Sunday, October 30, 2005

Scale 7 Artifact, part 15

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Journey (part 5)

The jagged shale was almost too hot to touch in the searing desert sun, but the rock could only be negotiated bare-handed. The rock demanded a delicate touch because it was so fragile, fracturing suddenly in thin layers like a stone croissant. Daniel pulled himself into a crevasse to wedge his body and rest. He swung his rifle around in front so as not to crush it between his back and the rock and then braced himself in a near-sitting position, ignoring the jagged points of stone pressing against his body. His shirt was barely damp despite the sweat pouring from his skin; the thirsty desert wind sucked away the moisture as soon as his sweat glands produced it. But now that he was in the cleft and out of the wind, Daniel was starting to feel sweat trickling down his forehead and into his eyes. He pressed a sleeve against his forehead to dry it.

Daniel was climbing was an outcrop near the top of a jagged cactus-covered hill. He was several hundred feet above the desert floor where the occasional gusts of wind actually felt cool. To the men crawling on the desert floor below, the wind would scorch like a blast furnace.

The sun was just past its peak on this late summer day 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 unshaded desert floor where Daniel's company crawled, the temperature would be closer to 180 degrees. 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 Mexican troops were draftees from the poverty-stricken masses of Mexico City, sent off to a war that they wanted no part of. They were pawns --pieces thrown into the middle of the board to draw an attack and leave the attacking unit vulnerable. That would be Daniel's unit. The could not just send in choppers to take out the tanks because the tanks had anti-aircraft capability. 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. The shale dug painfully into Daniel's back and left knee, but he ignored it as he pulled out his canteen and drank deeply. The water was slightly sour and salty with added electrolytes.

As Daniel gazed down the vertical fifty foot cliff that he had climbed, he reflected on how odd it was that the height did not bother him. 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 even though the rail would be far safer than the fragile rock he was braced against now. For some reason, when Daniel climbed, there was no fear at all. He had always liked climbing. That was part of the reason that he was a sniper.

Again, Daniel wiped his forehead with a sleeve to dry the trickles of sweat, then he brought the 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 Daniel's first battle and he wondered if some other sniper might be at this very moment centering him in his sights. He thrust aside the thought; it could do him no good.

Daniel 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 quickly but methodically, verifying that the only soldiers on the field were on his side.

As he examined the battle field he thought about why this company was not 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 in the upper right of his visual field as he scanned. He'd almost missed it. He quickly brought the scope back to focus on the motion. 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 supposed that it was partly his own fault, since he never had made any effort to fit in.

Daniel 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. Daniel 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 back-tracked again to find it. Where did it go? There it was again. Daniel increased magnification to identify what looked like a Gila monster -- a large poisonous lizard. It would dart a few feet and then do push ups. Daniel had heard that the push ups somehow cooled the lizard down, but he didn't see how.

Daniel's sergeant had recommended him 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 takes 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 annoyed him, just because he doesn't smile a lot or scowl or show emotions, that didn't mean he lacked feelings. Daniel had as much empathy as anyone.

Why was that Gila monster running around in the open in the middle of the afternoon when the temperature was 180 degrees on the desert floor? Daniel searched back along where the lizard had come from, up the shale outcropping. What he saw then was so unexpected that it took Daniel 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 other scope belonged to a young Mexican soldier who could be no more than 17. The boy 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 instant 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 urgently for other enemy soldiers. Distant machine guns opened up. Daniel keyed his mike to his designated spotter channel: ``Emergency. Emergency. Two hard strikes needed this position, thirty-second delay on second strike. Two hard strikes. This position. Thirty 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 battlefield. He spotted another sniper, so he squeezed the trigger and watched the man die. Then he scanned quickly on, looking for the tanks. Daniel needed to paint them 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. Daniel painted the tank with his targeting laser. Since he had to keep his aim on the tank for a few seconds, he shot out the camera.

A moment later, the tank's 185mm cannon boomed. The tank commander knew he was spotted when the camera 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 for the next shell. Daniel didn't find the tank, but he took out two more enemy soldiers as he was passing by.

There was a sharp cracking sound behind Daniel and dozens of tiny rock fragments pierced the back of his neck. Daniel lunged forward, clutching the front of the crevasse and squeezing in as far in as he could.

Another sniper had spotted him. Fortunately, the other sniper was a lousy shot.

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.

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

As Daniel 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 on Daniel who hardly noticed as he pulled a grenade, jerked out the pin, and clicked the button twice for a 4-second delay.

Daniel 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 Daniel was at the top of the cliff, aiming his weapon over the corpse of the soldier he had shot.

There were two more bodies on the crest, and one of them was still moving. Daniel saw the face and could tell that this boy was no more than 13 or 14. Daniel shot him in the neck, nearly decapitating the boy with the powerful rifle.

"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. My mind was wandering." 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 stone-hearted 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 stone-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, staring with those big, innocent eyes, 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 honest deception. He didn't want to lie, but he also didn't want Sarah to know the truth about him, the truth that he had come to admit as the war progressed. He looked away when he answered, "I never wanted to be a cold-blooded killer."

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