji fire," Pieper replied. "So, I don't know, maybe that 'splains it."

"Need a hand here!" Corvus said. Pieper scanned the horizon for signs of renewed attack, then turned and walked to help Corvus with John's body. Together, they maneuvered him onto the ground as softly as circumstances allowed and stripped his vest off. Pieper set to work on bandaging the chest wound while Corvus bowed over his face and listened. "He's breathing," she said. "Pieper, you got this?"

"Yeah, I got it," Pieper said.

Corvus nodded to him, then fumbled with her radio to switch it to the larger company loop.

"Lynx One, this is Lynx One-Four, come in, over" she said.

The radio crackled to life. "Lynx One-Four, this is Lynx One, how's the desert treating you today? Over."

"We got ambushed at the bridgehead, One, we need a CASEVAC for two and a tow for our truck, over."

The reply came after a few seconds of silence. "Say again, One-Four, you were ambushed? Over."

"Positive, Lynx One, we were ambushed and two of my team members are losing blood, so I say again, we need a CASEVAC. Over."

"Uh, stand by for orders, One-Four. Lynx One out."

"Great," Corvus said after her finger had left the "Send" button. She turned to the battered remains of her team. "While we're waiting for HQ to get in gear - how are we doing, gentlemen?"

"Maggy's stable," Pieper said.

"My leg hurts like a motherfucker," Diaz said. "Thanks for saving my ass, Lance."

"Yeah, no shit," Pieper said. "You were like the Terminatrix or something, all cutting down suckers left and right."

"If you want to compliment me, use a better movie," Corvus replied, not without a smirk.

"Come on, Lance," Diaz said. "Let's not started blaming Jimmy for his horrible taste in everything, we'll be here all day."

"Your ignorant and wrong opinions are noted, but allow me to enlighten you with four words," Pieper said. "Kristanna Loken's sweater kittens."

"I'm familiar with tits, Pieper," Corvus said. "I am a girl under all this badass, you know."

"Yeah, but...uh..."

"This should be good," Corvus murmured. "Go on."

"Well, you're the Lance, Lance. Under better circumstances, I would consider you quite pretty" - Corvus raised an eyebrow - "beautiful?" - the eyebrow rose further - "okay, very wankable."

Corvus sighed. "Better circumstances, Pieper?"

"He can't get it up," Diaz said, "unless you order him to grab his dick and tug it like a good little marine." Using his free hand, Diaz mimed the motion a few times, his efforts going past illustrating straight into cementing the uncomfortable mental image.

"Fuck you," Pieper said. "I don't have to take that from you, Mr. '50 gigs of the sickest shit on this planet'."

"Yeah, but at least that's 50 gigs not starring the Lance. Your wet dreams, though..."

"Jesus, guys," Corvus.

Pieper turned to Corvus, looking as blushed as his sunburnt skin would allow. "Uh, I'm sorry, Lance. Obviously this whole conversation was, like, very inappropriate."

"Sorry, Lance," Diaz added.

"And, uh, it's all just a bad joke anyway," Pieper said. "Right? Except that part about you being – a good-looking woman, that was totally not a lie but I don't think about you that way, please don't hurt me."

"Well, this is awkward," Corvus said, full-on grin on her face. "Now I don't know whether to be flattered or disgusted. And thank God Magee's not hearing any of it."

"Lynx One-Four, do you read, over?" the radio crackled.

"This is Lynx One-Four, go ahead."

"CASEVAC is on the way. One-Six is four klicks out, ETA 10 minutes. I've got a few flyboys with fast movers for you, if you can use them. Over."

"Negative on air support, Lynx One, the enemy is in retreat. Over."

"Copy. Stay safe, One-Four, help is on the way. Oh, and heads up, One-Six Actual is riding, so you better have a sitrep. Lynx One out."

"Copy that, Lynx One. One-Four out."

Corvus redirected her attention from the radio to her team. "Heads up," she said. "Reinforcements in 10."

"You don't sound so happy, Lance," Pieper replied.

"Captain Stack is riding with them," Corvus said. "Expect handshakes, questions and mando fun this weekend."

That brought silence to the team for a few moments, until Pieper found his voice again. "I think I liked it better when the Hajjis were shooting at us."


Since we figure that this is a fairly dense chapter, this commentary will pretty much just consist of explaining a wide variety of things that appear here. So if you have, say, taken some sort of oath to only read single-topic author's commentary, skip this one. (And maybe think twice about taking silly oaths.)

"AST" is Arabic Standard Time and good throughout all of Iraq. The US military (and most of NATO) work with Zulu time internally, which is another term for UTC (Coordinated Universal Time), which is in turn based on the more historical Greenwich Mean Time. Since local time is more useful on the ground, it's pretty much a hard requirement to know the offset for your area of operations. And since UTC does not have a Daylight Savings Time adjustment (different countries having different rules for that), you also need to know if and when to adjust the offset for that.

We chose the 6th ESB as Sara Corvus's unit because as far as we've been able to ascertain from publicly available information, they actually were operating in Iraq near Fallujah during December 2004. For those of you who don't have all the minutia of the war memorized, this date is just a few days before the beginning of Operation Phantom Fury, where US forces went into the then still-hot Fallujah and cleared the city of insurgents block by block.

"Boot" is Marine Corps slang for an inexperienced Marine, fresh out of Boot Camp. Calling someone a boot implies that they don't know anything about life in the fleet and that their opinions are accordingly worthless. "Hajji" – derived from an Arabic male honorific – has found itself mutated by US soldiers and marines into a common pejorative towards Iraqis, Afghans and anyone else who's vaguely "brown", as well as by extension anything used by them – so you can find Hajji shops, Hajji taxis, Hajji cops. Thanks to a little linguistic phenomenon called the dysphemism treadmill, many service members use the term widely with no specific intent to insult, but it's still far from nice. (And no, the quite worse insult Pieper uses after the sniper gets shot isn't the worst of it by a long shot.)

Figuring out which job Sara Corvus would have done in the military wasn't easy, but in the end we settled on combat engineer. Although this MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) is open to women, the ban on deploying women in combat roles means that only certain units were open to her, specifically units attached to one of the Engineering Support Battalions. Of these, we figured bridge reconnaissance would give her a position independent enough to be to her liking, plus set up the team being on their own against the ambush. The US Air Force's strategic airlift capability notwithstanding, a lot of heavy equipment and supplies are shipped by sea and have to then continue on roads to get where they're needed. Therefore, ensuring that the roads and bridges are in a usable state is a very important job.

A few more words: "DFAC" is a Dining Facility, the preferred nomenclature for what one might more colloquially call a "chow hall". Their popularity with younger enlisted Marines is, shall we say, limited – the food is generally considered to be overly fatty, unhealthy and (worst of all) just not very tasty. The issue has gotten more attention in Iraq because of the unprecedented logistical support the war has gotten, enabling several of the bigger forward operating bases to house multiple fast food chains that are predictably seeing a lot of business. "Oorah!" is a multifunctional call that can substitute for every word in the English language if you're a Marine, except for "No". (Do not, under any circumstances, confuse this with the Army's "Hooah!") A "motard" is a rather colorful way to describe someone who is so obsessed with the concept of being motivated or "moto" that it overrides his common sense and/or decency towards his comrades. And an "EPR" is an Enlisted Personnel Report, which is supposed to be written by the service member's superiors and to be used in determining eligibility for promotion and such for non-commisioned officers, i.e. Corporal and above in the Corps – and since the EPR mostly consists of trying to pack one person's achievements into nice-sounding bullet points, Staff and other rear echelon troops who frequently deal with written communication have an advantage here. Not to mention the widespread, if officially completely discouraged, practice of letting service members essentially write their own EPR bullets. As for slideshows…well, it's no accident that the phrase "Death by Powerpoint" is a widespread meme in the services, being that many briefings now make extensive use of such presentations in a (usually failed) attempt to be more accessible.

A few notes on the promotion system the characters bemoan. Lower enlisted Marines are rated according to a point system which takes into account a wide variety of factors, starting with stuff like evaluating how good you are at your actual job to such things as the commendations you got, the results of your physical fitness test and how well you scored on the firing range. (As should surprise absolutely nobody, Sara Corvus routinely shot Expert Marksman in both the rifle and pistol categories.) The planners look at how many marines are at a specific rank in a specific MOS and figure out from there how many they need to promote to get as many people as they want with the right ranks. Based on that, they set a minimum score to be considered for promotion – a high one if they only intend to give out a few promotions, a low one if they want to promote a lot of service members. This is in turn based upon the needs of the Corps and how good retention is within the MOS, that is, whether marines in it tend to renew their contracts ("reup") or whether they get out after their initial service obligation is over. So if your MOS is bleeding people (f'rex, because the job qualifies you for a civilian career that pays better or the job in the military plain sucks – hello, Navy "nukes"!), you'll have to offer retention bonuses (read: cold hard cash, or promises thereof) to entice people to reup and have low cutting scores to promote the ones you do manage to keep. If, on the other hand, people in your MOS tend to stay in the Corps (maybe because the job does not easily translate to a well-paying civilian gig) or your MOS is simply big enough, you can afford to be pickier and have a higher cutting score. In practice, this means that service members in some specialties can be promoted quite quickly while other MOSs have lots of service members who are promoted slowly or never seem to be able to "pick up". To out it mildly, this can cause some resentment.

As for Sara Corvus's specific situation: as Diaz says, she actually does have a score high enough to qualify for promotion (thanks to being a bit of a badass), but of course final say over whether a marine can be promoted rests with his or her superiors, and they've decided to not recommend (non-rec) Corvus. Note that Pieper specifies she's a Lance Corporal "second award", which means she previously held the rank, was demoted and then attained the rank again. This can be done through a so-called NJP (Non-Judicial Punishment), referred to as "office hours" in the Corps, but perhaps better known by its Army term "Article 15" (named after the respective section in the Uniform Code of Military Justice). Essentially, her superiors caught her with a charge that would have seen her go to a court martial, but offered her the NJP of a rank reduction (and probably docked a few months' worth of pay) in lieu. This is frequently done when a service member has clearly broken the UCMJ but her or his superiors do not want to see the matter go through the court system. The service member still has the right to legal counsel and can insist on a court martial, but we'll assume Corvus's JAG advised her to not take the gamble and instead accept the NJP.

Weapons notes: most of the characters are described as using rifles – specifically, the M16A2, which the USMC still favors over the US Army's now-standard, more compact M4 carbine as its main weapon due to a variety of reasons. One is that it's got a greater effective range, reflecting the ethos that "every Marine is a rifleman". Another is that the USMC enjoys rather lesser levels of funding than the Army and therefore does not have the budget to replace all of its existing rifles. However, some M4 carbines are in service with the Marines and you can see PFC Pieper, the team's driver, use one. The insurgents attacking the team are using Kalashnikov-pattern rifles, specifically the AKM, a slightly modernized version of the AK-47. (Most guns you find referred to as AK-47s in the wild are actually AKMs or copies thereof. Functionally pretty much the same weapon, though.) The team also has sidearms, specifically standard-issue Beretta M9 pistols. The Deuce is amply described in the story, though circumstances don't allow it to be used. Since we never see what weapon the sniper uses, we won't tell what it was. Nener nener.

During the fight, the team takes more than a few hits from the enemy rifles without getting themselves killed. It helps here to remember that the 7.62x39mm ammunition used by AKMs is technically an "intermediary" caliber, not a full-power rifle cartridge. (To be fair, so is the 5.56x45mm NATO round.) Further, the US military fields armor that is specifically designed to withstand multiple hits from this caliber, and the heavy ballistic vest with its wide coverage and reinforced strike plate to soak hits to the chest is a far more resilient beast than an undercover cop's Kevlar vest. That said, it's still a very bad idea to stand out in the open when getting shot at. Diaz takes an early hit in his leg, possibly deflected somewhat by the armor's groin protector, but that takes him out of the fight quickly - and from there on, he figures his best chance is to pretend to be helpless so he won't draw more fire, a very dangerous gamble.

400 meters is pretty damn far for a combat engagement and at the upper edge of what is generally considered to be the distance at which you can shoot at a man-sized target with an assault rifle and get hits. However, the M16 does trace its lineage back to what was essentially a target rifle and is still considered quite accurate among assault rifles. A more impressive feat, perhaps, is using the iron sights at this range, but it's not an impossible one. (Gatac wishes to note at this point that while he has hit a man-sized target at that range with an assault rifle chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO, the same caliber as the M16 uses, it was a clearly visible target, the cardboard was considerate enough to have the profile of a standing man, and he was using a scope. And, uh, the first shot wasn't quite dead center, either. Or on the target at all, for that matter. But we digress.)

When discussing Corvus's actions in combat, the characters are, of course, referring to Terminator 3, which was released in 2003, just a year prior the events – enough time for DVDs (or rips thereof) to make their rounds among the marines in their unit. And "flyboys" in "fast movers" would refer to Air Force pilots flying fighter jets that could be called in the drop ordnance on enemy positions. Thanks to steadily improving communication between different branches of the US military, air support can be quickly tasked using whatever assets are closest. Presumably, the unit didn't have any air support of its own – such as an AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunship, which constitutes most of the Corps' airborne firepower – available at the time, or maybe the Air Force jets simply would have gotten there faster.

Mandatory fun is any activity ostensibly designed for the recreation and enjoyment of the servicemembers involved. Whatever possible actual fun it might contain is, of course, utterly crushed by being quite impossible to escape and thereby ruining the servicemembers' real weekend plans. (Which, we feel safe to generalize, usually involve more alcohol and less awkward conversation with one's superior officers.)

Oh, and that bridge? It's in Google Earth, go see if you can find it.