Ch. 02.        No  Turning  Back  Now

“I am Major Briggs. I will be your senior drill instructor. Assisting me, will be First Lieutenant Meeks, Second Lieutenant O’Neil, Staff Sergeant McTaggert, and Staff Sergeant Tanner. We will be in charge of seeing to it that you are all in tiptop condition to fight this war… and you will be by the time we’re finished with you, I swear it. Give it your all while you’re here. Be the best soldier that you can goddamn be. One of the instructors will let you know if you’re not pulling your weight around here, and trust me, you don’t want that to happen.

“All of our lives are dependent upon each and every one of you boys becoming great goddamned soldiers, and we’re going to get you ready to survive the battles to come. We’re looking for the utmost precision… god damn it, perfection… out of each and every one of the skills and abilities you will learn here, and we expect the utmost effort out of each and every single one of you. You will be trained to the best of our knowledge and ability. You all have what it takes to meet our expectations. Just put a hundred percent into your training and do as we tell you to do, and I guaran-god-damn-tee you that we will unlock your true potential within a matter of no time.”

The way he uses the Lord’s name in vain gives me the impression that, pretty soon here, he’s going to make the ironic claim that he’s of a faith… probably Christianity, John thought to himself, though he hated to think it. John was pretty sure that, in general, he had Major Briggs pegged, as for the type of a person the guy would be like. This guy’s an asshole. I think I’ve encountered enough of them to know one whenever I see one, and this guy is a real-life, hardheaded, uptight, arrogant prick. Guys like Briggs are completely lost in themselves, stuck in their own ways. They always have to feel superior, and like a child who doesn’t know better, they get all worked up and throw a fit when they don’t get what they want. I’m really not looking forward to this. Oh well, at least I know what to expect.

“I understand that many of you have been drafted and do not necessarily want to be here. I do empathize with your situation, however, I do not pity you. Your number has been called for you to serve our nation, and serve our nation is what you will do. There will be no preferential treatment given to anybody. Regardless of whether you’re in shape or not, or if you don’t think you’re big and strong enough to cut it, or if you’ve been drafted and you don’t want to be here, the same standards will be demanded and expected out of each and every last one of you. We will not tolerate failure. My advice to you is that you get with the program, quickly, and don’t fall behind.

“In here, respect is earned, and not easily mind you. Your training is a serious matter. Your lives will depend on the information that you learn while you are here. Your lives will also depend upon your cooperation with one another, and in your teamwork and group effort. Insubordination will not be tolerated. Insubordination will get you and your teammates killed during combat. We are a battalion. We are like a family. We will operate as one unit and you will be punished together as one unit. So don’t fuck up, ‘cause if you do you will all be punished. I don’t think your companions will like running laps and doing pushups because of one of your foolish blunders. Don’t fuck up, keep up with the group, and above all else, take things very, very seriously at all times while you are here. Remember, your lives will depend on it. Am I understood?”

John Anderson, Jr., along with all of the other new recruits, answered, “Yes,” and, “Yes, sir,” to Major Briggs’ question. Perfect coordination in their responses would come with time. It wasn’t at all there yet, but it would be. Even before the day was over, it would be.

“I can’t hear you?” Briggs shouted, demanding the group to repeat their previous response.

“Yes, sir,” The group repeated. What an inspirational leader our Major is, John thought, sarcastically. The type of guy who makes you proud to be a part of our great nation. We’ll fight until the death to protect your right to romp around acting like a total asshole, our mighty leader, Major Briggs. Yeah… Wow, what a guy?

“That’s better,” Briggs commended the troop in his strong, booming voice, “but from now on, whenever you speak to me, or any of the other instructors here, you will begin by saying sir and end by saying sir. Is that understood?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” right off the bat, most of the group had it down pat. It still wasn’t perfect – but then, practice makes perfect.

“I said, is that understood?” Briggs hollered out.

“Sir, yes, sir,” better.

“I said, is that understood?” Briggs bellowed out, again.

“Sir, yes, sir,” better still.

“I said, is that understood?” Briggs’ voice was booming now.

“Sir, yes, sir,” much better, near perfection. The group had practically sounded off in unison. Briggs allowed himself an uncharacteristic smile, a rare thing for a man of his stature. So far, Briggs liked this group. He had high hopes for them. He would come to expect a whole lot out of them. Major Briggs just hoped that he would continue to like this group, and that they would make him proud when it came time to head into battle.

John could already tell that he didn’t like this guy. Briggs was intense, The guy’s a total asshole. Briggs was going to be a tough man to have to deal with, but John figured that there were a lot of other guys in the group (many of whom probably felt the same way about Major Briggs as he, himself, did), and as long as he kept quiet, blended in, and minded his p’s and q’s he would get by just fine. Anyway he chose to look at it, it was still going to be a bumpy ride.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 “You are here to become professional killers!” Briggs picked back up into his inauguration speech. “Your lives depend on it. In war, it is a matter of kill or be killed. If you do not learn how to be the best goddamned killer you can possibly become, you will die… and you could cause your companions some unwanted and undeserved hardships, as well.

“I want you to take a moment and look around at everybody here today.”

Heads turned to the left and to the right as the young men looked around at one another.

“Everybody here will be going into battle,” Briggs pointed out, “but not everybody here will be coming home. Some of the faces that you have just seen will not be around much longer. People die. It’s sad, but that’s war for you. However, if each and every one of you does as we, your drill instructors, tell you to do and become the best damned killer that you can possibly become, hopefully casualties will be reduced to a minimum. We will provide you with the means to not only stand a chance, but also make an impact… to really make a difference in this war. Just remember, ‘Don’t die for our World, but let the bastards who try to take what’s ours away from us get what’s coming to them.’

“Remember, it’s our job to train you to become the perfect killing machine. If you do not become just that, then I have failed… and I’ll tell you right now, I do not tolerate failure. I demand perfection. Make me proud. Make your families and loved ones proud. Make the whole, entire World proud of you. Do whatever it takes to help me help you become the perfect soldier. So that we do not die, let us all learn how to kill, efficiently and effectively. In order to defend our nation, to retain our World’s freedom… and to the future, when we hold our heads up high in victory… let us all learn how to become proficient killers. Is everybody with me?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” the men altogether answered. Loud and clear, almost perfect coordination to their response. They were catching on quick. It was a sign of a good battalion.

“You will learn discipline while you are here,” Briggs continued. “You will sleep whenever I tell you to sleep. You will wake up whenever I tell you to wake up. You will eat whenever I tell to eat. If I say so, you will shit whenever I tell you that you can do so. You will do the drills that you are instructed to do and you will not complain. You will do whatever myself and the other drill instructors tell you to do. Is that understood?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” again with a certain precision.

“You will learn many, different tactics and applications for physical combat and proper self-defense. You will learn to work as a team and, as surprising as this may sound right now, you will learn to trust one another. You will learn how to fire a weapon. Have any of you ever fired a weapon before?”

There were a few “sir, no, sir’s” that rang out amongst the group of new recruits, but for the most part the answer was yet again, “sir, yes, sir.” Perhaps a few of them had been lying in order to look good in front of their peers.

John had fired a gun before. He’d done so on several different occasions during camping trips, hunting adventures with his father and brother, and during target practice before those good, old, leisurely, pastime expeditions would begin. John was a “sir, yes, sir” answer.

“Have any of you ever fired a weapon at another human being?”

“Sir, no, sir,” the group hollered out a unanimous negative.

“Well, that’s good… that’s good… considering that none of you have ever had to go to war before,” Briggs said, sounding content with himself and his speech. “Well, boys, that’s all about to change.”

Standing six feet and two inches off of the ground, weighing nearly two hundred pounds of solid muscle, Briggs was a hulking presence of a man. Briggs was definitely not your average Joe, not by any means. Definitely not someone many people thought twice about messing with. Not many people dared to piss him off. Briggs was ready to practice what he preached. He was ready and willing to kill. He wanted to kill. He did not feel that he was a bad person for this. He was a man of morals and standards just like anybody else, he supposed, but he was now a war-time soldier and killing was just another part of the job.

Major Briggs was a man who took great pride in his nation and was well trained for battle. He was gung-ho ready for this war. His life had seemed as though it had built up to him leading a good group of young men, like the ones he had here, with the hopes to revel in the glory of victory or die doing a substantial amount of damage to the opponent while trying if not. It disappointed Briggs to see that a good deal of the new recruits were drafted, and therefore green, but he was sure that in little time at all he would even have the green ones in ship shape and ready to become perfectly obedient, savage killing machines seeking nothing more than the freedom and independence of their nation.

“Firing a weapon at another man can be a hard thing to do. I want you to remember that in target practice. Whenever it comes time to go into battle, you’re going to be blowing the brains out of people If you do not shoot at the enemy, the enemy will not hesitate to shoot at you. If you hesitate to shoot at the enemy, you will be shot and you will die. You will, you must, learn in your training to shoot and kill the enemy before he shoots and kills you. I want every one of you to feel as though your rifle has become an extension of your body, an imperative and instinctive part of your survival, by the time your training is done and over with. Your gun is your best friend, men. Is that clear and understood?”                                                                                                                                                                                  “Sir, yes, sir,” they were getting good at this. Showing a lot of promise so far.                                                                                                                                                                                        “Again, it can be a hard thing on a man, having to kill another man, but let it be understood that your lives are at stake. Kill or be killed. Live or die. If you let your emotions block your virtue, you will hesitate. Hesitate, and your fellow soldier goes down next to you.

“This is a war, people, and people are going to die. Save your grievances for after a battle and, furthermore, do not let your grievances effect your objectives. Your lives, your nation’s freedom, the lives of all of our friends and family members, the lives of generations to come… all are at stake here. I think that should warrant us doing the dirty work that needs to be done. Are you with me?”

All hands on deck. “Sir, yes, sir.”

“I would hope so. Old World is our enemy. In the same honorable fashion as our forefathers before us,” Briggs voice escalated, an attempt to psych up the group. “We will fight Old World, we will defeat Old World, and we will retain our independence, our rights, and our freedom! Is everybody with me?”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

“I can’t hear you! Are you with me?”

Louder this time. “Sir, yes, sir.”

No turning back now.

The living quarters for the new recruits was a very sterile and drab looking environment. The room was huge, with rows and rows of bunk beds with steel bed frames and four-drawer dressers in-between them. White walls, white sheets, white fluorescent light bulbs… The only things in the room that seemed to have any real color were the brown, wooden dressers.

John would be bunking with a man named Brad Thompson. Brad was a respectful young man, though he had a devoted sense of humor. Dark brown eyes and light brown hair… Brad was about the same weight and build as John, but about two inches taller – making him an even six feet tall. Brad had a kind of peaceful, almost simple, look about him, showing in his facial features – sullen eyes and a pouted lip.

Great… What are you going to do when the bullets start flying your way, buddy? Brad had just found his own way to the bunk when John came walking up. John had a very pessimistic attitude towards his stay on the base. He felt uneasy and uncertain about everything there, at first, but that would change.

“Hey, my name’s John Anderson,” John introduced himself, offering his hand. “It looks like I’ll be bunking with you.”

“Pleased to meet you, John,” Brad said with a smile, shaking John’s hand. “The name’s Brad Thompson. So, do you prefer the top bunk or the bottom one?”

“Makes no difference to me,” John shrugged. Despite what the guy looked like, Brad seemed to be a fairly straightforward, decent guy and John found himself feeling both a little excited and a little relieved to be making an acquaintance. It was his first day away from home, and John felt uncomfortable in his new surroundings. He was, honestly, already feeling quite homesick.

“Well then, I feel that it would be polite of me to offer you the bottom bunk, my good man,” Brad said to John, a sort of cheesy humor to his voice that seemed, to John, both foolish and sincere. It sort of helped John to make sense of that curious, almost dumb-but-honest look on Brad’s face, “as a showing of my generosity and good will.”

“Bottom bunk will do just fine,” John said, accepting Brad’s offer. John was still a little on edge. Brad could see it.

“That’s a good start,” Brad commented. He then asked, “So, where are you from?”                                                                                                                                                                                         “A small farm town up in the northeastern region called Benton.”

“Sounds nice and peaceful.”

“It is,” John agreed. “I’ve enjoyed growing up there. I guess it beats the hustle and bustle of big city life.”

“What do you do for fun?” Brad asked him.

“I keep busy. It’s a small town, but there’s still plenty to do to keep myself occupied and, well, the city isn’t too far of a drive away when the farm gets to be too much to bear. So, where are you from.?”

“A city. We call it Danville. It’s a small city, also up in the northeastern region. It’s a growing area, so I suppose in another decade or so it’ll become one of those frenzied big cities, but nowadays it’s actually quite nice. Probably nothing like that little town where you say you come from, but I like it…” then Brad smiled and added, “probably a bit more upbeat.”

“Whatever, dude?” John remarked, unsure of this guy. Is he trying to mock me or something? Is he testing me? Who does he think he is, some kind of a wise-ass?

“Whoa, settle down, partner,” Brad backtracked tempo. He sensed that John was growing weary of him.

John’s thinking to himself, Oh shit, I‘ve really got to share a bunk with this guy?

“I apologize,” Brad went on to say, still trying to establish conversation. “I allow myself to be misconstrued. I just asked a question, ‘What do you do for fun?’ Me, I work. I’ve got a wife back at home and a kid on the way. You can imagine how that used to eat up a lot of my time,” Brad said this part with a big, wide, proud, welcoming smile. John could relate to what Brad had said, All that we’re leaving behind…

“Other than that,” Brad continued saying, and John continued to listen – his interest finally captivated, “I had this little hole in the wall pub that I used to frequent. It’s the type of place where everybody there knows you and you know everybody there, kind of like that T.V. show, Cheers. It was a nice place to go to unwind. Nothing like kicking back a cold one with the boys after a long day of work. I also play a little guitar and have a hell of a baseball card collection. I have several full sets of Topps and Pinnacle.

“And how’d I get here, you may wonder? Well, I was putting off school, balancing a relationship, and, well… to put it flat, having the time of my life. I guess that I should have enrolled in school, but I was busy… or lazy, I guess, and I never expected for all of the turmoil here in the World to get so far out of hand and lead to a war before I was ready to do so. Even when the draft became a reality, I still didn’t really think that I would be drafted.”

“Yeah,” John remarked, “I can relate.”

“Well, hindsight’s twenty-twenty and it’s too late to change what is. Worst part about it is that I need a cigarette. Did you know that they don’t let you smoke in basic training?”

“You’re an unusual dude,” John observed, half asking, half stating, but with a friendly enough smile. “Danville, you said? I’ve heard of it, I think. I’ve passed through it on a trip with my family, visiting relatives in Ruthford. It’s just north of Winterhaven, correct?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Brad agreed. “Winterhaven is about thirty miles south of the town I live in. The businesses and job opportunities in the big cities that surround my area, such as Winterhaven, are one of the main reasons for its growth… not to mention, it’s really just a wonderful place to live.”

“There’s no place like home,” John softly spoke, donning a thin smile.

“I hear you,” Brad agreed, also smiling, a moment’s reflection. “Unfortunately, nobody around here has a pair of ruby slippers. It’s only the first day away from home and I’m already feeling homesick. I miss my mom, my dad, my little sister… not to mention the fact that I’m leaving behind a great girl who’s pregnant with my daughter.”

“Yeah,” John said, dearly missing Mary Jane, “I hear you. I’ve got a little lady at home who’s waiting on me, too.”

Brad reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. He unfolded it and handed it to John. John took the wallet and looked down to see a picture of a lovely, young, light-blonde haired woman with wide, enticing, bright-blue eyes and a brilliant smile that dimpled beautifully at each cheek. She was gorgeous. She seemed to radiate with a vibrant aura of fun and excitement against the indigo-blue canvass of the backdrop.

“That’s my wife,” Brad said, a tremendous amount of pride and joy in his voice. “We’ve been together since the end of high school. She was my first and I hers, and if I survive this war and make it home to her, I suppose that nothing will ever tear us apart again.”

“She’s beautiful,” John commented, missing Mary Jane even more. “You’re a lucky man. What’s her name?”

“It’s Rachel,” Brad smiled brightly. “I love her dearly, and she’s now seven months pregnant with our daughter, Kimberly.”

“Congratulations,” John said.

“Thank you. We’ve been blessed,” Brad sounded a bit choked up with emotion for a minute there. John could understand this. It was hard having to be away from your loved ones and your normal life.

Brad reached over and flipped to the next picture in his wallet. John could tell that this picture was a family portrait. In it were Brad’s father and mother in back, Brad and his sister standing in front of them. John had the pictures in his wallet arranged the same way. Mary Jane was the first thing he saw when he opened it and his family portrait the next picture in line .

“That’s my family. My dad, my mom, my sister, Lucy, and of course, me,” Brad said, pointing to each of his family members as he named them off. John could see how happy this was making Brad. John felt more at ease, so he guessed that this was good for himself, too.

“It’s a wonderful picture,” John commented. “You all look so happy.”

“Yeah,” Brad agreed, but in a solemn voice, “we were.”

John reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, opened it, and handed it to Brad. Brad looked down at a picture of a beautiful, auburn-haired girl smiling brightly against a fading, light-grey backdrop.

“Your girl, I presume?” Brad asked.

“Yes,” John said, a proud, wide smile on his face. “Her name is Mary Jane. I love her with all my heart. We’ve been together since the end of high school. She was my first and I was hers. If I survive this fucking war and make it home to her, I suppose nothing will ever tear us apart again. The picture of my family is right behind her picture.”

Brad flipped the picture of Mary Jane over and looked at the picture of John and his family for a moment. Then they made eye contact and sat there smiling at each other until they both burst out in laughter. It was good for both of them to have met each another, to have something in common with one another, a similar situation and circumstances. It marked the start of a sturdy bond, the beginning of a friendship.

John and Brad had a little more time to chat as they settled into what would be their home for the next three months during basic training. John lay down on his mattress to test it out. It was thin, but comfortable enough to sleep on. It would do. A four-drawer dresser sat beside their bunk, pressed against the wall. John took the bottom two drawers and Brad took the top two. They unpacked their belongings while getting better acquainted. Then it was off for the tour of the base and then right into day one of their training. They really didn’t waste any time getting the group started.

The base mainly consisted of a huge field with all kinds of different terrains – from high grasses and trees, to dirt and mud, and just about everything else in-between. There was even a big lake that was circled, in part, by a large patch of woods at the north eastern end of the field, and sand had been installed at the southern shoreline of the lake to mimic a beach. Another section of the field, off towards the northwest, had been turned into a giant sand trap which was used to mimic desert terrain. Run down shacks and, what looked like, the rubble of destroyed buildings littered random parts of the field. There was an obstacle course, a racetrack where they would run plenty of laps, and an artillery range for their weapons training. This massive field is where they would spend their time doing the majority of their training.

The base also consisted of several operational buildings. There was a huge gym with a weight room, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a basketball court for recreation even though they’d be getting next to nothing in the way of recreational time. The living quarters, where they had just unpacked their belongings, was the main building. The drill instructors’ offices were at the southern, front end of this building, the instructors’ living quarters a bit further back. Also in the main building was the cafeteria where the young soldiers would be served a three meal a day, high-protein diet.

The cafeteria was the last stop on the tour of the base. Once there, the new recruits were served a small meal before they began day one of their training. There, John and Brad met Shawn Berg and Otis Smith.

“Not the best sandwich, is it?” John asked Brad, grimacing as he choked down a bite. It tasted dry and bland. They had been offered the choice of turkey or ham sandwiches with mayo or mustard, lettuce and tomato. John chose turkey.

“No, it isn’t,” Brad agreed. He had to speak up. The cafeteria was getting loud with the hustle and bustle of all of the new recruits trying to chow down their meals while trying to get adjusted and acquainted, settling in and getting to know one another. Everybody was still trying to gain their bearings and place their whereabouts, attempting to adapt to the new conditions of their new situation in a completely new, not welcomed, unwanted scenario. The unpleasant circumstance of being forced into a drastic undergone change can be rough on anybody.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Shawn and Otis sat next to John and Brad at the lunch table. Shawn and Otis were bunking together. The two of them had become friends rather quickly, just as John and Brad had.

“I heard military food never tastes good,” Otis stated, looking towards John with a good-humored smile which revealed a perfect set of pearly-white teeth, “but it’s supposed to be chock-full of protein and all kinds of other good stuff to bulk up the body. It looks like that’s something at least three of us here needs.”

Otis Smith was a small-built man, like John and Brad, but his buddy Shawn Berg was big and in very good shape. Shawn got a chuckle out of Otis’ comment.

“So this is how everything’s going to taste? Great,” John was unsure of how he was going to handle this. He was spoiled by good home cooked meals. He could go without smoking, had planned to deal with having to hold out, but no good food…? All of a sudden, John wasn’t too sure about this.

“Well, it ain’t gonna be like the meals that momma used to cook,” Otis said, with a pensive, but still good humored laugh.

“I don’t know if I can take this,” John, a picky eater, expressed his great displeasure at the idea of no good food. “I like to eat way too much, and one thing that I’ve always liked most about my food is the flavor. This is lacking something in that department.”

“It is bland. Some texture would go a long way, too,” Brad added. “This sandwich is as dry as a bone, like they left it sitting out overnight before they served it.”                                                                                                                                                                                “The bastards probably did,” Shawn interjected.

“I guess that we had better get used to it, huh, boys?” Otis asked with a smile, taking a big, ole’ bite out of his sandwich. Uncertainty washed over faces. With a full bite in his mouth, Otis remarked, “Hey, at least it beats starving.”

“I don’t know,” Shawn cut in, “I’m a pretty big boy. If they keep on serving us such puny portions like this, I think that starvation might become a real possibility for me. I could eat three or four of these things and probably still be hungry.”

They all got a good laugh in. They introduced themselves to one another and continued to chat amongst themselves for the little remainder of time that they had to finish their lunches. Then it was off to the races for the start of their training…

It was the first day of training and already it had become intense. After a brief period of stretching exercises, Briggs had the men running laps and doing pushups, sit-ups, crunches, pull-ups and just about any other conditioning exercise that could be imagined. They also practiced some mixed martial arts techniques. Although they would be doing most all of their fighting with guns and ammunition while at war, Briggs still felt that the martial arts were a paramount part of their training. The martial arts helped to hone and focus the recruits’ bodies and minds, providing them with an outlet to better prepare themselves in gaining essential traits, such as pride, bravery, and courage, vital for recruits developing a victorious, warlike mindset. Briggs informed the newly formed battalion that they would get the opportunity to test their martial arts abilities in full-contact sparring bouts against one another later in their training.

They did the conditioning exercises in sets, honing in on and working all of the different muscles in the body. As soon as they were done with one exercise, targeting one specific area of the body, they went on to another exercise targeting a different area and back around again. They were encouraged to keep well-hydrated in-between exercises, and the martial arts exercises were a bit of a break from their intense workout and conditioning routines. A number of men, including John, actually enjoyed the martial arts training. They were in for a hard-on whenever it came time for weapon’s training. Anyone who’s ever fired a gun can tell you that it’s difficult to be in control of that much power without getting a little stiff. And eventually, they would also get to blow shit up.

Every man there, whether they were in shape or not, was dead tired by the time the day was finished. Briggs was happy to inform them that the next day would be an even longer, full day of training and conditioning, which was a dreadful thing to look forward to for everyone but the instructors. Exercises would get easier after they were there for a while and received the chance to build up their vitality, durability, endurance, and stamina. The new recruits just had to adjust to the intense training regimen.

Munitions and other more tactical training would begin once Briggs and the other instructors felt satisfied that the squad was toughened up and in shape enough to advance. First thing’s first, Briggs wanted his soldiers to be strong, above and before anything else, and he would push these men to their limits to see that they were ready. This didn’t make the soldiers too happy, didn’t win Briggs any popularity contests, but what did Briggs care, This is war. Briggs was the senior instructor and the troop would do as he instructed, especially considering their lives were going to depend upon what they learned while they were here under his command.

“Damn, that’s some intense training,” Brad announced, getting ready to hit the hey as the first day wound to a close. The new recruits were getting ready for their first lights-out on base.

“Yeah, I’m exhausted.” John chuckled (a tired, little laugh), then asked, “So, what do you think of Major Briggs?”

Brad laughed, and John could hear the cynicism in his laughter.

“Yeah, me too.” John could tell that Brad felt the same way about Major Briggs as he did. John mused, dissecting the events of the tough day.

“I can’t believe this shit,” Brad said in a woeful voice.

“Me neither,” John agreed. “My whole life’s been taken away from me, and for what? Just in order to go fight in this stupid, fucking war that some power-hungry assholes started, and why? Because they want total control of the entire World. It all boils down to greed, doesn’t it?” John didn’t stop to get a response. “Power and greed. They don’t care that they hurt and kill people, they don’t even care that they’re hurting their own World. They just pick a fight and start a war, and for what? In order to try to further feed their greed and power. I mean, come on, is it really necessary? Is it really worth it?”

“Nope,” Brad replied, “but try explaining that to the leaders of the World, ‘cause they’ve gone and done it anyways.”

“How in the hell did the people of Old World let this all get so far out of control?” John mused.

“How was New World not better prepared?” Brad added his own thoughts on the matter.

“You’re right. You would think that someone, somewhere, would’ve stepped in and put an end to this insanity before it was taken so far. What the hell’s the matter with the people in power?” John asked.

“Beats me, man,” Brad admitted. “People are idiots. The government over there is crooked, powerful, and very unreasonable. The biggest problem is how much support Adolph Randall has gained throughout his years. He’s now able to do just about anything he wishes. My theory on it is that whenever one person tries to put themselves above everybody else, believes it is so, and convinces other people to follow along, well, the outcome is not only one hell of a dangerous person, but also one hell of a dangerous organization… an organism much like a virus or a parasite.”

“Yeah, insects out of a hive, just following their queen’s orders,” John made a similar, analogues observation of Brad’s point. “Hey, kill the queen and the hive falls into turmoil and disorder. I’m sure you’ve heard about Joseph Churchman and his group of petitioners against the war… I mean, he is the Prime Minister of Old World, after all.”

“We can always hope that he will find a way to help make a difference, of course,” Brad said, sounding doubtful. “Yet, as powerful and reasonable a man as Churchman is, he still has nowhere near the influence that Randall has built up over there throughout the years.”

“Do you think someone might assassinate Randall?” John asked.

“Even if someone did, I think that this organism may regenerate,” Brad postulated. “I think that someone else, someone with maybe not quite as much pull at first, would step up in his place.”

“Why do you think that?” John asked.

“It’s the government,” Brad pointed out, “they’re not all idiots. Have you ever considered the idea that Adolph Randall could just be a front man to greater ties in the entire scheme of things?”

“No,” John admitted, mulling the idea over.

“I think that the fact the war came to be in the first place is just a matter of greedy businessmen and corrupted political ties and positioning,” Brad went on to state.

“How do you figure?” John asked, intrigued.

“Well, I don’t know much about political arrangements,” Brad clarified, then went on to explain, “but I know that similarities bring people together. It seems to me that people with money tend to support each other, especially when they have something to gain from one another. It seems logical to me that if a fellow wealthy person has supported a politician for a long time, that person probably has certain arrangements established through that politician that are beneficial to the person. That person is going to be unlikely to waver from supporting the politician, no matter what the politician does, out of fear of losing whatever is benefiting the person. A person is not going to oppose someone who holds the ultimate power to make or break them, no matter how one feels about contrary view points or issues… and this is what Adolph Randall and his organization have become, is that ultimate power.”

“I see what you mean,” John agreed, but Brad wasn’t done yet.

“Let me finish,” Brad said, lifting an index finger as if to inform John that there was more to his point. “The politician, having used his power and many ties to rise up into a position of influence over matters of state, also uses that power to shape and influence the direction of their nation, further extending their standpoint and career. Politics is corrupt, but so is business. I think that it’s an organization of a few crazy people with a lot of political pull who are responsible for this war, and everybody else just sort of goes along with it.”

“Perhaps not quite. Remember, there’s always Churchman and his organization,” John pointed out.

“Churchman and his organization don’t have the ties or the power.” Brad argued. “They can protest against the war all they like, Randall will still get his own way, every time, sad as it may be.”

“I see your point,” John agreed, and shook his head at the understanding of the situation. “It’s a corrupt government over there.”

“It’s corrupt over here, too,” Brad stated. “Capitalism has corrupted both nations. Be it a democracy, monarchy, dictatorship, confederacy, or a fall into communism, currency is the driving force. I wouldn’t be surprised if our government weren’t just as guilty for this uprising occurring as Old World’s… hell, with the way the media and politicians twist everything…”

“You think our government is responsible for this war?” John questioned, a critical expression on his face, but still curiously enjoying the take on the other’s opinion in this politically oriented debate.

“I didn’t say that,” Brad retorted. “Guilt and responsibility are two different things.”

“Are they, now?” John grilled him, querying for an explanation.

Brad responded to John’s inquisition with questions of his own. “How were things handled over here, leading up to that first attack on our west coast? Why do you think our country was so hasty to perform this draft?”

“I think our nation believes that it doesn’t have the military resources to stand up against Old World without having enforced the draft. I also think that it shows Old World that our nation is willing to do what it takes to fight this war and retain it’s independence. In other words, thanks to a bunch of power hungry control freaks over in Old World and a bunch of draft-hasty politicians over here, the World’s at war and we’ve been dragged in to fight it,” John had thought about this before. He went on to conclude, “And as a result, we’re screwed into this crapshoot training camp with that crazy asshole of a drill instructor waiting to go to war. What a screwed up and miserable situation it truly is. I really hope this won’t be the death of me.”

“Likewise, man,” Brad agreed, jumping onto John’s train of thought. “I’m proud to be defending the freedom of our nation, but I think this war’s ridiculous. Old World is crazy to have started this. It’s senseless violence that neither nation needs to partake in. It feels wrong and, to me, it feels crooked.”

“I feel ya. I think the draft happened too soon, but it is what it is. The war has become a reality, the draft has been put into effect, we’ve been drafted and, well… this is what’s happening, so what can you do?”

“Shoot Briggs in the head and hope that the next drill instructor isn’t so bad.”

Brad’s comment sent John into a fit of laughter.

“Nah,” Brad continued to joke, “probably wouldn’t be worth it. The next drill instructor would probably be even worse. I have to write my wife a letter before I go to bed. I don’t want her having to worry about me too much, so I need to let her know that everything’s going just fine. You have a good night, brother.”

“You too, Brad,” John said, still laughing. “I’ll talk with you some more tomorrow.”

John needed to do the same thing. He fetched a pen and a pad of paper out of one of his dresser drawers.

John wrote to Mary Jane, telling her how everything was going just fine so far. He told her about how he had met Brad. He told her about how intense the drill instructors were, especially Briggs, and how intense the training had been, even on the first day. He wrote down the address where she could write to him at.

John’s letter was short and sweet. He ended it the same way he started it, by expressing to Mary Jane how much he loved her and missed her. Then, John put the letter away, turned out his light, lay back and closed his eyes. He felt exhausted, ravaged. He fell asleep almost instantly. The intense training had zapped all of his strength and energy. John slept heavier than he had ever slept in his life that night, and every night he was on the base he would sleep deeply.

Back at home, Mary Jane is just receiving her first letter from John. She thought that it would be impossible for her to cheer up, but she felt a little better now that they had a way to communicate. She didn’t know what she would do if his letters were to ever stop coming, though. The times to come would be tough on both of them.

John wrote home and to Mary Jane before retiring to sleep that night. They were both happy to hear from him. John expressed, in both letters, how things were going and that he was doing alright, but he went into more passionate depth in his letter to Mary Jane. It read:

                Dear Mary Jane,

I miss you. With all of my heart, I love you and I miss you. I’ve met a few, really cool friends while in here. They’ve been providing me with some good company for the time being – including this great guy named Brad Thompson, who I’m bunking with. His situation’s a lot like ours. He has a wife at home, and they even have a wee-one on the way. The guy reminds me of Tim, in some ways. I hope Tim’s doing alright, wherever he is. You’d think that, since we’re from the same town, they would have us stationed at the same base, but I haven’t seen him around so far. I can’t help but keep my eyes peeled for him. I’ll stay on the lookout.

Our commanding officer’s a guy by the name of Major Briggs. He’s a tough S.O.B., one of those real-asshole types. He’s already begun to work us to death, but I guess that he likes the squad. He keeps on saying what great potential this group has. I just assume never get on the man’s bad side. Yikes! We’ll be training every day, almost all day long. There’s already very little down time.

Mary Jane, coming home to you is the number one, and only, thing that I have to look forward to. I love you and I miss you, dearly. I promise you that I’ll be safe, and won’t be brave, while I‘m away. I’m your hero, and your hero only. I will write to you each and every day that I can, I promise. Please write to me just as often as you can. I miss you, and I can‘t wait to hear from you.

                                                            I love you, John                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      At the end of the letter, underneath his name, John included the address where Mary Jane could send mail to him.

Mary Jane had been moved to tears upon reading the letter. It was good to hear that her lover was getting along and doing alright, and to know that the letters would come.

During the fourth night on base, Major Briggs woke the new recruits up at two o’clock in the morning for a surprise, two hour long, late night training session. This was something that Briggs would do every so often throughout the recruits’ time in training. Sleep deprivation would be a condition of war, therefore it would be a part of the recruits’ training, at times. John had been so exhausted, he almost didn’t wake up to Briggs hollering for them to get up. Brad had to shake him in order to wake him.                                                                                                                                                                                    John grew more and more homesick with each night that passed. He missed his mother and father. He missed his bed. He especially missed Mary Jane. Missing his loved ones was the number one thing that consumed John’s mind. Fiending for a cigarette, or a joint, was a close number two.

There was no smoking on the base. John’s pack of cigarettes had been confiscated upon entry. John was able to smoke one quickie before the entry guard for the base greeted him, searched him, and pretty much welcomed him to hell. He had been cold turkey for five days now, and he knew that it would be a long time before he got the chance to smoke another. Not a very pleasant reoccurring thought.

Contraband was not unheard of in the military. John knew this. Certain people were somehow able to obtain all sorts of things, from candy bars, to cigarettes, to drugs, and just about anything else you can think of. However, John didn’t have the connections to obtain anything of the such, at least not yet. It was John’s lunch buddy, Otis, who clued him in on an opportunity which awaited anyone who wanted to partake.

Like many of the drafted men, Otis Smith was extremely homesick. For Otis, this was causing some insomnia. He would find himself, while laying down in his bunk after a long and exhausting day of training, caught restlessly wide awake for long periods of time while the rest of the troop fell asleep within minutes after getting themselves tucked in. However, Otis noticed that he was obviously not the only person having sleep issues. Otis had a feeling that something was up.

Otis had witnessed two groups, about six or seven guys per group, walk out the door that led outside to the training field, one right after the other. It was the seventh night on the base. One week spent in this hellhole. This was the third time that Otis had witnessed a group of people walk outside in the last four nights (at least one of those tough nights he had obviously managed to get to sleep), always about a half an hour after everyone got settled in, and this time the group was double in size. The other two times Otis had only noticed a single group of what looked like only three or four people walk outside. What could be so interesting?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              The night before, Otis had had an exceptionally bad night at falling asleep. He’d lay there in his bunk, fully awake and aware of everything that was going on for what seemed like hours, as he tried to control his thoughts into the seemingly impossible chore of peaceful slumber. He watched the group go out and about a half an hour later come back in. He still hadn’t been able to fall asleep. He wound up feeling extremely sluggish, run down, and thoroughly exhausted throughout the entire day of training due to the lack of sleep.

Now, tonight, a half an hour into lights-out, it didn’t seem to matter how tired his body felt, it seemed as though his mind was going to put Otis through the same, old routine. It was as if his brain had no off switch. As he lay in bed, wide awake, Otis’ sleep problems remained.

Otis thought he’d start feeling a bit more secure once he settled in and met some companions, but it just didn’t seem to change things. Homesickness seemed to be the bug going around the base. Everyone had their own way of dealing and coping, and not sleeping was just part of Otis’ way.

Why two groups? What’s the big deal, anyways? Otis felt curious tonight. He decided to follow the groups outside in order to see what was up. Whatever it was, it had to be interesting enough to attract all of those other people, and it was irking Otis’ curiosity not knowing. Besides, investigating what was going on outside surely beat the heck out of lying there in the dark, staring at a pitch black ceiling, failing to fall asleep. Otis sat up in bed, put his feet onto the floor and got ready to head out.

He took a moment to contemplate what could be going on out there. Otis concluded that he would probably find a few guys who had somehow managed to smuggle a pack of cigarettes onto the base out there smoking. Otis was never a cigarette smoker, so this wouldn’t benefit him if this were the case, but he knew they could be doing anything. Even if it was just a few guys out there smoking cigarettes, Otis didn’t have anything better to do and wouldn’t know for sure until he found out. It was time to solve this mystery, so he opened the door and stepped outside.

Where did everybody go? He heard voices and laughter crescendo off towards his right, around the corner of the brick wall that closed off the living quarters. Otis headed in that direction.

Turning the corner, Otis smelled it in the air. In the dim light, he saw the smoke. He saw something get passed from one person to the next. They were smoking a joint. Otis was stunned. He thought to himself, I could sure use a puff of that.

Cigarettes will kill you, but Otis had never known pot to do anyone any harm. Otis thought to himself, Hitting a joint would probably help me get to sleep.

Otis stopped walking forward. He just stood there for a moment, unsure how to approach the situation. One of the guys met eyes with Otis and called him over.

“Hey, you! Come here!” the guy called out to Otis. This was a big dude who looked like a damned convict, and Otis didn’t want any trouble. Otis did want to smoke, however, and started walking towards the group. As Otis approached, the guy asked, “Hey, are you cool?”

Otis stared at the guy, a confused look on his face, and managed murmuring, “Huh?” as a response.

“He’s asking you if you smoke,” a slim, shadowy figure said in a laid back voice.

Recognition dawned on Otis’ face, and this time he managed to sputter out, “Sure,” as a response.

“Then join in.” the slender recruit told Otis.

Otis did, amazed that he was going to get the opportunity to smoke pot on a military training field, and amazed that he was getting the chance to partake in a luxury such as this at all. The last seven days had been all work, zero fun, and rough nights of very little sleep. This was great.

“How’d ya’ll get this stuff?” was one of the first things Otis asked. He had joined in the smoke session, had hit the joint a couple of times, and was now starting to relax.

“Don’t know,” a couple of people blurted out. There was a slight fit of laughter. Even the big guy who’d first greeted Otis had a smirk on his face. Otis didn’t understand, and he passed it off as an inside joke. It wasn’t his business where they were getting their weed from, anyways. Otis was just happy that they were welcoming him to partake in the smoke session.

“It’s not important how we got it, partner. It’s just important that we have it. If ya know anyone who’s cool and needs a little breather every now and then, then by all means, feel free to invite them to come out and join us. The more the merrier,” the big guy said. “Just stay up until you see the first group walk outside, then casually join in. This is the way we’re doing it, it looks like. We’ll be meeting up about a half an hour after lights-out.”

“Every night?” Otis asked, taken aback, barely able to believe his ears.

“We’ll see,” the big guy said, donning a slight, astute smile that quickly faded.

“Wow, guys, I’d have never expected to be seeing any trees in here. This is really something else,” The high was really kicking in for Otis, and it was just beginning to dawn upon him, It seems like these guys just might really have a good thing going on here.

Otis had just been invited to another smoke session, it was implied that this was to be a thing, and he was being practically instructed to invite more people to come and take part in this luxury. He couldn’t wait to tell Shawn, Brad, and John.

“By the way, the name’s Deuce,” the big guy said, extending his hand Otis’ way.

“Otis,” Otis replied, shaking Deuce’s hand. He felt grateful for the reprieve that the smoke session had offered him. Deuce didn’t look like the most friendly type of guy but he sure had come through in a pinch. As far as Otis was concerned, Deuce was okay in his book.

Many of the recruits would come to admire, look up to, and trust to follow this man, Deuce Covert. Deuce was put into a position to gain a great deal of favoritism, and Major Briggs was the one who had his eyes on him the most. Deuce would become Major Briggs’ top protégée, and the recruits’ head squad leader. He would exceed expectations at every turn.

Only one other man could compete with the degree of efficiency that Deuce Covert constantly managed to produce and maintain throughout the laborious days in training, and that man is another big, ole’ boy by the name of Kellen Collins. Despite his size, Kellen was kind and well-composed – a gentle giant. Like Deuce, Kellen would also play a role in leadership amongst his fellow recruits.

The smoke rose up into the air, spiraling up and outwards in elliptical orbits until it dispersed into the atmosphere, seeming as if to trail off and vanish into nothingness. Fingertips singeing with the passing of the roaches, then the smoke began to settle. Deuce glanced back towards the living quarters. It was time. The session was over. The group began to disperse, casually heading back in to hit the hey for the night.

“See ya tomorrow,” Deuce called out to Otis, throwing up a hand in a parting gesture as he walked away.

“Yeah, you got it, Deuce,” Otis called back. With all that’s been demanded out of me, it sure has been good to get some relief.

Otis slept good for the remainder of the night. He woke up feeling refreshed, even energized, the next morning. He was excited to tell his bunkmate, Shawn, about his late-night encounter. Shawn knew Otis had been having trouble sleeping. Otis knew Shawn was a fellow pot smoker.

Shawn didn’t wake up feeling quite as inspired as Otis did. He felt groggy. He felt homesick, as if his situation were utterly hopeless. He wasn’t waking up in nearly as nice of a reality as the one that he’d been experiencing within his dream. Now, here he was, right slap-back in the waking World with Otis ranting and raving about something he couldn’t quite make out because he was too tired and Otis was talking a mile per minute.

He needs to slow down, Shawn thought to himself. He was grumpy, but his mood would change once he finally made sense of what Otis was trying to tell him. Shawn began to catch on to some key words. His interest spiked. Shawn asked Otis to calm down, slow down, and explain himself.

“Shawn, man!” Otis was standing up and looking down at Shawn, wide-eyed with excitement. Shawn rolled over in his bottom bunk and tried to pull his limp and lifeless-feeling body up out of bed. Otis had Shawn’s full attention as he continued, “Check out what happened last night.”

“What?” Shawn asked, still feeling a little agitated about having to wake up to his bunkmate’s boisterous commotion first thing in the morning. Shawn wanted to get down to the bottom of this now, though. He wanted to know what it was that possibly could have happened last night to get Otis acting so riled up so early in the morning. Shawn concentrated, still trying to wake up and focus. He met Otis’ gaze. “What’s up, Otis?”

“I smoked some herb last night, bro,” Otis said in a hushed voice, so that nobody else would overhear him.

“Huh?” Shawn asked, either not understanding or not believing his buddy, looking more perplexed than Otis had looked the night before when he stumbled upon the smoke session and was unsure of how to approach the group. A sleuth of questions poured through Shawn’s mind, a few of which he asked aloud in a final attempt to make sure he was properly understanding his bunkmate. “What do you mean? When? How?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Otis threw his hands into the air. “The past few nights, well, I kept on seeing a group of guys walk outside. Last night I decided to follow them. I figured that they were probably heading out there to smoke cigarettes or something, but whenever I got out there I caught a whiff of a familiar odor. It wasn’t cigarettes that they were smoking. They were smoking herb, bro. They had a couple of joints going around in a circle. They called me over and we all got high.”

“Whoa, dude!” Shawn exclaimed. “I guess that even in as stringent a place as this it’s still possible to obtain all sorts of shit.”

“Sure is,” Otis agreed, dawning his big, bright, pearly smile and a subtle, little laugh. “They’re firin’ up again tonight. I think that they might, somehow, have a steady source. That’s at least what I gathered from last night. This guy, Deuce, told me to bring as many people as I like. You know that you’re welcome to come along, bro. I’m gonna invite Brad and John, too, today during lunch.”

“Very cool,” Shawn stated, awed by the fact that this had really happened and he was being invited to join in. Shawn was flat-out amazed at the fact that such contraband was even available on the base. He was learning that pleasures were hard to come by within these walls, so to be able to smoke would be a real treat. Shawn felt excited. He could hardly wait. “Definitely count me in!”

During lunch, Otis told John and Brad about the smoke session. John and Brad were both excited to hear the news and be invited to partake. Like Shawn, both of them could hardly believe it and could hardly wait. It gave them something to look forward to, a goal for the day, a reason other than merely bettering one’s chances for survival.

We all need a release at times. What would life be like without being able to let go every now and then? People snap when they let the pressures of life overwhelm them. We need not oppress ourselves by carrying the full weight of our burdens around with us all of the time. Stress may not be a fast killer, but it can eventually bury a person… in the least, crush the spirit. Bad ju-ju.

After a week of bleak stimulation and nothing good to look forward to, that out of control, desperate feeling of hopelessness and homesickness had really been plaguing the troops. Too much stress can, and will, lead to emotional lapses such as feeling irritated and becoming easily frustrated, improper functioning and poor performance, disobedience and disciplinary problems, mistakes in learning, decision making, rationalization, and a sleuth of other complications that could set back or bring down the overall performance and capabilities of an otherwise worthy battalion. Too much stress and the recruits could become incapable of giving it their all. Fortunately, Briggs was aware of all of this.

There’s a ton of strategy that goes into developing an elite squad of troops. The instructors’ plans attempt to pave a way for the best possible outcome. Major Briggs was the type of instructor who always had a game plan, and he stuck to his plans like he stuck to his guns. Briggs was a creature of habit. He kept to his ways and routines. He knew what worked for him and what didn’t.

Briggs remembered his days as a recruit, though those times had long since past. He remembered what he had gone through before he’d found his way into the military, back when he was a lost and confused young lad searching for a direction to go in his life. He felt as though he had learned more about what didn’t work than what did back in those days, but the military had changed that for him – especially Major Grover. Major Grover had taught Briggs more about the military than Briggs could have ever thought possible.

But Major Grover is dead now…                                                                                           

I don’t want to think about it…  

Briggs knew the kind of times that the new recruits were in for, and that it was going to be even harder on the draftees, but he felt that he could handle the task of getting them into gear. He foresaw no problems, but didn’t something always seem to pop up.

There was time to prepare, readying to face the unknown. Times to rest would be slim and rare, times of enjoyment even rarer. This was a time for the recruits to bond, for a united front is fearsome and they needed to learn to look out for one another. This was a time to improve, honing and perfecting each deadly skill and every deadly technique. They would only have so long to prepare for battle. This would be a crucial time, for afterwards they would be shipping out to go to war.

Yes, Briggs could foresee it happening, there would soon come a time when the battle would begin to unfold for his battalion. It would be time to fight, time to put their abilities to the test. Of course, as with any battle, lives would be lost. There would come a time to mourn – for they would all learn a new understanding of the term, “suffering.” There would come a time for coping – to sort through, and attempt to sort out, the hell that they were all going to be a part of. There would come a time for the soldiers to deal, a time to breakdown for those who could not, and Briggs intended to prepare the battalion for what to expect from the horrors of death to the best of his knowledge and abilities.

Training camp would be harsh on the squeamish, at times. Desensitization becomes a must. The recruits would be exposed to unpleasant sights and smells like smoke and rotting flesh. Fucked up scenarios such as an autopsy in a morgue, an old milking-cow being blown to smithereens with bloody bits and pieces falling out of the sky and covering them (like pissing into the wind, there’s nothing quite the same as blood carrying on a breeze), and surveillance footage of past battles and interrogations involving torture would help them form the necessary mindset.

We all hit our low points and sometimes need a helping hand, someone to talk things over with, or even time alone to think things through and straighten out our own noggins. For Briggs, it was the ability to hold on to one’s faith, always and indefinitely, that got him through the tough times, “For without faith, there is no hope and the battle is already lost.”

That night, the first two groups went outside for the nightly smoke session. When Otis stood up, it was the signal for John, Brad, and Shawn to get up and follow. The group met at the same dim-lit location as the night before, off to the east of the dormitory. Deuce greeted them.

“Good to see ya, Otis, and good to see that you brought some friends,” Deuce said as Otis and company approached the group.

“What’s up, Deuce? I want you to meet my boys,” Otis said, flashing his big, pearly smile. Otis gestured towards each of his companions as he introduced them, “This is Shawn, Brad, and John. They’re cool.”

“Well, if they’re cool, then they shouldn’t mind lighting up one of these,” Deuce held his hand out towards Otis, attempting to give something to him. Otis instinctively reached out and took what was being offered to him. It was a joint and a lighter. Otis offered the items to his companions. After some hesitation, John reached out and took the items. Deuce then revealed another joint.

“Do we have two of them again tonight, Deuce?” a lean, slender recruit by the name of Sam Weatherspoon asked. This guy turned out to be a fiend for more than just pot.

“More than that,” Deuce answered with a stark quickness, “so don’t go worrying your ugly mug off over it. We have more heads tonight. I kind of figured that we would, so I brought a little extra.”

So, this is the guy who has the hookup on the herb in here. I wonder how he does it? It didn’t really matter. John was just happy to smoke. It’s just that he felt intrigued at the fact that this guy, Deuce, could obtain such a substance in a military facility. It seemed like quite a risky feat, through John’s eyes.

What’s he doing, going straight through Briggs to get the shit? I mean, how are we able to be doing this… and a week into training, at that? The fact that he was about to smoke just downright amazed John.

“Light her up, buddy,” Deuce said, pulling a lighter out of his pocket and using it to light the joint that he was holding. John followed Deuce’s lead, flame to joint.

John took a couple of hits, passing the joint along to Brad afterwards. Not bad stuff, but nothing like his homegrown. The green especially lacked the flavor that John’s plants possessed, but he was still pleased. It wasn’t all too harsh on the lungs, although he had a small coughing fit after his second hit – it’d been a little while since the last time he’d smoked anything. The herb was definitely taking effect. John was beginning to feel nice and high.

There was something that John wanted to know. It had been puzzling him ever since Otis had told him about the smoke session during lunch and wouldn’t leave his mind. It was time to get to the bottom of this and ask the question, How is this guy obtaining it?

“Not bad stuff,” John casually stated. “How are you guys getting this shit, anyhow… I mean, in here, on a military base?”

“Don’t know,“ a couple of guys blurted out. A few people snickered, already knowing what Deuce was about to say.

“It’s not important how we’re getting it, just that we have it.”

“Okay, that’s fair enough,” John reluctantly conceded to Deuce’s explanation. It didn’t answer his question, but he could see why it had to be this way. He just wasn’t privileged to knowing that information. “Well, I can tell it isn’t being grown around here. It’s not fresh enough.”

“Are you a grower or something?” A witty-looking, dark-eyed guy by the name of Roy Phillips asked John. Roy had grown a few plants in his days and knew that John hadn’t likely made that comment without reason.

“I have a few success stories that I could tell,” John answered in a self-assured voice.

“Great, you can grow a plant. Can you shoot a gun?” Deuce interjected, a testing tone to his voice, shifting the topic to another subject.

“I grew up on a farm. I’m likely as accurate as the best shot here,” John said, without hesitation, quickly committing to the statement.

“Have you ever killed a man?” Deuce asked, eyeing John for a reaction.

“Can’t say that I have,” John replied, looking grossly perplexed. “Have you?”

Deuce dawned a coy smile but said nothing.

“Deuce is in here because he doesn’t want to spend time in the pen,” Roy Phillips spoke up. Roy and Deuce were bunkmates. John looked towards Roy, hoping to hear Deuce’s story. “Not for murder, but for a few other, different, similar charges like reckless driving, reckless endangerment, and well… attempted murder.”

“That charge would’ve never stuck,” Deuce chimed in, shaking his head, although that sly smile widened just a bit.

“So, as you can see,” Roy continued, “I guess I wouldn’t put murder past the man. Maybe he’ll tell you the story about the police chase sometime. Anyway, don’t mind the big guy, he’s just intense about all that’s to come. Actually, he’s just intense, period. That’s just his personality.”

“Okay,“ John replied.

“I think we’re all a little tense right now,” Otis chimed in. “I mean, how can you not be when you’re stuck in here?”

“What’s your name, buddy?” Deuce asked John, paying no mind to Otis. Deuce was beginning to take a liking to John. John was confident. He didn’t seem to readily back down, which was the type of person that Deuce wanted fighting alongside him. Deuce was curious to find out what sort of potential this farm-boy possessed.

John and Deuce went through introductions and shook hands, but there was a definite tension between them. Both men sensed the competitive nature within the other. They remained wary of one another.

There was something else, something about John that Deuce could see, but it was as though he couldn’t quite put his finger on what that something could be. It hung there in his mind, like a cloud shrouding his vision from the blue sky beyond. A bad vibe. A feeling of things being off-kilter. This made Deuce all the more curious as to who this John Anderson, Jr. character really was. Deuce could sense a great potential coming from within the guy. Deuce would keep an eye on John, not quite sure what to expect.

Cadets, or privates, is what they would become. While they were in training they were merely grunts, and that was one of the nicer terms. A few of the best recruits would strive to earn a position as a squad leader.

John would never be a candidate for squad leader, which was basically just a glorified cadet who’d been given a whole hell of a lot more responsibilities. Squad leaders were accountable for both themselves and all cadets under them, not a position that packed a whole lot of benefits but the role offered the career oriented recruit a way to prove themselves. Being a squad leader may have seemed like it was more work than it was worth during training, but it had its benefits come time to fight in the war. For one thing, they didn’t have to take point like all of the other cadets.

Deuce Covert and Kellen Collins would excel as squad leaders. Before it was all over, it would seem almost as though the two of them had been born for the leadership role. Deuce, who would become Major Briggs’ top protégé, would end up making head squad leader in a matter of no time.

A roach from one of the joints came back around to Deuce. He attempted to hit it, but with little success other than burning the tips of his thumb and forefinger.

“Looks like that’s it,” Deuce announced, tossing the remains of the smoked joint off into the grass, “until tomorrow night.”

Deuce headed indoors. Everybody else followed along in line.

The smoke sessions were peaceful. During those times, at least to John, it felt as though there had still been so much hope emulating from this group. They were developing into a full-fledged, functioning unit. In the long run, they would become like one, big family.

John lay in his bunk that night, almost totally relaxed for the first time since he’d left home for this place. He still needed a cigarette. He hadn’t even realized how addicted he’d actually become until he’d gotten here, but the cravings were getting more and more under control with each passing day. By now, it was really only present first thing in the morning and late at night. Any nicotine craving that would have occurred during the day was warded off by all of the vigorous routines and workouts. John had, for the most part, pretty much sweated out the need for that substance. Still, sometimes effects linger, and John would find himself thinking, Golly-gee, it sure would be nice to smoke a cigarette.

I’ll have to ask Deuce and Roy about contraband tobacco tomorrow night. If they can obtain something illegal, then why should they not be able to conjure up something like a pack of smokes. Still, nobody was smoking tobacco in the group tonight. You would think that, if they were able to get cigarettes, somebody in that group would have had one lit. The entire group, probably just over a dozen of us, was not full of nonsmokers. Herb smokers are more prone to pick up the habit than stiffs. Another substance, another way to form a habit. The more the merrier. The downfalls of an addictive personality, John pondered, ultimately just happy for a better predicament. Still, he would ask anyways. It didn’t hurt to ask. If there was contraband going around the base, then he wanted in on it. It would be good to have the resources to be able to get things in a place like this.

John fell asleep thinking about Mary Jane, as he did every night. The thought of her motivated him through the daily training exercises, pushed him into being the best that he could be, ever reinforcing his desire to get home alive. As he dozed off into peaceful slumber, John reminded himself that he would do everything in his power to stay alive and return home.

The nightly smoke sessions would become most of the recruits’ main pastime, a chance for them to cut loose and relax a little after all of the hard work. It seemed like more and more effort was being demanded out of the young soldiers with each day that passed. It was good for them, both mentally and emotionally, to have the means to be able to unwind at day’s end.

Briggs understood that his men needed to relax and cut loose from time to time. He understood that pushing one of them too far, too fast, without some encouragement and downtime could drive a good soldier to the brink of insanity before they ever even saw a battlefield. Knowing these things, Briggs still wasn’t the type of leader who would allow much leeway. Briggs felt that he had a good team of soldiers. He had a system and he was watchful. Being so, he would push this group until they exhibited signs of not being able to handle it.

Briggs was lax about some things, following the proverb that one should never sweat the small stuff. He felt that he’d developed a decent system and established a fairly good rapport with his soldiers. Briggs never did any searches for contraband. Even once he was finally alerted as to the improper activities which were occurring by the cover of night (informed by one of the recruits who opposed the nightly smoke sessions), Briggs still did not conduct a search, nor did he put an end to the nighttime activities in contest. Briggs felt that the men needed something to make them happy, something to keep them content. Soldiers who are provided with a good pastime activity are likely to be more obedient and well behaved. And so, the recruits had been allowed their nightly smoke sessions.

Briggs was already well aware, even before the recruit tipped him off as to these ongoing occurrences, that the nightly smoke sessions were taking place. Major Briggs had already approved of these actions, deeming the occurrences as justifiably harmless from his perspective. Briggs had talked it over with his team of instructors and they had agreed with him, on the D.L., of course. They would take no action. As far as the other staff members were concerned, as long as the soldiers kept on keeping up with such a sufficient rate of progress, a swift pace in learning and the capacity to endure the training and exercises pushed forth upon them, and provided that they kept up their good attitudes and obligated willingness to improve and conquer the goals set forth upon them, then the group could – please, by all means – just go ahead and keep on doing whatever it was that they were doing to keep on producing such exceedingly superb results. No reason for uproars, for uproars cause setbacks and delays, though a few of the instructors were curious about how the soldiers were obtaining such a substance as marijuana on base. Then again, contraband is not unheard of in the military – and who better to know this than a drill instructor who has served for a while.

Briggs, a hard man to impress, would be impressed by this group time and time again. These soldiers were being trained to be the best of the best by Briggs himself, and he would watch as they grew into a full-functioning, fully-operational battalion which was just as good as, if not better than, the best group of soldiers he had ever served with. Briggs expected his boys to kick ass before it was over. This was a very good team of soldiers. Briggs knew that he would be proud to lead them into battle.

Mary Jane had received her first letter from John about a week after he left home and then they started coming one right after another. She was always relieved to hear that he was doing okay and making so many friends. She was amazed to hear about the nightly smoke sessions and pleased that he was still able to partake in a routine he had always enjoyed so much. She knew that John had been concerned about having to give up his vices.

It was late at the O’Riley household. Mary Jane was tired, but her mind was active. She missed John, dearly, and although she could write to him as often as she liked, she still wasn’t with him. She yearned to be with him.

Mary Jane wondered if she had made the biggest mistake of her life by letting him go. All that she would’ve had to do was insist that he stayed and John would’ve stayed with her in a heartbeat rather than going off to serve in this war. She let him go, let him slip right through her fingers, and she understood that there was a good chance that he would never return to her.

John had been the best thing ever to have come into Mary Jane’s life. Mary Jane had felt so lost and alone after the death of her mother. She would spend much of her free time at home, alone, crying and sulking. Depression had seemed to diminish the O’Riley household during that sorrowful time, consuming both Mary Jane and her father. Despite the efforts of other family members who had tried their best to look in on the both of them, Mary Jane and George O’Riley had grown more and more withdrawn and isolated from the rest of the World. They had always tried their best to be there for one another, however. When John and Mary Jane hooked up, Mary Jane was just beginning to adjust and adapt to the loss of her mother and the way that her whole life had changed. John had been there to help her get past her grief.

John had been like an angel, like her savior, rescuing her from the drab and bleak outlook on life that she’d been developing back then, showing her a new light and giving her a new sense of hope to go off of. Mary Jane had felt hopeless and abandoned after her mother died, but she had felt saved – like a renewal of life – whenever she’d fallen in love with John. She didn’t imagine that she could find a better, or more perfect, match for herself. It made her feel lucky to have found him, which made it that much harder being away from him. And to imagine losing him…

Her depression was back in full swing. Mary Jane hadn’t felt this bad since her mother’s passing. She just couldn’t stand being away from him. The depression had gotten worse every day since the day that John left her. She wasn’t sure what to do with herself. She thought about him all of the time. There were so many emotions that rushed through her, it was overwhelming to have to deal with them all sometimes. She felt like she couldn’t take it anymore, like she was going to breakdown, more often than not. She wanted for him to return and at the same time hoped he was keeping safe. There was so little that she could do. She didn’t like feeling helpless like this. It scared her.

They made what seemed like the most responsible decision, but what good was that if it destroyed her life. It was the decision they had made together, and now John was gone. No take-backs. All bets final. They had a chance to dodge the draft. All she had to say was, “Stay,” and John would have stayed, but now it was too late.

Mary Jane regretted their decision and thought about it quite often. If she had to make the same decision all over again, would anything be different? Would she actually have her lover risk committing a crime in order to avoid serving in a war?

What use is thinking about it, anyways? Why think about it at all?

Because these thoughts creep in… After they found out that John had been drafted, Mary Jane could remember how they had both been so utterly scared and confused… almost frantic.

John hadn’t liked the idea of breaking the law, and she hadn’t either. Neither one of them had known what to do in life if John would have skipped out on the draft.

We would’ve just had to have figured it out. At least we would’ve been together. They would have either figured it out or John would have gotten busted. Really, there was just nothing else to it except for the struggling along the way.

John hadn’t wanted to go. She had begged him to stay, though in vain and all too late.

He’d considered staying. She could’ve convinced him not to go with a single word… but that wouldn’t have felt right, would it have?

Mary Jane would have a lot of time on her hands to think things through, though nothing would ever seem clear or make much sense to her. Nothing felt right. For Mary Jane, for the time being, life didn’t feel right – rather actually, it felt downright wrong.

It’s a cruel fate, Mary Jane had concluded. A fate that’s been twisted by bitter ironies and catch twenty-twos. Dodging the draft just wouldn’t have felt right, but John having left to go to war doesn’t feel right either. It sucks, life sucks… and Mary Jane felt unhappy as a result.

Mary Jane reread the newest letter from John one more time before returning it to the envelope it came in. When she finished, tears welling in her eyes again, she tucked it away into the drawer next to her nightstand. She said a little prayer for her brave lover, then turned the lights out and settled into bed. She found a little peace of mind in knowing that he was safe and doing alright… at least, for now.

The end of John’s letter acknowledged the promise he made to her, a promise she had insisted he make to her, that he would not run off and try to be a hero, and would keep safe and do everything in his power to make it back to her. She knew that this didn’t change the severity of the situation. John would still be thrust into battle and would have to deal with the eminent dangers that he would surely encounter. But what she had read in his latest note was comforting, enough to ease her mind in order for her to get some sleep for the night. Lord knew, she hadn’t had a good night’s rest since John left. The fatigue from the insomnia, all of those restless nights, was beginning to catch up with her. She slept nearly twelve hours that night, much of it dreamless and therefore peaceful. It was just what she’d needed in order to get some much needed strength and energy back. There was still so much time left to go.

A little over two weeks into training, Deuce Covert gets promoted to the position of head squad leader. Deuce was, by far, performing and advancing at a higher rate than even the best of the rest of the troops. Deuce had become Briggs’ top protégé. Briggs was intent on honing Deuce’s skills and abilities, turning him into one hell of a soldier, one hell of a leader, and one hell of a killer.

There were a few other men, such as Kellen Collins, who had also been promoted to the role of squad leader, but it was Deuce who stood out in Major Briggs’ eyes and it would be Deuce who would be the battalion’s head squad leader throughout the war. Deuce Covert was the man who Major Briggs had pegged, above all of the rest, to become the best. Time after time, Deuce would continue to prove himself, uncontested for the most part.

Briggs had done his homework on Deuce. He’d seen Deuce’s extensive rap sheet. Deuce had never been convicted of a crime like murder, but he was suspected to be tied to a criminal organization that was big up in the northeastern region of New World. Briggs didn’t doubt for a moment that Deuce had more than likely squeezed the trigger on a revolver before in his life. Had Deuce ever carried out a hit before? Had he ever killed a man? Well, that was another question, but Briggs thought it likely. Deuce fit the description for the type of guy that would get involved in that sort of business. Briggs could sense that Deuce had either killed before or wouldn’t struggle with the task like some do, and Briggs’ instincts were quite keen.

There is a certain look that the kind of man who can kill in cold blood displays. It’s in a person’s eyes. It can be devious, but if you know what to look for and have learned how to see it… A soldier who has seen combat will often display such a look, a gaze, a stare – often referred to as “the thousand yard stare.“ A man who is willing and able to kill in cold blood will always display this cold, distant look. Though it recedes at times, like when a man’s asleep, it is always present, and therefore recognizable to someone who knows what to look for. It was a look that Briggs had seen many times and was all too familiar with. The eyes of a killer. It became hard to mistake them.

Deuce Covert seemed like he was going to have a knack for being a soldier. Briggs felt that it was perhaps a good thing that this boy had found his way into the military. It was better that he hone his deadly abilities in the military rather than on the streets. Major Briggs just hoped that the military would do as much good for Deuce as it had done for him. Major Briggs was ready to take Deuce on as his principal student.

Deuce’s shady history would prove not to be a bad thing. It wouldn’t influence Major Briggs’ opinion of Deuce in a negative way, not at all, Briggs having seen Deuce’s criminal history. If anything, Deuce Covert’s criminal background turned out to be a plus for getting Briggs to notice him – given, most of the men wouldn’t want Briggs to notice them, but for Deuce it was different and therefore okay. Briggs knew that Deuce had been a troublemaker in the past, which was the reason for him being in Briggs’ group of new recruits now. Again, Briggs didn’t mind this and didn’t hold it against the man. Hell, Briggs had been a fucked up youngster at one point in his life, too.

Joining the military had given Briggs a sense of direction and purpose in his life. Who knows, maybe Briggs would have ended up in prison himself if he hadn’t fallen on hard times, decided to buckle down, got straight, and opted to join the military? Yes, the military had done Briggs right, for the most part. It had changed him, had set him straight. He hoped to extend that opportunity to Deuce now – that is, if Deuce was willing to accept it and could hack it.

Deuce had been honored by the promotion. Deuce had a gung-ho attitude towards the opportunity Briggs was offering him. He was beginning to idolize Major Briggs quite a bit. Briggs would be continually impressed, even surprised, at how quick Deuce caught on to things, took on challenges, overcame obstacles, and made accomplishments and improvements in order to better his training, skills, and understanding at rapid rates.

Deuce Covert was a natural. It seemed as if the lad wanted to learn and experience everything there was that the military had to offer. If Briggs had ever met a man that was more fit to lead a squad into battle than Deuce, that man would have to be himself. Deuce would prove to be a great accommodation to Briggs’ team, catching on to everything and taking to every lesson. All that Deuce had needed was for somebody, like Major Briggs, to come along and hone, tame, and refine all of his remarkable talents into prestigious military material.

For Deuce Cover, this was the start of something good. A difficult man adapting to a sharp new light on life and coming to find that he has found something – though he does not fully understand it as of yet. It would come… a sense of purpose, a meaning to one’s life.

Still just over two weeks into basic training and Sam Weatherspoon hadn’t been feeling very good, not in the least bit. It started out bearable, then got progressively worse, up to the point where he was full-blown kickin’. His energy felt drained, his head and muscles ached, his stomach felt queasy, his skin crawled with discomfort, his legs felt sore and swollen, he couldn’t stay still, and he couldn‘t get to sleep or stay asleep. Now the horror of it all was just finally beginning to subside a bit. Sam still didn’t feel right. He wondered if he would ever feel right again. There was something that he was missing, something he was lacking, something that he had run out of. That something was his narcotics supply. Sam had used up, in less than two weeks, what he thought would‘ve surely lasted him more than a solid month. Sam Weatherspoon was a user of narcotics, a junky, and Sam was dope sick.

It takes a true junky to use up all of one’s supply of a substance that one needs in order to properly function and maintain in less than half of the time that one expects that supply to last. Sam hadn’t had the cash, for a junky is always broke, to properly stock up on a supply before arriving on base in the first place. It had been a pain in the ass, quite literally, smuggling in the small supply that he managed to scrape together. At least narcotics always come in small doses, making them easy to conceal. The needle had been the most worrisome thing to smuggle in. That had been tucked away, quite thoroughly, within Sam’s luggage.

Sam would have probably went without if it hadn’t been for his family helping him out with a little cash, throwing him a bone before he had to go. Sam’s parents had been on to his habit. They’d seen the track marks on his arms. They’d tried to question him about this, but had gotten only flimsy remarks of denial in an effort to dismiss the subject and flee from the conversation. Sam’s family had initially lashed out at him, harshly disapproving his behavior. However hard it had been between Sam and his family in the past, his being drafted had softened things up between them. Unfortunately for Sam, that had been the last time that his family would be able to help enable his habit. Sam was on his own from here on out.

Sam had prepared for this, had told himself that he wouldn’t take that extra shot (not even if he really needed/wanted it), but he somehow managed to overdo it anyways. That just seemed to be what always happened, every time. How could he not have expected this? He’d known how important it was to be conservative and not run out, yet here he was…

He could kick and scream all he liked, bang his head against the wall and climb right up it, he wasn’t getting what he needed. Sam had been hurting there for a while. He wound up spending a couple of days in the infirmary, which was where anybody who couldn’t participate in the day’s activities got to go. No junk, no relief.

Any person who picks up a junk habit is already, in someway, somewhat damaged, and the addiction is also somewhat traumatizing to the person. The addict traps themselves within a constant, persistent, vicious cycle which revolves around obtaining their next fix, or not running out of their supply, all in order to not get sick. The high fades, it becomes a battle to maintain, the needle comes into play, and it’s just never enough. Sam Weatherspoon wouldn’t tell you otherwise.

They say that dope sickness is worse than the flu, and a junky knows that they’re going to get sick whenever the supply runs out and there’s no more dope. And think, a junky knows how to stop their sickness from happening. There’s a cure for the sickness, but it’s the same thing that binds one to the awful loop that caused the sickness in the first place.

Now, imagine that you feel like you’re dieing. Your breathing grows labored, the pain throughout the body almost unbearable as if it were attempting to shutdown, the rotten, wreaking stench of decay setting in and making your stomach churn with gaseous, nauseating, hot flares, a headache of epic proportion making you want to scream aloud in agony. But wait, there’s a cure. You tell me, what would you be willing to do in order to get your hands on it?

Is methadone a cure or a replacement therapy? What about suboxone and subutex, ‘cause I’m a believer? However, Sam didn’t have such options as these where he was at.

People who are on junk tend to have very limited goals and agendas that all orient completely around getting their next fix. They become like robots, programmed to perform a single task, or zombies, endlessly replicating and following the same old routines in search of what ails them. Perhaps they do need brains?

Junkies know what sickness is. Sam surely wouldn’t disagree. A lot of junkies would do almost anything just to simply get high off of their next fix. You can only imagine what a junky that is beginning to withdraw into the sickness might be willing to do for that next fix. Lie, cheat, steal, suck and fuck… there are even people out there who would take advantage of their children or sick and dieing relatives. Not all, it depends on the person, but a desperate junky can turn dangerous.

A junky with a bad habit, one who excessively overindulges, cannot be trusted. Sam would tell you the same, unless he was intentionally deceiving you in order to fulfill some twisted agenda. Junkies have a bad reputation for a reason, not near so bad as the crack or meth head, but bad nevertheless. An addiction is a serious ordeal. It’s a commitment, like a contract with one hell of an escape clause. An addiction that is not kept in check can get drastically out of control, can lead to a bad ordeal. Sam was an alright guy, but he’d caught himself slipping up to a fairly severe extent a time or two in his past. No one ever said that it was going to be easy. Responsibilities cannot be handled effortlessly.

Three weeks into basic training and Sam had now been clean for over a week. He could not help but to still fiend for it, but he was actually beginning to feel a little better now that he was getting through the detoxification process.

Will I ever feel normal again? Sam wondered. He knew that he would always fiend for a fix, and would always keep an eye out for one.

When weapons training started up, all of the proper equipment and assigned gear was issued and handed out to each, individual soldier. Each soldier received their rifle, their sidearm, even grenades. There was all sorts of neat stuff within the gear, from weapons to medical supplies to basic survival tools. A whole bunch of nifty, little gimmicks and gadgets that could prove to come in handy in many different situations and could be utilized in various different ways.

Out of all the items that had been assigned to them, one thing in particular caught Sam Weatherspoon’s attention. The gear included three different syringes – or pens, as they called them – filled with three different medical cocktails. The one that didn’t matter so much to Sam was the “stress pen”. This was a concoction of mainly a strong benzo – by which I mean an anxiety medication – and a tranquilizer that could possibly put an elephant into a stupor. The second pen, one of the ones that did matter to Sam (the one that he could hardly bare the wait to stick into his vein), contained a high, but not lethal, dose of morphine. The third pen, a pen that was created for last resorts, and a pen that Sam was a little afraid to experiment with (although he would), was introduced to the recruits as “the death pen.” It contained everything in the other two pens, plus – and a mecha-dose of it all, at that.

You have to understand, these pens were for severely wounded, dieing soldiers. They were given to the soldiers for a means to cease pain, suffering, and panic as a last resort. The “death pens” were only meant to be used in a circumstance where a medic’s not available and the victim’s presumed a goner anyways. These pens were given to the soldiers to ensure peace of mind. “There’s always a way out,” that’s what the “death pen” represented. The pens were handed out with the gear to act like comforting tokens, like a teddy bear is to a child. They were a failsafe, just in case something really, really bad were to happen.

The pens were handed out for the benefit of both the living and the dieing alike. They were intended to ease the suffering of the wounded and dieing, yes, but another advantage, a rather clever tactic to maintain morality amongst the troops, was to cease the suffering taking place around the living, fighting soldiers. The more a person sees and goes through, the more one is affected. Seeing death and suffering will weigh heavy on most any man’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Severity matters. How gruesome a soldier perceives a scenario could mean the difference between that person snapping or fighting on, or having the courage to follow orders and carry them out efficiently or not… it could even be the difference between winning and losing a war. The point is that everything has its purpose, and the pens have a purpose or two, too.

Sam could have cared less if senseless violence served a purpose in the eyes of God, as long as the morphine served its purpose on its run through his veins. It had. Sam began trading off anything that he could trade with his fellow recruits in order to get a hold of their pens. Just like that, Sam Weatherspoon was right back on the junk.

Sam had been hard up one night, had gotten desperate, and had dared to try the “death pen” concoction. He had emptied the pen’s contents into a small container, then rationed himself out what he believed to be a small, safe dose. Sam had clogged his rig while using up the last of the supply he had managed to smuggle in. Unable to get the clog to push through, he’d thrown the needle out. It had frustrated him a great deal not to be able to shoot the dose, what he thought then might be the last fix of his life. He’d cursed himself for not bringing backup syringes. There was no redrawing the contents with the used up pens. There was no way he was shooting up this dose, so he wound up drinking it – chased it down with tap water from the bathroom sink. Sam could taste the opiate, but there was something else to the concoction as well. That had been a rather intense – actually, kind of scary – experiment, but the high had been alright. Sam had guessed the dosage about just right – and on the first try, too. How about that?

Sam would buy or trade for anyone’s pens, stockpiling every one of them that he could get his hands on. He’d told more than a dozen people to, “just say that you lost it,” before the war had even begun. Not wanting to get caught up into anything that could get them into deep shit with Major Briggs, John and Brad had both elected not to trade their pens for anything other than cigarettes. Sam wasn’t able to help either of them in that department. Cigarettes were the one thing that wasn’t amongst the contraband on this base. This was a nonsmoking military training facility… everyone had read the signs.

Moving forward, the experience of the needle, Sam used his belt to tie-off in one of the bathroom stalls on this particular night. He had obtained a morphine pen. He lined the point of the pen up with a vein on the opposite side of his elbow. The sweet prick of pain as the needle aligned itself within the vein, where the blood flowed with trepid expectation. The blood drawn forth, the plunger is pushed down…

The bittersweet substance hits the bloodstream. Sam waits, knowing, yearning… and then, within seconds, in a flash, a peaceful sensation starts to overtake him. It starts in his spine and travels throughout his vessel, spreading, growing. The sensation starts as a pleasant burning sensation, like hot pins and needles, followed by sweet relief and relaxation. For Sam, it was like being reacquainted with an old friend, or a long-lost lover.

Shooting up opiates is almost like a different form of an orgasm. Sam felt that shooting opiates was actually a bit better than an orgasm – but then again, Sam was a junky. You can’t fall in love with a fix – Or can you? On the other hand, you can’t get your heart broken by a fix – but instead, you go through withdrawal whenever you run out. Your fix will never talk back to you, but it will eventually kill you – I don’t know of too many women to have actually caused their man’s death. And one thing that a fix and a woman have in common, both can empty a man’s wallet with a quickness.

Now on a serious note… Opiates lead to addiction, and addiction leads to dependency – hell, addiction is dependency. The dependency for opiates leads to sickness whenever one must go without. Benzos, such as xanax, aren’t much better, for they can even lead to seizures. All hard drugs come with major downfalls and consequences whenever abused. One should know this, for such things do happen to people – could even happen to a loved one. Sam could attest, it sucks getting sick whenever you run out or can’t find it, and it sucks going through days and weeks of withdrawal trying to get the shit out of one’s system.

Not really a sickness, but rather a result of the addiction, dope-sickness is an ailment that reigns in comparison to the flu and lasts a hell of a lot longer. A class of drugs that should be taken very seriously and should not be abused, opiates – or narcotics – should truly only be used in cases of severe pain, and anyone choosing to take them should, beforehand, take the opportunity to make an informed and educated decision in doing so. Oh, and remember, good rehabilitation centers can be expensive, and methadone is just a substitute – though it does help some addicts in the effort to maintain a normal, orderly life.

Even in the military, after having been drafted, Sam Weatherspoon had managed to pick his habit back up. He was using again. It brought him both pleasure and relief. Hey, why not? Weren’t there worse things that could kill him? After all, he was going to war.

There were the elite (soldiers such as Deuce Covert and Kelllen Collins), there were those who were well up to par (soldiers such as John and Brad who just gave it their best), there were a few who sometimes slacked and a few who struggled to keep up with the rest of the pack (but not many), and then there was Duff Avery. Duff was as slow as molasses, both physically and mentally. Duff had been struggling with all of the intense physical activities, falling drastically behind the rest of the group, much more so than anybody else. Major Briggs hadn’t known what to do with Duff Avery. He’d been all but ready to give up on this seemingly hopeless young sap… but then, two things happened.

Briggs had initially been exceedingly outraged by Duff Avery’s pathetic excuse for a performance. What pissed Briggs off so much was Duff’s inability to keep up with anyone, at anything, ever. Briggs would’ve done just about anything in the World to have been able to get Duff Avery out of his battalion… that is, right up until weapons training kicked off. We’ll get to that.

Major Briggs had been beginning to punish the rest of the squad for Duff’s inept abilities and misbehavior. That’s when Kellen Collins stepped in and offered to take Duff under his wing, offering to personally train the hapless recruit and get him up to par.

Kellen was a good ole’ boy, one of those guys who would quickly develop a “leave no man behind” mentality come battle. Kellen was a big dude, a tough guy, but he didn’t have a thirst for fighting and violence like some other men do – what do you expect from testosterone driven males? Kellin was happy both to help out a fellow soldier and to get Briggs off of everybody’s asses. Kellen also knew that he’d scored some points in Briggs’ eyes by volunteering to help assist in the task of getting Duff’s ass into gear. With Kellen’s help, Duff Avery was running with the rest of the pack – although, still bringing up the rear – within a matter of a couple of weeks.

Then, weapons training began. This is the other factor that helped Duff Avery save face in the military. Though he had lacked and dragged in the physical exercises department, Duff Avery made up for it in the munitions department. Duff Avery was dead on accurate with a gun. Briggs wouldn’t have doubted it if you’d have told him that the kid had never missed the bull’s eye on a target in his life, Duff was that good. Duff Avery was the best shot on the base, by far, even a better shot than Briggs himself.

With the help of Kellen Collins and the introduction to his rifle, which Duff named Betsy, Duff Avery was ready to become a killer. Duff had never even imagined being thrust into such a circumstance, but he’d found a little leeway and now felt more dedicated than before. He just wanted everybody to like him, or if not, at least not hate him.

Duff Avery was a slightly overweight young man, but not so much as to warrant his dismissal from the military. His hairline was just beginning to recede, it looked like he was going to lose the top of it young in life. Duff didn’t talk much. His words came out slow and unsure whenever he did speak. He was a very polite and considerate young man, just not very bright. Duff wasn’t very handsome, either, and he was very self-conscious. It had occurred to him, Am I really the type of guy you want to send into battle and have fighting alongside you in a war? Am I really war material?

Briggs had become satisfied with Duff’s abilities. Duff continued trying to impress them all, but he never felt sure of himself. He felt like he was overdoing it, and maybe even losing it.

Some of the weapons training was fun, but there were other parts that were downright gruesome, grueling, and plenty scary. Climbing through mud with the blood and guts of pigs mixed into it, underneath barbed wire, with live ammunition firing off over your head can get to be a trifle bit unpleasant, even overwhelming.

Imagine walking in a single file line, except every step that you are ordered to take there’s to be two shots fired, one in front of you and one behind you. You have no choice but to walk. This is an advanced exercise, intended to help the soldiers learn how to keep their cool whenever the pressures on and get them ready for the real thing, when they’re really under fire in battle. That’s not even the worst part.

This was an age where nuclear weapons were being invented and chemical weapons like tear gas and mustard gas had already been discovered. There was a great race occurring between the two great nations: Who will build the first nuclear missile, New World or Old World? Chemical weapons, however, were a real threat, though not commonly used because of their explicit dangers.

One of the tests which all soldiers must complete lies in the self-exposure to one of these dreadful chemical weapons – tear gas. This is done so that the soldiers can detect the smell of this danger if they encounter it, so that they hopefully won’t freak out, and so that they’ll have a slight tolerance built up that could give them an edge on acting accordingly in case a real crisis should occur while in the field of battle. A room is filled with this toxic gas. The soldiers walk in with gas masks on. One by one, they are commanded to take off their masks, breath in the gas, and fully identify themselves verbally before leaving the room vomiting with their eyes, nose, and throat burning.

Another form of explicitly dangerous warfare, much like chemical warfare, lies in germ warfare, also known as biological warfare. This will be our last topic on the subject. The difference between chemical warfare and germ warfare – chemical warfare may be deadly, but germ warfare is alive and it will spread. The victims of germ warfare are often unsuspecting, until it is too late and there’s an epidemic spreading.

Back to Earth for a moment, in Japan, during World War II, there was a project put together by the Japanese which involved using fleas infected with bubonic plague as a form of a biological weapon. Led by scientist Shiro Ishii, the concept was to insert these infected fleas into an explosive device, a bomb, and drop them into enemy territory so that they would infect the inhabitants of a targeted land. From there, the plague would spread through its carriers. Because standard bombs proved to kill most of the fleas upon impact and detonation, Japanese scientists engineered a special bomb with a clay casing outside of the explosive device which proved to have a high rate of survival for the tiny insects. Fortunately during World War II, Japan didn’t really have the right type of bomber jet to make the long trip to America and back in order to complete this type of a mission. Back then, most aircraft would run out of fuel long before being able to return home from such a mission. For this reason and a few others, Japan never did use this kind of germ warfare against America. However, this bio-technology was used against a nearby Chinese territory called Manchuria… and with devastating effects.

Unfortunately, with any good situation there’s usually always a hitch. In regards to the nightly smoke sessions, it was one particular person trying to pull the plug on what the majority felt was a good thing and wanted. Alan Fohler found out about, and objected to, what the group was doing every night after lights-out. Self-righteous in his opinion, set in his ways, and in correspondence with New World’s system of law, Alan Fohler would act out in revolt and contempt towards the unsettling discovery that his fellow soldiers were using an illegal drug. Defying his companions’ inexplicably abrasive warnings to mind his own business, Alan would alert Major Briggs. This is a military base, not a hippie commune, for Christ’s sakes.

In retrospect, the only real difference between Alan and the rest of the guys who had stumbled across the smoke sessions, other than the fact that Alan hadn’t liked what he’d seen, was that Alan was willing to snitch on his fellow companions. Nobody had his back, not his friends, not the other nonsmokers, it seemed not even the drill instructors. Alan Fohler was alone in his stand, yet he still disliked what he’d seen enough to stand up against it and say something about it. And thus is where the trouble began, more so for Alan than for anybody else. He’d been warned.

Alan Fohler found out about the nightly smoke sessions the same way that Otis Smith found out. He simply followed the group outside one sleepless night and scoped out what was going on. Alan had caught a whiff of a pungent fragrance in the air. He’d witnessed a rather large group of guys, standing around in a circle, passing a couple of joints around. Alan, with great disapproval, had figured out what they were doing. That’s marijuana! Uh oh, Major Briggs isn’t going to be happy whenever he hears about this.

If only Alan would have just went inside and kept his mouth shut, but Alan was worried, and even afraid, that the pot smoking might effect the performance of these men come time for battle. Alan never even attempted to come to reason. Then again, was he given the proper chance to do so? Alan Fohler was dead set against the pot smoking, and he would be for the rest of his life.

Alan had been having trouble getting to sleep on this occasion. It was one of those nights that most anyone on the base could relate to, a night which anyone who has ever been taken out of their comfort zone and stuck into a more strenuous and unwelcoming situation should be able to relate to. No matter how tired he felt, no matter how hard he tried to fall asleep, Alan could not get comfortable enough to quiet his ceaseless thoughts, rid himself of restlessness, and let his mind drift off into unconsciousness. Alan was wide awake.

This didn’t happen to him very often. Alan hated the feeling of wanting to go to sleep but not being able to. He hated the thoughts and feelings which encompassed his mind on restless nights. The feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and despair. The anticipation and fear of heading into battle. Worst of all, there was the feeling of being confined, stuck here in this base camp as though he were in a prison. At times, it all seemed too overwhelming for Alan to bear.

Alan felt trapped. He knew that it was best not to dwell upon such a thing, for it would do him no good. This was the situation that he was in and he would just have to make due. But he was tired, scared, and homesick, so he let things weigh on his mind because he couldn’t help it otherwise. In the dead of night, when it’s seemingly impossible to get to sleep, it’s kind of hard to put it away.

The entire time that he was on the base, Alan felt cooped up. It was a feeling that screamed out in his mind above all others, perhaps from the brink of insanity, reminding him that his fate, his destiny, was no longer completely under his control. Had it ever been, really? Maybe never completely, but it used to be a whole hell of a lot more under his control in the past than what it had become. It was slightly maddening to know that every day he was doomed to wake up in this same crap-shoot of a base camp with all of these other hopeless saps around him, no choice other than to run the stupid, tiring, repetitive drills and exercises, and nothing to gain or look forward to other than a big fucking war at the end with a lot of dieing to come.

As he lay in his bottom bunk staring into the darkness of the room and dwelling on his troubles, Alan noticed a group of guys get up from their bunks and head outside. Soon after the first group left another group followed, and then another.

Like Otis, this had not been the first time that Alan had witnessed a group of people head outside after lights-out. The other times he’d witnessed this, Alan had been drifting into unconsciousness and had paid the wanderers little mind, no real concerns. He must’ve fallen asleep shortly afterwards each time because he couldn’t remember seeing any of them come back inside. Alan was wide awake on this occasion, though. He watched a fourth group of people walk outside and got to wondering, What are they all doing?

Like Otis, Alan’s first guess was that they were probably smoking cigarettes. Whatever it was, Alan was awake enough to feel curious, and after a fourth group of guys walked on out the door he decided he wanted to go find out what the big deal was.

He headed towards the door, pushed it open, and stepped outside. Whatever it was that these guys were doing, Alan didn’t really think that he was going to approve and really didn’t think that Major Briggs would, either. He didn’t know what to expect, though. He didn’t know what he was going to do whenever he found out whatever it was that these guys were doing. He didn’t want to start trouble or cause problems. He just couldn’t sleep, and he wanted to know what the fuss was all about. He was completely appalled when he rounded the corner and approached the spot where the groups had congregated. Once Alan caught a whiff of what they were smoking, he was able to piece it all together. Hey, that’s not cigarette smoke that I’m smelling.

A feeling of contempt and revulsion was building up inside of Alan as he continued to watch the group from around the corner. He felt anger, disapproval, even let down surge through him due to what he was witnessing. Oh no, my fellow recruits are on drugs.

All of the excitement had gotten Alan’s heart pumping, and his mind raced with the beat of his heart. It was too dark to see, but the increased rate of blood flow made Alan’s cheeks flush red. Alan felt outrage fill him as he silently stood there at the corner of the building watching them smoke their joints, uncertain of what to do. This cannot be tolerated!

Unlike Otis, Alan didn’t intend on being friendly about this. Looking at the faces of the smokers, Alan recognized Otis and Shawn at once… and Brad, John, Roy, Vic… and to his great surprise, Deuce Covert. His squad leader was even in on this.

Frantic and frustrated by the realization that the troop was being led by a brain-dead doper, Alan felt the fuse to his temper getting shorter like a bomb about to blow. This isn’t right. How can this be happening? What are they all thinking? I’m just going to have to tell Major Briggs, and that‘s that.

Deuce caught sight of Alan. Their eyes met.

“Hey, buddy,” Deuce called out to the newcomer, “come here.”

Alan hesitated, startled a bit at his being discovered. He quickly regained his drive and strut over to the group.

“What do you think you guys are doing?” Alan asked in a vigilant voice.

“What does it look like?” Deuce caught on to Alan’s tone and was snappy with his own response.

“You guys are smoking pot!” Alan spoke accusingly, growing ever more excited in the opening engagements of this confrontation. Alan wasn’t prepared for this. He wasn’t sure what he was in for. Deuce was a big guy. Alan was outnumbered, by far. Alan felt that he was in the right, though, and these guys were breaking the rules and the law. He would stand his ground, determined.

“Well folks, we’ve got a wiener. Sorry though, kid, no prize, but you can save yourself a lot of grief if you keep your mouth shut about this.”

“Don’t you threaten me!” Alan stood his ground, but a tinge of fright did overtake him right then. Alan looked around at all of the different faces. Though trying to read facial expressions was difficult to do in the dark, they did look sort of mad. Alan shrugged it off. They’re just trying to scare me.

“Oh, and what are you going to do about it, big man?” Deuce boldly stated. He was smiling. This made Alan angry.

Alan did not answer, however. He couldn’t answer. I mean, what do you say to something like that? Alan felt dumbstruck, temporarily at a loss for words, a little scared, and he knew that he was completely outnumbered. Frankly, he couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t surely warrant a beat-down by – as far as Alan was concerned, what were – over a dozen pot smoking lunatics. What’s this guy trying to do, egg me on into a fight? He must be crazy. The drug must make people violent.

Deuce remained confident and cool. Deuce had known that a moment like this was bound to occur. He’d been waiting for it, ready to nip it in the butt whenever it did. Things never seem to work out perfect. However, the next set of actions on Deuce’s part were, for the most part, intentional and cleverly planned out… up until a point. I suppose that everybody lets their emotions get the better of them at times.

Alan still stood his ground. He’d done the right thing by keeping his mouth shut right then, but Deuce wasn’t done with him yet. The rest of the group was growing tense and excited. A disquieting silence fell over the lot of them, but whispering, snickering, and even laughter could be heard coming from a select few. Deuce knew that there would now be great unease harboring in many of his fellow men. It was his duty to lessen their fears, to keep the group from panicking, to keep the group together.

“That’s what I thought,” Deuce addressed the group, demonstrating to the group, and to Alan, that he was the one in control. Then, to Alan, “Short on words all of a sudden, eh runt? That’s okay. A yes or a no will do just fine. You’re one of those goody two-shoe, little bitches that’s never done a drug in his life, doesn’t drink alcohol, and never does anything illegal… hell, you probably don’t even have a traffic ticket on your record ‘cause you’re too damned scared that if you went a mile over the speed limit it’d be your luck that you’d get caught! Am I right?”

“Well, I don’t…” Alan began.

“Yes or no!” Deuce cut him off, taking complete control of, and commanding authority over, the situation.

“Yes,” Alan reluctantly answered, a trigger of spite rushing through him like hot ice. He wasn’t going to just stand there and let this asshole get the better of him, was he? Deuce was a pretty intense dude… but no. Oh no. Alan would see to him. This was just the initial confrontation. No one makes a fool out of Alan Fohler and gets away with it. This asshole may have the upper hand right now, but just wait. He’ll see.

“And because you don’t agree with…” Deuce briefly paused and looked around at the other participants, some looked startled but others looked angry, “…the majority’s recreational pastime, you expect us all to just give it up. You caught us, Alan. We’ve been busted. It’ll never happen again,” Deuce said, facetiously joking, mocking the outcome. “Do you really believe that that’s how it works? Huh, Alan?”

“No, but what you guys are doing is against…”

“Wow!” Deuce interrupted Alan, again. “A minute ago he didn’t look like he knew what to say, now he doesn’t seem to know when to shut up. Yes or no, Alan. Yes or no. I don’t want to hear you’re fucking thoughts on the matter. Is us coming out here and smoking a little pot to end a tough day hurting anybody?”

Alan just wanted to get a word in edgewise. Remembering his last approach, he thought, What better way to do so than to answer the asshole’s question within the parameters of his own bullshit game. Instead of giving Deuce the answer that he was looking for (the answer that Deuce had been expecting Alan to give), Alan wound up stomping on the brakes and pulling things into reverse. Alan had boldly said, “Yes,” to Deuce’s question.

Truly caught off guard by Alan’s response, Deuce looked like a deer in the headlights, the brights turned on and temporarily blinding him for the moment. Deuce’s anger began to get the better of him. The smart-ass in Alan had pissed off the alpha in Deuce. Deuce all of a sudden was slipping at his own game. Deuce looked down to the ground momentarily while shaking his head. He starts to chuckle to himself. He knows what’s happening, but it’s almost like he doesn’t even care. He can feel his self-control slipping.

Perhaps Alan didn’t make such a wise decision with his chosen answer after all. The next thing the group sees is the sight of Deuce lunging at Alan, tackling him to the ground, mounting him, and landing two or three good shots before a few of the feud’s observers intervened. That part had not been cleverly planned out on Deuce’s part. That had been a man reacting to his emotions, and Deuce had known better – very uncouth.

Alan had a bloody lip and a welt forming over his left eye. He wasn’t too banged up other than that, except for his pride. Alan’s pride had definitely been bruised the most, much more so than his face. Not a good combination, Alan’s issues of pride and fear – definitely something that can put the blinders on a man’s better judgment.

Deuce was contemplating what he’d done, but it was too little, too late. He knew that he’d overreacted. Maybe it had been a miscalculation, a mistake on his part, reacting the way that he had, so hastily, and with use of force and violence? Hell, he’d only been meaning to scare the runt narc, hadn’t he? Have I made a big mistake? Ah, oh well, it can be salvaged… though he didn’t feel too sure of himself.

Alan got to his feet. He stared at Deuce in outrage, a gaze of utter disgust and absolute hatred expressed on his face. This was all becoming too much for Alan’s brain to handle. He hadn’t wanted to wind up stuck in this place in the first place. It wasn’t his choice, having been drafted. He damn sure wasn’t going to just sit back and let a bunch of hoodlum, good for nothing stoners disgrace his country and get all of them killed because they want to burn out their last brain cells smoking pot before they go to war. Oh, no! This kind of behavior was not acceptable in Alan’s World. Not at all. Too many lives were on the line here. More importantly to Alan was the fact that his own life was on the line here. He wasn’t going out like that, no-sir-ee-bob.

Thinking about going into battle made Alan feel panicked, and he desperately wanted a way out of his current situation. Alan knew that he had to put a stop to this, but how? He was definitely outnumbered. They weren’t going to let him just walk away. These guys were surely going to hate him in the long run (he hoped that there wouldn’t be any severe consequences and repercussions), but he couldn‘t possibly presently be in any real danger – or could he be? The feeling of uncertainty and panic had brought about a sudden wonder at the possibility of real danger, and what real danger truly was. I need to get out of here.

“What, nothing to say, big man?” Deuce asked, gazing into the shock, frustration, and fear that lit Alan’s wide, hazel eyes.

Deuce was right about what he saw in Alan, but not completely. Maybe he should’ve looked a bit deeper? Alan answered Deuce with a conservative, well reserved, “No.”

See, Alan wasn’t only afraid of Deuce. No, he was much more afraid of dieing in the war that they were all about to be a part of. Alan had this whole outlook on the draft as having been like a death warrant, his sentence having been officially pronounced the day he received the letter summoning him to serve his country in this time of peril – Dear Mr. Alan Fohler, this letter is being sent to inform you that you’ve been selected by our blessed nation to come pull the pin out of a hand grenade, shove it up your own asshole, and prepare to kiss your ass goodbye. Alan was going to do anything in his power to keep his demise as slim a possibility as he possibly could. Though Deuce was an intimidating character, the thought of going to war with a bunch of burnouts seemed a bit more frightening in the long run.

Alan felt concerned about what effects the marijuana was having on these guys’ coherency. He didn’t want to have to go to war with a bunch of brain-dead dope-fiends who could likely concentrate on nothing less than getting their next fix. Alan was imagining someone more like Sam Weatherspoon than any of the other smokers. Don’t they realize how awful it’s going to be? This isn’t a party!

Actually, Alan was imagining even worse. Alan was imagining something like a platoon full of zombie drones, unable to focus and keep it together long enough to hold their own eyes open, let alone fire a gun accurately at a target. He was imagining a totally dysfunctional unit, despite the excellent results that they were all producing throughout their training and despite the fact that many of these guys had been smoking marijuana habitually for several years. Alan was both uninformed and misinformed when it came down to what he knew on the subject of marijuana, and other more harmful drugs, as well.

Alan wasn’t a user of anything, not even alcohol – he didn’t like the way it tasted. It’s easy to see how a person who has never experienced a drug high could mistake the effects of pot for something like heroin, especially considering the fact that Alan couldn‘t even tell you the difference between the two substances – junk, grass, dope… it was all the same to him. Fortunately for Alan, he was at the pot facility – the heroine training facility was quite a few counties away, lol. Alan would never understand how peaceful and innocent the marijuana high can be, nor would he ever understand how horrible dope sickness is and how junk can grab ya by the balls – an addiction that will completely envelop a person.

Alan was just a frightened, adolescent adult who’d been challenged to cope with a situation that could very well spell out emanate doom for his being. The anxiety of waiting to go to war was maddening, even with as little time as he had to dwell upon it. It was almost as if not having time to sit down and sort things out in his mind was making it harder to deal, harder to cope. Alan supposed that not giving you the time to think, keeping you so damned worn out and tired all of the time, was likely just part of how the military brainwashes its recruits into becoming obedient soldiers – then again, if you actually had time to stop and think about what you were really doing, a person really might go a-wall. This situation horrified Alan more than any situation he’d ever encountered throughout his young life.

Deuce felt in control now, again, but he didn’t feel like he’d finished the job. He was still hell-bent on continuing to intimidate Alan, attempting to force Alan into having some second thoughts on how to go about handling himself.

“Alright, buddy, let me tell you something,” Deuce started in on Alan, again. Deuce couldn’t have known what Alan was thinking, but he definitely wasn’t taking any chances. He aimed to be convincing. Deuce continued drilling Alan, “I want you to know who you’re fucking with. I ain’t like the rest of these little bitches in here. I didn’t get a letter in the fucking mail summoning me here. I didn’t elect to come here of my own freewill, either. I was given a choice, come here and serve in the war or do time in the pen. I’m in here because I selected this over doing the time. I’m in here because I bashed a guy’s skull in until he was unconscious, holding onto life by a thread. I’m in here because they wanted to pin attempted murder on me. Attempted murder, can you believe that? And would you put murder past me, Alan? Would ya? Anyways, thank goodness the guy I fucked up was just some no-good loser who no one cared about anyways. If not, I might not have been given the option to come here. I bet you would have liked that, huh, Alan? Have you ever killed a man, Alan?”

Silence.

“Yes or no, Alan?” Deuce demanded that Alan answer him. “You remember what happened the last time you tried my patience.”

Note that, out of Alan and Deuce, Deuce was actually the one in this situation who didn’t want any trouble. Deuce really just wanted a peaceful resolution, but there was only one outcome in his eyes that would do. Unfortunately, Alan had the same outlook, different resolution.

“I don’t have to take this,” Alan retorted, still trying to cope with the anger and frustration that was flaring up inside of him as a result of Deuce’s attack upon him. Alan’s pride had been wounded. It was bothering him, bothering him greatly, making it hard not to overreact. Alan held his composure together. Deuce did likewise. Alan felt as though he needed some time… to think things over, sort things out, reasonably decide what to do… but then again, there never seems to be enough time, does there? Alan decided that enough was enough. He turned to walk away.

With a motion of his hand, Deuce had summoned three big, badass dudes – guys who he chummed with – to cut Alan off. Deuce didn’t intend to let Alan off the hook until he felt certain that Alan understood him. He wasn’t feeling that yet.

John watched the event unfold. The way things went, the display of coordination and authoritarianism, was rather breathtaking, very militaristic in its domineering approach. Deuce simply waved and pointed, and his buddies, Roy Phillips and Vic Hughes leading the way, were right on top of everything, cutting off Alan’s exit. It sort of gave John chills, watching it all play out. It gave John and the rest of the group the impression that Deuce knew what he was doing and had everything under control, which was also another clever militaristic move on Deuce’s part.

The more that you do to instill confidence into your team, and further get those people to trust you and rely upon you, the more likely those people will be willing to fight alongside you and obey your commands during a battle. Trust and confidence in a leader will always raise morale amongst one’s subordinates. An intelligent leader knows to create the right level of competition, to set obstacles to overcome and goals to achieve in order to make one’s team want to improve their abilities, hone their skills, and conquer new feats. What it boils down to is hard work, time and effort. Strong, intelligent, active leadership will produce triumphant results.

Deuce was a punk, a thug, a hood, a no good to society who has done way more in the lines of doing wrong, causing mischief and malice, than he has ever done right… and he could care less. That’s just the way he lived, a part of how he survived. Deuce had always been a fairly smart hood, though, and he’d really been picking up a knack for this squad leader business – he kind of liked it.

As for Deuce being the way he is, there were reasons… reasons and choices… choices and… well, chemistry, too. Who knows what all goes into the foundation of a person’s inner being – why they are the way they are, why they do the things they do? One can only speculate.

Deuce could care less about anything outside of his own, personal survival – a very animalistic sense of being, yes, but that’s what he understood. He lacked something that most others had. He lacked feelings, where as others felt.

It was his heart. It didn’t feel… not a thing. It beat, but it didn’t feel… not one thing. Deuce had acknowledged this, but he would never feel sorry for it. Life is life, and this was just a part of his… was a part of him. He would look at this as neither a blessing nor a downfall, just a difference noted. Rather actually, Deuce perceived his lack of caring as more of a unique survival mechanism, as well as a subject of extraordinary curiosity and interest. This is what he’d become. Besides, not having a heart is rather beneficial for a life of crime. And, hey, life is life… is life is life is life is…

It puzzled Deuce as to how other people would feel if they had to experience life through his eyes – with their heart all but cut off… such stagnant emotions. He wondered how they would react. Deuce wondered what his companions would think if they knew the truth about how cold his heart really was. He knew that, as their squad leader, they looked up to him. He could see the difference between himself and other people, but he knew that it didn’t work the other way around. Then again, Major Briggs had taken a liking to Deuce… had seen something to him.

Alan was back, facing Deuce again, his exit now being cut off by Deuce’s thugs. Alan looked like they were really getting to him. Deuce continued to drill him, and seemed to be becoming more satisfied.

“Alan, I don’t think that you understand,” Deuce said, in a calm, easygoing tone of voice. “Look, I just don’t want any trouble. In order to help assure me that I’m not going to have any trouble from you, you and I are going to finish this little chat. So, how about it, Alan? Have you ever killed anybody?”

“No,” Alan replied, a look of disgust in his eyes at the sound of where Deuce was taking this. He looked back and exchanged glances with a couple of Deuce’s thugs. He recognized them by first name, at least, and one of them he had a last name for – Roy Phillips, Justin, Vic…

Well, walking away didn’t work. Alan would deal, would let Deuce finish out his little game of his. Alan had a feeling that Deuce was going to get his before long. This isn’t going to fly.

“Well, Alan, I have. That’s not why I’m here, of course. I’ve never been caught, you see, and I won’t go into any details, but I have. And do you know what, Alan?” A slight pause in speech on Deuce’s part as he eyed Alan, as if waiting for a response. None came, and Deuce did not press Alan for one this time. Instead, Deuce continued on, “I didn’t really mind it. It didn’t bother me. I mean, you think about shit like that whenever it’s all done and over with… later on, afterwards, when you’re washing the blood off of your fucking hands, man. Whether it be for pay or because some pansy, little dip-shit tried to fuck up a good situation for everybody else, I know that it won’t bother me one iota to take care of such an issue. Now, there’s no need for me to be thinking these thoughts. Is there, Alan?”

“No, of course not,” Alan replied. What would anybody in their right mind say in a situation such as this one? This guy is crazy!

“Good. That’s real, real good, Alan. Isn’t that good, guys?” Deuce asked the crowd of smokers.

Voices chimed out in agreement.

Deuce was now feeling back on top of things, reassured that he had the upper hand in the situation and happy with the results. That’s what he was supposed to do, is be a leader. Maybe he could have used a little work on his tactics, but after all, he was still only a recruit, squad leader or not. He felt that he had surely given the kid a good scare. He doubted if Alan would be any further trouble as of right then.

Alan was getting sick of Deuce saying his name every other sentence. To Alan, it didn’t make Deuce look any bigger, nor did it make Deuce sound very intelligent to Alan – rather, it just made Deuce seem arrogant and dimwitted, like some bully from grade school trying to steal a kid’s lunch money. Alan thought to himself, I listen to Major Briggs and all of the other drill instructors yelling and screaming and putting me down all day, every day. I’m about immune to this shit by now, you big oath. Just keep your fucking hands off of me.

Alan began to pick up the broken pieces, which were of the pride that Deuce had shattered, and started putting them back together. Still, it was a fix job. Alan still carried resentment. Alan just wanted out of this without the big lug laying his hands on him again. There was much that he wanted to say, but he knew to bite his tongue at least for now. He would go to Major Briggs tomorrow morning and inform him of this defiant happening.

“I don’t think anybody would miss the runt if he were to mysteriously vanish one day. How about you guys?” Deuce asked the group.

Again, agreement… but some people were beginning to either chuckle a bit (as if they were trying to pass this off as a joke), while others seemed more reluctant – seemed to take on a look of bewilderment in the dim light at the seriousness and conviction in Deuce’s voice.

Alan wanted to laugh out loud, Come one, come all… Come see our squad leader, Deuce Covert, and his magical disappearing act! Come on down! You won‘t believe your eyes! But, again, Alan knew to keep his mouth shut – and that act seemed to be working.

“So, behave, runt!” It seemed as though Deuce was finally beginning to wrap things up. He seemed satisfied with his part in this performance. “Don’t you ever fuck with me or any of the other people you see standing here ever again and I won’t have any reason to fuck with you. Sound good?”

Silence. Hesitation, maybe? Alan didn’t want to have to tell a lie.

“Alan?” Impatience in Deuce’s voice.

“Yes,” Alan finally answered, suddenly and with a snappy quickness. He took in a deep breath, then calmer he repeated himself, “Yes.”

“Alright. Then get the fuck out of here. Don’t follow us out here ever again. Just mind your own business. Who knows, where we’re going, one of these guys could save your life one of these days.“ Deuce was now being very sincere and on the level with Alan. But one more time, just to clarify, Deuce asked, “So, Alan, are we clear?”

“Yes,” Alan confirmed, and Deuce seemed to be convinced that it was really done and over with. Alan had been focused on getting away since the confrontation began. When it came to the fight or flight instinct, it was flight that had always governed Alan’s actions in the past. That would have to change, for there would be nowhere to run once the battle started. As for Deuce’s earnest statement, Alan was a little more worried about one of these guys being the death of him.

Deuce’s pals backed off. Alan gave each of them one more quick glance and then started to make his exit. There were so many things on Alan’s mind, so many things that he was feeling – anger and frustration at the top of them, but ultimately he felt confused. People who he would soon have to stake his life on were doing something that he indefinitely did not agree with. Alan was, quite literally, worried that these guys were going to throw the entire battalion into great peril and possibly get them all killed. What was he to do?

“Remember this, runt,“ Somebody called after Alan, Alan didn’t know who. Alan didn’t intend to forget, thinking to himself that he would have the last laugh.

“Hey, Deuce, do you think he’ll be trouble?” Kellen Collins asked Deuce in a husky, quiet voice. He’d stepped forward after Alan had walked out of sight.

“After what he just went through,” Deuce contemplatively stated, then shrugged, turned towards Kellen, and asked, “would you?”

“I see your point,” Kellen grunted, but he didn’t seem sure.

“Light it back up,” Deuce demanded. “I’d like to get some sleep before the night’s up. You never know, we might have a big day ahead of us tomorrow?”

Alan woke up the next morning at call with everybody else. His face was bruised a little, and it stung a bit, but not as bad as his pride. Alan felt anger overcome him almost immediately upon awakening, recalling the events from the night before. He wasn’t letting this go. He made his bed, did the morning hygiene routine (shit, shower, and shave and all), and went to breakfast. Alan was filled with anticipation, attempting to build up the nerve to go to Major Briggs after breakfast was finished to inform him about all that had happened the night before – between Deuce and himself, and the issue of the marijuana.

At breakfast, Alan had gotten together with a couple of his chums, explained to them what had happened to him, and had reached the same conclusion as the night before despite his buddies’ warnings and insights on the matter. Alan supposed that he’d really just been venting, and trying to gain the nerve to approach Major Briggs. He knew what he had to do, regardless of what anybody else had to say about the matter.

After breakfast, Alan’s friend, Hector Birch, tried to talk some sense into him… tried to make him rethink his decision one more time. After hearing about all that had happened the night before and what Alan planned to do about it, Hector was quite a bit concerned that the means would not justify the ends for Alan. In other words, Hector was worried that the consequences for Alan’s actions might end up being more severe than Alan realized. Hector wanted Alan to understand that these were going to be the guys who they were going to be fighting alongside of in a war, but this didn’t seem to be the right approach with Alan. Hector wasn’t quite sure why or how, but he had the feeling that Alan was getting himself in over his head.

“Still, it would be wise not to risk the entire battalion hating you,” Hector pointed out to Alan, picking up in the midst of Hector and Alan’s after-lunch conversation. “We aren’t in normal society anymore. The rules have changed. This isn’t worth getting yourself killed over, is it?”

“Again,” Alan began to restate his standpoint, and Hector thought that he was beginning to see where his friend was coming from, though it didn’t seem to be working both ways, “if I don’t do anything about this, it may be the death of me. So, no, this situation isn’t worth dieing over. I can’t believe this is going on. They’re smoking marijuana, and right under everyone’s noses. I swear, it’s like half of the base is on the stuff.”

“You’re going to piss off a lot more people than just Deuce. You know that, right?” Hector quietly asked – rather, more or less, reminded – Alan. Alan was his friend, and Hector felt that he needed to try to see things through Alan’s eyes if he were to try and help him out.

No response from Alan. The question had been rhetorical, what Hector had been using as his main point. Hector didn’t really want anything to do with this ordeal that Alan was getting himself into. For some reason, it seemed dangerous to him to get involved. Hector felt that he could only do so much. Rewording his question, Hector asked, “Think about the consequences of your actions. Are you really willing to piss all of those guys off?”

“Yeah, sure. So I might piss a few people off. What would you have me do, just sit back and let this go on?” Alan asked, but continued onward with his point. Hector was beginning to wonder if Alan would ever see his. Alan seemed stuck on the idea that the drugs were horribly effecting their battalion. “I don’t think so. They could get us all killed!”

“We’re all doing an exceptionally good job at all of our drills and exercises, you know,” it was a statement, not a question. Hector was trying to bring Alan on the level with him. He felt that Alan was blowing this predicament out of proportion, and he felt that Alan could lose the alliance and support of many of his companions by doing so.

“And I’m saying that these guys could wind up changing that,” Alan vehemently protested. “I’m saying that these guys could get us all killed.”

Hector didn’t want to talk about this for much longer. This wasn’t meant to be a long discussion. He wanted to get right to the point. “I don’t think that they’re smoking the stuff before the day starts, and I doubt they’ll be smoking it before a battle. I know that I wouldn’t mind drinking a beer or two at night, if I could manage it. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing for these guys to have a way to cut loose… I mean, if they’re only partaking in it after the day’s events are over and done with.”

“We’ll see what Major Briggs has to say on the subject. I think that he at least deserves to know what these guys are up to,” Alan remarked, then started to speed up his pace in order to storm off.

“Alan,” Hector called after him, “I’m just concerned about you. Seriously, man. I want you to remember that these are the guys who you’re going to be going to war with…”

“Exactly,” Alan interjected, with heartfelt conviction. “These are the people who we’re going to be staking our lives on. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to put my life in the hands of a bunch of drug addicts.”

“Alan, one thing that I know, people like Deuce don’t tolerate a person tattling on them. They have a word for that. They’ll call you a narc,” Hector tried to inform Alan, while thinking about the look that their head squad leader, Deuce Covert, got in his eyes sometimes. It was a look that Hector found disturbing, a look that seemed to speak of potential murder. Deuce was one of the only men on the base who looked like he would be totally prepared come time for battle.

“Let them call me whatever they like,” Alan proclaimed, remembering the “runt” comment from the previous night.

“Man, these guys are going to ostracize you,” Hector warned Alan.

“What these guys are doing is against the law. It’s wrong. I have to do something. Major Briggs will know what to do,” Alan sternly stated, a tone of finality to his voice.

There wasn’t much more that Hector could think to say at the time, “I just don’t want to see any harm come to you. Just be careful, that’s all.”

“Alright then,” Alan said, dismissively, and then he was off to go talk to Major Briggs.

Later on down the line, looking back on things on his way home from the war, Hector would wonder if there might have been something more that he could’ve said, something more he could’ve done, to have dissuaded Alan from setting off the awful chain of events that would ensue. And it was all over pot. Just pot. It just didn’t seem right, through Hector’s eyes.

Hector could see that Alan was hurt about what had happened to him the night before, especially about Deuce laying his hands on him. Looking back on things, Hector remembered that Alan was just one of those stubborn, hardheaded kind of guys. The type to where, once they had their mind made up about something, it was nearly impossible to persuade them otherwise. Alan would have went with what was already in his head despite whatever clever argument, or fact, Hector threw at him. Hector just hoped that he was wrong, that this wouldn’t lead to any trouble for Alan.

Alan had gone to Major Briggs. He told him everything that happened the night before. Their discussion didn’t exactly go the way Alan had envisioned it going. Briggs expressed a seemingly earnest concern towards Alan’s agitation and worry over the smoke sessions being a problem, but Briggs had appeared more disgruntled when Alan told him about Deuce laying his hands on him. Alan would almost have preferred this to be the other way around, but he went with everything that Major Briggs said to him.

Ultimately, Briggs had kicked into this speech about the integrity and morale of the troop… the greater good for the greater number… the importance of everybody’s cooperation in trusting the better judgment of himself and the other drill instructors. Briggs said that he would keep an eye on the situation, especially for lapses in the battalion’s performance, and assured Alan that he would go about handling the matter accordingly. Alan could see how Major Briggs formed his logic and reasoning, and he trusted the man and thought that he was a good leader, but Alan was by no means satisfied.

A good analogy… To Alan, the group of soldiers smoking pot was a lot like a group of law enforcement officials breaking the law and violating the constitution. Alan tried to protest, insisting that Major Briggs take action immediately, but Briggs wasn’t having any of that, telling Alan not to worry and assuring him that he would deal with the situation himself, in his own way. Briggs went on to address the fact that everyone would be facing a life or death situation very soon, many not by their own choosing. Alan knew this, for he was one of them.

Major Briggs was trying to think of what would be the best way to hurry up, wrap things up, and be done with Alan Fohler. Major Briggs really wanted to have a little chat with Deuce. Alan just didn’t worry Briggs all that much. He was a good boy, an obedient boy, who trusted his senior drill instructor – his Major – implicitly. In a way, Briggs felt that Alan shouldn’t even be here, that Alan wasn’t cut out to fight in a war, but he was nevertheless a part of the battalion that Major Briggs would be leading into battle. Major Briggs didn’t want to lose a single man… not as of yet.

You don’t pick’em, you just work with what they send ya. Briggs took a moment to look up from his thoughts and glanced at Alan. Alan stood in front of his desk… silent… nervous. He waited for Briggs to continue the conversation.

Deuce, on the other hand, Briggs let out a deep, troubled breath, had obviously slipped out of line.

What could it hurt? Back to Alan. Why not lay it all out on the table for the kid to mull over?

“Remember, we only have a few more weeks before we go into the bush,” Major Briggs pointed out, knowing that this would instill fear into Alan. Briggs felt that Alan needed to hear this next statement come from his own lips, in person. “Besides, you’re working with some of the best guys I’ve seen in a while, even if they are a bunch of assholes.” Briggs laughed as he finished this last statement, a rare gesture and a stern, short, grunt of a sound. Alan wouldn’t have doubted if that were the first joke the man had made in a good while. Then, more seriously, Briggs said, “Alan, I ask that you let this one go and trust me to handle it, for your sake and mine. We’re too close to going into combat for any extreme controversies. Is that understood, soldier?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Alan hesitated, then asked, “But what about Deuce’s actions? You can’t possibly tolerate everything he’s done, sir?”

“I’ll be having a talk with Deuce,” Major Briggs allowed himself to sound angered and upset, “and I want to assure you that I’ll be naming a new head squad leader before the day is through.”

“That’s it?” Alan might’ve said (or rather, might’ve asked), and he might’ve overstepped his boundaries. If he had done so, he likely would’ve been deemed out of line. However, he didn’t. Instead, Alan kept his mouth shut.

Alan stood before Major Briggs, silent and stern, unsure of what to say next. Briggs may have caught a glimpse of disappointment, even disapproval, on Alan’s face. Briggs set out to set Alan straight. He didn’t need a grudge continuing on between Alan Fohler and Deuce Covert, and he definitely didn’t need others getting sucked into this feud.

“Look, son, Deuce is our best guy. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into grooming him for a particular job. Yes, he overstepped his boundaries,” Major Briggs was earnestly distraught over Alan’s ordeal with Deuce, “and I will make him pay for that. But, son, when the bullets start flying, we’re going to need him.”

There was nothing else Alan felt he could say. Major Briggs dismissed him. Alan had accepted his Major’s resolution. He would’ve been out of line to do otherwise. As far as Briggs was concerned, Alan would be no real trouble. He was a good boy. However, maybe both Alan and Deuce needed to be taught a lesson, just in case, so that this matter wouldn’t get out of hand…?

Major Briggs pulled Deuce aside and had Kellen Collins lead the group through the rest of the morning exercise routine.

“So what happened between you and Alan Fohler last night?” Major Briggs asked Deuce once they were seated in the privacy of his office.

“Sir, it was just a little misunderstanding, sir,” Deuce concisely stated, yet he still couldn’t help but to feel that he appeared a little defensive. He was beginning to get the idea that Major Briggs was about to interrogate the piss out of him.

“That’s what the bruising on the kid’s face suggests,” Briggs angrily retorted.

“Sir, maybe things got a little out of hand, sir. Maybe, um…” Deuce faltered with his words, and Major Briggs didn’t let him finish.

“You mean you lost control,” Briggs pointed out, staring at Deuce with a solid, stolid, unyielding gaze.

Deuce was silent, a look of shameful guilt on his face.

“Look, you took things a little too far with the kid,” Briggs professed. “Once we get into battle and the enemy is present, then you can lash out all you want. Unleash all of the aggression that you want to get out of you upon the enemy, but not your fellow troops.”

Briggs paused. Deuce took this as his cue to reply, a simple acknowledgement, “Sir, I understand, sir.”

“Until then,” Major Briggs continued, “I’m going to need you to remember to keep your cool. Don’t go flying off the handle again. Maybe being demoted from squad leader for a little while will help you learn not to take your hostilities out on your fellow soldiers? You guys have got a good thing going here. It will remain that way, provided that there are no more conflicts like the one last night. This troop is going to act and function as a close-knit unit. You are a team. Again, I will have no patience for conflicts and disputes between my recruits. I’ve talked to Alan and have made him aware of this, and now I’m informing you of the same. Do you understand me, Deuce?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Deuce confirmed.

“After all that I’m doing for you, son…” Briggs began, but then stopped himself, contemplatively shaking his head. He then said, “Deuce, you have what it takes to become a great leader. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. You have to learn how to keep your emotions in check, though. Discipline. I know you’ve never been a big fan of the concept… hell, the sound of the word probably makes your blood boil… but it’s in the military, Deuce, where you will learn the values of discipline. A disciplined unit will always come out on top. Remember that. A disciplined unit reaps many rewards. You wouldn’t like it if I put an end to your nightly festivities, would you?”

Again, Deuce didn’t speak. He knew that Briggs knew that he wouldn’t like that at all. Instead, Deuce held his head in shame until Briggs went back to lecturing him.

“All it takes is one person to fuck up a good thing for everybody,” Briggs stared at Deuce intently, and Deuce looked up to meet Briggs’ eyes, “and trust me, Deuce, you wouldn’t want that person to be you. That’s what you could have done last night by attacking Alan the way you did. Do you get it?”

“Sir, I understand now, sir,” Deuce said. Deuce accepted what Briggs was telling him, but decided to also add, “I beg your pardon, sir, but I think that the little cocksucker is a troublemaker who is going to continue to cause problems, sir.”

“He’s awfully fired up, but Alan seemed more disrupted by your violent outburst than he did about you guys smoking pot.” Major Briggs saw Deuce shoot him a questioning glance. He rephrased himself, “Although Alan sees the marijuana as the root of the problem, his pride was obviously beat down during your assault upon him. Now he has it out for you, Deuce. Now you have a squad member who doesn’t trust you and fears you. That’s not what I’ve been teaching you to do… how to behave… how to act. Cooperation is the key, Deuce. That kid could be the death of you, because of what you’ve done. What happens if you get into battle and he’s the one providing cover fire for you in a heated situation, and all of a sudden he stops shooting at the enemy just out of spite for you? Or perhaps he has a bullet go astray on him? Oops, it ‘accidentally’ lands in your head! Think about it, will ya?”

“Sir, I do understand, but I’m still suggesting that he isn’t going to let this go,” Deuce continued to argue. Deuce knew that Briggs wasn’t being completely straight forward with him. Now it was Deuce’s turn to fib, “I could see it on his face last night, sir.”

“Yes, I think I know what you mean,” Major Briggs said, agreeing with Deuce. Major Briggs paused to think. Deuce waited, patiently. “He still thinks he may have some control over the situation, some say in things. I would like to get him to trust in you again, all while getting him to come to realize that he needs to let this thing go.”

Major Briggs paused to think again. When he started back to talking, it sounded like Briggs was talking more to himself than to Deuce, even though Briggs was looking straight at Deuce as he spoke. “I think that I might have been able to diffuse this entire situation earlier this morning, but he seems to have this grand vendetta against you that he’s not letting go of. The kid is obviously pretty scared of you, but he isn’t shaken up enough. I want Alan to see how much we have all come to depend upon you.”

Major Briggs’ eyes wandered off, releasing from the deadlock clutch of a stare that they’d held on Deuce. Major Briggs appeared as though he were in deep thought there for a moment, then his eyes met Deuce’s again. Deuce could see the resolve in Briggs’ gaze. Briggs announced that he had a plan, and that it should take care of all of their troubles.

“You’ll handle your affairs the way that I tell you to from here on out, am I understood?” A truly authoritative and commanding voice from a truly authoritative and commanding figure. Briggs was back to staring at Deuce with that bold, angry look which made even a guy like Deuce Covert feel small in comparison.

“Sir, yes, sir.” Deuce confirmed. To Deuce, Major Briggs seemed like the type of guy who could just snap and go off the deep end at any time due to one wrong move. Deuce didn’t doubt that Major Briggs was a lot like himself, being that they both had difficulties in handling their emotions. Like Deuce, Briggs had that killer’s look in his eyes. When men like Briggs or Deuce have an agenda that they’re set on, it really wouldn’t be a good idea to get in their path. The type of men who would be ready and willing to clear just about any obstacle out of their way, these guys would go through just about anything or anybody in order to complete a set goal.

“You’ll resume the position of head squad leader before the war begins, but I’m going to have to demote you for now. I’m going to need you to play a certain role for me. It involves keeping your mouth shut, and claiming ignorance. It’s a simple plan, really. Alan will think that the men came up with it in order to get their head squad leader back… I’ll help see to that. I’m going to need one more person for this. It wouldn’t be fair to ask Kellen… he’s your competition, although you have, by far, proven yourself. The time in the head squad leader position should do Kellen some good, build his confidence up a bit, but I will be informing him… the same thing that I told you, Deuce… that this will be a temporary position for him. How well do you trust your bunkmate, Roy Phillips?”

“Sir, what can I say,” Deuce replied, a smile forming on his face, “the man’s got my back, sir.”

“Then he’ll do,” Briggs confirmed, but he sounded reluctant, “though I really rather not get anyone else involved. Oh well, I’ve always walked a thin wire. If I could think of a better way… If I could, I’d handle things… But what I have in mind will hopefully get the kid to open his eyes. He needs to realize how close we are to going into battle and that I’m not going to take a stance on this matter. You know what, Deuce?”

“Sir, what, sir?” Deuce asked, eyes focused, unblinking, on Briggs.

“I’m actually halfway tempted not to tell you what I’m thinking, but I’m afraid that, if you don’t know where I’m coming from, you might somehow manage to find a way to fuck it all up. When I look at how you went about handling that whole Alan mess, I just wonder… You know, what I’m doing is intended to help you… and to teach you. I want you to prove to me that you have some discipline and self-control this time around. Now, here’s how it’s gonna go down…”

Major Briggs explained his plan to Deuce, at length and in detail. Whenever Briggs was finished explaining things, Deuce asked, “Sir, do you think that something like this will work, sir?”

Major Briggs sharply insisted, “We’ll soon find out, now, won’t we? I’ll be talking to you again before the war begins, Deuce. You’re dismissed for now.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” A salute on Deuce’s behalf. Briggs eyed him warily for a moment, then returned a firm solute of his own. Then, Deuce was off. It was going to be a long day for the both of them, but it was going to be an even longer one for Alan.

That afternoon, Major Briggs denounced Deuce from the rank of head squad leader. Briggs gave a speech on proper behavior and keeping one’s cool. Briggs had made sure to cleverly iterate the fact that there were no enemies here on base, and that they were all dependent upon one another and would grow even more dependent upon one another come time to go into battle.

Major Briggs had not been his usual, chipper, boisterous self during his speech. He’d been very straight-forward, sullen, almost calm yet veraciously to the point. There was an almost evil look on the man’s face which many of the recruits noticed. John had seen it. Brad saw it, too.

Major Briggs then promoted Kellen Collins to the head squad leader position. He congratulated Kellen, letting him know that he’d earned it. Major Briggs disappeared for a while after that, leaving his team of instructors behind to take the men through the day’s events.

Before the day was over, Major Briggs had informed Roy Phillips as to how his plan was to be carried out. Major Briggs hated having to get another person involved, but this seemed to be the best course of action.

Roy Phillips would do everything that he’d been told to do to the tee. He announced the idea as his own plan, just as Major Briggs had instructed him to do, and Deuce had went along with it, endorsing “Roy’s” plan as he’d been instructed to do. Alan never got word about what was to happen… never suspected a thing as he tucked himself into bed that night and fell into a fast, quiet, deep, cozy sleep.

Smack! Thud!

“What the fuck! What’s going on here? Hey! What’s the big idea? I demand to know the meaning of this!” Alan roared out, while attempting to gain his bearings. He lie awake on the floor beside his bunk, a slight pain dispersing throughout his lower back and buttocks area from where he’d hit the ground. His head had landed against the mattress, preventing it from taking a bump.

Awkwardly and drearily, Alan got to his feet. Confused, unpleasantly awakened from his slumber into a frantic rush of panic, he had no idea what to make of this. He heard someone trying to hold back their laughter close by. He looked around, his eyes adjusting to the dim light in the sleeping quarters.

“At least you weren’t on the top bunk, asshole,” the assailant stated, rather matter-of-factly, through hushed laughter. It was the voice of Vic Hughes. Alan recognized it now. Victor Hughes was one of Deuce’s close pals in this place. He was one of the goons who had cut off Alan’s retreat the night before.

Vic had always been one to run with the wrong crowd. Unlike most of the guys in this group of recruits (though, just like Deuce), Vic was there of his own accord. Serving in the military was a more appealing option than doing time in the pen.

Vic had been charged with grand theft auto – and a whole wrap sheet of other minor offenses, mostly misdemeanors – when the Volvo he was driving was finally taken out by a spike strip after exiting the interstate in a wild, drawn out police chase. He managed to elude the cops for over a half an hour in the chase. It came to a sparking end, quite literally, when Vic tried to punch the gas after the tires blew. The exposed wheels and rims scraped against the asphalt in a display reminiscent of fireworks on the Forth of July. Determined but screwed, the car was immediately surrounded by the pursuing police vehicles. Vic was arrested, but not before one last attempt to flee, trying to use the car as a battering ram to plow through the surrounding patrol cars.

It had been all over the news. Vic wouldn’t be surprised if he wound up on an episode of COPS one of these days for that stunt. He’d been looking at some serious time. Vic had found the choice to serve in the New World forces over doing hard time an easy one. He’d have chosen to serve his nation over having done even a single day of prison time. Big, bad Victor Hughes had realized, when it came down to it, that a life of crime wasn’t for him – or rather, jail wasn’t for him. He’d been terrified throughout his entire ordeal with New World’s justice system, oblivious and confused about all of what was going on around him, and rightfully feeling quite a bit ashamed of himself. He was glad to be done with all of that.

When Roy Phillips informed everyone as to what the plan was, Vic had volunteered – really, rather insisted – that he be the one to take the first shift. Vic wanted more than anything to see the look of astonishment on Alan’s face when the plan was put into action, before Alan had the opportunity to figure out what was actually going on.

Even better than Vic had expected, Alan’s reaction had been a priceless form of humor and entertainment for him. Alan had been livid, all worked up and ready to go, a string of obscenities rushing from his mouth. Alan approached Vic, looking as if he were about to attack him. Vic wasn’t the biggest guy in the group, not by any means, but he was street-smart and quite cunning. Vic lifted his fists in a boxer’s guard, dead-eyed Alan, and spoke with force.

“What, bitch? What you want?” Vic started to bob and weave a little, almost seeming as if to mock Alan. Vic didn’t look at all frightened.

Alan hesitated, clarity overcoming rage, his progression towards Vic coming to a halt.

“That’s what I thought,” Vic said, triumphantly. He was getting quite a thrill out of this.

“Why don’t you go back to bed, runt? Get another hour or so worth of sleep. I have a feeling you’re gonna need it. Oh, and, runt, never fuck with our head squad leader again.”

“Huh? Wait, what do you mean by that? Hey!” Alan shouted at Vic, caught up in his frustration. Vic ignored him, returning to his bunk. Vic was through with his part, and quite satisfied with the results. Alan suspected that this was their revenge for the night before.

“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?” Alan felt it then. They were all in on it. This was all some sort of a joke, the drug addicts’ method of retaliation, like a game that they were all playing with him. It was a response, built up from everything that had happened since the previous night, the intent being to get back at him for getting Deuce demoted.

Alan’s eyes had adjusted to the dim light. He could see many eyes, open and upon him… and smiles, smiles holding back laughter… laughing at him. They were all in on it. Alan exploded with outrage, “Fuck you! Fuck all of you!”

For a brief moment, sounds of muffled laughter filled the room. Vic was back in his bunk by now, laying down and musing over his small triumph. He’d fed good.

Alan went to lay back down, unsure of what to do. It had been a long day. It was late. Alan had witnessed the groups head outside again earlier that very night. He hadn’t dared to follow them out this time. It sickened Alan, the fact that this was still going on… the fact that Major Briggs hadn’t put an end to these dopers. Now they were attacking him in his sleep. This was too much. Alan thought about things for a good ten minutes before dozing back off into slumber.

An hour later… Smack! Thud!

Again, Alan found himself being pushed out of bed onto the floor. This time it was Deuce Covert’s bunkmate, Roy Phillips, doing the honor of awakening Alan. Alan attempted to scurry to his feet, but Roy pushed him back down.

“It’s going to be a long night for you, pal,” Roy said, in a cold, firm voice. Alan remained on the floor, right where Roy wanted him, while Roy got his words out. “Nobody, and I mean nobody, is happy about you fucking with our head squad leader. That’s our guy. The entire squad looks up to Deuce. You would be surprised at how many people are willing to go to bat for the guy.”

A thin smile formed on Roy’s face, and then it was gone.

“A group of us have been gathering together throughout the day, and we’ve come up with this exhaustive scheme as a little example for you. Think of this as, kind of, a demonstration of our loyalty to Deuce… our support for him taking back the role of head squad leader.”

“Bullshit!” Alan blurted out. “You mean to tell me that Deuce has nothing to do with this?”

“That’s right, Alan. This started out as my idea,” Roy proclaimed, as Major Briggs had instructed him to do if necessary, “and, well… let’s just say that it took and it grew. I think that Deuce will be as impressed as you’ll be with our little performance. We’ll have to see. And trust me, Alan, before the night’s up, we will see. You’ll see, Alan. And if you don’t believe me, just wait ‘til you meet our next guest. Now get up off the floor and try to get some rest. I hope you have a different outlook on things in the morning. Now, no more fibbing… before you cause a real problem. Got it?”

Roy didn’t wait for an answer and Alan didn’t give one. Alan couldn’t even begin to fathom what to do. He could only think to go talk to Major Briggs again in the morning, but what would happen if he did? Did he want to chance causing “a real problem,” especially when he knew that the worst of that “real problem” seemed to be reserved to be taken out on him.

Alan had thought that, by Deuce being demoted, he had gotten to Deuce. Now Alan wasn’t so sure. Alan was getting the idea that it wasn’t going to be possible to get to Deuce. Everybody, Major Briggs included, seemed to have something invested in the guy – that is, everybody except for Alan. Still, Major Briggs had to at least be informed about these happenings, even if the matter needed to be kept confidential and dropped afterwards. Alan was beginning to feel okay with such a concept. Maybe he would suggest something of the such to Major Briggs whenever he went to talk to him in the morning? Alan drifted back off to sleep.

About an hour later… yep, you already know… Smack! Thud!

This time it was Kellen Collins. Alan was surprised. Kellen Collins was the guy who had assumed Deuce’s former position as head squad leader. Why is he in on this? What does he have to gain?

“But Major Briggs promoted you to the position of head squad leader?” Alan had managed to babble out in his confusion. The same two questions continued to circle around upstairs, so Alan asked them aloud, “Why would you be in on this? How does this benefit you, Kellen?”

“Alan,” Kellen Collins was hesitant now. He heard the disappointment in Alan’s voice, could tell that Alan was holding back tears, but Kellen knew that he could not waver from the point at hand. He lightened up a bit, though, realizing that no harm could come from being gentle, “you should know by now that we all need each other. We all play a role in all of this. Even Duff Avery’s our top marksman. We need Deuce. He’s the one who leads them. Briggs knows it, too. Deuce is able to connect on a personal level with the men, and like nobody else is able to. I wanted to be head squad leader, but not like this. I wanted to earn the title, and Deuce has been the one who’s done that. I don’t wish to take it away from him. Alan, we’re going to war. Please, for all of our sakes, get it together, man. You’re out of line. If not, you’re outnumbered. Let it go.”

Kellen outstretched his right arm, offering his hand. Alan took it. Kellen assisted Alan back up onto his feet. Kellen actually shook Alan’s hand, then they parted and it was off to bed. Kellen had taken the right approach with Alan. Alan couldn’t help but consider what Kellen had just said.

Another hour… Smack! Thud!

At least they were getting through to him.

Alan went to Major Briggs the next day and told him about what happened the night before, though he had to admit that he was beginning to feel as though he’d gotten himself way in over his head. Briggs looked disgruntled, again. Major Briggs said that he’d been concerned about something like this happening. Briggs began to display emotion, expressed concern over his battalion beginning to fall apart, and so close to the time when they were going to be bound for battle.

Alan felt subdued with astonishment due to his Major’s reaction. It seemed to Alan as though Major Briggs was opening up to him, but it made Alan feel quite a bit uncomfortable. Had Alan caused his leader so much trouble… so much turmoil? He hadn’t meant to. He’d only meant to right a wrong. Major Briggs looked, for the moment, like a man who’d just had the rug pulled out from beneath his boots. Alan was beginning to get the idea that he’d bit off more than he could chew, thinking that he may have set off a chain of reactions which were beyond his comprehension. He hadn’t meant to jeopardize Major Briggs’ hold on the battalion, but he felt as though he had in some way done just that. Major Briggs seemed so very distraught.

Briggs had been building the suspense, putting the final layers of icing on the cake and fitting the final pieces to the puzzle together for Alan. He addressed Alan, actually asking him for advice.

“So, how should we go about handling things now, son?”

“Sir, I don’t know, sir,” Alan replied in a remorseful tone of voice. Then he apologetically added, “I’m sorry to have caused so much trouble for you, sir. I didn’t mean to. I was only trying to do what was right. I would do anything to fix this, sir.”

I’ve got him right where I want him, Briggs thought to himself. Major Briggs felt like a spider, Alan Fohler the fly caught up in his web. Or perhaps Alan was more like a robot, Briggs being the one who held the remote control that operated him and made him function.

“Well, Alan,” Major Briggs spoke, attempting to relate to Alan and place himself down on Alan’s level, “it looks like we’ve both gotten ourselves into a bit of a pickle here, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Sir, I suppose so, sir,” Alan nervously stammered out. He felt quite frightened. Major Briggs was an intense presence to stand in front of anyways, but today he also had this look in his eyes. Alan didn’t really understand that look, but he didn’t like it at all. It was a look that made Alan feel more justified in being so on edge.

“You know what I think, Alan?” Major Briggs didn’t give Alan the chance to answer that question. Alan wouldn’t have known what to say if he had. For the moment, Alan was feeling quite a bit tongue tied. Major Briggs quickly continued his “on-the-level” lecture with Alan. “I think that honesty is the best policy. Things have gotten far too out of control the last couple of days and I think that honesty is the only way out of this going from bad to worse.”

A moment of silence. Briggs contemplated the scenario. Alan did too, asking himself, What is Major Briggs getting at? What is he trying to say?

“Sir, yes, sir,” Alan nervously sounded off. Then, more silence.

“Okay,” Major Briggs finally said. “Alan, come with me. I think we have a squad to confront.”

“Sir?” Alan exclaimed, with sudden and severe trepidation.

“Alan!” Briggs firmly demanded of him. “Don’t you worry, just follow my lead… and trust me.”

If it were to have been a leap of faith, then consider it leapt. If it were to have been any other man…

Alan followed Major Briggs. It was a showing that the trust was still there. Major Briggs is going to make everything alright.

Major Briggs approached the battalion with Alan Fohler. Briggs called for everyone’s attention, then kicked into a speech about cooperation and heading into times of peril. Major Briggs made it seem as though they could be going into battle tomorrow. They would be going into battle soon, but not as soon as Major Briggs would lead them to believe. He did this to get everyone’s attention focused on the life or death matter ahead of them, for this is where he wanted all of their heads to be. Major Briggs pointed out the fact that Alan may have informed him of some troubling news, but the fact that no action had been taken against them should be sufficient reason to stop this feud.

During his speech, Briggs never admitted to his knowledge of the nightly activities. He was clever to beat around the bush. The smokers took this as confirmation that they could continue doing what they were doing as long as they kept focused, got along, and left each other alone. Maybe Major Briggs wasn’t such a bad guy, after all? Maybe he’s cool?

“Alan means you guys no trouble. He was just doing his job,” Major Briggs firmly stated, with the swagger of a politician. Then he added, “Isn’t that right, Alan?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Alan agreed, playing along, knowing that this is what he’d been expected to say. In that moment, Alan felt small, helpless, and completely caught off guard. He felt drained and worn. He thought to himself, Just another drone… What’ve I been thrown into?

Alan had previously informed Major Briggs that their current head squad leader, Kellen Collins, had been involved in the preceding night’s little escapade. Major Briggs proceeded to tell the group what Alan had told him, leading up to what Kellen had said to Alan when he’d taken his turn at rudely awakening Alan the night before. Major Briggs then proceeded to ask Kellen who he thought should be head squad leader. Kellen then explained, in detail, why he felt Deuce Covert should regain the title. Kellen was brief, but he got it all out and meant what he said.

It was then that Major Briggs proceeded to announce to the battalion that Deuce Covert was now being promoted to the position of head squad leader once again. Briggs announced to the entire battalion that they could thank Kellen and Alan, both, for Deuce being reassigned to his former rank. Alan was disgruntled about this, but he kept it to himself and went along with everything. Alan just wanted this nightmare to be over with – at least, this part of it, anyways. Briggs made sure Kellen understood that he was second in command. Kellen was honored.

Briggs wrapped things up by letting them know how well they were all doing, and he even went as far as to let them know how proud he was of all of them. The war was right around the bend and he expected everybody to keep up their performance. They were functioning as a unit once again. The majority had gotten their way, Major Briggs providing. It was good for the men to have a way to cut loose… had always worked for him.

One more incident had occurred for Alan, and it happened that night – actually, very early the next morning. Alan had looked up to see a familiar figure running away, from near his bunk into the shadows in the darkness. Obviously, the assailant had headed back to the confinement of his own bunk.

Was that Duff Avery? Alan had asked himself. He thought about it. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he’d become that it was Duff.

Nothing else happened for the remainder of the night, and Alan sort of wrote the occurrence off. He never bothered to mention this occurrence to anyone, Briggs included. Alan’s conclusion on Duff (other than the fact that he was an excellent shot), one simple thought, one single word, Idiot.

Things went back to the way they’d been before, usual for the most part, and that lasted for the remainder of the time that they were all on the base. The pot smokers continued with their nightly smoke sessions. Alan didn’t cause the group any more problems. Major Briggs kept on them, making it seem like they could be going into battle any day. Briggs had his good side to him, and he tended to reward the group with little luxuries (like leisure time), especially whenever the battalion was doing an exceptionally good job at their tasks at hand. The two a.m. training sessions – the ante meridiem drills, or a.m. drills, as the group had begun to refer to them as – would finally cease to occur, having come to an end. Despite how close it seemed to be coming to their time to go into battle, that day seemed to never come. They could thank Major Briggs for leading them on – how clever, his tactics. That’s the thing about time, though… it passes. No matter how eventual it sometimes seemed to all of them, the war would be fought and they would all be a part of it.

Before we jump ahead to the last night on the base, there was a tragedy which occurred during the final week on base. Sam Weatherspoon, the known junky, had died of an overdose. It was Sam’s bunkmate who initially found him dead, and Major Briggs was the one who announced the sad news to the rest of the battalion. Briggs had followed this announcement with a warning, saying that it was a really big no-no to trade off their “pens,” but had also insisted that anyone who had done so should come see him before the day was through in order to pick up a replacement, and that it wouldn’t be held against them due to the tragedy that had just occurred.

Major Briggs eventually informed the men that the autopsy had revealed that Sam obviously shot up the contents of an entire death pen. Some people thought that Sam was just trying to get too high, “long term junkies have extraordinary tolerances,” but most all agreed that it was a self-induced overdose – a suicide, in other words. Some people just can’t handle the concepts of extreme change and extraordinary danger (drug addicts seem to be statistically more likely to be amongst this character typing – but so is the opposite to be said, for addicts also often display a resilient ability to adapt and overcome, given the environment), and it was widely presumed that Sam Weatherspoon couldn’t hack it. Anyhow, anyone who would knowingly shoot up the contents of something known as a “death pen” is just asking to die.

While he was writing one of his final letters to Mary Jane before heading into battle, John thought about mentioning Sam Weatherspoon’s overdose but had decided to leave that part out, too sad. Brad had chosen to do the same in his final letters to Rachel. Rachel was due any day now, and Brad had been both nervous and excited about the birth of his daughter. Brad was going to miss being there for the birth of Lil’ Kimmy, but that didn’t stop him from worrying about everything going right. What he was most concerned about was getting home to see his wife and daughter. That would be a blessing in itself – and enough of a blessing, at that. Neither John nor Brad wanted to get their lady any more worked up than they knew they already were. They both filled their letters with, mostly, more positive things, and they both ended their letters by promising to write their lovers as soon and as often as possible.

How long will we be gone?

“John,” Brad said, catching John’s attention.

“Yeah,” John called up from his position on the bottom bunk. It was just before lights-out, the night after Sam’s passing. Everyone on the base had seemed a little shaken up by the guy’s death, but business had gone on as usual, so to speak.

“I have a favor to ask of you, just in case,” Brad called down from his position on the top bunk, sticking his head over the side in order to make eye contact with John.

“Just in case?” John asked, unsure, as if he were spinning those words around in his mouth and tasting them for himself. The sound to those three, little words made him feel uneasy, alert, and concerned.

“Yeah, just in case,” Brad repeated, jumping down from his position on the top bunk before he continued speaking, now standing and facing John, “and I have a feeling that you might want to do the same thing.”

“Oh, yeah? And what’s that?”

Brad could tell that he had John’s attention, despite the condescending behavior and tone of voice that John was taking with him – which was apparently due to his reservations about Sam’s death and, even worse, his apprehensions over having to leave to go and fight in the war in a matter of days. Brad knew this because he felt much the same way, but what he had to say was important.

“I want you to remember that I have a letter in the left-breast pocket of my uniform. It’s a final letter to Rachel that I only want her to receive if anything does actually happen to me.”

“Your ‘just in case’ letter, huh?” John surmised.

“If you survive and I don’t,” Brad continued, not bothering to sidetrack, “I want you to promise me that you’ll pull that letter from my pocket and mail it to Rachel. Would you please do that for me?”

“Why not just give me the letter now?” John asked, using that same condescending tone he’d been using.

“Because this letter is only meant to be sent to my wife if I’m dead,” Brad said this plainly enough, but John knew him well enough to catch the undertones of emotion behind Brad’s well-registered voice. Brad reached into his left-breast pocket and pulled out the letter for John to see it. “For this letter to be anywhere other than on my person is to risk falsely breaking my wife’s heart. What if this letter were on you…”

Brad paused long enough for John to pick up the gist of things and take over where Brad had left off. “…and I were to get gunned down in battle, and some poor, stupid sap finds that letter on me thinking that it’s my letter…”

John’s voice had dropped that condescending tone, signaling to Brad that John was coming to understand him about this. John paused for too long and Brad finished, “…and he sends it to Rachel, and she gets to think that I’m dead before my time.”

Brad could see that John now fully understood where he was coming from.

“Wow,” John said, a smile dawning on his face, “I’m going to have to write me one of them.”

“What,” Brad knew to question, and it came to him in time, “a ‘just in case’ letter?”

“You got it,” John laughed, his smile widening. “Promise me that you’ll keep the same promise and send my ‘just in case’ letter to Mary Jane, ‘just in case’ you happen to survive this and I don’t.”

“It’s a deal,” Brad agreed, extending his hand out to where John lay facing him on the bottom bunk. “Shake on it.”

Brad and John shook on it as a means to seal the deal. They trusted one another as two perfect gentlemen should – especially in matters of life and death, while trying to stack the odds in one’s favor, it’s good to have allies.

Now, let us jump ahead to the last night that the group would be spending on base together. The entire battalion would be shipping out the next day to head into battle.

Deuce does the honors of lighting it up. He takes two puffs, exhales, and says, “So, this is it, guys.” Another puff and he passes it on to Roy Phillips, his bunkmate.

“Well, no matter what happens, it’s been real, yawl,” Otis speaks up, maybe trying to break the solemn moment and lift the mood?

“It’s been something,” Shawn Berg agrees.

“Hey, guys,” Deuce says, he sounds passionate. In their hearts, Deuce has become the group’s leader. He’s the biggest, most badass motha’ fucka’ in here, and he’s brought them things. He provided them with the pot. He handled the situation with Alan. He’d always exhibited strength, never a moment of doubt, weakness, or remorse. And he’d never done the group wrong.

Yes, Deuce was their leader. Their eyes were upon him, trusting him to lead them through the upcoming battles. The new soldiers knew that many of them would die, but they also knew that they had hope. They were scared, but they were proud to be a part of this battalion. The entire group looked upon their leader, waiting to hear what he had to say.

But before Deuce could say anything, the door to the living quarters opened and the rest of the men – the nonsmokers, if you will – came out to join them… Alan Fohler included. A peaceful unity was then established, a joining together of the entire battalion which was understood by all. The nonsmokers stood on the outside of the circle, all facing Deuce, while the smokers continued to pass a couple of joints around.

After everyone gathered around and got settled in, Deuce spoke up. “I know that most of you don’t want to be here… hell, probably none of us really wants to be here… but we are here. We need to know that we can depend on one another… I know that I can count on you, and you know that you can count on me and everybody else here. We all know what we’re up against… what we’re facing here. I’d say that our generation got quite the royal screw on this one. It’s a damn pity, but it is what it is. All we can do is take what we’ve learned, go out there, and kick the living shit out of our enemy! Oh, and one more thing, stay alive!” Deuce strongly emphasized these last two words. “If you can help a brother out if he’s down and wounded, then don’t hesitate to do so. Just stay structured, keep with the program, and do as we’ve been trained and we all stand the best chance at survival. I want each and every one of you to go out there with a winning mentality, no matter how grim the situation may look. Don’t hold back! Remember, anger can be a gift whenever it’s focused in the proper direction. That’s something that Major Briggs taught me. We stick together as a team, no matter what. Say a prayer, or whatever it is you feel you need to do, but we stick together and try to survive what lies ahead.”

The next day, Major Briggs would make a similar speech to that of Deuce’s, which wasn’t half as inspiring or heartfelt by anyone except for maybe Deuce. The orders to ship out were proceeding and underway, and thus the war was right around the bend.

              Casualties  of  War  :  A  Brief  Interlude

Would you ever expect for the battle to hit home? Whatever would/could one do if it did?

Luckily for Major Briggs’ battalion, they were on the east coast – all of the men trained near the cities from which they’d been drafted out of. Throughout the Second New World War, none of their hometowns were ever attacked. On the west coast, however, it was an entirely different story.

Sven Williams, fifteen years old, wanted to join the New World forces (wanted to follow his brothers, Daniel and Thomas, into action), but he’d been too young to do so at the time. Little did he know, before the war was over, he would be a part of the action – although, not as he would’ve liked to have been. He and his parents were in one of the cities that would be attacked.

How demoralizing would it be for a true soldier to see some under-aged, little brat crying for his mommy on a battlefield, an ego bigger than the little fucker’s testicles, if a kid did sign up to join in the fight and they actually did let him in? It would never happen, right? Wrong! It has happened. Never mind the World and Adolph Randall, for now. Back to Earth… Adolph Hitler… The Hitler Youths…

Call it a joke, if you will… What are some of the things that the Nazis of old and the neo-Nazis of today’s society have in common? They both promote a violent mentality and mindset, they both use propaganda as a recruiting tool and weapon, and they both recruit the youths of their societies.

The Nazis were desperate for soldiers, desperate to win World War II, and a number of young, under-aged men were permitted to join and fight for the Nazi cause. Each of these boys was given a knife as a token of their commitment to the Fuhrer and Nazi Germany. A rare thing, I’ve actually had the opportunity to view one of these Hitler’s Youths knives during my lifetime – memorabilia of a friend of one of my grandfathers. I was too young to think to ask where he got it from, and I’m glad I didn’t ‘cause I doubt I’d have really wanted to know the honest answer.

Under harsh conditions and with crazed fanaticism, young German boys were transformed into Nazi soldiers. A number of these Hitler Youths were even trained to fly German war birds. They started out their training using gliders, but it is said that some of them did actually graduate to real airplanes – such as the Komet, which was a very dangerous aircraft.

The ME-163B, the Messerschmitt Komet, was the first rocket powered aircraft ever to take to the skies. The mixture of fuel that was required for this aircraft to fly was dangerously volatile. T-stoff, hydrogen peroxide, and C-stoff, a mixture of methanol and hydrozene hydrate – two mixtures of fuel which, when combined, are highly and instantaneously combustible. The nazis had to use two different fueling trucks in order to stock the dual fueling tanks of this aircraft, and they had to make sure that the area where they were stocking the separate fueling tanks was thoroughly washed down before bringing in each fueling truck. Not a high success rate for a pilot’s survival, to attempt to fly this aircraft was practically a death warrant. Put it this way, the odds of even making it off of the ground were slim.

A hard plane for even an experienced pilot to handle, it’s doubtful that any of the Hitler Youths had any real success at piloting such a plane as the Komet during the war. Anyways, enough with the history lesson… Departure; our Mother Earth – Destination; back to the World.

It had all started with the planes overhead. There was the sound of many approaching engines as the bomber jets appeared in the sky. Then came the whistling sounds as the bombs were released and the Old World air strike started in its onslaught.

Yes, there was a New World military base not far from the city. However, that was not the target. The city and its civilians were the target of this attack. If this wasn’t an example of terrorism at its finest… and of course, that was Old World’s objective – or rather, the servants of Randall, the ones running this operation. This was an unorthodox attempt to strike fear into the hearts of New World’s officials and citizens.

No rules of engagement equals great feats of terror, undeserved tragedies, and harsh, cruel losses of lives. On both fronts, most could recognize the indignity and injustice in such warfare. However unfortunate, there was not much else that the officials of New World could do other than strike back and fight with the same cold and callous vindictiveness.

Not knowing that the attack was coming, there was nothing that the Williams family could do to avoid being caught up in the bombardment. Nowhere to run, no way to flee, they elected to hide. They huddled down in the basement of their once-beautiful, two-story house – Sven, his mother and father, and the family dog (an old St. Bernard) – while they listened to nearby buildings being turned to rubble all around them. Their own home was never severely damaged, but bombs had touched down awfully close by.

As the air strike let up, the ground troops moved in. New World was preparing countermeasures, but not quick enough. Old World’s infantry invaded the city. There were so many of them…

The Old World soldiers ransacked the city. They plundered and pillaged, sacked and looted, torched and tortured, shooting and killing New World civilians. They murdered men, women, and children alike, raping many of the women and, yes, some of the children before murdering them – remember, the vileness of war has no subservient standards, refined boundaries, or defined limits.

A defense was mounted by the New World infantry. New World could not persist in putting together a proper air strike, being that the lines of resistance were too vague and they did not want to bomb their own civilians. Many families were left to fend for themselves, find shelter and take cover, and go into hiding – the Williams family being one of them. The Williams’ elected to stay in the basement of their household, attempting to hide and wait out the storm.

It was later on, during that same day the attack took place, that the Williams’ household was infiltrated. Sven’s father heard the Old World soldiers enter the home, kicking in the front door on the first floor of their home. There was a small crawl space behind a water heater that Sven was able to fit into, only big enough for one, and his father had made him hide there.

For such a large and fancy house, it was not a large basement, and it lacked for cover and places to hide. Sven’s father forced his wife to hide in a supply cabinet, just large enough to fit her and still close. He then locked the tiny cabinet with a padlock – of which both Sven and his father knew the combination to so that either of them could release her after it was all over. Mr. Williams could only hope that the enemy soldiers would not find his wife and son.

Before forcing Sven into his hiding place, his father had given him a gun – only a six-shooter, but it was one of the only two guns that his father owned, so it would have to do.

“Use this only if you have to…” Sven’s father lectured him, “only if you are found and threatened. Do you understand me?”

Sven had acknowledged his father with reluctant agreement, stating that he understood.

After hiding his wife and son, Sven’s father flipped a thick, oak table over onto one side, centered practically in the middle of the room and facing the doorway – which was the only entrance into the basement. He got ready for a showdown, hoping that the enemy soldiers would not travel this far down into the home. He waited with a hunting rifle pressed against his right shoulder, prepared to open fire.

Not much time passed… Footsteps heading his way… The door burst open and shots rang out. Sven’s father went down, but not before taking out the lead soldier – the one who had kicked open the door to the basement. The St. Bernard was barking, frantic and loud. A friendly dog, it did not attack. Sven heard it cry out in a shrill yelp as it was shot dead. Sven could barely see out from where he was hiding. He was way too scared to scoot forward for a better look. Being so low on the floor and hidden away, he had only seen a portion of the back of his father’s bloodied head after he had fallen.

In the shootout, the soldier who had shot down Sven’s father had heard a noise come from the locked supply cabinet. That same soldier walked over to the locked cabinet to examine the area, possibly suspecting what he might find. The soldier took out his sidearm, a snub-nose revolver, and shot the lock off of the cabinet. Sven’s mother started to scream in terror at the thunderous repercussion of the close-range shot. The soldier swung the door open and dragged the lady out by her hair.

“Set that table back upright!” the murdering, enemy soldier said. There were four others in all, excluding the dead one. They did as told, but some were reluctant.

A loud groan, a groan of protest… It was Sven’s father. He was still alive, but severely and mortally wounded. Groans and grunts were the only form of protest he could manage.

“Good,” murdering soldier, apparently the one in command, stated, “you’re still alive. You can watch as I fuck your wife.

“Hold her down for me!” murdering, rapist soldier in charge told the others. Two of them took to obeying his command. The other two seemed uncertain.

“You, hold him up! Make him watch!” murdering rapist soldier said to, what looked like, the youngest of the four men, one of the uncertain ones. The guy hesitated, but did as his commanding officer told him to do.

Murdering, rapist soldier began to rip Mrs. Williams’ clothes away from her body. The other two that were holding her assisted him. The youngest looking soldier held Mr. Williams up and made him watch, as he’d been ordered to do. Only one soldier did not partake, and that one stood and watched in horror while holding onto his machine gun.

Sven peered out from the tight crawl space, six-shooter in hand, contemplating what to do. He could see the legs of the soldier who was holding his father up. His father’s legs looked limp, like he wouldn’t be able to stand on his own. He had an obscured view of the table and three of the other soldiers. The only enemy soldier that he couldn’t see was the one who did not partake, the one holding the machine gun.

Sven saw his opportunity… He realized that he was glad he hadn’t been old enough to join the service because he was needed right here at home.

A Christian by faith, Sven questioned if perhaps it had been God’s will for him to have stayed behind. He had to save his family. He had to at least do something.

Sven silently wept for his brothers (If they knew what was going on…), but not for long. Now was the time for action. He slowly and silently began to crawl forward in order to get a good line of fire. He only had six bullets. He would have to make these shots count. He was scared, but determined. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves… ease the fear. He saw in his mind what he had to do. He saw no other choice. There’s no other way.

Sven knew that he could use the soldier holding up his father for cover – a human shield. Another few inches forward and Sven was in position. None of them saw him. They were all focused on his mother.

Let my aim be true and on target… and as an after thought, just like my cause and my purpose.

Sven pointed the gun at murdering, rapist soldier and squeezed the trigger. The bullet hit the sick, twisted pervert in the center of the back, just under the neck, likely penetrating the spinal column. The other enemy soldiers were caught off guard and slow to react. As Sven took out the two soldiers holding his mother down on the table, the soldier holding up Sven’s father dropped Mr. Williams, as Sven had predicted the man would do in the ensuing panic. The soldier who had just dropped Sven’s father fumbled while attempting to draw his sidearm, but the soldier holding the machine gun moved in on Sven’s position. The soldier holding the machine gun wasn’t moving quite fast enough, and Sven shot the soldier who’d been holding up his father in the gut.

Two bullets left, and that was Sven’s final thought. The soldier holding the machine gun had moved in on Sven’s position and opened fire, riddling Sven’s upper torso with a heavy burst of ammunition. The soldier turned to Mrs. Williams and the others. The soldier who had been holding up Sven’s father was the only one of his companions who was still alive, though severely and mortally wounded.

“Hold on, Gunter, and put some pressure on that wound!” the soldier still standing instructed his companion.

“Fuck me, Hans, I’m done for!” the wounded soldier told his companion. “Hans, you know, I didn’t sign up for this sort of shit!”

“Yeah, I know… Me, neither,” Hans agreed with his companion.

“Ah!” Gunter cried out in pain. “Please, Hans, get the morphine… I just want the pain to stop… Please, make it go away.”

“Alright,” Hans reluctantly, but acceptingly, agreed, “one moment.”

“Lady, I’m sorry, but perhaps this is for the better,” and pulling his sidearm from his holster, Hans shot Mrs. Williams in the head. Her death was quick and fairly painless.

Hans then readied a syringe full of morphine and injected it into his companion’s arm. Gunter was dieing. He could tell that it would be a slow death. After alleviating the man’s pain, he used another bullet from his pistol to put Gunter out of his misery.

I wanted to fight for my nation… for a cause… but not like this. Quoting Gunter, Hans thought, I didn’t sign up for this sort of shit… and he turned his own gun on himself.

               Acknowledgements  :  Connected,  Disconnected

Connected, disconnected… I try to write these events to the best of my reckoning… Connected, disconnected… as best as I can foresee them in the sequences by which they come to mind… Connected, disconnected… Needless to say, it won’t all belong… Connected, disconnected… nor does it all, now, need truly make sense… Connected, disconnected… Take for instance…

               (Sha’s Story) Upon  the  Horizon

…and we rowed, and we rowed, and we rowed, and we rowed… and then we rowed some more. And just when I thought that we couldn’t row anymore, guess what… we rowed some more. I swear to you, we rowed this flippin’ boat for days on end… until it felt like my arms were about to fall off… and you know what, it just kind of felt as though we were going nowhere fast. So, he says to me, “Do you think we should, maybe, turn back?” and I’m thinking to myself, Yeah, ’cause, you know, we’ve come all this way… No need to stress my disapproval.

Our ship sank in a violent storm. Now, on a skiff and stranded at sea, we are the only two survivors of a party that had harbored so many. We have no sails to push us along, no compass to guide the way. We follow the brightest star by night, the positions of the sun by day, and hope that we’ll get somewhere, someday, soon.

And this star, it doesn’t look like it should really even be there at all, it doesn’t look like it belongs… And with each and every passing night, I know that it sounds strange, but it looks as if it is growing, the light becoming bigger… brighter… greater… more… And with it, comes hope… a hope so real. The light begins to look as though it were moving, calling to us, beckoning us to continue forth… And we begin to realize, with quite some relief, that our travels are finally about to pay off…

Our travels have been blessed, but not without sacrifice – thus are the trials and tribulations that we must encounter throughout life. We see the path, we make our choices, it gets to a point to where there becomes no other way. Belief can be a powerful tool. Belief locks us in. We do what we believe is needed. It is our peril which pushes us… thus, here we go again.

“Land, ho!” and we’d finally made it to a beautiful, crystal-sands beach just after the dawn of a new day. We rejoiced, but not for long… Something happened… We, is a memory now… I don’t want to discuss it…

Later on, when I finally calmed down enough to care to ask, I did so…

“I was too late,” was his response.

It took so long for that to make sense to me – but then again, I used to believe that freewill was the only thing that dictated our course throughout life. Still, how does something which is supposedly, “all knowing,” come to fuck up so horribly bad? I would come to understand the answer to that question much later on – having, myself, traveled down that path and surpassed.

As for the reality of things – as to the harsh, bleak, bitter reality which had become myself… I’ve come to accept myself, and my teacher, for I have seen what is meant to be, for now and to some degree… so shall be expressed, more or less, throughout the timeline of our World’s history. This is not the end, just a middle ground – a thread woven into an indefinite pattern. In a single moment, when all past, present, and future would be united… in which a single lifetime would seem like just a blink of the eyes in retrospect to the divinity of eternity… only then might one perceive an end. Yet, does a lifetime not seem to last an eternity, while looking through one’s own eyes, making an eternity ours to harness and master.

Anyhow, goodbye, for now.