~ The Phoenix ~
by D. J. Belt

Copyright: Original story and characters by D. J. Belt, copyright March, 2006. All rights reserved.
Sex/violence: Graphic sexuality, no. Physical and emotional attraction between women, yes. ALT, if labels are necessary. Violence, yes. This one's fairly brutal, but nothing that you haven't seen in television or movies. Let that be your guide.
Comments to: Send comments to dbelt@mindspring.com. As always, I love to hear from you, so don't be shy. If you feel moved to send me a note, please do. As always, thanks to all of you who have written before, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Misc: The last science-fiction type story I did for you got lots of good comments, so I decided to try another one. The theme of this story is the psychic tragedy of war and the indomitable ability of the human spirit to endure desolation and blossom anew when watered with hope and love. I hope that you enjoy!

A huge transport ship hovered just above the planet's atmosphere, in geosynchronous orbit over the capitol city. Its hull was pitted with the strikes of countless tiny meteors, and here and there, sunlight reflected from a shiny streak of petroleum which had leaked from some external fitting on the ship. It was an antiquated vessel and had been in commission for countless years, but was deemed serviceable by the people who made such decisions, people who usually didn't have to occupy such an old transport themselves. They occupied the newer ships. Rank had its privileges.

Aboard the ship, Julie sat erect on her sleeping rack and ran a hand through her short, curly brown hair. Her bare feet rested on the cold planking of the deck, and she looked down at her toes. Near them, an unrecognizable bug scuttled across the metal decking. She snorted in disgust, then picked up a boot and threw it at the creature. It thumped across the hollow deck, then came to rest against the near bulkhead. The bug scuttled away, disappearing into a crack between the deck plates. She watched it disappear, then muttered, "What a toilet. What did I do to get this gig?"

She rose, stretched, and pulled a towel from a hook on the wall, wiping the sweat from her face and chest. Her identification tag clinked against her chest as she draped the towel over her shoulder, then rummaged in her locker and pulled her toilet kit from her duffel bag. She sought out her plastic shower shoes and slipped her feet into them, then headed toward the door. Just before she opened it, she looked down at herself. She was clothed only in an undershirt and a pair of form-fitting underpants. She hesitated, decided that she should probably present a more modest appearance in the hallway, and wrapped the towel around her waist. That done, she stepped from her tiny cubicle, closed the door, and shuffled around the corner to the female showers. Countless generations before, the army had eradicated the segregation of soldiers by race and gender, but the living quarters and showers were still separate for males and females. After all, soldiers were still human. Sort of.

She entered the showers, stripped off her towel and underwear, and stepped into the steamy, wet environment. A few other female soldiers were present, showering and talking among themselves. A silence fell when Julie entered, then a voice greeted her pleasantly. "Well, if it isn't Sergeant Kapos. How's it going, Sarge? Long time no see."

Julie looked up, squinting through the clouds of steam. She focused on a fresh-faced girl occupying the shower stream next to hers, then recognized the face. She tapped the shower on, stuck her head under the stream of hot water, then wiped her face with a hand. Only after that did she reply, "Anderson, right?"

"You got it, Sarge." She turned to her buddies in the shower and said, "Sarge, here, was my instructor in basic training. She was kick-ass great." To Julie, the young woman said, "I didn't know you were out here. What unit are you with?"

"Got here three days ago," Julie answered. "I haven't been assigned yet."

The young soldier giggled, then observed, "We've got us a five-star hotel here, huh?"

Julie grinned, then said, "Friggin' rat-trap. I'm waiting for it to fall out of the sky. Welcome to the light infantry, kid. We get the best of everything." As she soaped herself under the stream of water, she asked, "I remember you heading for some cushy geek school after basic training. What happened?"

Anderson shrugged, then said, "They sent me to the grunts, instead. Guess I'll get to see some action instead of sitting behind a computer all day."

"Sorry to hear that," Julie replied. At the young soldier's puzzled expression, she explained, "I always thought you were too smart for this. You deserved better."

The kid did, too, Julie thought. Fresh-faced and perky, the kid couldn't have been more than eighteen or twenty. She demonstrated the same self-assured, cocky attitude that the other young soldiers displayed, full of life and enthusiasm for whatever lay ahead. Julie eyed the young soldier's physique; it showed the muscle of recent, hard training, and she noted a fresh tattoo on the girl's butt. Yeah, Julie thought; muscle, youth, a cocky grin, and a fresh tattoo, just like all the others I've watched die on a dozen miserable, forgotten planets. Still, she has the strength. She's no fragile flower, and she's bright. If she keeps her head down and her mouth shut, she just might live through the next few years. Julie experienced an unaccustomed surge of emotion at that thought. For some inexplicable reason, she really did want to see this kid live, even though she realized instantly that Anderson was no different from the hundred other fresh-faced young soldiers that she'd sent back to Earth in plastic boxes over the years.

Her morose thoughts were interrupted by Anderson's voice. "Hey, Sarge." When Julie looked over, she saw that the girl was studying her body with a wide-eyed expression. "Wow, you've got a few scars there. You've been in the poop a lot, haven't you?"

Julie blinked, wiped the water from her face with a hand, and answered, "I've been around the block a time or two."

Anderson said, "I haven't been assigned yet, either. Can I get into your section?"

Julie considered the face in front of her. Finally, she nodded and said, "I'll see what I can do, kid."

"Thanks, Sergeant Kapos." Anderson tapped off the water and began toweling herself dry as Julie considered the request and her affirmative reply. She usually didn't entertain such requests, but this one struck her as agreeable. As she continued her shower, she watched Anderson join a couple of her buddies as they dressed and left the shower area.

For some reason, the request to join her section put Julie into an even more morose mood than she had entertained earlier. Young, inexperienced soldiers like Anderson had a bad habit of dying. She didn't want to watch this particular one die. No, not this one. Not on the godforsaken rock below them, orbiting in some forgettable section of the solar system. Not her, not here. What a waste that would be, Julie thought.

She finished her shower and returned to her tiny compartment to dress. As a career sergeant, she was entitled to her own cubicle, unlike the younger soldiers, who shared large, cavernous compartments crammed with lockers and sleeping racks. Although private, her accommodations still weren't as cushy as the officers, but that was the way of armies throughout history. All species of animals have their pecking order.

As she pulled on a set of clean underwear, she considered the dress uniform hanging on the open locker door. On its chest and sleeves, her entire career was emblazoned. It could be read at a glance, evident to anyone who could decipher the chevrons of rank, the ribbons denoting awards and decorations, and the light infantry badge. She rejected wearing it; instead, she dug a utility uniform from her duffel, shook it out, and pulled it on over her underwear. It displayed her years of service differently; it was patched and faded, of an old style, and showed only her rank, name and light infantry badge. That was all that Julie cared that anyone knew of her.

A half-hour later, as she sat in the sergeant's area of the galley sipping her second cup of coffee, a clerk approached her and asked, "Sergeant Julie Kapos?" She considered him for a moment, then nodded wordlessly. He continued, "You're to report to Major Patel as soon as possible. Here's your orders." He placed a plastic slip on the table next to her, and again, she nodded.

"Thank you. I'll read 'em and heed 'em," she said. The clerk left, and Julie turned the plastic slip around and studied it. Orders, she thought. Here comes the bad news. I've been assigned. What crapper of a duty station is in my future now? Guess there's no time like the present to find out.

She finished her coffee, then rose and made her way to the office of Major Patel, several decks above hers. There, she noted the wider halls, the fresher paint, and the absence of the smell of massed humanity on these decks. Yeah, she thought, I'm in officers' country now; time to watch my back.

She did not care much for most officers, seeing them as pretentious, self-important creatures. Occasionally, there was one that would actually elicit her admiration by ability or courage, usually a light infantry officer. Those people didn't live to be a ripe old age, though. In Julie's experience, the best ones went home in a plastic box. The rest got promoted. A sick joke, just like the rest of life, Julie thought. A sick, twisted joke.

She found the door of Major Patel's office and entered. As she expected, the clerk occupied the first room; the major's office would be just beyond that. The clerk recognized her and buzzed the major, announcing her presence. He held a finger to his earpiece, then looked at her and said, "Enter."

She opened the door to the major's office, approached his desk, and saluted. He returned the salute, then ordered, "Please stand easy, Sergeant." She obeyed, spreading her feet to a shoulder's width apart, clasping her hands behind her back, and relaxing as she watched him peruse the screen of his computer. He nodded approvingly, then began speaking to her.

"Your record is impressive, Sergeant Kapos. You've seen a lot of war. You've got three decorations for valor, you've been wounded several times, and you hold the Medal of Honor. There's not many living people who hold that one." He read further, then noted, "Your psychiatric profile is less than tops, though. You've been hospitalized at least four times for battle-related psychosis."

He glanced up at her to note her reaction at that comment. She maintained an impassive expression, replying only, "I can do my job, sir."

His eyebrows raised as he agreed, "I daresay. How old are you, Sergeant?"

"Thirty-two, sir."

"How long have you been in the light infantry?"

"Fifteen years, sir."

He sighed. Thirty-two, and she'd already been at war almost half her life. She had begun her service at the age of seventeen, probably conscripted right from high school, he guessed. He had seen sergeants like her before. They were exhausted, weary-of-living, emotion-suppressed automatons who were one step away from becoming permanent psychotics from the horror of repeated warfare. She had the same aura of tired resignation about her as the others did, the same haunted, primal look in her eyes, the same fear of-- of nothing, anymore. Still, they were the backbone of the army, and the sergeant in front of her appeared to have plenty of backbone. He studied her; the old scar over the eye, the worn, faded utility uniform form-fit against a muscular, almost feline body, the ripples of muscle beneath the rolled-up sleeves, the ornate tattoo on her upper arm moving as the muscle beneath it flexed rhythmically, the chevrons of rank and the light infantry badge evident on her uniform. He asked one more question.

"You got a husband or a wife? Kids?"

"No, sir."

"Good," he replied, then rose from his desk. Julie felt a cold chill run down her spine at his last question; they generally didn't ask that unless the job for which she was being chosen was a lost cause. But then, she'd survived lost causes before.

The major tapped a switch on the wall panel in his office, and a three-dimensional representation of the planet below them appeared. He rotated the globe, then pointed at it. "Approach, Sergeant," he instructed. She stepped near him, eyeing the globe. "This is the planet beneath us, Aquarius. Ever been here before?" She shook her head. He continued, "Well, it's not much different from the twoscore other colonized planets that Earth claims. It's about half of Earth's size. Much of the planet is of a harsh environment, rather like America's southwestern desert. In the more northern hemisphere, the climate is more pleasant. It harbors much agriculture. The desert yields many valuable minerals. It's a profitable colony for Earth's government."

"But?" Julie asked.

"It's in open revolt. The colonists have declared their independence from Earth and have established a provisional government. We've been at war with the rebels for four years now. We're getting nowhere with them. The president has decreed that we can't lose this colony, but we're very close to doing just that. If we can't achieve a decisive military victory against them very soon, we'll probably have to withdraw and grant them their independence." He paused, studied Julie's face, then asked, "But you don't give a rat's butt about any of this, do you?"

Julie grinned, then replied, "No, sir."

The major nodded. "Good. You're honest. I like that. Here's what you will care about. The rebels operate many widely-scattered bands of guerilla activity around the planet. They're clever, well-organized and well-supplied. They're able to anticipate our every move, and we don't know how. We recently sent a light infantry section into this area of the desert to obtain a couple of prisoners for interrogation, as we need to know more about their infrastructure." He placed a finger on the globe, indicating the spot. "They got into a nasty scrap with the rebels, and we haven't heard anything else from them since then. They're listed as 'missing in action'. You know what that's a euphemism for, don't you, Sergeant?"

"Yes, sir," Julie said. "That means that we haven't found enough of 'em yet to scrape into a plastic box and send back to their families."

He studied Julie for a moment, then said, "That's your job, Sergeant." She cocked her head in question at that statement, and he noted the reaction. "You're to form a section of light infantry from among the available replacements on this ship, lead them into this sector of the desert, find out what happened to the previous section, and capture a rebel or two for interrogation. Questions?"

Julie leaned close to the globe, studying it. "When, sir?" she asked.

"You're leaving around dawn tomorrow," the major replied.

"With a section that's never been in combat together before, Major?"

"Can't be helped. Study the records of the available replacements, then choose your people. I'll give you whoever you want. You are now the 2nd Section." He handed her a hand-held screen with a list of names on it. "Just like they were, until yesterday."

Julie scanned the names on the screen, then paled as her eyes fell upon one name in particular. She sighed, then closed her eyes for a moment. The major asked, "You recognize a name?"

"Yes, sir. The section sergeant. She was..." Julie felt a wave of weary emptiness wash over her at the thought of the name, then finished, "A friend."

"I'm sorry," the major said. " Earth has been at war constantly for seventy-five years now with somebody or other. We've all lost friends. I imagine that you've lost more than your share." He added, "You know, she might still be alive down there. That's why you're shoving off tomorrow, early."

Julie resumed her impassive expression and handed the screen back to the major. Their eyes locked for a moment, and in that look, they both knew that the chances of survival were slim. She said, "I'll find 'em, Major, and I'll bring you a prisoner or two."

"I know."

"Ah, is there to be an officer leading this mission, sir?"

The major snorted, then grinned and said, "I know how you career sergeants feel about officers. You'll have enough problems; I won't burden you with babysitting some snot-nosed lieutenant. You're in charge. Get it done. Get started. Time is a precious commodity."

"Yes, sir." Julie stood to attention, saluted the major, and noted the crispness with which he returned her salute. That suggested to her that he, at least, respected her. Or, she thought with sarcasm, maybe he always saluted the walking dead that way. What was it that the Romans said? 'We, who are about to die, salute you?' Nah. It's more like, 'We, who are safe on this tub, salute you, who are about to get your ass shot off.' She left his office, then sought out the personnel bay and seated herself at a computer, scanning the service records of available light infantry replacements. It was a quick job; she knew exactly what she was looking for. After about two hours and three cups of coffee, she presented a list to the major's clerk and instructed him to cut orders on the fifteen soldiers she'd chosen. She wanted them officially transferred to her and present that afternoon in one of the large training compartments on the ancient transport. There, she would begin to forge a team.

After a frantic workout in the gym to dispel the knots of tension in her stomach, she showered again, dressed in a form-fitting battle uniform and found her way to the training compartment. She placed her hand on the door's handle, then took a deep breath and pushed it open. As she entered, the buzz of conversation and laughter inside stopped, and a dead silence enveloped her. She looked around the large room; fifteen soldiers, about equally divided between males and females, stared at her from where they were resting, sprawled against the bulkheads forming the walls of the room. She studied each face in turn, then began speaking.

"I'm Sergeant Kapos. You now belong to the 2nd Section, 4th Company, 1st Light Infantry Regiment. Look around at your buddies; in less than a day, we're going to be in the poop. They will be watching your ass, and you will be responsible for theirs." After a pause for effect, she added, "And you're all responsible to me. You drop the ball in a fight, and I just might kill you myself." She narrowed her eyes and studied the faces around the room; most were incredibly young, but she noted a few scarred, cagey faces among them. She asked, "How many of you have been in combat before?" Eight of them raised their hands. That was the way she'd anticipated it. "You veterans, pair off with a new kid. They'll stick by your side and learn from you, and you keep 'em alive." She perused the faces again, and her eyes halted at one particular face, a young face which regarded her with wide eyes. "Anderson," she said. "Welcome aboard. You get to wear the radio, and you stick by me. Got it?"

She grinned as she said, "Got it, Sarge."

"Form up, alphabetical order. We draw our combat gear and weapons."

At that, the soldiers rose from the floor and gathered about her, noting each other's names and rapidly arranging themselves in a single line. Anderson was first in line, just behind Julie. When they were formed, Julie led them down a passageway to the supply and arms rooms. In short time, they were back in the training area, their gear spread out in front of them. Julie quickly divided them into two squads of seven soldiers each, the usual arrangement for a section. Anderson, she kept aside. She appointed a squad leader for each squad, in both cases a veteran. One was a male with spiky blonde hair and an excess of tattoos and testosterone, and the other was a no-nonsense female who carried several scars across her cheek, one eyelid permanently drooping from an old wound. She issued both of them promotions to corporal, then set about to cram months of wisdom into an afternoon of training.

She had them spread out their equipment for inspection and quickly searched each soldier's issue, tossing about half of each kit into a pile in one corner of the room with the muttered exclamations, "You won't need this, and you won't need this." When she finished, she looked around the room. They were watching her with surprised expressions. "Light infantry travels light," she said. "You won't need mess kits, clean underwear, gas masks and shaving crap. I want to see nothing in your fanny-packs but ration bars, clean socks, your jacket, and your thermal blanket." That said, she turned and lifted a large equipment bag from its place in a corner of the room, then handed it to Anderson. "Pass these out."

Anderson opened the bag and began walking down the line, tossing an extra canteen and a long, wicked-looking knife at the feet of each soldier. When she did, the blonde squad leader grinned evilly and said, "All right. You're my kind of sarge, Sarge."

"Glad you approve," Julie responded, then considered the weapons issued to her people. Most of them had been given the standard lightweight rifle and a pistol, but one soldier in each squad had been burdened with a heavier, rapid-fire machine gun. Julie's eyes trailed up from a machine gun to the soldier standing just behind it. She was a skinny kid, perhaps in her late teens, with freckles across her face and a head of short, frizzy red hair. She had the tough look of a farm kid about her. Julie studied the young soldier as she noted, "That gun's almost as big as you are. Think you can hump that thing across the desert?"

"Damned skippy I can, Sarge," the soldier replied, her grin not completely hiding the nervous air which radiated from behind her false bravado.

"Bet you ten bucks you can't," Julie challenged.

"Bet you fifteen I can," the soldier replied.

Julie grinned, then gave a reassuring pat on the shoulder to the young soldier. "You're on," she said as she winked reassuringly. The kid had stood well to the challenge; she'll never give up now. She'll carry that gun until her heart bursts from the effort, Julie thought. She knew that the kid probably could do it; she had chosen the green soldiers mainly by their physical profiles, unlike the veterans, whom she had chosen simply because they were available and had fought before. And Anderson? That, she admitted to herself, was a special case. She continued her careful attention to each soldier's weapons and gear, then kept them late into the evening, working with them both as individuals and as a team until she felt that there was nothing else that she could do, given the limited time. Finally, she surveyed them as they stood around the edges of the room, body armor on, helmets in place, their weapons clean and their equipment in order, every piece in its proper place on their bodies. They were lightly equipped, but that was all they needed. She nodded, then said, "Get some chow and hit your racks. No partying. Sleep, damn it. You'll need it. We breakfast at 0500, then we draw ammo and rations and catch the transport to the surface. If there's anything you want to talk to me about, my door is open to all of you. Got it?"

A unanimous, affirmative shout answered her, and she jerked her thumb toward the door. "Get lost!" The soldiers filed toward the door, on their way to their respective barracks bays, as Julie watched. When Anderson passed, she grabbed the young soldier by the body armor and pulled her aside with the words, "Wait. I want to talk to you." After the others left, she closed the door, then turned to Anderson and studied her for a moment. The girl had removed her helmet, and was waiting with a puzzled, expectant expression on her face. Suddenly at a loss for words, Julie pointed at the deck and said, "Sit."

They sat on the deck together, and Julie leaned against the bulkhead, suddenly very tired. She rubbed a hand through her hair and asked, "Do you know how to work that radio?"

"Sure, Sarge. You trained me back on Earth, remember?"

"So I did. You scared?"

The young woman hesitated, a suddenly vulnerable look on her features, and admitted, "Yeah, I guess I am pretty scared."

"Good. You'd better be." She hesitated for another long, pregnant moment, then placed a hand on Anderson's shoulder and urged, "Listen, when we get down there, you stick by me, do you hear me? You don't leave my side for a moment. You go where I go, you pee when I pee, you snooze by my side, you keep yourself and that radio by me at all times. That's our only link with home. Understood?"

"Sure, Sarge."

"One more thing. I'll do my best to get you through this alive. You'll earn your light infantry badge from this little stroll. When we get back, I'm going to transfer you to a geek job and you stay there, you got it? I don't want to see you in the light infantry again after this mission."

Anderson was quiet for a moment, her expression pale, her eyes wide in question. She stammered for an instant, then whispered, "You don't think I'm good enough for the light infantry, do you?"

"I think you're too good for it," Julie answered honestly as she looked away. "You're a good kid, Anderson. You've got one hell of a bright future ahead of you. Just not here."

Anderson placed a hand on Julie's arm. When their eyes met again, the young soldier asked, "Is that the only reason? My future, I mean?"

Julie was taken aback by the forthright question. "What other reason would I have?" she asked.

"You tell me, Sarge," Anderson said. Her manner was honest, even friendly. "I figure that I have a right to know."

Julie sighed heavily, then leaned her head back to rest on the cold metal bulkhead. She closed her eyes, then thought, what the hell, why not? In a soft voice, she admitted, "You remind me of somebody that I-- that I knew once."


"Somebody, that's all."

"What happened to her?"

Julie was silent for a moment, then replied hoarsely, "I scraped her ass into a plastic box and sent what was left of her back to her family after she tripped a mine on Reyal's third moon."

Anderson studied the expression on Julie's face, then guessed, "And you were in love with her, weren't you?" When Julie looked over at Anderson, the young soldier could see the truth of her speculation, registered deep in Julie's eyes. She said, "That had to be tough for you. I'm sorry."

"Me, too," Julie sighed, then rose from her place on the floor. "See, I told you that you were too smart for this crap. You hit the rack now and get some sleep. You'll need it. Get going, and you remember what I told you." She walked to the door and opened it. Just before she stepped into the corridor, Anderson's voice stopped her.


Julie turned and considered the face looking up at her. "Yeah?"

Anderson's chin involuntarily quivered a little as she attempted to project a false show of bravado. "I won't let you down tomorrow."

"I know. You'll do okay."



"Do you know why I requested light infantry?"

Julie's mouth dropped open in disbelief. "What? You asked for this? Why?"

Anderson became suddenly very shy as she admitted, "Because from the first day I was in basic training, I wanted to be just like you. We all did, all of us. You're a legend."

The admission gave Julie pause for thought. Finally, she said, "The last thing you should want to be like is me. Trust me on this. Now get some rack time, kid," and quickly stepped out into the corridor. She looked at her watch, then noted the time. She had a little while to go before she needed to be asleep. She headed for the Sergeant's Club, entered, and plopped down on a tattered stool. As she threw her money card down on the greasy bar, she glanced at the bartender, then said, "Make it stiff and sweet."

The bartender joked, "You must be talkin' about me, Sarge," as he picked up her money card and scanned it through the money computer.

Julie grinned at the joke, then retorted, "Yeah? That's not what I heard."

He laughed as he placed the drink and her card in front of her. "Oh?" he quipped. "You been talkin' to my ex-wife again?" Without waiting for a reply, he headed off to wait on a group of loud, drunken sergeants at the far end of the bar. Julie swallowed the cheap booze at a gulp, then placed her glass on the bar. In a moment, the bartender returned, and it was refilled. He asked, "You want a smoke, Sarge? We finally got some in." At her nod, he dropped an ashtray on the bar in front of her. It contained a lighter and a ration of five cigarettes. Julie picked one up, lit it, and blew the smoke out through her nose, feeling the ritual relax her. She was halfway through her second drink, and her head was beginning to feel a little light. Whether it was from the strong drink or the unaccustomed tobacco, she wasn't sure, and she really didn't care.

She looked up when someone seated herself at her elbow and a sultry voice teased her, "Well, look what the cat dragged in. You look like warmed-over poop, Julie. Hard day?"

Julie looked to her left. It was another female light infantry sergeant, one with whom she had been debauchery buddies on a couple of forgotten, equally miserable duty stations. "Thanks, Patty," she said. "You always did know just what to say to cheer me up."

"I hear you're going out tomorrow."

"Scuttlebutt spreads, doesn't it?"

"Take care of yourself, will you?" Patty said. "I'd hate to hear that your fine butt got wasted on that rock down there." She received her usual beer from the bartender, then reached over and helped herself to a cigarette from the tray and lit it. As she exhaled smoke, she said, "Crappy little planet. They ought to just give it to those rebels. Damned sure ain't worth dyin' over."

Julie snickered, then cautioned, "Watch it. The walls have ears, you know."

"Yeah, yeah," she replied. "Court-martial me, please. What are they going to do to me, stick me on some garbage scow orbiting Aquarius?" They shared a sardonic laugh at the tired joke, then fell silent again. Patty lowered her voice, then asked, "So, do you think it'll be bad?"

Julie shrugged. "The last section that went down there got fried."

"Damn." Patty sat silently for a moment, then whispered, "You want some company tonight, or do you want to be alone?"

Julie studied their reflections in the mirror behind the bar. She considered her own image; the curly brown hair, the squinted eyes, the oval face with the prominent scar above the left eye, the aura of dull resignation which hovered about her. Her eyes flickered over to Patty, and she noted the perceptive, honest gaze, the knowing expression, the African features, the cocky smile which belied the same world-weary soul just beneath the surface. It was not uncommon for those about to enter combat to avail themselves of friends whom they liked for comfort and release. Nobody wanted to be alone with the demons of their own fear the night before what might possibly be their last day. Patty was offering herself, and Julie appreciated the gesture, even though the words 'mercy sex' echoed through her mind at the offer. What the hell, she thought. She looked over, noting the inquisitive brown eyes studying her, and smiled. "Thanks, Patty. I'd like that. I really don't want to be alone tonight." In answer, Patty just smiled and nodded her understanding, saying nothing else about the subject.

Their conversation was subdued as they finished their drinks and smokes. Finally, they arose, waved good-night to the bartender, and headed down the corridor toward Julie's tiny cubicle. At least they would have some privacy. Rank did have its privileges.

Early the next morning, sixteen soldiers filed into the troop transport, their destination the planet's surface. The major was there and wished Julie good fortune and godspeed. As he shook her hand, she could see in his expression that he didn't expect to see her again. She was used to that; she had seen the expression before, in other officers' faces. She decided that he was probably thinking, 'better them than me'. He would be right about that. She took her seat near the rear door of the squat, square transport and dropped her helmet on the deck between her boots, motioning for Anderson to sit next to her. When she took her seat, Julie leaned the girl forward, checked the radio strapped between her shoulder blades over the thin, form-fitting body armor, and nodded satisfactorily. Her eyes traveled around the cabin. The soldiers of her section sat, shoulder to shoulder, their eyes all upon her. She considered not the faces as much as the uniforms. Their equipment was in place on their bodies, their weapons were ready, and their grenades were displayed. All was in order. She nodded at the craft's crew chief, and he lowered the door. It hummed, then clanked shut. A moment afterward, the transport jerked, then lifted, and they began their flight to the surface of the planet of Aquarius, anticipating a landing in the darkness, very near the dawn cresting across the planet's surface.

The transport twisted and turned as it descended rapidly through the atmosphere, a precaution against a rebel missile, a precaution which also made the ride inside uncomfortable and their stomachs queasy. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, the transport suddenly ceased its rapid descent and leveled out, flying straight. Julie knew that they were near the surface of the planet. She picked up her helmet and tugged it down on her head, fastening the chin strap. She tapped the helmet's earpiece next to her left ear and said, "Com check. Everybody hear me?"

A mutter of voices sounded in her ear, and heads nodded in the transport bay. "Lock and load," she ordered, and everyone loaded their weapons and cocked them. A moment later, the transport hovered, then jostled. The transport door opened and Julie stood, waving her section through the wide hatch. They dropped the one meter's distance to the ground and scattered in the cool, predawn air of the planet. As soon as the last soldier was through the hatch, the ramp closed and the transport lifted off the ground with a loud whine, turning and accelerating at a frantic rate as it climbed toward the sky.

Julie looked around her; one squad was spread out in the darkness to her left, the other to her right. Anderson squatted just beside her. Julie reached for the radio at the girl's back and lifted the handset to her ear. She keyed it and said, "Blue is on the ground. Acknowledge." When the reply came, she handed the handset back to Anderson and tapped the microphone on her ear. "Squad leaders to me," she said. In a moment, the two squad leaders were at her elbow. She looked at the female corporal and said, "Rivera, right?" At the nod, she looked about her, then pointed to the highest of a nearby cluster of hills and said, "High ground. You lead." She looked at the male and asked, "O'Malley, right?" He nodded. "You watch our backs. Keep your distance. Go."

The squad leaders rose and trotted away to gather their soldiers about them, then set off toward the hills. Julie kept her place between the two squads, Anderson at her hip. They assumed a quick pace through the darkness. In about thirty minutes, they had achieved the crest of the tallest hill.

As the soldiers squatted or sat in pairs, each veteran keeping a green soldier at their side, Julie pulled her monocular from her pocket and scanned the valley ahead of them, then the surrounding hills. She noted the distant horizon; dawn was breaking over the sparse landscape. There was no sign of a nearby settlement or mining endeavor; that was good. Perhaps no hostile eyes had yet seen them, although she assumed that the rebels had noted the transport descend. They needed to put some distance between them and the landing area. She stuffed the monocular back into its pocket in her body armor, lifted out a palm-sized scanner, and turned on the green display. It oriented her to their location on the planet's surface and the direction of compass points. It also scanned the environment for locator beacons emanating from any members of the last, lost section to hazard a trip through this land. In a moment, she found one. It was still signaling. She tapped the microphone by her ear and said, "I take the lead. Follow me. First squad, then second. Keep your distance." With that, she rose, pulled Anderson up by her body armor, and headed down the back of the hill in the general direction of the locator beacon, about a kilometer ahead.

As they traversed the hills, she kept to the sides of the sloping terrain, just beneath the hill's crests. She didn't want to be caught with high ground above them, but she didn't want their silhouettes outlined against the lightening sky, either. Occasionally, she peered back at the line of dimly-outlined forms following her, and would tap her earpiece and caution them to spread out or keep pace when they clustered together or lagged. Her eyes were constantly roving about her, her senses were at high pitch and her stomach was in constant knots, but she knew that was a good thing. If danger was near, she would know that, too. She had an uncanny knack for smelling impending danger, and it had saved her and her soldiers' skins on more than one occasion.

Periodically, she halted, knelt, and checked her scanner. She was nearing the position of the last section's locator beacon. It was just over the next hill. She placed a finger on her earpiece and whispered, "First objective is just ahead. Keep your eyes open. They probably got ambushed. Somebody's locator beacon is still working; it could be a rebel trap. Follow me." With that, she rose and led her section down the hillside, seeking out the hills just before them. They crossed a gulch and quickly ascended the slope of the hill, halting just before the crest. Julie touched her earpiece again and said, "First squad, left of me. Second squad, right of me. Move." As she and Anderson knelt just below the crest of the hill, Julie watched the two lines of soldiers deploy themselves, flopping to the ground on either side of them at the crest of the hill. She hissed, "Keep your heads down. O'Malley, your people are too noisy."

"Sorry, Sarge."

"Don't be sorry, be quiet. I'll scout first, then we'll move." With that, she crawled to the hill's crest, taking a place behind some jagged rocks and scrub brush. She scanned the area with her monocular, then scanned it again, seeking the heat signatures of human bodies. Nothing was present. She took her time; hurry now could get them killed. After she was satisfied that no traces of body heat or evidence of activity showed itself on the hills around the gorge below them, she tapped her earpiece and said, "Move up. Train your weapons on the hills on the far side of the gorge. I'm going down there." Julie watched the soldiers crawl to the crest of the hill, then extend their weapons and train them on the hills ahead of them. When they were in position and still, she tapped Anderson on the side of the helmet and said, "Come on. Follow me and keep quiet."

The girl swallowed nervously, then nodded, rose when Julie did, and followed her over the hill's crest at a crawl. They slid down its side for several meters, then rose to a standing position and descended to the gorge. When they reached the trail at the bottom, Julie again checked her scanner, then shoved it into her pocket. "Just ahead," she whispered. "Watch it." Carefully, Julie began walking along the path, her senses alert for anything out of the ordinary. The whisper of a dawn's breeze tickled her face, and she stopped. Anderson halted just behind her, almost bumping into her. Julie whispered, "Notice anything?"

Anderson crinkled her nose. "Something stinks, Sarge."

"Get used to it. That's dead meat. It's just ahead." They resumed their careful walk, and when they passed a narrow point in the path, they both stopped. The smell hit them hard, and the buzzing of insects could be heard. "Found 'em," Julie whispered.

"That's awful," Anderson hissed.

Julie looked down at their feet. Before them, several bodies, remnants of army uniforms and equipment on them, lay sprawled about the trail. The bodies seemed to extend up the path quite a way, and Julie quickly counted at least ten or twelve. She tapped her earpiece and said, "Found 'em. Keep alert. Rebels could still be around." She looked back to find Anderson, but the girl was bent over, vomiting. Julie tapped her on the shoulder, then pointed at the bodies. "Let's count 'em and collect their tags."

Anderson looked up at her, then stood, wiping her mouth. "Sorry, Sarge," she whispered.

"Not a problem. Come on." She knelt over the first body and poked through the equipment with her rifle's barrel, then bent down and jerked the tag from the bloated, discolored neck and handed it to Anderson. Wordlessly, she repeated the action with each body, looking at it, pulling the tag from it, reading the name, and handing it to the young soldier behind her. When they were finished, Julie studied the trail ahead of them with her monocular, then her scanner. Finally, she said, "That's all, I think. Let's beat feet."

"You don't have to tell me twice," Anderson said.

Julie nodded in agreement, then turned and began jogging back the way they had approached, the girl at her side. When they returned to the crest of the hill, they fell to the ground, crawled over the crest of the hill, and rolled down the other side a few meters. Julie watched Anderson spit on the ground. She pulled the canteen from the young soldier's waist, handed it to her, and said, "Rinse your mouth out."

"What are you, a dentist now?" Anderson joked as she lifted the canteen to her mouth and drank. Julie smiled at that; if the kid could see what she just saw and still attempt a joke, she was okay.

"Give me the tags," Julie said. Anderson dumped them into her outstretched hand, and she quickly counted them. There were fourteen. She remembered having seen fifteen names on the list. She looked the names over again, and sighed. A very familiar name was missing. She was either still alive, or had gotten nailed somewhere else. She tapped Anderson on the arm and held out a hand, and the girl dropped the radio handset into her palm. Julie keyed it and said, "Blue. First objective is attained. It looks like an ambush. Fourteen dead, one unaccounted for. Their ammo and weapons are missing. Acknowledge."

When the reply came, she handed the handset back to Anderson, then stuffed the tags into her pocket. As she sipped from her own canteen, she studied the surrounding hills with her monocular, then again with her hand-held scanner. Finally, she stuffed them into her pockets and tapped her earpiece. "It's getting to be daylight. There's supposed to be caves in those hills about two kilometers to our north-east. We'll hole up there for the heat of the day, then come out tonight and snag a prisoner or two so we can scram off this rock. Move out in line, same as before. Follow me."

She rose, pulling Anderson up by her arm, and the two headed around the curve of the hill as the rest of the section assumed their places behind them. Julie kept the pace fast, but not frantic; she did not wish to exhaust her people, but did want to attain the caves as quickly as possible. As the sun rose, the heat of the day came into blossom. She felt herself begin to perspire freely, and when she caught herself squinting in the sun's brightness, she placed a hand on the front of her compact helmet and pulled down on a knob. From inside the layers of armor, a wide, dark eye-shield slid down and rested on her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. As she looked back at her section, she watched the rest of them do the same. Good, she thought; they're catching on quickly. We just might survive this, after all.

Twice, they paused as Julie checked her direction and scanned the surrounding hills and scrubby desert with her monocular and her hand-held scanner. Each time, she noted nothing amiss. That began to worry her. No rebel activity either meant that she was missing something, or that there just weren't any rebels out here anymore. Either way, it would make for a long day. She huffed in frustration, then rose and led her section ever closer to the caves, fighting against the rough terrain and the day's heat as she kept their pace fast. After about the first hour, she found herself repeatedly fussing at her two squad leaders to keep their people from straggling, and found that she had to stop twice to allow the trailing squad to catch up to them. After some short, curt words through her earpiece, the soldiers of her section closed their distance and she resumed her fast pace through the inhospitable land.

Eventually, they entered the target hills. The terrain became more rough, sandy dirt and loose rocks making their footing uncertain. Several times, soldiers slipped and fell, and were quickly pulled to their feet by their comrades. The planet's sun was now in full force; they felt the desert bake them, heating their uniforms, weapons and helmets and reddening patches of exposed skin. After some time, Julie checked her wrist-watch, then halted and knelt. Her section gratefully followed her example, a few groans of relief echoing among the rocks. After studying the hills in front of her for a moment, she tapped her earpiece and said, "Caves are just ahead. Squad leaders to me."

Ten minutes later, Rivera's squad was spread out along the crest of a hill, weapons trained on the entrance to a couple of caves just ahead of them. Kneeling among them, Julie and Anderson watched O'Malley's squad descend the side of the hill and approach the caves. She tapped her earpiece and said, "O'Malley, spread your people out more." He complied, waving an arm in either direction as the soldiers spread apart. They halted beside the caves' entrances, and O'Malley's voice sounded over her earpiece.

"We're at the caves. Entering now."

"Do it," Julie replied. "We're watching your back."

Julie watched as several soldiers rose and followed O'Malley into the entrance of the first cave. One by one, they entered until the entire squad was out of sight. The hills reflected only an intense quiet, broken by the buzz of insects or the occasional scuttle of a reptilian-like creature across the dirt and rocks nearby. For several minutes, it seemed, there was absolute quiet ahead of them and no report from O'Malley. Julie checked her wrist-watch again, then tapped her earpiece. "O'Malley, report."

Only static answered her, a few unintelligible garbles of words among the hum and buzz. Julie winced, then muttered, "They're too far into the damned cave to transmit."

A moment later, Julie heard a series of muffled pops echoing from the cave. Her hair stood up on the nape of her neck, and her heart pounded. She tapped her earpiece and said, "O'Malley, report."

In reply, a garbled transmission filled her ear, the shouting of a frantic voice punctuated by popping noises. As she listened, Anderson stared at Julie's face, shocked. She asked, "Are they-?"

"Yeah," was all that Julie said. She tapped her earpiece again. "Everybody on your feet. Follow me." She lifted herself from the ground, pulled Anderson up by her body armor, and ran toward the cave. Behind her, Rivera's entire squad and Anderson were spread out to either side of her. When they reached the cave's entrance, the sound of popping was noticeably louder. An occasional shout or scream could be heard inside, along with the thump of an exploding grenade. Julie tried her earpiece again. "O'Malley, what's going on?" This time, the transmission worked.

"Rebels, Sarge. We're up to our necks in 'em."

"Get out of there, now."

"Pullin' back, Sarge." Julie looked around the interior of the cave. Luckily, the interior was not smooth, but rough and rocky. She pointed and shouted, directing her people to claim any protection that they could find and train their weapons toward the interior of the cave. As the soldiers took their positions, she grabbed the skinny, freckle-faced girl carrying the machine gun by her body armor, almost lifting the girl and her gun off her feet. "You," she said, "Set up there." The girl blinked as her eyes followed Julie's finger. She nodded understanding, and Julie let her go. The girl hefted the heavy gun over one shoulder and climbed some rocks, setting the weapon on a shelf of rock and pointing it into the cave. Julie looked around; everyone was in place. It had taken just a few seconds, but already the popping sounds of combat, the shouts, the occasional explosions were much nearer. Julie grabbed Anderson by the arm, pushed her down behind a large rock, then lifted her hand and tapped her earpiece. "Our guys will be coming through first. Nobody shoots until I say so."

The sounds of battle had grown louder, and the shouts and pops were echoing through the tunnel. Suddenly, a couple of running figures appeared from within the dim recesses of the tunnel, heading their way. One was carrying someone else over their shoulder. Immediately, they were followed by other figures, running frantically but occasionally pausing to shoot back into the tunnel before they resumed their run. Julie tapped her earpiece and warned, "They're ours. Let 'em through, then be ready."

Julie stepped forward, attempting to wave the figures toward her and catch O'Malley when he passed by. In a second, the first soldiers ran past her. Several members of O'Malley's squad, their weapons smoking, their expressions frantic, a couple carrying wounded comrades, passed her. She took a count as they passed by, and noted two missing. She grabbed the arm of one soldier and shouted, "Where's O'Malley?"

"He's last." The soldier turned and gestured toward the interior of the cavern, then resumed his run.

Sure enough, in a moment, O'Malley darted around the corner, the machine gun in his hands. Julie grabbed him and shouted, "You last?"

"Yeah. Nobody but rebels back there."

Julie tapped her earpiece. "At my order, let 'em have it." She studied the cavern's interior, waiting for the rebels to appear, when she felt a presence at her side. It was Anderson. She grabbed her by the straps of her radio and said, "When I duck, you duck. Got it?" Anderson nodded, wide-eyed. Julie looked into the cavern, ahead of them, and noticed the movement of figures in the interior. They were keeping near the walls of the cavern, but were advancing at a fast trot. She squinted; the uniforms were a mostly a dirty gray color. Rebels. She waited until perhaps fifteen or twenty filled the part of the cavern visible to them, then Julie pressed her earpiece and said, "Now."

Immediately, the loud pops of small arms filled the cave, and the clatter of the machine gun dominated the battle. Julie watched several of the nearest rebels fall, then saw the others press themselves behind rocks and noted the flashes of their weapons as they began shooting back. Occasionally, the whine of a near bullet echoed past Julie's ear. She backed against nearby rocks, pushing Anderson behind her with her body, and tapped her earpiece. "O'Malley, you get your ass on that first hill outside the cave and cover us when we get out of here. You hear me?"

"Got you, Sarge."

As her soldiers kept their weapons working, Julie attempted to study the cavern and determine how effective their marksmanship was. She lifted her monocular to her eye, then lowered it again. It must be keeping them down, she thought; they aren't trying to take us. As an afterthought, she added the word, 'yet'. Her earpiece crackled, and O'Malley's voice sounded. "We're in position. Come on out."

Julie pressed her earpiece and shouted, "Rivera, you and two others stay with me. All the rest of you, get back to O'Malley at the first hill. Go." At that, several soldiers rose and scampered past Julie, fleeing the cave's entrance. The machine gun did not stop working; it was keeping a constant, staccato rattle. Julie shouted, "Hey!" The freckle-faced machine gunner did not hear her. Julie huffed, then picked up a loose rock from the cavern's floor and bounced it off the girl's helmet. She ceased firing and looked up, surprised. Julie shouted, "Red, you get that machine gun back to the hill now. You hear me?"

The girl blinked stupidly, then brightened, almost as if she had suddenly awakened from a daydream. "Yeah, Sarge," she intoned, then hefted the heavy gun over a shoulder and slid down to the floor of the cavern. Julie watched as the skinny girl staggered under the weight of the gun, then began running for all she was worth. Again, Julie tapped her earpiece. "Rivera, you get your people out of here." Immediately, Rivera rose and slapped at the helmets of the two soldiers with her. They ran past Julie and Anderson, who were the only two remaining in the cave. Julie watched heads, then bodies begin to show themselves in the distance, rebels cautiously beginning to advance. She pulled Anderson with her as she retreated to the cave's entrance, then pointed at the shadowy figures approaching them.

"Can you see them from here?" Julie asked.


"Fire up the ones on the right side. I'll take the left. Then, while their heads are still down, we run like hell."

Anderson swallowed hard, then leveled her rifle, copying Julie's movements. They emptied their rifles at the shadowy figures, then turned and ran. Julie kept her hand wrapped around the straps on Anderson's body armor and did not let go as she sprinted, dragging the girl with her. When they crested the hill where the rest of their section awaited them, Julie literally slung Anderson to the ground behind the hill's crest before she dropped to one knee and held her monocular to her eye, attempting to judge the situation. Gray-uniformed figures appeared from the cave's mouth and began studying the surrounding hillsides. Julie watched several of them gather, then tapped her earpiece and said, "Fire 'em up." Immediately, the hill erupted with the pops and cracks of rifles and the chatter of two machine guns. Dust kicked up all around the entrance to the cave and several of the rebels fell, dragged back into the cave by the others. When they disappeared into the rocks, Julie tapped her earpiece and said, "Cease fire." At that, the hill went silent.

She cursed under her breath. The caves were now out of the question. The next best thing was high ground. She glanced around her and noted the highest hill in the area. It was fairly close, and it looked defensible. She rose, jogged down the line of soldiers spread along the crest of the hill, and stopped at O'Malley. He was inspecting the extent of the injuries on three of his soldiers, sprawled in the dirt at his knees. She tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Report."

O'Malley said, "They hit us in the shadows. We didn't see 'em. I got three wounded and one dead."

Julie looked around. "Where's the dead one?"

He exhaled sharply, then jerked a bloody thumb toward the cave. "Still in there." At Julie's silent, accusatory glare, he pleaded, "Man, she was in the lead. When she fell, we couldn't get to her. We tried, I swear to God we did."

Julie sighed, then placed a hand on his shoulder. "Yeah, I know." She indicated the three wounded and asked, "What do you have here?"

"Gunshots, all three. They need to be outta here, Sarge."

"Yeah." Julie turned about and looked for Anderson. She was two feet away, her eyes fixed O'Malley's bloody hands as he sprayed antibiotic-coagulant on a wound, then slapped a dressing over it. Julie tapped her on the arm and gestured for the radio handset. Anderson started, then looked up as Julie pulled the handset from the girl's pocket and keyed it.

"Blue has engaged the enemy at these coordinates. We have one dead, three wounded. We are retreating to..." She yanked the hand-held scanner out of her pocket, then clicked it on. When she pointed it toward the area's highest hill, she said, "Mark that coordinate. Hill 1025. Request evacuation for our wounded. Acknowledge." Julie listened for a moment, then said, "Understood." She handed the handset back to Anderson with a disgusted look, then muttered, "No evacuation. Magnetic storm forming, or some such shit. Tomorrow, at the earliest."

Anderson asked, "What do we do?"

"Do?" Julie responded. "We retreat to the high ground, defend ourselves, and try to live until tomorrow. Maybe during the night we can snag a prisoner or two." She tapped her earpiece and said, "Move out. Follow me."

She rose, pulled Anderson to her feet, and the two of them headed down the back of the hill, the other soldiers following. The three wounded were hefted onto the shoulders of three of their comrades, and they trailed Julie as she led them toward Hill 1025.

The mid-day heat was oppressive as they struggled through the ravines toward the salvation of the high ground. Their speed was slowed considerably by the weight of the wounded, and Julie found the pace frustratingly unacceptable, but couldn't see any way to speed their progress. Periodically, she stopped and scanned the terrain behind them and in front of them with her monocular, then her hand-held scanner, and noted nothing. She didn't believe for a moment that they weren't being pursued; probably, she just couldn't see the rebels following her because they were like lizards in the rocky terrain, and the heat of the day undoubtedly masked the heat signatures of their bodies. After all, it had to be at least a hundred degrees Fahrenheit out here in the sun, a blistering day. They struggled on, helping each other up the slopes of the hills, until they reached the summit of Hill 1025.

As the soldiers collapsed about her, panting in exhaustion and pulling their canteens from their hips to drink, she again scanned the terrain in front of them, then behind them. She wasn't happy with the situation. The sun would bake them, but at least here, they could see attackers approach. Quickly, she deployed her two squads, then checked the status of the three wounded soldiers. Two seemed stable, but one was losing consciousness and was pale. Julie guessed that he would be dead within the hour. She leaned over to Anderson, plucked the radio handset from her pocket, and keyed it. "Blue," she said. "Need evacuation for the wounded now, Hill 1025. Acknowledge." She listened, then threw the handset down on the ground with muttered curses.

As Anderson picked up the handset, she guessed, "No evacuation, right?"

Julie nodded, then smiled in an attempt to set the girl at ease. "Get some snooze time. Eat something and drink some water. It's going to be a long afternoon." She touched her earpiece and said, "Alternate snoozing and eating. Keep your eyes peeled for rebels." Then, she settled against a rock and pulled her monocular from her pocket, repeatedly scanning the terrain in front of them while she slowly chewed a ration bar.

After a couple of hours, she sat erect. Her hair bristled on the nape of her neck and her stomach knotted; that was a bad sign. Something was about to happen. Her senses automatically clicked into a fever pitch, and as she reached up to tap her helmet's earpiece, a high-pitched shriek caused her heart to pound. She yelled, "Incoming!" As she dropped, she grabbed Anderson by the front of her armor and pulled her face-down to the ground. A second later, a resounding explosion rattled the hillside, scattering a cloud of dust and rocks over them. Somebody screamed. Another explosion, then another, and another jarred their teeth and scattered rocks and dirt everywhere. With each explosion, somebody cried out. Julie looked up; several of her people were sprawled about, rolling in pain, or lying limply. The others were keeping themselves low and attempting to peer down the slopes of the hill. Another shriek sounded above them, and another explosion shook them. Julie looked beneath her; she had unconsciously pulled Anderson tightly against her, and was lying with her own body half over the girl. She groped the girl's pocket and pulled out the handset, then keyed it and shouted, "Blue. We're taking mortars. Have wounded. Must evacuate now. Acknowledge."

The reply was not reassuring. Julie dropped the handset, cursed liberally, and tapped her earpiece. "We're getting down the back side of this hill before they attack. Keep on your bellies and follow me. Drag the wounded with you." Another shriek caused her to duck her head, and she again covered Anderson's body with her own. The explosion was deafening. When she lifted her head again, she slapped Anderson's helmet to gain her attention, pointed, and began crawling toward the back of the hill. The girl crawled beside her as they passed some rocks, then tumbled a couple of meters down the hill's steep slope. Several more shrieks echoed through the air, and more explosions racked the hill. Julie pulled Anderson behind some rocks, then tapped her earpiece. "Come on, get off that hill."

A voice crackled in her ear. It sounded like Rivera. "We're messed up bad, Sarge. We-"

Another shriek and explosion ended the transmission. It was the last one. As the dust settled, a thick silence ensued. Julie listened, then turned on Anderson and hissed, "You wait here for me, you understand?" When she nodded, Julie crept up the hill's slope and crawled onto the rocky crest. Bodies and pieces of bodies were scattered about, and many smoking craters pocked the ground. Julie crawled across the open space, pushing aside a body, and peered over the rocks. No rebels were yet coming up the hill, but she knew that they would, eventually. She looked around, tapped her earpiece, and said, "Anybody, talk to me." Silence answered her. She rose to her hands and knees, moving from body to body, checking them for signs of life and snatching their tags from around their necks when she found none. Several of them, she did not recognize. They were too badly mangled. A groan echoed from somewhere near her, and she saw a form move. She crawled to it and turned it over. It was the freckle-faced girl with the machine gun. Julie tapped the girl's cheek a couple of times and said, "Hey, you with me?" The eyes opened, and they fixed themselves on Julie's face.

"Hey, Sarge," the young soldier whispered. "What happened?"

"You caught a mortar. Can you move?"

"I don't know. I feel numb."

Julie looked down at the girl's body. An arm was missing, and a leg was mangled. Her helmet was gone, and the side of the girl's face was riddled with small, purple holes. "Hang on," Julie said. "I'm getting you out of here."

The girl's hand grasped Julie's arm. "You owe me fifteen bucks," she whispered.

Julie forced herself to smile at that. "Yeah, I do," she agreed. "You did good, Red."

"You're damn skippy I did," she whispered. The girl grinned painfully, then stopped moving. Julie looked at the face, ringed in frizzy, red hair; the eyes were pale and unmoving, and the grin was still frozen on her face. She yanked the identification tag from the girl's neck, then pocketed it. As an afterthought, she ripped open a small pouch on the girl's body armor and pressed a button. It was her locator beacon. It would mark the location of the bodies for eventual recovery at some later time. Julie resumed her quick inventory of the carnage about her; everybody was either dead or dying. There was nothing that she could do except collect their tags and activate their locator beacons. When she had finished, she again studied the terrain at the foot of the hill; this time, she thought that she noticed motion. The rebels were coming to check out the carnage and pilfer the dead's weapons and ammunition. It was time to leave.

She crouched low, ran to the rocks at the back of the hill, and slid down the steep slope. Anderson was waiting just where she had been left. Julie lifted her by her body armor, said, "Let's get out of here," and pulled her along as they descended the slope and set off at a trot through the ravines which lined the inhospitable landscape.

For some time, they traveled at a jog, Julie in grim silence and Anderson concentrating on keeping up with her. When they paused to rest, Anderson watched Julie work her hand-held scanner, then asked, "What happened back there?" Julie looked up. Her eyes locked with Anderson's; the answer was evident in Julie's face. The girl's voice wavered a little as she asked, "Everybody?"

Julie slowly nodded, then said, "It's just you and me, now."

"What do we do?"

As Julie studied the scanner, she replied, "Stay alive until we can get our butts off this rock." She puzzled over something on the scanner; it appeared to be a locator beacon, but was ahead of them. She noted the beacon's position; it was nearby. She showed it to Anderson, then said, "Let's check it out." They rose, resumed their trot, and followed the hand-held scanner's direction as they ran through the gully.

Soon, they stopped at the base of a hill. It looked exactly like the others, but steeper. The locator beacon's signal was originating from just ahead of them, somewhere up the slope of the hill. They began climbing, seeking footholds on rocks and grasping at the scrub brush which dotted the hillside. After much effort, they came to a level plateau. In front of them, the dark entrance of a cave loomed. Julie held up the scanner; the beacon was originating from inside the cave. She stuffed the scanner into her pocket, then motioned toward the cave's entrance. Anderson nodded understanding, and they approached the cave. They raised their tinted eye-shields and entered, immediately feeling the cooler interior air, and a hoarse voice hailed them. "You guys light infantry?"

Julie froze, then pushed Anderson behind her as she leveled her rifle. She replied, "Who wants to know?"

The voice answered, "Sergeant Lhea, 1st LI Regiment. Who're you?"

Julie felt her heart leap into her throat at the voice and name. She grinned in relief, then said, "Damn, Snake. We thought you were toast. Where are you?"

"Julie? You jackass, it took you long enough to find me. I'm behind these rocks." A light's beam shone from the darkness behind some knee-high boulders in one corner of the cave. "Here."

"We're coming to you." Julie tapped Anderson on the arm, then motioned her forward. They approached the boulders, then peered over the edge. Behind them, in the shade, a light infantry sergeant was leaning against the wall of the cave. Her helmet was off, and she had a bandage over her hip on one leg. It was soaked with blood. When Julie saw that, she rushed to the woman's side and fell to her knees. "You're messed up. What happened? How long have you been like this?"

"Hell, I don't know," Snake muttered. "I'm in and out of it. The rebels caught us a couple of days ago. They tore us up bad. I got separated. You find anybody else from my section?"

Anderson watched in silence as Julie looked up from examining Snake's wound. "Yeah, I did," Julie said.

"Anybody make it?" She studied Julie's face, then Anderson's for the answer, and got it in their silence. "Damn," Snake said. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the cave's wall. "How's the wound look, Julie?"

"You've bled a lot. You're still bleeding. Let me see if I can stop that." She pulled the dressing back and ripped the uniform open at her hip. The wound was not huge, but it was deep, and it was still oozing blood. Julie asked, "Where's your first aid stuff?"

"Used it."

Julie brought forth her own packet, opened it, sprayed the antibiotic-coagulant on the wound, then pressed a new bandage against Snake's hip. She held pressure for a couple of minutes, then turned Snake on her side and tied the dressing about her thigh. Snake teased, "That's your packet. You might need it."

"Shut up," Julie answered, as she leaned Snake against the wall. She pulled out Snake's canteen, and it was empty. She tossed it aside, offered one of her own to the injured sergeant, and watched her drink deeply of its contents. When Snake let the canteen rest in her lap, Julie said, "Look, we're getting evacuated tomorrow. Hang on until then."

Snake shook her head. "I don't know, Julie. Been having strange dreams or whatever, seein' weird stuff. I fade out a lot." She looked up at Julie, a suddenly vulnerable look on her face, and whispered, "I think I'm checkin' out today." When Julie opened her mouth to protest, Snake grinned wearily and waved a hand to silence her. "It's okay. I'm actually lookin' forward to it. I'm just so tired of it all." Julie said nothing. She lifted Snake's hand and held it in hers as Snake asked, "You, of all people, know what I'm talkin' about, don't you?" Julie merely nodded in agreement. "Sure you do," Snake said. "The walkin' dead, that's us." She grinned weakly. "We had some kick-ass good times, didn't we, Julie?"

"Yeah, we did," Julie said. "Be quiet, now. Rest." At that, Snake closed her eyes and sighed. Julie checked her pulse, then the dressing once again, and pulled Snake's tightly-rolled jacket from above her fanny pack and draped it over her. She rose and walked to the edge of the cave's entrance, staring out at the terrain with her monocular. After a while, she looked up at the sky. Then, she turned and walked back to the interior of the cave, knelt near Snake's feet, and flopped wearily against the wall, pulling her helmet from her head and running a grimy hand through her sweat-soaked curls. "Looks like that magnetic storm is starting," she muttered. "Good thing we've got a hole to crawl into." She looked up at Anderson, then wearily gestured to a spot on the ground next to her. "Take a load off, kid. We'll be okay here."

Anderson flopped down on the dirt next to Julie, undid her chin strap, and pulled her helmet off. Her blonde hair was plastered against her head, and she seemed weary beyond words. Julie said, "Eat. Drink. We'll be here for the night." As an afterthought, she reached across Anderson's chest and lifted the radio handset from her pocket. She spoke into it. "Blue. Mark these coordinates. It's a cave. We'll shelter here for the night. Acknowledge."

"What's your situation, Blue?" the voice in the handset crackled.

"We got torn up pretty bad. Three survivors, one injured badly. Request evacuation."

"Magnetic storm is starting," the voice replied. "We'll pick you up after it passes."

"Yeah? When's that?"

"Tomorrow, around dawn. Sit tight."

"Yeah, yeah. Blue out." Wearily, she handed the handset to Anderson, then echoed, "Tomorrow."

"What about that prisoner we're supposed to catch?" Anderson asked.

Julie snorted in disgust. "We're in no shape to catch anybody." She shrugged wearily, then added, "So we don't get a prisoner. I'll get a reprimand, and they'll get over it."

Anderson took the news with silence. She unwrapped a ration bar and chewed it slowly, contemplating Snake's sleeping form near them. After a long silence, she whispered, "Snake is a friend of yours?"

"Yeah. We go way back, her and me."

"She'll live, won't she?" Julie looked over at Anderson; the girl's eyes were regarding her with worry. She considered lying just to ease the girl's fear, but decided against it.

"Probably not."

"But the wound didn't look that bad," Anderson protested.

"She's one tough gal, but she's lost a lot of blood. I'm surprised she made it this far." Julie studied the sleeping woman, then added, "Besides, she's given up. She wants to die."

"Why?" Anderson asked.

"Hard to explain. You just gotta be there to understand, I guess."

Anderson placed a hand on Julie's arm. "Do you understand? Is that what you're like? I mean, inside?"

Julie considered the eyes regarding her, filled with perceptive question. "Pretty much."

Anderson whispered, "If you die out here, then I die out here."

Julie was stunned by the words. The kid was probably right. She blinked, then looked away. Finally, she thought, a reason to keep living just a little longer. Thank you. To Anderson, she said, "You're not dying out here, I promise you that."

"Neither are you," Anderson replied. "And I promise you that." Julie considered the words, then studied the face from which they came. The girl's eyes were drilling into hers, the determination behind them real, immediate. She held out a hand. "Deal?"

"Deal," Julie echoed with a grin as she clasped the hand and shook it. "Now get some snooze time. I'll take the first watch." Anderson smiled, a friendly, reassuring expression, then placed her helmet on the ground next to Julie's hip and curled up by her leg, resting her head on the helmet. She sighed, then closed her eyes. In a moment, she was asleep, her breathing regular, snoring softly. Julie smiled at the sight, then rested her rifle in her lap and directed her attention toward the cave's entrance and the darkening, angry sky outside.

When Anderson awoke, she blinked sleepily, then focused her eyes. The cave was much darker than before, but she could see Julie's hip a couple of inches from her face. She looked up; Julie was in the same position she had been before, her rifle on her lap, a finger on the trigger, her other hand holding a half-consumed ration bar. Anderson sat up, rubbed her eyes, and said, "Man, I was out."

"You needed it," Julie replied.

"Do you want to snooze?" Anderson asked. "I can stand guard."

"Not tired," Julie lied.

Anderson pulled out her canteen and took a swallow, grimacing at the taste of the water, then pointed at Snake. "How's she doing?"

Julie considered Snake for a moment. The woman was dozing, but moved occasionally, muttering something incoherent whenever she did. "She's still cookin'."

Anderson sat up and peered over the boulders in front of them, then leaned back against the wall, her shoulder against Julie's. "Looks crummy out there."

"Yeah. Storm's on us." It was crummy, too. The sky was an evil black, and wind howled outside the cave, kicking up clouds of dust. Distant rumbles of thunder boomed. When it did, jagged streaks of lightning flickered from cloud to cloud. "That's a good thing," Julie said. "Rebels will be under cover, probably. They won't be lookin' for us."

Anderson thought about that, then nodded in understanding. They sat in silence for a minute, then she startled Julie with a question. "How come you call her 'Snake'?"

Julie grinned at that. "Because she's got a snake tattoo."

"Oh." Anderson considered that, then asked another question. "Where?"

Julie snickered. "Let's just say that she has to shave it every so often."

"Oh," Anderson said again, this time more emphatically. "You've seen it?"

Julie shrugged. "A time or two, I guess."

Anderson fell silent at that. Julie looked over at the girl leaning against her; she was intently studying the power of the storm outside. Julie noted the way that the girl's nose wrinkled when she sniffed, how she unconsciously nibbled on her lower lip when she seemed in deep thought about something, how her hand fiddled with a loose strap on her body armor. Damn, Julie thought, there really is something endearing about this kid, something that really made her feel protective toward her. She felt a sudden urge to take her in her arms, to comfort her, to tell her that all would be well and that this was just a nightmare from which she would awaken, safe in a warm bed someplace. A warm bed, Julie thought. A warm bed someplace, with her? Her eyes fixed upon Anderson's face again, and she watched the lips purse in a pout which stirred emotion deep within Julie, emotion that she had thought was long gone. She looked away, chastising herself with a stern rebuke at the sudden flush of a feeling which she thought was dead within her. Still, she couldn't help but allow her curiosity free rein. What the hell, she thought, what would a little conversation hurt? Why not?

"Hey, kid. You got a first name?" Julie asked.

Anderson looked at her, blinking in surprise at the question. After a second, she answered, "Yeah. Matilda." Julie raised an eyebrow at that. The girl noted Julie's reaction and quickly added, "But I don't like it much. The others just call me 'Tink'."

"Why 'Tink'?"

Anderson giggled, then adopted a sheepish look as she explained, "I got that in basic training. It's short for 'Tinkerbell'. The others gave me that nickname when they found out that I'd studied ballet for twelve years."

"Tink," Julie echoed. "I like it."

Anderson shrugged. "It's grown on me. I kind of like it, too. That's why, when we all got tattoos after 'grunt' training, I got a faerie tattooed on my ass."

"Yeah," Julie said. "I saw it in the shower. It's a neat one."

Anderson brightened. "Thanks." She pointed at Julie's arm and said, "You've got one, too, don't you? What is it?"

"A phoenix."

"Oh, the mythological bird?"

"Yeah. The legend is that every so often, the damned thing burns down to a pile of ash, and then a new bird rises from the flames." She sighed, then said, "That's me, I guess. I just seem to keep on living."

"Whether you want to or not?"

Julie cast a glance over at Snake, then looked back at Anderson. "Yeah. That's about the size of it."

"I can't understand that."

"I hope to God you never do, Tink."

Anderson was silent for a minute, contemplating that thought. When she spoke again, she asked another question. "Your first name is Julie, isn't it?" Julie nodded. "Can I call you that?"

Julie smiled. "I'd like that."

Anderson seemed to be invigorated by the conversation. She asked, "How'd you end up in the army, anyway? Did you get conscripted, like me?"

"Yeah, when I was seventeen." Julie shrugged. "That damned sure put an end to my plans."

"What plans did you have?"

Julie smiled a little at the question. She hadn't thought about those days for a long time. "Oh," she said, "I was going to raise horses in Australia. My uncle owned a ranch there. Three days after I graduated high school, I was packing my bags when the police showed up at my door with a conscription notice." She glanced over at Anderson's face, very near her shoulder. "How's about you?"

Anderson nodded. "I got conscripted on the day I turned nineteen. That put an end to my ballet career." She snickered, then continued, "A year ago, I was on the stage in Toronto, the understudy to a really great dancer. Now, I'm light-years from home, filthy, hungry, scared, exhausted, and hiding in a cave from people I don't know who want to kill me." She joked, "Guess this is still better than being in jail for dodging conscription, huh?"

For some reason, Julie found the comment incredibly funny. She leaned her head against the wall of the cave and began laughing hysterically. Anderson blinked in surprise at her reaction, then watched her for a moment. A wide grin spread across her face and she, too, succumbed to an uncontrollable urge to laugh. They leaned against each other, howling in mirth, their eyes watering and tears trailing down their cheeks at the effort. The release of laughter was a catharsis to them; it seemed to cleanse them of the pent-up tension of the day's horror. Eventually, they settled down, their screams of laughter dwindling to pleasant chuckles, their grimy hands wiping at their eyes. Julie looked over at Anderson and said, "I knew I liked you for a reason, Tink. You're okay."

At that, Anderson rested her head against Julie's shoulder. "You're pretty okay yourself, Julie."

Snake muttered, "Jesus Christ. Can't a gal get some sleep around here?"

At her voice, both Anderson and Julie rose and knelt at her side. "Hey, Snake," Julie whispered with uncharacteristic tenderness. "How's things?"

Snake shrugged weakly. "I'm freezin' my ass off."

Julie turned Snake on one side and said, "Pull her thermal blanket from her fanny pack. We'll wrap her up in it." Anderson pulled the latches loose and rummaged in the pack, pulling a tightly-wrapped, foil-like blanket from her pack and shaking it out. She spread it out underneath Snake, and they rolled her onto it, then wrapped her in it. As Julie spread Snake's jacket over her, she said, "You'll warm up in a minute. Keep hangin' on."

"Damn, Julie. You spoil all my fun."

"You're not checkin' out yet. You're too mean to die."

Snake opened her eyes and studied Julie. "Yeah? Watch me." In those eyes, Julie could see the truth of her words. Snake smiled, a sly little smile as she studied Julie's face. Her gaze flickered to Anderson, then back at Julie. She whispered, "Come here." Julie leaned down and put her ear next to Snake's mouth. Snake whispered again, this time words meant just for Julie. "You go for it. She'll be real good for you." Julie sat up, surprised. Snake snickered, then added in a loud wheeze, "I mean it. Now let me sleep, ol' buddy." Her eyes flickered, and she asked, "Don't be too far off, will ya? I don't want to be alone when I..." Her voice trailed off.

"We'll be here with you."


With that, Snake's eyes closed again. Julie checked the woman's pulse, then looked out at the storm. It was increasing in its ferocity, booms of rolling thunder and flashes of lightning punctuating the howl of the wind. Clouds of red dust swirled outside the cave. The sky was deepening into blackness very quickly, and the temperature was dropping. Julie noted this and said, "Put your jacket on, Tink. It's gonna get cold as hell tonight."

She watched Anderson pull her rolled-up jacket from its place on top of her fanny pack and slip it on over her body armor. Then, the girl leaned over Julie, tugged at her pack, and handed her own jacket to her over her shoulder. Julie looked up as she took the jacket from Anderson's hand and said, "Thanks." She pulled it on over her dirty uniform and body armor, then extracted a small lantern from a pocket on her armor. She twisted the top, set it on the ground, and a dim red light illuminated the little corner of the cave where the three lost souls huddled.

"The rebels won't see that?" Anderson asked.

"In this weather? Nobody's out there tonight."

"Yeah, guess so." She sat on the ground, near Snake's feet. "When will they evacuate us tomorrow?"

Julie shrugged. "Storm ought to be done in a few hours. We'll call 'em then. Dawn's at-" She checked her wrist watch. "Oh-four-thirty. That's in six hours. Let's see if we can get some snooze time."

Julie pulled her blanket from her fanny pack, shook it out, and spread it out in the corner of the cave, next to Snake. She motioned to Anderson and said, "Give me your blanket. We'll share 'em." At Anderson's raised eyebrow, she explained, "It's gonna be freezing. Body warmth."

"Oh, right." She reached behind her and pulled out her blanket. They both settled onto Julie's, then wrapped the other one over them. As they leaned against the cave's wall, cocooned together, their rifles by their sides, their helmets at their feet, the lantern offering a weak, red glow of light, Julie wrapped an arm around Anderson and pulled her close. The girl responded by pressing herself tightly against Julie's side and leaning her head against Julie's shoulder. She felt Tink's short, light-colored hair bush against her cheek and could smell the scent of perspiration in the matted locks. It was not an unpleasant smell, Julie decided. Anderson whispered, "Julie?"


"Shouldn't one of us keep watch?"

"Like I said-"

"You're right. Nobody will be looking for us tonight. I just worry too much."

"At least you're thinking. Get some snooze time, Tink. Hey, Snake. You doin' okay?"

Snake's voice was weak. "Shut up, pal. I need my beauty sleep." Julie smiled at the joke, then grew suddenly very morose as she considered Snake's chances. Her thoughts were interrupted by Snake's whisper. "Julie?"

"Yeah, Snake?"

"I always thought that you were pretty damned okay."

Julie squeezed her eyes shut to keep herself from indulging in a sudden urge to cry. She fought to control her emotions, then answered, "Right back at ya, pal."

"Yeah." At that, Snake fell silent. Julie looked over at her; she could see that she was still breathing, and she wondered whether she would be in the morning. She sighed deeply, then listened to Anderson's breathing. It was regular and steady, and the girl was snoring very softly. Julie smiled at that, then closed her own eyes as the howl of the wind outside the cave and the boom and flash of the electric storm reminded her of how precarious life was. In the maelstrom, she puzzled at a strange, new emotion, one that she hadn't felt in a long time; for the first time in years, she actually cared if tomorrow came.

Julie's eyes flashed open; she blinked, then looked around. Something was very different from when she had closed her eyes-- how long ago? She pulled an arm from the blankets, then checked her wrist watch. It was 0415. When she looked over at the cave's entrance, she could see that the storm had passed. The air was very cold, but the wind was gone and the electrical activity in the atmosphere had ceased. In addition, there was a hint of grayness in the black sky outside. Dawn was approaching. It was time to scram.

She still had her right arm around Anderson, who was plastered against her chest, her head on Julie's shoulder. Julie squeezed her and whispered, "Tink? Wake up." The eyes flickered, then blinked sleepily up at Julie before snapping awake. "Time to scram. Let's call the taxi and blow this place."

"Yeah, yeah." Anderson sat up, pulled the blanket down to their waists, and rubbed her eyes. "It's cold in here. How's Snake?"

Julie looked over at Snake's face. It was motionless. In the dim red light of the lantern, she could see that the mouth was hanging open just a little, and the muscles of her face were slack. "Damn," Julie said, and turned toward the woman. She put a hand on her forehead. It was freezing. When she checked her pulse, there was none. Julie felt her eyes water as she whispered, "She's checked out." She opened the blankets and pulled Snake's identification tag from her neck, then stuffed it in her pocket with the others. Julie looked over at Anderson just in time to see her sniff, then wipe her face on her sleeve and turn away.

"At least she had a friend next to her when she checked out," Anderson said.

"She had two," Julie responded. "Come on, Tink. Let's call home."

They walked to the entrance of the cave, and Julie lifted the radio handset from Anderson's hand. "Blue," she said when she keyed it. "Request immediate evacuation, mark these coordinates."

There was silence for a moment, and then a static-laden voice replied, "Understood. We mark your coordinates. Find a flat spot near you, and we'll be there in twenty. Do you have wounded?"

"Not any more. Step on it, will you? This place is lousy with rebels."

"Understood, Blue."

The static stopped, and Julie handed the handset back to Anderson. She said, "Let's get our stuff and scram." They walked back into the cave and collected their weapons and helmets, slinging their rifles and snugging their helmets down on their heads.

Anderson pointed at Snake. "Can we take her? It seems wrong to just leave her here."

Julie considered her old friend's body and cringed at the thought of desert scavengers tearing it apart before it could be recovered. "Yeah. Let's take her home. It's the least I can do for her." Julie handed her rifle to Anderson, then bent down and lifted the body by the arms, standing again with Snake's body draped over one shoulder. "Let's hit the road before the sun comes up." Anderson handed her rifle back to her, and they walked out of the cave's entrance, seeking a flat piece of ground in the near vicinity for their evacuation.

They conducted a quick search of the nearby terrain with monocular and hand-held scanner. A valley was nearby, and Julie chose that for the transport's arrival. They began their journey, sliding down the side of the hill, and sought out a ravine heading in that direction. Anderson led the way, periodically checking their direction with the hand-held scanner, and Julie followed her, her rifle at ready, Snake's body over her shoulder. She kept her senses alert for anything which might give her caution, but saw nothing. The trip was faster going down the hillsides than it was ascending them, but it still took them some time to reach the hills surrounding the valley they had chosen for the evacuation. When they rounded the side of the last hill and saw the open, flat terrain in front of them, Julie pointed to some rocks and scrub brush which nestled at the base of a hill. "There," she said, and they secreted themselves behind the sparse cover. Julie leaned Snake against the rocks, then took the radio handset from Anderson and keyed it. "Blue," she said. "We're at the evacuation point. Mark these coordinates. Do you have us?"

The voice in the handset replied, "Affirmative, Blue. Got you. Activate your locator beacons. We'll be there in ten."

"It won't be too soon for me. See you in ten." Julie handed the handset back to Anderson. She ripped open a pocket on her chest armor and activated her locator beacon, then reached over and did the same to Anderson's. When she checked her wrist watch, she muttered, "It's gonna be a long ten minutes."

"It's almost dawn. It's getting bright."

"Yeah." Julie lifted her monocular to her eye and scanned the hills around the little plain for any sign of life. She didn't see any. She checked again for heat signatures, and saw several on the opposite side of the plain, in the hills. "Damn," she growled.

"What is it, Julie?"

"Heat spots in the hills, over there." She pointed toward the hills on the far side of the plain.

"Rebels?" Anderson asked.

"It sure ain't the Seven Dwarfs," Julie replied. "Let's see if they move or stay put." She peered through the monocular again, studying them for a long time. Finally, she said, "They're staying put. They're pretty far away; I doubt that they can do us any damage. By the time they can react to the transport, we'll be on it and taking off." She checked her watch again. "Four minutes." Nervously, she scanned the hills again, then the sky. "Where in the hell are they?"

"I think I hear 'em," Anderson said.

Julie scanned the sky again. Sure enough, she could see a dark transport falling rapidly through the atmosphere toward their area. It slowed, then changed course. When it crested the hills surrounding the plain, Julie lifted Snake over her shoulder and said, "Get ready to beat feet, Tink." They watched as the squat, square transport hovered quickly to the center of the plain, then nosed up a little as it halted. As it began settling down on the ground, Julie rose and said, "Let's go."

They began running as fast as their exhausted condition and Snake's weight would let them. As they ran toward the transport, they watched it hover, swing around, and present its stern to them. A wide door opened, and the transport's crew chief was in the open door, waving them on. The earpieces in their helmets crackled with his voice. "Come on, guys. The meter's tickin'."

Their feet pounded on the hard, dusty ground as they ran. Their breathing came in thick gasps, and Snake's body bounced on Julie's shoulder. Anderson slowed her pace a little to match Julie's, as the latter was tiring with her added burden. Julie noted this and slapped Anderson on the butt with the barrel of her rifle. "Go, Tink!" she shouted. "Get your ass on that thing. I'm right behind you. Run, damn it."

Anderson looked over her shoulder. "Julie-?"

"Haul ass!" Julie yelled, between gasps of breath. She watched Anderson increase her pace, and in a moment, she was ahead of her by perhaps ten or twelve meters, and almost to the transport. Julie felt the hair rise on her neck, and her stomach tied itself in knots. She gasped, "Oh, shi-"

She never finished the statement. A missile hissed out of the hills on the far side of the plain and narrowly missed the transport. She saw the white smoke trail behind it as it careened past the nose of the transport, then curved toward her. Julie tried to increase her speed, but she was already running as fast as she could. Her feet left the ground; her sense of hearing suddenly closed in on her, and she felt herself hurled into the air. When she hit the ground, she was numb all over.

Anderson was climbing into the back of the transport when she saw the missile strike. "Julie!" she yelled, and dropped to the ground, throwing her rifle onto the deck of the transport.

Her helmet earpiece crackled with the crew chief's voice. "We're takin' heat. We've got to lift off."

Anderson turned and placed a finger on her earpiece. "Not without my buddies. Help me." The crew chief looked at her incredulously, waved his arms in the air in a gesture of resignation, then jumped down off the transport, running after her. At the same time, the large machine guns on the transport swivelled around and began their staccato hammering, pouring rounds into the area of the hills where the smoke trail had originated. When Anderson reached Julie, she turned her over, lifted her by her chest armor, and slung her over her back with the same ease that a laborer might shoulder a sack of potatoes. When she turned, she saw the crew chief dragging Snake toward the transport by the back of her body armor. The high-pitched whine of the transport's engines and the pounding discharge of the craft's machine guns created a level of noise that Anderson could feel in her bones; she didn't hear a second missile streak by the transport. She only looked when it exploded, about twenty meters to one side of her. As she ran, bits of the missile peppered the ground near her feet, kicking up little fountains of dust.

She reached the back of the transport and dumped Julie onto the deck just inside the door, then began climbing inside. The crew chief was just behind her, and he handed Snake up to her, then leapt up to the deck. She was still pulling Snake's body into the door when the crew chief tapped his earpiece and shouted, "We're in!" Instantly, the transport shuddered, its whine increased to an ear-piercing shriek, and it lifted into the sky, lurching into motion. The crew chief reached down and pulled Snake in by the seat of her pants, then closed the door. When it slammed shut, he knelt down and turned her over, looking at her.

Anderson was already at Julie's side, frantically searching her for wounds. She could see that Julie's body armor was pocked with rips. Anderson yanked it open at one side and peeled it away. It was dry underneath; Julie's uniform was intact. She saw no rips in the cloth, no blood. She pulled the helmet from Julie's head, then tossed her own helmet down on the deck of the transport. The resounding banging of the machine guns just above her head had ceased, and the interior of the craft was strangely quiet as it ascended into the planet's atmosphere, weaving from side to side. The crew chief tapped her on the shoulder and said, "I'm afraid your buddy's checked out."

Anderson looked up, staring at him. When she saw that he was pointing to Snake, she nodded, then returned her attention to Julie. She looked at Julie's face, felt for a pulse at her neck, and found one. She slapped her on the cheek a couple of times and urged, "Wake up, damn it. Julie, wake up."

The eyes flickered, then opened. It took a moment for Julie's eyes to focus. She blinked several times, then asked, "Where--?"

"We're heading home," Anderson said.

Julie grinned weakly, then teased, "Told you I'd get you through this, didn't I?"

Julie's eyes flickered shut, and Anderson slapped her cheek again. "Wake up. Don't you die on me, you ass-hole. Not now." Julie's eyes flickered open again. When she attempted to focus, her eyes rolled back in her head. A sob escaped Anderson's throat, and tears clouded her eyes as she realized with horror that Julie was trying to give up. She leaned over her and shouted, "You're going to live, do you hear me? You're not checkin' out on me. You're not."

Julie blinked, then focused her eyes on Anderson's face as she muttered, "Yeah? Give me one good reason not to."

Anderson wiped a tear from her cheek, then said, "How's this for a reason?" She leaned down and kissed Julie hard on the mouth. When she lifted her head again, she watched Julie's reaction.

The eyelids flickered, then the eyes focused on Anderson's face. A slow grin spread across Julie's features. As she lay on the greasy deck of the transport, she said, "Damn, Tink. That's a pretty good reason."

"You bet your ass it is," Anderson said. "Now turn over and let me look at your back."

The crew chief knelt down on the floor and helped Anderson search Julie for wounds. They found only a few minor wounds on her body, although the back of her body armor was shredded. He looked across at her and said, "Probably just got her bell rung real good by that rocket. Man, she's lucky."

Anderson looked at him and saw that his expression was reassuring. "She's a phoenix. She never dies. By the way, thanks for the help back there," she said.

He dismissed it with a good-natured grin. "Sure thing. You light infantry grunts are friggin' crazy, you know that?"

"Tell me about it," Anderson agreed, as she sat cross-legged on the deck and cradled Julie's head and shoulders in her lap, settling down for the ride home.

One week later.

Julie rose to a tapping at her cubicle's door. She cracked it open and immediately brightened when she saw Anderson standing in the hallway. "Hey, Tink. Come on in," she said, as she stood aside.

Anderson stepped in, then looked around the tiny cubicle and considered Julie's appearance. "What's this, Julie? You gonna lay around all day in your skivvies, reading trashy novels?"

Julie looked down at herself. She was in an undershirt and some faded utility pants, her feet bare. "Hey, give me a break," she retorted. "I'm still on medical convalescence. The doc says that I don't have to do squat, and that's what I'm doing. Squat." She scraped a uniform top off the sleeping rack and threw it in the corner. "Sit down and visit for a while." As Anderson nodded agreeably and sat on one end of the rack, Julie curled up on the other end of it, facing her. She looked Anderson over, then said, "That looks real good on you."

Anderson looked down at her form-fitting utility uniform, studying the light infantry badge on her chest. "Yeah, it does, doesn't it?"

"Not that, dummy. I mean those." She lifted her foot and tapped Anderson's sleeve with her toes. On the sleeve were new chevrons, two arranged one above the other, with a technical symbol below them.

"Oh, yeah." Anderson grinned, then said, "Thanks for getting me transferred to that geek job. I just got promoted. Guess that makes me almost a sergeant now, huh?"

"Yeah. You can hang out with the sergeants and drink in the club. So, how do you like your new geek job?"

Anderson giggled. "Easy money. I clerk for Major Patel. Yup, a personnel specialist, that's me. I cut orders on people now."

Julie nodded. "Good. It'll keep you from getting your ass shot off. You won your light infantry badge; that says it all about you. You don't have anything to prove anymore."

Anderson looked down at her chest and considered the badge, then said, "I'm proud of it."

"You earned it, Tink. You did real good down there." Julie paused, then added, "I never thanked you for saving my butt."

Anderson patted Julie's leg. "So, how many times did you save mine? Ten or twelve?" She quickly changed the subject. "Oh, hey. Speaking of orders, here's yours." She pulled a plastic slip from her pocket and tossed it onto Julie's lap.

"What's this?" She picked it up and studied it, then looked up in astonishment. "Is this for real?"

"Yeah. Permanent medical deferment. No more combat for you, ever again. Doctor's orders."

Julie stared at Anderson, then back down at the plastic orders slip. For a long moment, she was silent, then leaned her head against the bulkhead and closed her eyes. Anderson noted a tear track its path down Julie's cheek as she whispered, "I made it. I never thought I would. Thank you, Tink."

Anderson shrugged in a self-depreciating manner. "Thank the doc. He signed the order."

"Doc, nothing. You arranged this for me, didn't you?" When Anderson did not answer, Julie sniffed, wiped her eyes with the back of her hands, and confessed softly, "You know, I don't think I could have gone back down there again. Not after this last time."

"You won't ever have to." She rested a hand on Julie's leg and said, "Guess what today is?" When Julie raised an eyebrow in question, the girl said, "It's my birthday. I'm twenty."

Julie sniffed again, then grinned at the news. "Well, congratulations, old timer. Twenty, and a corporal. This means that I can legally molest you now. Let me buy you a drink?"

"Just you and me?" Anderson asked, a little shyly.

Julie considered the implications of the question, then answered, "Yeah. Just you and me."

Anderson smiled, still shy, and said, "I think I'd like that a whole lot."

"Me, too."

"Well, get dressed," Anderson urged.

"Let me shower first?" Julie asked.

Anderson leaned forward, sniffed at Julie, then teased, "Please do." With a sly, flirtatious grin, she added, "Although, if you play your cards right, you might need another shower before the night's over. I'll come back for you in say, twenty minutes?"

"I'll be ready."

They both rose from the sleeping rack. "See you then," Anderson said, and turned toward the door.

Julie called out, "Tink?"

Anderson stopped, her hand on the door's handle, and looked back. "Yeah, Julie?"

"You're not, ah, seein' anybody right now, are you?"

Anderson smiled at the question, then shook her head. "No. Are you?"

"No," Julie answered.

Anderson giggled. "I think," she said, "that's about to change for you and me both."

"And I'm so lookin' forward to it," Julie said.

Anderson winked flirtatiously as she replied, "Me, too. See you in twenty minutes, you slacker." With that, she opened the door, stepped out into the corridor, and clanked the door shut.

Julie watched her go, then began rummaging in her locker for her towel and toilet kit. When she found them, she headed for the door, then stopped and looked back at her tiny cubicle. She pondered the size of it and quickly decided that, yeah, she could make room for two in here. That thought gave her pause. Making plans for the future was something that she hadn't done in years. So was experiencing the unaccustomed warmth of hope and the giddy tingle of a dawning, newfound love. She basked in the intoxicating thrill of those new emotions for a long moment, then leaned against the cool metal of the door and closed her eyes. "Damn, Snake," she said, "but it sure is good to feel alive again."

And somewhere deep in her scarred soul, she felt the warmth of an enthusiastic, whispered reply.

The End
-djb, March, 2006

Read the sequel: The Phoenix 2: The Last Twenty Meters

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