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And who dies fighting has increase

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The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings,
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

Julian Grenfell

 

Ray doesn't have expectations. It's pointless to have them.

The heavy pale skies are hanging low and the line of horizon is smudged by the wisps of haze in the distance. All that aquatic training is going to be dead useful when he is driving the Humvee through miles and miles of arid land, he thinks, but who cares. No one is going to ask Ray-Ray.

But get this: he's the best damn RTO he knows, and he's right there with the best TL anybody knows, Brad Colbert. And the Iceman, he's no stone cold, natural born killer, even though Ray will be the first to talk anyone's ear off that he is. Got to keep up the myth and all that. No, the Iceman, he's as alive as they come, full of stunted, squiggly feelings in his chest where he least wants to get hurt, but it's okay. Ray has his back. He won't even sing country in the victor, that's how tight they are.

Get this: it's going to be a clusterfuck. You don't send Recon Marines into the desert as some vanguard cannon fodder if you know what you're doing. You don't become Godfather if you care. So Ray, he's crystal clear about this: sandstorm, shitstorm, they're going to have it all. Sooner rather than later, someone is going to get shot; sooner rather than later, someone will get some civilians dead in the most godawful, stupid way possible, and they're never washing that blood off their immortal souls or whatever. Sooner rather than later, someone will call in an air strike danger close and all that death rain shit will fall straight on their heads.

So let Ray have the espresso maker and let him worry about J. Lo's status, all right. Let the man live a little, let him brace and take a deep, deep breath of strange, sinister air in the last dreary hours before they have to be oscar mike.

Look at him. He's driving a tin-plated Humvee full of grown men and ammo. He's riding the high of madness and liquid energy.

Ray doesn't have any expectations. It's fucking pointless to have them.

*

Fick is solid, in the way the COs that are fucked up only a little are solid. And the LT is definitely fucked up a little, or he wouldn't be here and he wouldn't be the LT. But Fick is fucked up only a little, and here's hoping he'll pull through this in one piece and with his brains left unscrambled by the stinking death and the clusterfuck, and the incompetence of command. Because if Fick ends up fucked up beyond all recognition, they will probably end up dead. A good CO is all that stands between you and a stupid, messy death most of the time, and Ray will take being stupid and messy but he's kind of reluctant to be dead.

Fuck that shit. Ray is going to hold on to life with his crooked teeth and his filthy nails, clutch it tight and good like he does the steering wheel.

Never let that bitch go.

*

This is a mad, mad brotherhood. Sure, Fick is the kind of man who's probably all over it, warrior culture and bonding and leadership, all that shit that gets Ivy League boys like him starry-eyed and eager to suffer through training so they get to spit out things like 'Don't fuck with my men' and risk being relieved of their command. But that's Fick. Officers have their own reasons. Shit, Fick's are hardly the worst, though if you ask Ray, those are also some of the most dangerous.

But no, the thing is, it is all madness.

Twenty-two men breathing the same air, eating the same shit, doing the same dumb shit, held together with the same mindless, spiteful loyalty as they choke on dust and wait for the promised violent death. The thing is, that's the kind of promise that gets broken time and time again – not for the lack of trying on behalf of command, damn. That's okay, though. When this kind of promise is kept, it's just awful shit all around.

Still. Marines make do.

And still, Ray would rather keep choking on dust as they drive across the desert than stop choking and breathe no more. Don't you dare stop him. Don't you dare.

*

Trombley is so green, green as they come. Stafford and Christeson are also green. Hell, the LT is green, but he has Gunny, and Gunny knows this shit. Mike Wynn, master gardener; he knows the kind of treatment cherry lieutenants need so they don't turn sour. There's hope for the LT. But Trombley is a nuisance, whining for blood like a kid away from his mama's tit. He wants to shoot, for real, because 'nothing beats the real thing'.

Nothing beats the real thing. And what's the point to beat around the bush, homes, they need the real thing, crave it, make it as real as it gets, because this bullshit situation and this bullshit war certainly does not feel real. Even as they litter their way with real bodies and their fellow Marines get blown up on real IEDs along the way.

Ray's hands are sweaty on the steering wheel, and he peers into the languid tremble of air in the distance. Where the fuck are they. This is a place for arid souls.

But Brad has seen the maps in the TL meeting, and Fick is assured of something, and Ray has seen nothing, knows nothing, isn't sure of anything, anymore – he just has to keep driving, putting the relentlessly shining sand under the wheels. So he does.

*

People fucking die. There is nothing that can be comforting in the face of this.

People get killed.

Ray gets people killed, and the men Ray would die for get people killed, and neither of them need a reason for that.

They just need orders. They're itching for them. They're waiting, waiting, hurry up and wait, ready to light them up or be lit up, not much of a difference past a certain point.

And they are the best damn motherfuckers. Recon Marines are way beyond a certain point. They are so beyond a certain point, they're like dirt on dirt, like sweat on tears – unseen, implacable, final.

There is nothing that can be fucking comforting at this point in Ray's existence, that's for sure.

*

Trombley's like a puppy that desperately needs a leash and a muzzle, but of course, they're getting him neither. Devil dog; hellhounds are meant to be kept lean and mean and ready to attack. And then that crazy puppy goes and shoots some actual dogs, goes and shoots a boy and breaks the Iceman's heart. Ray wants to strangle him but he kind of has his hands full. He's fucking driving.

Trombley is a vicious little shit. Ray's vision is blurred from the eternal brightness of the sand, and there are black spots dancing in front of his eyes, but Trombley, he's the blackest of them all. Brad smells like sadness and hopelessness next to him, and Ray doesn't know what to do.

*

Sure enough, Stafford and Christeson have a plan. Of course they do; all along, they've been like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern desperately looking for their Hamlet, and apparently they've decided that the LT fits the bill. He's definitely distant and thoughtful enough, all entitled and breaking on the inside. Stafford and Christeson certainly have good taste, and because they're sneaky Recon Marines, they're not terribly obvious about the fact that they've placed their undying affection at the LT's feet and want to meddle with his well-being by any means necessary. Ray, he can just feel it. His Spider-sense is attuned, because he feels much in the same way about Brad.

So Ray is really unsurprised when Stafford and Christeson all but herd the LT around – at a distance, good tactical thinking, just some dumb stupid remarks dropped here and there – to get him together with Brad, in plain sight but with nobody looking. And the LT and Ray's TL exchange a few words, all that stoic bullshit, but Ray can fucking feel how Brad's chest is less constricted, and how there's something real in Fick's strained smile all of a sudden.

He's really unsurprised. It's the kind of thing that happens in a dream, when you're never weirded out because you always already know what's about to happen.

Because it's all in your head anyway.

*

There's a neat list of things they're supposed to believe in, because someone up there has calculated that if they believe, they're more efficient. Personally, Ray thinks it's a load of bullshit. There's no way they can be more efficient. This is not the Army, spoiled with logistics and appearances. The LT, he can pick up his Ivy League dictionary and look up cognitive dissonance, he's going to find his enlistment papers right where that entry is supposed to be: the Marines, they're about obedience in the face of idiocy. Fine-tuned, multi-million training required killing machines thrown into the line of fire like dead meat for unspecified objectives changing by the hour. They adapt.

They don't need to be told that they are doing the right thing. Or that their individual actions, or the war itself, even, have a fucking purpose. They don't need to believe in the rules, or that the rules make sense. Sure, they are required to put away their brains when they enlist, but they are not fucking morons.

They sure don't need to believe in the rules, they just have to follow them. They don't need to ask questions, because they know that war is always the motherfucking answer.

Doing the right thing, that's a lie from The Man – ask Tony. It's a fucking flimsy, decorative lie. Ask Ray.

Nobody asks, of course. Everybody knows.

*

They keep going, hitting targets and changing locations that look the same and are nothing alike, confusing the hell out of themselves and the locals. It's all hauntingly close, the dead children on the side of the road, the exhausted people they hug and send back to be shot. Ray tries to stay hydrated, and the ugly marks left by his first battle with the espresso maker are beginning to fade, but he is still dizzy and unsettled.

The shadows jump and disappear when he looks at them, outlines of men and victors that aren't there. There's no one but them in this merciless place for desiccated souls.

By the end of the day, Ray's body feels swollen and numb. His movements are slow and sluggish with sleep deprivation, and his gait is wobbly and bow-legged when he finally stumbles out of the victor. It's not even a proper walk, really, just a heavy, halting stumble till the designated place to dig his grave. It's not even a proper walk, and he's not even properly there, Ray thinks, watching the glow of the artillery in the darkness.

That red seems more real and alive than anything. More real than any of them; more real than Ray, even. Fuck.

It is very far away.

*

There are men in the trees. There's a fight on the bridge. Over and over.

Ray loses count of how many times they have been fucked over, why his platoon gets shot at over this, why the men keep getting shot.

They're heading out. Brad and the LT are eye-fucking. It's as subtle as an Avril Lavigne song. Wanna hear it? Your pal Ray-Ray will sing it for you.

Trace a line between reality and madness with a stick in the sand.

Draw a line. The line is arbitrary.

*

Out of the corner of his eye, Ray spots Fick and Colbert talking by the berm.

They're standing very close to each other. Danger close. Not to get homoerotic about this, but if Ray ever stood that close to Walt, with his eyes open like that, he'd be in serious fucking danger of his heart getting torn to pieces. Eye to eye, heart to heart – that is worse than accurate mortar fire.

They're not there when Ray turns. The sun is bearing down on him, pressing his head heavily into the naked earth. He's a Recon Marine, he's not afraid of anything. He gets on his knees and pukes. Nothing comes out.

It's like he's not even there.

He braces himself and breathes, and hears night noises in daytime. They're eerily soft, like whispers of giant wings.

The sun is hot and strong, but Ray is strong, too. He's not going to be put down. He's going to keep moving. No shamal is going to blow him off the face of this earth, no endless road is going to take him where he doesn't want to go.

Roger that.

*

Try that again, motherfucker.

*

There's a rush right there, a long ride in this place for hollow souls, with the victor stinking of sweat, jizz and piss, and no one talks about the pungent stink of fear and phantom blood they haven't shed yet but might at any moment. That is what they are here for.

Their progress may as well be aimless. The aim is beyond the desert, beyond the neat stacks of dead bodies and beyond the scattered remains, limbs torn off haphazardly, friendly fire, hostile, same thing. The aim is beyond their level of competence. The aim is on paper. It has nothing to do with the desert.

It has very little to do with their bodies, swift, silent, deadly, rolling through the dust and stewing in their shit, the words 'marine' and 'reconnaissance' barely applicable to anything.

The aim is set and reached in nice, air-conditioned rooms, with polished dark wood and well-fed guys in obscenely expensive suits that reek of rank, guys that feed on decision-making and not stale MREs. Guys like Person, they don't even execute the decisions. They generate the buzz that can then be nicely labeled and packaged as 'problem solved', both problem and solution arbitrary. The aim is everything.

The aim is remote. The aim is shit, no matter how you look at it.

So ride on, Corporal Person. There are miles to be made and people to be killed. There are towns to be destroyed and bombs to be dropped. There's terrain to be taken and retreat to be made the following day, preferably having spilled some of your fellow Marines' blood on the sand before you just give it up.

What you do is aimless. The aim does not care about you one whit.

It does not acknowledge you, does not recognize you, and if you are lucky enough to get home one day the aim certainly won't give a shit about your insurance, your benefits, or the fact that your only skills in life are killing people efficiently. You're on your own.

The less said about the aim, the better.

*

Ray is driving the victor, and Brad is on the comms with the LT. Now's the time for a song; if only Brad would let them sing some country. Really. Walt has an angel's voice.

As it is, Ray has nothing but his own voice to hold onto, and he's yelling on top of his lungs. Whatever. He's never been much of a musical man. At least Brad is smiling. In his side vision, Ray can see a flash of white teeth, and the Iceman's pale, dirty face looks so much younger.

That's how he sees them all: at a distance, a passing glance, there and gone, a reflection in the dirt-streaked glass. He's not looking at himself too closely, either. He has to keep driving.

He can hear the other teams on the comms, the other men in the back, alive in the Reporter's pages. (Let's hope the Rolling Stone writes better than he talks.) Brad is close enough to touch if he dared to have that question answered. Ray can hear them. Sound of self, and nothing beyond.

Ray drives through the dust, breathing in the scent of the desert. He keeps holding on, clutching the damn steering wheel like a lifeline. He's a stubborn motherfucker, and neither time nor wind can drown him. He's getting through it, and he'll drag the rest of this platoon along, like a resonance of terror.

There is no one here but us.

This is a place for them, for they bear no souls. Only darkness.

*