Friday, October 08, 2004


Here's something that I wrote many years ago as part of a novel. I liked the character development so I thought it would make a good post.

Daniel is an elderly gent I've been building up as an extraordinarily gentle and thoughtful guy. This is a flashback to Daniel's younger days.

Daniel pulled himself up into a crack in the rock where he could wedge his body and rest. He swung his rifle around in front so as not to crush it between his back and the rock. He then braced himself in a near-sitting position to free his hands. He was breathing heavily, the hot desert air scalding his throat. His shirt was barely damp even though he was sweating copiously, because the dry desert wind sucked away the moisture as soon as his sweat glands produced it. But now that he was in the crack and out of the wind, he was starting to feel sweat trickling down his forehead and into his eyes. He pressed a damp sleeve against his forehead to dry it.

The rock he was climbing was an outcrop of shale near the top of a jagged cactus-covered hill. He was several hundred feet above the desert floor. Up here the gusts of wind actually felt cool. To the men crawling on the desert floor below him the wind would feel like it came from a blast furnace. It was an early afternoon in late summer in the Sonoran desert, near the US-Mexican border. The temperatures hovered around 115 degrees in the shade. This was a good time for a sneak attack, when the target unit may be letting down on security due to the heat.

On the un-shaded desert floor where Daniel's company crawled, the temperature would be closer to 180 degrees, but the men could not stand up or they might be seen by the target unit. The enemy was an encampment of Mexican troops on the other side of the hill, a couple of tanks and around 40 troops, according to satellite data. Daniel's company numbered only 28, but they had the advantages of surprise, better training, and better equipment. The Americans could also call in reliable support in the form of artillery and air strikes, while the Mexicans were pretty much on their own. The American forces had complete air superiority, and when there where no Mexican planes around, the American pilots amused themselves by beating up on Mexican artillery units.

The Mexican troops would be largely drawn from the poverty-stricken masses of Mexico City and forced into service for a dictator that they hated. They were pawns in the truest sense of the word, pieces thrown into the middle of the board to draw an attack, and hopefully to leave the attacking unit vulnerable. Daniel felt sorry for them, but they were a danger, and could not be left where they were. The tanks had anti-aircraft capability, so it was not considered worth the risk to just send in the choppers to take them out. That left the job to the nearest ground unit.

Daniel looked up to see how far he had yet to climb the dangerously flaky rock. Not far. He felt the shale digging painfully into his back and left knee, but he ignored it as he pulled out his canteen and drank deeply. In such intense heat it is necessary to drink enormous amounts of water. He gazed down the vertical fifty foot cliff that he had climbed. The height did not bother him at all. Odd. If he were standing on a balcony at this height he would be feeling a tightening in his stomach, and it would take a real act of courage to lean on the rail. But for some reason, when he climbed a building, tree, or rock face there was no fear at all. He had always liked climbing.

Again, Daniel wiped his forehead with a sleeve to dry the trickles of sweat, then brought his rifle scope to his eye to examine the terrain below him. The company seemed to be making good progress, it looked like the attack would go off as scheduled. This was his first battle and he felt his heart thump every time his thoughts turned to wondering if some other sniper might be at this very moment centering him in his sights.

As this thought occurred to him again, he brought the scope forward to where the troops were heading. He should not be able to see any of the enemy yet from this point, but it couldn't hurt to check. He scanned the desert landscape, verifying that the only soldiers on the field were on his side.

As he examined the battle field he thought about how this company was not the one the one he had trained with. Normally, a sniper would return from sniper school to the unit he had gone through basic training with, but the soldiers who had gone through basic training with Daniel had requested that he not come back.

Daniel noticed a bit of movement and focused on it. It was an American soldier crawling through an arroyo. The sides of the dry stream bed would offer some shade, but there would be no wind at all down there, it must be miserable.

Daniel had not really cared that he was not liked by his fellow soldiers, it was a common enough pattern in his life. He never understood it, but it was a fact. He supposed that it was partly his own fault, since he never had made any effort to fit in.

He scanned up the arroyo to spot a few more American soldiers.

What bothered him most about the re-assignment was what his basic-training sergeant had told him: people thought he was cold and distant. He didn't understand that. Sure, he was quiet and not very expressive, but people around him almost seemed to be afraid of him, like he was a psychopath or something.

Another bit of motion caught Daniel's eye and he increased magnification to identify what looked like a Gila monster -- a large poisonous lizard.

His sergeant had recommended Daniel for sniper school because he thought Daniel had no empathy. He thought Daniel could kill without hesitation or remorse, just like a sniper ought. "It's different from real combat," the sergeant had told Daniel, trying to be helpful, "It take a special kind of soldier to look at a guy close-up in your sights and pop him. Some men hesitate. Some can't do it at all. But I've known men like you, private. Cold eye. No hesitation. No empathy."

Daniel had been hurt by the sergeant's words. Just because a man doesn't party with the others. Just because the chanting and inter-platoon competitions and other team-building exercises annoy him. Just because he doesn't smile a lot or scowl or show emotions. That doesn't mean he lacks feelings. Daniel had as much empathy as anyone.

Now, the newly trained sniper focused on another bit of motion, and saw something so unexpected it took him a moment to recognize what he was seeing. It was another sniper. And the other sniper was scoping right back at him.

The face behind the scope belonged to a young Mexican soldier who could be no more than 17. He looked just as frightened as Daniel felt. The young Mexican soldier was already doomed as Daniel noticed this, because Daniel had squeezed the trigger the instant he recognized the threat.

An touch later, the other rifle flashed and Daniel ducked down as much as he could. At these ranges it took bullets almost a second to travel, so he was already keying his microphone as he heard a crack on the rock behind him. ``Contact. Contact.'' he announced on the general channel.

Then he straightened up to re-acquire the sniper he had shot at. As he had expected, the boy who was too slow to fire was also too slow to dodge. There was a nasty hole in the middle of his face.

Daniel began scanning for other enemy soldiers. Distant machine guns open up. Daniel keyed his mike to his designated spotter channel: ``Emergency. Emergency. Two hard strikes needed this position, ten-second delay on second strike. Two hard strikes. This position. Ten seconds between strikes. Emergency.''

As he talked he was scanning for the tank that mounted the machine gun. By now there were shots all over the battle field. He spotted another sniper, so he squeezed the trigger and watched the man die. Then he scanned quickly on for the tank so that he could paint it for the anti-armor artillery that was on its way.

Daniel spotted the first tank just as his earphones beeped with a signal telling him that the artillery was on its approach and needed terminal guidance. As he had expected, the machine gun was mounted on the tank, and it was being fired from inside by camera. He painted the tank with his targeting laser. Since he had to keep his aim on the tank for a few seconds anyway, he shot out the camera.

A few seconds later, the tank's 185mm cannon boomed. The tank commander knew he was spotted when the cameras was destroyed, so he was going to get off a shot and then scramble. But he did not know that the artillery was already on its way. The tank was just starting to move when an armor-piercing shell smashed into the dome.

Daniel barely registered the destruction of the tank before he was methodically searching for the other one to paint for the second artillery shell. He didn't find it, but he took out two more enemy soldiers as he was passing by.

There was a sharp cracking sound behind him and he felt shale fragments pattering the back of his neck. Daniel hurled forward, clutching the front of the crack he was in. He curled as far in as he could.

Another sniper had spotted him. Fortunately, a poor sniper. Daniel had no hope of finding the other sniper before he was killed, so his only choice was evasion. Another crack testified that the sniper could still see part of his body. Luckily for him the guy was really poor.

Daniel could not go down without coming further into the open, so he began scrambling up the crack. The crack deepened quickly and as he hugged the inside, he heard no more near misses. He hoped that he was out of sight.

As he neared the top, he glimpsed motion above him and quickly wedged himself in the crack, pulling his rifle into position. Just as the scope came to his eye, a Mexican soldier looked over the edge. Another 17-year-old pawn. Daniel shot him in the face. The boys brains spattered and some of them fell down on Daniel who hardly noticed as he pulled a grenade, jerked out the pin, and clicked the button twice for a 4-second delay.

He hurled it up onto the top of the hill to destroy any more dangerous children that might be up there. He lurched up two more hand-holds, before bracing himself and covering his head. The grenade went off above and before the dust cleared he was at the top of the cliff.

There were two more bodies on the crest, and one of them was moving. Daniel saw the face of the moving one and could tell that this boy was no more than 13 or 14. He shouted in Spanish for the boy to drop his weapon and hold his hands up. But the young soldier tried to point his rifle, and Daniel killed him.

"Danny?"' Daniel looked up, startled to see Sarah looking at him, he had been so lost in his memories that he had no idea what the conversation was about.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart. When Zareda mentioned my combat experience, I got to thinking about the war." After the battle, one Corporal Daniel Greaves, rookie sniper, was decorated for neutralizing 14 enemy soldiers and one tank, as well as having detected an ambush and saving the company.

"I was just saying that it's hard to believe you were ever a sniper." Sarah repeated. "You're so gentle and tender-hearted, I can't imagine you ever taking a cold deliberate aim and killing another human being."

After the battle, Daniel had heard someone describe him as a cold-blooded killer, and his feelings were hurt. He certainly didn't enjoy killing, and he felt sorry for those Mexican soldiers. How could anyone call him cold-hearted?

"It was war, Sarah. I guess we all did what we had to."

"Didn't you just agonize every time you had to ... you know?" she asked, determined to be sympathetic. "I just can't see you killing someone in cold blood like that. Not you!"

Daniel paused to search for an answer that would be both honest and diplomatic. He didn't want these new friends to know what he was really like, what he had come to admit about himself as the war progressed. His eyes were far away again, and his voice quiet when he finally answered, "I never wanted to be a cold-blooded killer."

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