The Death TrustAuthor: David A Rollins
Featured in the December/January, 2005/06 magazine
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Twelve months ago
Corporal Dante P Ambrose climbed into the front seat of the Humvee beside the driver, relieved to be out of the sun. His black skin glistened in places where the sweat from his pores had sluiced away the fine, light-brown sand that coated everything in Iraq. A single river of sweat had cut a valley through the layers of grit down his forehead, like the Tigris through the desert.
Behind him, Sergeant Peyton Scott grunted as he tried to get comfortable in the rear seat. His shirt and pants had stuck to his skin, and the ceramic plate in his vest pushed up against his chin when he sat, limiting mobility. He felt trussed like a pig. All I need is a goddamn apple in my mouth, he thought. ‘How's that coffee coming along?' he said.
‘We ain't having coffee. We're having tea,' replied Corporal Ambrose.
‘What?' said someone.
‘What kind of a faggot drink is tea?' said someone else.
‘Fuckin' tea?' said another.
Ambrose shrugged. ‘Don't have it, then. I'll drink it all myself.'
‘What's wrong with coffee?' Peyton asked.
‘Nothin',' Ambrose replied. ‘But. . . they drink tea in India . Y'know, that country is damn hot, and they've had thousands of years of continuous civilisation. What they learned is that tea keeps you cool, man. You know what I'm sayin'?'
‘You been into those Reader's Digests again, ain't choo?' said one of the men. ‘Learnin' a bunch of useless shit.'
A voice in the back called out, ‘If they's so goddamn smart, Corporal, how come they didn't invent the A-bomb?'
‘You think inventing the A-bomb was smart?' said another.
The driver weighed in. ‘Whatever, dey's smart enough not to be in Eye-rak.'
‘Okay, okay,' said Peyton, capitulating. ‘I'll give tea a try'
‘Comin' right up, boss.' Ambrose picked up the tin pot from a bracket mounted behind the window and burned his fingertips. ‘Freakin' motherfucker!' he hissed, putting his fingers in his mouth for a couple of seconds. Several of the men laughed. Ambrose swore again and then spat out the door to get rid of the grit deposited by his fingers. He was more careful with the pot the second time, gripping the rim with a piece of rag. The soldiers used the Humvee's windscreen to focus and intensify the sun's heat, but it was hardly necessary. The air itself was hot enough to blister paint.
The sun that scorched Baghdad in May was a pitiless and implacable enemy and the marine combat uniform — combat boots, webbing, flaks and Keviar helmet — was utterly defeated by it. And it'd get worse as the months rolled on. The only defence was to keep drinking water, keep swallowing salt pills, keep sweating and keep swabbing antiseptic cream on the dry, chapped skin behind their testicles. The men grumbled and bitched about the conditions, as was a grunt's right.
The rest of the men had by now squeezed into the Humvee and were tossing their cups into the front seat for Corporal Ambrose to fill. He poured out the heavily sugared brew and handed back the cups. The men threw it down quickly, scalding their tongues, swearing.
Alpha company hadn't lost a man — not even a scratch — since their deployment to Iraq over a year ago. Not many units could say that. The United Nations force, to which the marine brigade was attached, was taking a pounding from the insurgents, but alpha company had been careful. And they'd been lucky. So far. The patrol about to be concluded was not unlike so many others. Uneventful. They'd been given several blocks of poor residential area to scour, tasked to search for and confiscate weapons. None had been seized, but everyone knew the place was still awash with them — old AK-47s, pistols, rocket-propelled grenades, even MP-5s and American M16s — because, every time there was a wedding or a national soccer victory or a massive bomb blast somewhere, the guns came out and began banging away at the sky in support. Aside from anything else, the slugs always came back to earth and, when they did, they were every bit as lethal as aimed rounds fired from the shoulder. Casualties and deaths resulted more often than not. Baghdad was like an insane spaghetti western. Sergeant Scott called it ‘a couscous western on crack'.
‘Okay, let's head on back to the ranch,' said Scott. The driver didn't need to be told twice, and he eased some boot pressure onto the accelerator pedal. The Humvee moved off, its tyres crunching over the road surface littered with pulverised concrete, gravel and bits of bomb casing, this having been the scene of a recent minor skirmish. Scott watched the road pass by through a hole in the door, one of many drilled by shrapnel fragments collected on previous patrols when the vehicle had been in use with another unit. The motion and the heat were vaguely hypnotising and Scott's thoughts drifted to the prospect of a shower when they reached the relative safety of the compound. Occasional mortars and homemade rockets were routinely lobbed in over the walls, but they only rarely claimed lives. These were just something to put up with, something you were aware of, like the flies and the heat. But having a shower, letting the cool waters wash away the sweat and the grime and the goddamn sand, that was something to look forward to.
The four-vehicle convoy snaked through the tan dwellings so com pressed together that the air itself seemed to have been squeezed from the narrow road. Scott heard Ambrose say, ‘What the fuck?' and the words snapped him out of the daydream. ‘Choo take a wrong turn, Specialist?' Ambrose asked the driver. The Humvee was forced to stop because the blackened carcass of a vehicle ahead blocked the way.
‘No, Corporal. I'm just retracing our steps on the GPS, unless the fuckin' gadget's lyin'. This is the way we come in for sure.'
There was barely enough room in the lane to turn around. The four Humvees reversed back down the street into an intersection and moved off in the one remaining direction available. Moments later, the marine patrol burst into the open space beside the wide grey river. Free from the shadows, the sun's heat radiated off the walls of the buildings and into the cabin.
Corporal Ambrose looked past the driver, out his window, and scoped the Tigris beyond. It was nothing like the Mississippi that rolled majestically past his town back home, through lush green countryside. He was about to comment on this when the front of the vehicle suddenly imploded. In fact, the Humvee stopped as if king hit by a massive punch. Steam and smoke billowed from under the buckled hood, while on the road a pool of oil spread rapidly beneath the engine like blood pumping from an arterial wound. The soldier behind the wheel began screaming when he realised his legs were bleeding profusely, the alloy firewall being about as effective as tissue paper against shrapnel.
‘Hey, what —‘
‘Out. Get out. Clear the vehicle,' said Scott.
The men evacuated fast and headed for cover behind the crippled Humvee, half carrying, half dragging the wounded driver. What had knocked out their vehicle? Was it a landmine, or something else?
The three remaining Humvees pulled up behind in a staggered line. The mounted machine guns were manned and the men swept them through the arcs, but there wasn't anything to shoot at. The rest of Scott's patrol took up positions on the ground and against an adjacent wall, looking for movement, for something to target. The road was eerily quiet but for the rough idling engines of the remaining Humvees and the groans from the wounded man. Scott felt uneasy. He was unsure how to read the situation. Damn it, he wasn't even sure there was a situation.
Ambrose made his way to the sergeant, staying low The patrol had stopped in an area protected by a high wall on one side and the wide- open expanse of the Tigris River on the other. ‘What do you reckon took us out, boss?' he asked.
‘Beats the fuck out of me,' said Scott. The area they were in was actually quite peaceful. He glanced at their Humvee. If they had set off a mine, the pattern of damage would have been quite different. It was more likely that a projectile of some kind had hit them. That raised another question: where had it come from? Tense and not a little baffled, Scott stood and looked around for movement. They'd have to leave the Humvee behind, push it to the side of the road, destroy it, and cram into the remaining vehicles. The wreck would be stripped clean by the locals before it could be recovered the following day. ‘Okay, let's blow it and push on. We've got —‘ But, as Sergeant Scott spoke, Ambrose saw his sergeant's head turn inside out beneath his helmet and dissolve in a puff of red atomised droplets that sprayed onto him, cooling his face and neck. Ambrose blinked while his mind struggled to process the image burned onto his retinas and the reason for the sudden cool sensation on his skin.
Sergeant Scott's body continued to stand for several long seconds, M16 at the ready, seemingly unaware that its head had been completely removed. And then, like some kind of incomplete monster of Frankenstein, the grotesque figure took two faltering steps towards Ambrose. The rifle clattered to the ground and what was left of Sergeant Scott reached out as if searching for support. But then the corpse collapsed to the ground and quivered where it lay, thick crimson blood oozing from the shredded neck.
The men, having snapped out of the shock of what they'd just witnessed, began spraying the road ahead with full metal jackets. But there was nothing to target and certainly no one to shoot at. Eventually they ran out of ammunition. Bewildered, they stood and looked around, the barrels of their weapons smoking. The only sound that remained was the uneven thump of a faraway gunship and the lumpy, irregular hum of their transports' idling engines.
An invisible enemy had fired a solitary shot.