Seed by Michael Edelson
Alex was killed at 11:43AM. Not quite lunchtime, but close enough. He was stepping out of his armored personnel carrier when a string of pops erupted from the crest of a nearby hill, accompanied by a cloud of dust raised by muzzle blasts. His MILES gear started to buzz, indicating a hit, and Alex lay down on the ground and waited for the end of the engagement. When it was over, only he and Private Haag were left by the disabled APC while the rest of their squad pursued the fleeing Blue Force soldiers into the nearby town.
“Turkey or Spaghetti and Meatballs?” Haag asked, fishing two MREs out of a box under the bench seat.
Alex frowned as he set his rifle down against the treads of the armored vehicle.
“Seriously?” he said. “That’s all those assholes left us?”
“Sorry, Alex,” Haag said. “I’ll take whichever one you don’t want.” Alex felt sorry for him. Haag had enlisted at seventeen, and the Army was no place for a kid. Especially OPFOR, which was a shit assignment, usually reserved for misfits and troublemakers. Alex was grateful for the four years he spent in college before enlisting. He hadn’t graduated, but at least the experience had given him enough maturity to cope with his misery.
“I hate them both,” Alex said, giving the kid a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “You pick.”
“Thanks!” Haag said, smiling. He took the turkey and handed him the remaining pouch.
“No problem.” They sat against the shadier side of the armored vehicle, where the metal surfaces were not quite hot enough to cook eggs on, and prepared their meals.
“Cherry Kool-Aid!” Alex said, taking the drink pouch out of the bag. “My favorite.” He fumbled with the canteen, trying to not get any sand inside the cap. The Mojave desert was one of the dustiest places on earth. Arriving soldiers were told to expect to leave their tour of duty with at least a quarter inch of sand sitting at the base of their lungs. Between that and the unbearable heat, it was just about the most miserable chunk of land Alex had ever laid eyes on.
“How’d you do on the test?” Haag asked, chewing on his turkey breast.
“I didn’t have time to get to my name on the damned board,” Alex complained. “And I missed breakfast trying. I think I did well though…it was a great test. I can’t believe how deep it was. All those puzzles and shit. You?”
Haag was about to answer, but then noticed something and pointed. “What do you think they want?”
A Blue Force humvee was approaching their position slowly. A gunner stared at them from behind a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the roof. Alex knew it was Blue Force because it wasn’t modified to look like an enemy vehicle, which meant it wasn’t OPFOR, and it lacked the orange flag of a range controller. Blue Force had no business interacting with Opposing Force casualties, so this could only mean trouble.
“Well…we’re about to find out.”
The humvee pulled up next to the APC and Alex got a good look at the five men inside. Marines, faces covered in perspiration, caked dust and sour expressions, all glaring at him and Haag with apparent enmity. The gunner, a sergeant, leaned forward over the roof.
“You two rag heads got any chow?” he asked. One of the marines inside the humvee tossed an empty cigarette carton and some crumpled candy wrappers out the window. They landed at Alex’s feet.
Alex wanted to stand up before replying, but he couldn’t think of a convenient way to set down his canteen and Kool-Aid pouch without spilling some of the precious powder.
“We’re eating the last of it,” he replied. “Why?”
The sergeant grimaced. “Because we’re hungry, and you’re dead.”
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Alex said, as sternly as he could manage. As an OPFOR trainer, he was technically in a position of authority, though in practice he was just another rankless grunt in the desert. “You’re certainly not allowed to ask us for food, and racial slurs aren’t appropriate, even if they don’t technically apply.”
“What?” The marine seemed confused.
“You called us ‘rag heads,’” Alex explained. “We’re not real Arabs, but even if we were…”
“Fuck you,” the sergeant cursed, his face contorting into a grimace. “Couldn’t hack it in the real world so you washed up here, and you think you’re big shit? We risk our asses overseas and you sit here in fucking California and shoot blanks all day!” There were chuckles from the other marines, some of them with a nervous undertone. They were anticipating trouble, and that wasn’t good.
“We go where we’re sent, Sergeant,” Alex said. “Just like you. No need to get personal.” The man was probably sore about his unit losing an engagement. OPFOR spent more time in the field than any other unit of the military that wasn’t deployed overseas, and unlike deployed units, the opposing force was never idle. There was a standing joke in Fort Irwin that if the military wanted Blue Force to have a real chance at winning, they needed to give OPFOR more vacation time.
“You’re nothing like us,” the Sergeant said.
“Alex did a tour in Afghanistan,” Haag said. Alex looked at him and shook his head. There was no point in engaging these men in an argument. They were tired, demoralized and just looking to vent. It was best to just let them.
“A whole tour?” the sergeant said with a sneer. “That’s great for your boyfriend, but how ‘bout you, Princess? How many tours you got? Or’s all you got is war games? War games don’t make you a real soldier.” Again, chuckles, but the nervous undertone was gone.
“Well,” Alex said. “You’ve shot your load. Now move along before someone sees you.” Despite his higher rank, the sergeant appeared to be in his mid twenties, no older than Alex. Hopefully, he was mature enough to realize there were consequences for the actions he was contemplating.
“Go fuck yourself,” the sergeant shouted, and kicked the seat in front of him. The humvee lurched forward and sped away, bouncing on the rocky ground.
“Welcome to Opforistan!” Alex shouted after him. “Enjoy your stay! Assholes!” By the time the humvee disappeared behind a nearby hill, the dust from its wake settled, leaving them covered head to foot in a layer of light brown filth.
“Wonderful,” Alex said, trying to blow the sand out of his mouth and nose. “Same fucking shit every day.” He had managed to cover the canteen, but in doing so he had spilled most of the Kool-Aid mix.
Haag was no better off. He stared at his ruined meal and looked like he wanted to cry.
“It’ll be alright,” Alex said. “Just scoop out the top layer and eat the clean parts underneath.”
The young soldier brightened. “Yeah, that’ll work.”
After they finished their lunch, Haag went into the APC and emerged with a plastic trash bag.
“Good man,” Alex said, tossing his garbage inside.
“I’ll get the crap they tossed too.” Haag walked over to where the marines had dropped their litter and scooped up the wrappers while Alex started over to the hot side of the APC to relieve his bladder. He turned to look at Haag before rounding the vehicle’s corner and noticed that the kid was about to pick up a small white cylinder that had been stirred up out of the sand by the humvee’s tires.
“Haag!” he screamed, turning to run towards the young soldier. “No! Don’t!” Haag turned to look, holding the cylinder in his left hand.
The flash of bright light made Alex cringe away from the explosion just as the thunderous crack slammed into him, leaving dead silence in its wake. A cloud of white smoke drifted where Haag had stood. As Alex ran towards him, the young man’s screams started to edge out the ringing in his ears.
There was blood everywhere, flowing mostly from the ruined mass of cloth and flesh that had once been Haag’s left hand. The young soldier was clutching the mangled wrist, thrashing in the sand, his eyes pressed shut. Blood leaked from his left ear and his shirt and pants on the left side where plastic shrapnel had shredded his skin.
“Holy shit!” Alex screamed, fighting down panic. “Hold still! Hold fucking still!” What was he supposed to do? He wasn’t a medic.
“Fucking do something,” he muttered, slapping himself on the forehead. He remembered his first aid training. He reached under his shirt and pulled off his belt with trembling hands, then fought with Haag to get a hold of his left arm.
“Dammit, Haag, let it go! You’ll bleed to death!” He wasn’t sure if the kid could even hear him. Haag had been a lot closer to the blast, and Alex could barely hear himself over the ringing. Managing to get a hold of the wounded arm, he applied the tourniquet, tightening the belt as much as he dared. When he was done, his hands were drenched in warm blood.
“Hang on,” he shouted. “I’ll be right back.”
He ran over to the APC and jumped inside, heading straight for the driver’s seat. As his slippery fingers fumbled with the earphones and mic, he realized he barely knew what to say. He had used the radio many times before, but his mind was blank.
“Any call sign,” he shouted into the mic as he searched the vehicle’s instrument panel for the plugger. “This is two two zero india, I need a medical evac, repeat, medical evac! I have one man down, artillery simulator explosion. Grid coordinates to follow.” He knew there was probably more he had to say, but he couldn’t think straight.
Almost immediately, a voice replied. “Two two zero india, mike echo five five two, received. Holding for grid.”
He found the plugger and the button labeled “Mark” that converted his GPS coordinates into a military map grid number. “Mike echo five five two, two two zero india, grid is as follows…” He read the grid number, then repeated it.
“Two two zero india, mike echo five five, grid received. ETA to your position is ten mikes.”
“Mike echo five five, two two zero india, received, standing by.”
Dropping the headset, he ran back to Haag, who was still thrashing in the sand and screaming.
“They’re on their way, buddy!” Alex shouted. “Hang in there!” Why the hell did Haag pick up the artillery simulator? The base was littered with thousands of them, discarded duds from decades of training exercises. Had the kid fallen asleep during the orientation at OPFOR academy? Alex could still remember the pictures of mutilated limbs and burn scars cycling on the projector screen.
For what seemed like an eternity Alex knelt over his friend, trying to comfort him in any way he could, until at last he heard the thrumming of a helicopter’s rotors in the distance