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Pickett retrieved the plank and affixed it back to the crate.
“You have your orders,” he said, and started off toward the craft.
Not one of us moved as Ricketts expired.
Later, after Brodsky and I had buried Ricketts in the gritty soil of the town, we boarded the hovercraft. A pall hung over the men. No one could get a word out of Mankew; he chewed his thumb with a distant urgency. We had wrapped Ricketts in a wool blanket and rolled him into the earth. Brodsky had whispered a prayer. I recalled a story my grandfather had liked to tell me about the time his company had gotten extended in an arid region of the North. They had gone four days with no food and little water when they came upon an oasis that sustained them until reinforcements could arrive. Staring down at Ricketts, I wondered what made water spill from the desert and what made salt flats.
Sergeant Pickett paced the deck, giving each of us final orders about what battle formation was and where the machine guns should be aimed and what to do in the case of disaster. Brodsky and I manned the left-rear gun, Dent and Dunn the right. It felt foreign out in the open sea air, all of us far flung from the truck. We watched the dual wakes bubble up and dissipate in the water behind us. The general laborers stared at us from the edge of the scrubby beach.
I left the turret and crossed the deck to our gunner-mates.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
They stared back at the land, our state, receding from us.
I pulled the sidearm from my hip and pressed it against Dent-Dunn’s kidney.
“What did you do?” I said. “What got you stuck here?”
He grabbed my hand and pressed the muzzle deeper.
“Something bad enough to land us here with you.”
I backed away until a gust blew over us, and his partner buckled over.
“Dunn,” Dent said.
A streak of blood stained the white deck. The sea exploded around us.
“Take cover,” Sergeant Pickett yelled, standing atop the bridge.
He pointed at us, then walked out of sight, and soon a fine red mist sprayed into the space he had vacated.
Brodsky authored a primal scream, swinging the turret of his M85 to point at the sky and firing at an invisible enemy. I crawled toward the control room and found Mankew hunched against a fan encasement with his chest blown open. I thrashed against the bridge door to no answer, bullets sucking the air around me. Hedgewick was propelled off the side of the craft by a blast. McIlroy lay prone in a shivering swath of blood. I held my hands to my ears and curled around a metal cleat. Brodsky came squirming on his belly through a pool of casings, crying.
The hovercraft surged forward, skipping over the waves like a water bug. I watched behind us as the artillery sent cones of water fifty feet into the blue sky. Any moment now, I thought, one shell to the heart of our vessel and we’d be scattered across the ocean. Then, without explanation, the attack ceased and all that could be heard was the hum of our engines as they carried us indifferently to the island.
We eased onto the beach with the sun still high. There were seven of us, and we searched one another’s eyes for guidance like lost children. When we finally broke into the bridge, we discovered the control’s set to autopilot and locked with a password of which only Pickett had known the code. Return was not a possibility.
Dent was the first to get his bearings. He directed us in throwing the bodies of the dead in the clear shallows behind the craft, then arranged an inventory of our supplies. Food and water we had plenty of, but ammunition was low. And then there were the unmarked crates. Once we had rationed our bullets and established a watch, Brodsky, Dent, and I went below deck. Dent pried the first case open. Then another. Brodsky and I joined in. It should not have been a surprise to find them all filled with explosives.
We survived the night without a sign of the aggressors. Dent, suddenly talkative, kept going on about how sadistic they must be for letting us suffer the agony of staying our executions. The Northerners were savages, they were brilliant captors. I told him maybe they didn’t mean to kill us since they hadn’t done it yet.
Once Dent was sufficiently convinced there were no guerillas hiding beyond the tree line, Brodsky, Shaker, and I set out to scout our immediate surroundings. The island, from our crude calculations, could not be much larger than a few square miles. The white sand beach curved severely from our view on either side, and there was no topography to suggest any significant expanse inland. We advanced to the narrow copse of coconut trees at the edge of the sand and took cover. The jungle grew denser, and Shaker commented that the island reminded him of a cay off the shore of his town where he used to catch crabs with his brothers.
We inched deeper into the vegetation. Brodsky took the lead. The wildlife buzzed and screamed around us. Suddenly, Brodsky threw his hand up. He pointed in the distance to shapes of cloth hanging from the low slung branch of a distant tree.
“Pinter, on me,” he said. “Shaker, you cover the rear.”
I nodded at the miracle that was Brodsky at that moment; he looked made for his uniform. I raised my rifle and crept beside him toward the target.
At twenty yards I could make out the exact colors on the cloth. At fifteen, the exact patterns. A flash of recognition struck me and Brodsky at seemingly the same moment. We both gripped our rifles tighter. It occurred to me that this could be a trap, but I could not turn away.
There above us were uniforms of not only our countrymen but of the Northern army as well. They were shot through and cut into ribbons like a string of old propaganda pennants. At the base of the tree, heaping piles were stacked, torn and tattered and soiled, with no sign of their owners. I began to wonder if this was a message to stay away or an omen of our near future.
“We’ve got to tell the others,” I said.
Now Brodsky nodded, too.
We retreated to our previous position to retrieve Shaker, but he was nowhere to be found. Somewhere in the jungle, rifle fire rang out.
“Shaker,” Brodsky called. He kept yelling all the way as I dragged him to the craft.
That night, holed up in the bridge, we tried to make sense of the uniforms. Brodsky and I relayed the story for what felt like the hundredth time. Peersaw and Beattie shook their heads. Dent pressed for more details. Kilroy brooded in the corner, his face obscured by shadow.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Dent finally said. “Who are these people? How did they get here?”
A long silence passed.
“We’ll swim back,” Peersaw said. “We could make it. We could rig up a floatation device. It wasn’t that far.”
“You swim back,” Dent said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
“It makes perfect sense,” Kilroy said. “We told you from the start, Shaker and me, this wasn’t the first go round. The state’s been at this for a long time, who knows how long, maybe even before the war. If that’s the case, whoever’s on this island has been at it a long time, too. It could be anyone out there.”
I looked away from Kilroy. It seemed worse opening our minds to an explanation from before the war. We had known one enemy for so long that the possibility that another had been lurking all along was too much to bear.
“Whoever it is,” Kilroy said. “I’m not letting Shaker face them alone.”
“Don’t be so sentimental,” Dent said. “I would have killed you myself long ago if I knew you cared so little about your own life.”
“I’m going,” Kilroy said. “It’s better than staying here with you.”
Beattie cleared his throat. “I’ll go with you,” he said.
We were not surprised when Kilroy and Beattie had not returned the next morning. I had done all I could the previous night to prevent them, denying them my ammo, hiding the prize provisions, appealing to reason. I knew it was goodbye. What shocked and worried us more was waking to find Peersaw missing as well. Dent tried to convince us that Peersaw had gone ahead with his plan, tried to swim back across the channel, he’d heard rustling in the night, but I knew he was wrong. I could hear the timbre of fear in his voice. I knew Peersaw would not have dared make the trip on his own or gone after Kilroy or taken one step from the craft, but still I tried to persuade myself otherwise. That he had been taken as he slept by our sides was too extraordinary to consider.