War in Uncertain Times by SeanMartin ()
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That last day, he’d lost two of his buddies. Day before that, three. He just couldnt take it any more, so he left, to walk across the desert and find his way home. He dropped his rifle somewhere on the second day out. On the third, he drank the last precious bits of water in his canteen. On the fourth, when he fell face first into the sand, he knew he was going to die.
He woke what must have been hours later: the sun was long down. There was a slight chill in the air. And before him, a small camp- fire, where something that smelled incomprehensibly delicious was cooking. And just beyond that, another soldier, one like himself: “You okay? Want some water?” All he could do is nod, and the soldier — a corporal — gently raised his head and poured the clear, cold ambrosia between his cracked lips. It stung at first, then he swallowed greedily. “Hey, slow down, mac. We got plenty,” the corporal grinned.
Sensation finally returned, and he could weakly raise himself to a sitting position. “Where am I?”
The corporal grinned again. “In the desert, right around the base slopes of the mountains. About ten clicks from my unit’s forward base camp. I found you pretty much by accident, while I was on patrol. I figure we’ll wait till you’re able to make the walk.”
The soldier shook his head. ‘No... Not going back...”
“Cant say I blame you, but for right now that’s about your only option. It’s us or the enemy’s camp about thirty clicks away. And I doubt they’d be as generous with their water, right?” he added with a laugh.
“Cant... take any more of this...”
“Where you from?”
“Damn! Really? Me, I”m from Des Moines! Small world, huh. Think you can handle some food? Dinner’s almost ready.”
They talked more over the thick stew. Neither had gone to college, but enlisted right after the first terrorist attack. Both couldnt wait to stomp some enemy head. They compared notes on the long air ride over here, how the plane just seemed to fly forever until it touched down in the middle of the night in this godforsaken desert, disgorged its passengers and the massive load of weaponry that accompanied them, then left to get the next shipment. Both had seen enough death and dying, all victims of an enemy they could never see, one that hid well within the neverending dunes and craggy mountains. Every time their units got close to an enemy position, it was empty, abandoned only a few hours earlier. They were chasing shadows.
Finally the corporal stood. “You think you can walk?” The soldier nodded, gamely standing. The corporal poured sand on the fire, then hoisted the soldier’s arm across his shoulders and pointed them west. “Okay, let’s go.”
The soldier balked. “That’s not right. We’re this way,” he said, pointing to the east.
“Mac, you been in the desert too long. We’re this way, towards the mountains.”
“The mountains? We havent had a base camp in the mountains in months. That’s all...”
The two stopped and looked at each other. Finally, the corporal spoke. “Okay. My unit’s in the mountains. We’ve been holding those for as long as I can remember.” He paused, then added cautiously. “You. Where are you from?”
The soldier pointed at the wide expanse of desert behind them. “Out there. We were chasing the enemy all over those damn mountains before giving up and going after them with air power. We had more planes flying up there than I’d ever seen before.”
“We havent used a plane since... I dont know when. We’ve been firing tons of mortars and rockets into the desert... Mac, this doesnt make any sense. Look...” He fished in his pants pocket and took out a tattered driver’s licence. “Look: Des Moines, Iowa.”
The soldier reached into his own pants and took out an equally frail library card. “Cedar Rapids.”
“How do I know that’s for real?”
“How do I know yours is?... Are we fighting each other?” The corporal shook his head. “This is like some sick... game. When you got here, what was your interim camp?”
“They called it Wallis AFB. Kept all of us on the south end before sending us out. Told us to stay put because everything on the north side was classified.”
The corporal nodded grimly. “We were on the north. They told us the south side was all classified...” He looked up at the sky. “What a load. What a goddam load... It almost makes you wonder...”
“... where are we, anyway? Over there? Or back home, like some big ass desert in Nevada?”
“Why would they — ”
“Got me. But then it seems kinda stupid to send two complete armies the other side of the world to use all this weaponry to fight each other, doesnt it?... Alright, here’s what we’re gonna do. You trust me?”
The soldier looked at the corporal guardedly. “I dont have a whole lot of choice, do I.”
“Me neither, mac. Okay, the mountains, where my buddies are, are to the west. The desert where yours are is to the east. Something tells me that no matter which way we go, someone’s not gonna like what we discovered here. So we’re gonna go north.”
“What’re we gonna find there?”
The corporal grinned. “I got no goddam idea. But it’s all we got. You ready?”