It was rapidly becoming a routine: the grieving widow, the child too young to understand why her daddy wasn't coming home, the rote words of consolation. The reassurance that he'd died a hero. That much was true; he'd risked his life to save a fellow soldier. Just in time for all of them to die anyway, but it was the spirit that counted. There was a framed photo of him on the wall, looking resplendent and stoic in his uniform; once he'd been Sergeant Paul Jackson, and now he was a corpse lying in the radioactive sands of a nameless wasteland. Casualty Notification was putting in overtime on this one; there were so many more houses to visit. So many more cries of anguish to hear. So many more tears to witness. Too many.
The truth was they they'd never know for sure how many died. Thirty thousand, at least, and their only tribute was a cold piece of stone and metal staring at the skies over Arlington. Lip service paid to the greatest sacrifice in US history, more out of obligation than sorrow. Most of the bodies would never be recovered. Paul was actually one of the lucky ones; he'd died under the open sky instead of crushed under rubble, unrecognizable, reduced to blood and cracked splinters of bone. Maybe he'd even died feeling like a hero. Maybe. Or maybe he'd crawled out of that Seaknight feeling like he'd crashed in Hell.
On the monitor it had looked like just another nuclear test.
The poor sons of bitches at ground zero must've thought they were seeing the Big Bang.
Shepherd looked like just another statue, as still and silent and insensate to the cold and wind as a block of granite. Pvt. Jackson knew better than to interrupt; sometimes Shepherd came out and just stared at the monument for hours, stared at all that remained of the soldiers he'd sent to their deaths.
"Do you hear that, private?" he asked, finally.
"Hear what, sir?"
"Of course not."
He was a strange man sometimes, the General was. A good man. But strange.
"Your brother died in that unthinkable disaster, didn't he?"
"He did, sir. His daughter asked me when we'd get the bad men who did this to her daddy..." The private shook his head.
"It might be sooner than you think. Innocents like your niece feel the full force of an atrocity like this. But to the rest, we're just grunts on some far-off battlefield or names carved in cold stone. They sleep soundly in their beds because rough men like us stand ready. And when we die, they will sing no requiem at our gravesites."
The private wasn't quite sure how to answer.
"Would you follow any order I gave you, private?"
"To the letter? No matter the consequences?"
"Then I have an proposition for you now. I'm assembling a very special company of soldiers. A Shadow Company..."