For seven straight days, Marzan and Rollins remained at their Shariastan firebase. It was an unusual respite which they spent playing first person shooter video games and watching baseball. They learned that the Washington Nationals baseball team had gone bankrupt. Thankfully, congress came to the rescue, funding the multimillion dollar payroll with federal taxpayer money while a new ownership search committee was organized. Congress justified the nationalization of the Nationals on the grounds that the continued existence of the team “saved jobs”. The hundred or so minimum wage concessionaire jobs were indeed “saved”—at a taxpayer cost of over a million dollars each.
Sunday morning, they were ordered to fall in at the mess hall. Another platoon passed Marzan and Rollins as they approached the cafeteria doors. Jimmy noticed bewildered looks on their faces as they shuffled by in silence. None of them were willing to respond when questioned.
When Marzan and Rollins and the others in their platoon had taken their seats, and after the prior platoon’s footfalls could no longer be heard in the hallway, Captain Rick appeared. The cafeteria doors were closed and locked.
“Gentlemen, we have a new mission,” he announced. But he said it in a peculiar way as if it pained him to say it. This peculiarity dampened any exuberance that might have been percolating in the moods of the twenty eight men in the room who had heard rumors that they might possibly be going home. Rick’s announcement dampened everyone’s mood except for Jimmy Rollins who let out an ecstatic shout. But he abruptly recoiled under Captain Rick’s intense, disapproving glare.
Something was definitely off in the Captain’s tone, but little could be gleaned from the eight minute briefing he gave other than instructions on what to pack, what to leave, and when they were leaving, which was to be within hours. They weren’t told where they were going. Pakistan? Africa? Everyone had a theory. Rollins suggested South America to Marzan, as things had been flaring up there, recently. “There’s plenty of ‘little brown people’ to shoot at over there, too,” he whispered.
At the conclusion of the briefing, the cafeteria doors were unlocked and flung open and the platoon spilled out into the hallway, silently passing the next curious unit on its way in. They were given two hours to pack their things into pods. They finished with military efficiency and climbed into their Humvees. Jimmy gleaned that they were headed for the airport by the road they took out of the firebase Green Zone. There was no Elvis playing on this trip.
En route, Rollins and Marzan’s Humvee got into an accident with an unfortunate civilian motorcyclist. Another motorist had cut him off and he veered directly into and under their wheels as they tried to swerve out of the way. The entire convoy came to a nerve-racking and dangerous halt along the major Shariastan thoroughfare. The road to the airport was not a safe place to be stalled as there were many upper-storey windows from which opportunistic snipers could take pot shots. It is very difficult to pick out the origin of sniper fire in an urban canyon.
Regardless of all that, someone had to go investigate the situation and give aid to, or at least identify, the victim. Rollins volunteered—he always volunteered when gore was involved. Getting out of the scorching, stinking, musty Humvee was a refreshing change of pace, anyway. Marzan guessed that Rollins was hoping the blood and gore might erase a week of dullness. To Marzan’s chagrin, Rollins volunteered him to go along.
“I don’t want to be standing around out there for long,” Jimmy said as he hopped out onto the street. “They probably think we ran him down on purpose.”
“Don’t be a pussy,” said Rollins.
“Look, they’re already closing in.”
Rollins approached the victim first. He was most definitely dead as indicated by the mangling of his torso and the black pool radiating out from him on the asphalt. Rollins hovered over the corpse to take a closer look.
“Holy shit, Jimmy! This dude is seriously fucked up,” he observed, as he knelt down beside the mangled remains and picked through his bloody pockets for ID. “Come check this out.”
Jimmy kept his distance, scanning the open windows for RPGs and muzzle flash. The crowd of bystanders drew in around them. “God damn, that was fast,” Jimmy thought as they gathered. He glanced quickly at the corpse. It didn’t even seem to be human. It resembled road kill.
Marzan was initially pleased by his immediate sensation of disconnectedness at the sight of the body. To see a twisted and mangled man, shredded by the torqueing forces of a Humvee’s 300-pound wheels, blood and brains splattered up onto the fenders, and not feel any recoil at the gruesomeness was a testament to his military hardening. He had become numb to gore. But he discovered that he was not yet fully numb to remorse. Jimmy’s eyes moved to scanning the open windows in the surrounding buildings in an effort to block it out, but the dead man’s humanity had already infected his mind. This man probably had a family. He had a mother. Maybe he had a wife, a brother, even children. Perhaps these children were playing in front of their house, waiting for their daddy, oblivious to the horrible news that would soon rip their lives apart.
Jimmy drove the thoughts out of his mind. He had been conditioned by the Army and he knew how to deaden destructive thoughts like these. The indigenous people were just things, not beings, things that often were, or gave aid and comfort to the enemy.
Whenever a flicker of pity sparked in Jimmy’s mind, he remembered his dead brothers-in-arms. He remembered Private Fossen from Savannah, whose head exploded out the back when he was picked off by a sniper. And there was Roberts from Jacksonville, who was cooked alive in his Humvee after the concussion of an IED explosion warped the truck’s iron doors shut, sealing him inside an oven. Jimmy could still hear his faint screams, muffled by the armor and the roar of the fire. Then there was Michaels from Austin who bled out so fast that the transfusion of milky synthetic blood oozed out of his fist-sized chest wound before the medics gave up on CPR. Michaels had mystical, azure eyes. In his death, they appealed to God. Those pale blue gemstones, set within his pearly, exsanguinated face; Michaels had the gaze of an angel. He stared forever in Jimmy’s memory.
And that was how soldiers were conditioned. Before long, Jimmy Marzan felt no more pity for the mangled civilian.
“Check this out. Mmm!” mocked Rollins as he removed his knife from his belt and pretended to scoop out a portion of brain matter as if the crushed skull were a breakfast melon.
Marzan wasn’t amused.
The platoon soon handed the scene off to the local police and went on their way. Within three hours, they were buckled into the leather seats of a commercial jetliner. They sipped lemon-lime soda in their sweaty fatigues and read about the latest popular vacation destinations in the magazines tucked in the seat pockets in front of them. Their rifles were stowed in the overhead bins, and they were reminded by flight attendants—with fluttering, fake eyelashes, and pancake makeup, and long, polished fingernails—to “take care when opening the overhead compartments as contents may have shifted during flight.”
Liberty Air, also recently nationalized when teetering at the precipice of insolvency, had managed something of a resurgence under her new, American-taxpayer ownership; an infinite bankroll can do that for a company. Liberty, unlike the other airlines that had recently disappeared, had facilities in all the right congressional districts, districts with all the right congressmen whose campaigns were funded by all the right donors—all the right union donors. Thus Liberty was saved and the other airlines, most in better financial condition, were left to die.
So what about Liberty’s creditors? You know, the ones that poured in billions trying to keep their investment aloft? “To hell with those greedy bastards,” was the congressional attitude. Those “greedy bastards,” the owners, who were in reality just middle-class Americans with retirement accounts, got tossed out the hatch without a parachute. Liberty Air sailed on with her new union co-owners, her monetary debts forgiven by Congress. Soon after the restructuring, Liberty magically secured the very lucrative deal of ferrying U.S. soldiers around the globe-spanning empire.
So, there Jimmy sat on that Airbus, next to Michael Rollins who was asleep most of the time with drool trickling down his chin. They made a short stop in Frankfurt, then they were airborne again. They flew over Scotland. It apparently isn’t going to be South America after all. Rollins will be so disappointed, thought Jimmy. But where are we headed, then?
No one knew anything for a fact. Or if they knew, they weren’t talking. Not even that beady-eyed PFC Black was talking. And that smug little weasel knew everything, thought Jimmy.
They seemed to be flying west but it was hard to tell as they climbed above a blanket of clouds. Maybe Mexico? That made sense. It was just a matter of time before they needed a little nation building courtesy of the U.S. army.
Jimmy fell asleep reading a story about how the country’s economy could be saved by “green jobs.” Congress planned to pass a law requiring every window in the country be replaced with a newly-developed, energy-efficient, hi-tech glass. What a boon to the window glaziers!
When Jimmy awoke, he first glanced over at Rollins who was still asleep and drooling. Then he took a look out the portal window where he saw that the clouds had cleared away. Their plane was descending. Off on the horizon stood the Statue of Liberty.