Bonus Poem: Possible Realities

There is a face,
that colors my memories,
from a time long-passed,
of childhood vulnerabilities,
but looking back,
the face bears pleas,
for love and attention,
that its owner buries,
so that it might still weather,
the coming, stormy seas.

There was something then,
that I must have sensed;
a touch of daring,
in eyes, courageous, tensed,
of full earthen-hue,
or when red and incensed.
It was something that changed,
as we grew older, condensed,
into creatures arising
to rest in minds, en-fenced.

But age has withered the old,
replaced images with new,
as each passing moment,
becomes fewer and few,
and time marches onward,
ever distancing we two,
These thoughts of what could’ve been,
leave me seeking a clue,
to the truth of past moments,
and whether you see them too.

But we may never know,
what could have been,
and dwelling too long,
keeps us from looking when,
life comes a-calling.
Maybe we shouldn’t imagine,
for the roads have diverged, and in,
the light of the past,
possible realities are broken.

Bonus Poem: We and the Feeble

Mountains crumble beneath our feet,
we march on the morrow,
what an a-mazing feat.
That we and the feeble,
have managed to beat,
the collective ensemble,
into hasty retreat.

The world of war,
that’s broken with sorrow,
above it we soar,
we and the feeble,
well-known to more,
than those we resemble,
as the masters that from it tore
peace and serenity,
for the brazen and poor.

The seas that run red,
twist and turn, borrow,
the bodies of dead,
from we and the feeble,
whom left them instead,
of stayed to assemble,
as the vigilant fled,
after their sanity,
as away their feet sped,
away from the battle,
with arms shielding head.

We stand in victory,
once more certain that ‘morrow,
will rise as we see,
that we and the feeble,
know nothing but to be free,
from that horrid ensemble,
that we ever let flee,
with hearts gripped by vanity,
them unlike us, to be
beneath death and its terrifying rattle,
That was our plea,
to ensure that the able and feeble alike,
no longer for them, took knee.

Bonus Story: Stronger Without Them

Cold wind whipped snow and ice in drifts across a plain of white mounds and frozen boot-prints. The mounds were the size of a man tall, five or six men wide, and spotted the horizon for countless miles. The man was clad in furred leathers, well-insulated from the cold with only thick, wild hair and beard to shield his face. He planted each step with a stone’s determination. It made his resolve immovable. His head was kept upward, eyes small, squinted against the snow that pelted and plastered his face and furs, coated him with a fine layer.

His people had a legend, one that made the trek all the more unavoidable: if a man were to seek to rectify the past, he must first risk his future, his life, in the mounded flats. Only once he made it through, could he hope to seek out recompense for the slaughter of his wife and children. He made the journey alone, as a man should, was certain he would die before he found refuge in the Gods’ embrace. He refused to listen to reason from those in his tribe; the invaders, they said, were the ones to blame.

But he blamed the Gods. For millennia, their tribe had lived the way of the righteous, their gratitude and sacrifices never late nor without due praise or ritual. They had given to the Gods all that had been requested, earned nothing but their contempt in the process. He’d had enough. He was man, and no God– gracious or not– would keep him from seeking his bounty. The righteousness that compelled him forward was just as it had always been; with conviction of spirit, character.

The Gods had let the invaders come. In any case, had not prevented it. In the harsh of Winter, when their ardor was already dampened, his tribe had been half-slaughtered by the invaders clad in their fierce battle armor. With sword and musket alike, they pillaged, plundered, raped and conquered all they’d seen. It was only after their leader, in his bear skins and helm, was killed that the tribe had finally withdrawn.

The snows of the village were stained crimson like the hands of the Gods that had neither prevented nor appeared during the massacre to stop it. The seasonal perma-frost had been breached by the pyres of a dozen men, their women and children. What few did not die by the sword wished they had. Only the fear of reprisal in the after-life kept them from turning their weapons upon themselves. The echoes of men and their families wrenched billowed cries for absolution through the blizzard that came after the battle.

But he would no longer stand for it. They had done all the Gods had asked of them, more even, in the promise that the Gods would watch after them, protect them. They had failed. He would not. Once he found them, he would paint the hallowed grounds of their hidden refuge with their blood. He would bury his sword in their bellies for every life lost and given in vain. Then, satisfied with the carnage, he would turn the sword on himself to die alone, the Gods vanquished and his work done.

He had fought the cold and the snows for five days to cross the flats. Like others of his tribe, he’d taken to resting only to conserve his strength, eat stored morsels and drink from a water-skin. He was no fool, knew not to take the journey lightly. If he did, there would be no one left to avenge the fallen, seek retribution for the sacrificed.

By the sixth day, he stood before a clearing in the mounds where the storm that raged seemed not to exist. In that emptiness, the ground was stone, clear of snow. The mounds around its perimeter formed a wide circle open before him. A furious huff of hot breath blasted from above his white-covered beard, fogged the air with the fire of his heart and ready wrath. His last steps were even firmer than the thousands that had brought him here.

He stopped in the center of the clearing, in his tribal tongue, demanded an audience with his Gods. It was answered with an intense, blue glow of light that deposited three, elongated figures with bulbous heads and black-eyes before him.

“You seek an audience, primitive?” The center God asked.

He spat at their feet, then in his tribal tongue, barked, “You have forsaken us! Broken the bonds that bound us to your servitude. Your treachery must be answered for!”

“You speak of the battle passed,” the left-most God said.

“Yet there is little that can be done for the dead,” the right God said.

“No!” He shouted in defiance. “There is one thing that can repay us for their loss.”

“Blood.” The three chimed in unison.

Your blood!”

He drew a thick blade from his side with a sound of metal that rang through the open air.

“You mean to stand against your Gods?” The middle God asked.

“I mean to seek vengeance for all the blood spilled in your name, both in sacrifice and in the battles past– those you failed to protect, as was your promise to our people.”

The three Gods fell silent, as if to speak mentally. Then the middle one spoke with a bargaining air about him, “We cannot resurrect the dead. What is is what what must be. But we can offer something for the sacrifice your people have given this winter, both from the battle and when we did not think to aid you.”

He was unconvinced, his mind unchanged. He demanded they speak, “And what is that?”

“Bountiful harvests,” the middle God said.

“Warmth and fertility,” the left God added.

“And strength and protection in the battles to come,” the right God finished.

He growled from his throat. In a quick charge, he launched himself at the middle God, kicked him backward to rebound at the gut of the left God. The blade slice deep at its belly to ooze green. The curiously-colored blood did not faze him– blood was blood and it was to be spilled. With an outward spin, he moved for the God at the right, buried the blade in its belly as he’d planned. More green spilled out, leaked from the God’s mouth. He twisted the blade, heard the crunch of soft bones, then pulled it back. The second God fell dead.

His blade dripped a trail toward the God that still lay dazed on the stone ground. He dropped a heavy knee to its chest as it eeked out a few, last words.

“We would have… given you anything, made you the most powerful tribe,” it said, barely drawing breath.

“Your cowardice and bargaining only weaken us.” He grit his teeth, “We will be stronger without you.”

Then, the blade plunged into the belly of black-eyed God. The bulbous head gave a shudder with a last, rattling breath. Its eyes shut. The smallest bit of green oozed from the God’s mouth as the tribal rose to his feet, readied to bury the sword in his own gut and finally end things. Instead, something compelled him to look at the carnage around him, his three Gods slain about it. His own words resonated deeper than he’d first realized.

He lifted the blade to examine it, “No.” He sheathed it, spat at them once more, “Enough has been lost to you. I will lead my people now. Protect them as you should have. I will show them they are strong– stronger even without you. Then no man, woman, nor child will ever think to play servant to your kind again.”

With a steadfast resolve, he turned away from the green-stained ground, and left the mysterious clearing to show his people the way.

Short Story: Little Warrior

She was seven, maybe eight years old. Too young. Way too fucking young. The AK in her hands probably weighed as much as her. It had a foldable metal stock locked in place at its rear, tac-light on a forward rail, and a red-dot sight atop it. Even for the era the gear was ancient– Ex-soviet surplus rounds and mags stamped with Red Army designations in Cyrillic script. You could tell they’d had her clothes fitted, the tac-vest and camo-suit were just baggy enough to breathe but small enough to fit her.

She stood in the middle of the desert, rifle poised at-ease, curled hair blowing in the wind. She had eyes that didn’t fit her lineage; almost azure blue. There was something European in them– Scandinavian shape, maybe German corners. Her bushy mane almost said Latin, but her skin was white, bronzed from the Middle Eastern sun. In a way, I think she was all of those things.

I was on recon with the Airborne division of the Special Forces Command out of Fort Bragg, AKA the Green Berets. We’d been in country about six weeks, hadn’t seen any action. It wasn’t for lack of it, we were just that good. We’d migrated through about half the region without so much as a boot-print left behind, our paint and powder dry the whole time. We saw maybe one oasis in those six weeks. It’s just lucky we’d learned to sneak in and out of the villages without being tagged. Water’s gold out here, and the well-tender’s God. Well I guess even God’s gotta’ take a leak sometimes.

Our mission was straight forward; HQ wanted us on point to map and recon anything along the campaign trail. Then, we’d proceed to the rendezvous, pull out while the cavalry stormed the gates. The A-P and Bomber drones were meant to hit first; bombers would clear the way of any heavy artillery, give the anti-personnel regiment a fighting chance. They’d pull back to a carrier in the Gulf while the A-Ps handled the main resistance. The Marines would be hot on their tails to sweep and clear the villages, secure any VIPs or civilians.

But there’s an old quote about war, something like, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” It’s funny, we’re taught to always follow orders, that our Officers– direct superiors– are to be trusted with our lives. Kinda throws a wrench into the works when you hear that shit. No plan survives the enemy? Then what good’s having stars on your shoulders? In boot they tell us all this shit about training, trusting your intel or XO, or some such shit. Then, when you hit the field they tell you, “this what you’ve trained for,” and “everything’s on the line.” But you hear something like that, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” All you can do’s think, wonder what the fuck’s it all good for? Truth is, you’ve just gotta’ know how to improvise. We’re all just attack-dogs forced to improvise.

I think that was why it hit me so hard. They didn’t know we were coming. They couldn’t have. They were running off soviet gear that was sub-standard when it was new. It was forty to fifty years old by the time it ended up in that little warrior’s hands. We were rocking the latest tech– bone-conduction comms, full-rail stealth systems on us and our weapons, dragon-scale armor capable of shrugging fifty-cal rounds point-blank; shit that was so new, it didn’t have names yet. We were the field test. To hell with the well-tenders, we were Gods.

But like I said, or someone else did anyway, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Sure we got in and out without a peep, the UAVs did their thing, and the campaign began. The Marines though? Fuck, those poor guys didn’t know what the fuck they were getting into. I guess it’s partially our fault. We could only get so close to the villages, only do so much recon from the outside. Getting in was out of the question, but it wasn’t our job to know what we were missing either. It was above our pay-grade. We were told to move in, maintain stealth, and map out what we saw with vids, comms, paper– whatever we could, then feed it back to HQ over our satellite up-link. From our perspective, we did a damned good job of it. Even our XO said as much right before he green-lit our ex-fil.

But those fucking Generals can’t improvise. I dunno, maybe once you reach a certain age or rank your mind just starts to go, you get lazy or something. All I know’s that someone fucked up, and it damn near wiped out the first wave of Marines. It was so bad our unit was diverted en-route, air dropped just outside the village to flank and reinforce.

Us and the Marines. There’s a thought. Two of the most baddest-ass military groups on the fucking planet; the Green Berets and US Marines. We were the cream of the fucking crop, man, and we damn near got iced by civvies with fifty and sixty year old weapons. Shit, if it weren’t for my dragon-scales, I’d be dead on the ground in that fucking village too. Just another of those poor patriots whose blood watered the tree of liberty– if you believe the bullshit lines we’re fed.

You know, I’ve heard stories about some of the terrible shit that’s happened out here. I was on patrol with a guy who’d been forced into a second tour, said he’d watched some of those fuckheads we were fighting lace an apartment building with demo charges, blow it just as his unit went in. Only thing that saved him was his positioning on-six. The squad-leader wanted him watching their asses when they were walking face first into a fucking explosion. Tree of liberty my nuts.

Shame, lotta’ good guys go down that way. You know, doing what they’re taught to, being fucked over for it. But that’s not even the worst shit either. We signed on. We were called. We knew the risks. Them? Never. Not a chance. Not the one’s that matter anyway.

It’s what those fucks do to the people– their own people, that makes us sick. You wonder why some of the guys out here go nuts or turn into racist pricks? It’s a defense mechanism against the most gruesome shit humans can do being broadcast live, 24/7, for you to see. And believe me, we see the worst of it. In a way, you can’t blame ’em for those loose screws. Sure they’re assholes, and sure one rotten apple shouldn’t spoil the bunch or some bullshit nonsense, but most of those kinds of guys are kids when they enlist. They’re country boys straight outta’ high-school, or city-kids hoping the G-I bill’s gonna’ keep ’em from the gang life. They’re just hoping for a better life through the Army, Marines, Navy, Air-Force– whatever. No matter what their situation, they’re not prepared. They never would be. Still they enlist. I guess the US’s propaganda’s better than we think if we sign on to this shit.

Like one story I know from a guy; he was on-base just after the first campaign ended. We took our chow outside on one of the days that wasn’t ball-sticking hot. We were just discussing some of the shit we’d seen– shooting the shit we called it– when he got real serious. Told me about a time some nut-job strapped a kid with enough C4 to incinerate a tank, then sent him up bawling his eyes out toward the front-gate. Kid couldn’t’ve been more than four or five, and he knew he was about to die. My buddy didn’t talk much more that day. In retrospect, saying something like that doesn’t require much more talking afterward. Think he signed up for that? I know I didn’t.

They didn’t have a choice that day. And I guess, neither did I. There’s a select few people alive who’ve been forced to show the world what a fifty-cal round does to the human skull. But as far as I know, that group’s a hell of a lot larger than the one that’s shown the world what it does to a child’s skull.

The squeamish say it’s unthinkable, disgusting, what-have-you– to think about, speak of, but that’s war, and war is fucking brutal. It wrenches your guts out with knives, replaces them with a festering pit of emptiness. It hollows you out, runs the pieces through a meat grinder, then force feeds it back to you– And people wonder why ex-soldier suicide rates are so high.

I lost my taste for war that day we were air-dropped in to bail-out those marines. We were just outside the village’s East wall. It was like one of those old, stone things you see on the rich oil-Baron’s compounds in the movies or TV, except it was a small town. We breached with a series of C4 charges over the barks of gunfire inside. A few Marines shouted distant orders over a guy that screamed from a gut-shot. I don’t even know if he made it, but it makes you wonder.

We were inside before the smoke of the breach cleared, fanned out to provide as wide a line of flanking fire as possible. My unit probably bagged half that town in the first minute and forty seconds of engagement. But me? All I can do’s shake my head.

I got one.

One kill. It was more than enough– more painful, more monstrous than all the combined death that day.

That little warrior? She was that kind of childish beautiful that makes you have hope for the human race. That maybe, one day, something this wonderful will help all this shit end. I guess it won’t be her though. It couldn’t be. I made sure of that, had to.

I was huddled in cover when I heard the AK rack up behind me. I did an instant one-eighty and there she was. All of that hope I had was gone when that AK zeroed on me. She didn’t know, couldn’t have. She was only seven or eight years old and my dragon-scales were brand new– not even named yet. I think something was already dead in her eyes when they met mine, like she knew she couldn’t be saved no matter what anyone did for her. It was almost like she wanted me to save what was left of her innocence, her soul. Maybe that’s just bullshit I feed myself to cope.

She let loose a burst that slammed my scales. I was on my back in the hot dirt. I couldn’t breathe, but I was alive. A few bruises later, but not a scratch otherwise. I inched up with a groan, and she reset her aim. I didn’t give her the chance. I couldn’t. No one else would have either.

One round. That was it. That was all it took. No-one heard her die. No-one saw it. But her death-grip on her AK, and the chewed fabric on my armor made sure there was no doubt of her intent later. It was her or me, and she chose for us.

I try to tell myself that things’ll get better, that one day I’ll get over it. But I can’t, and I know I won’t. War is fucked up. It destroys people– destroyed me– in ways you can’t imagine ’til you’ve been there. But I wouldn’t wish that on the worst people in the world. Even they don’t deserve that. No matter how evil, you’ve always got something redeeming. Fuck, even Hitler was an artist. Sometimes, I wonder how many of those guys we took out would’ve invented the next wheel, or discovered the next fire, if they weren’t so fucked in the head and out of options.

But it’s all moot now. What I’ve seen– what I’ve done, is monstrous. They call me a hero. Bullshit. I’m a ten-cent rifle-jockey with a penchant for survival and improvisation. That girl? She was a real hero. She didn’t understand, couldn’t. Fuck, she wasn’t more than eight years old, but she gave her life and innocence to show the world how fucked up it can be. She was a little warrior, no matter whose side she was fighting for, and she deserves a fuck of a lot more honor and respect than any of the rest of us.