We stared out the flapping, canvas frame of the infantry truck at the whirls of dust kicking off the dirt road. On one side were open plains blemished here and there by military installations; on the other, the wall that stretches across the breadth of our great state. It had been five hours riding through the night, and we were fidgeting in our seats. Still we had not yet reached the next pickup.

The order had come down while Brodsky and I were on watch. Manning our embrasures, we were collected for an impromptu briefing by our commanding officer, who, prior, had barely acknowledged our existence. He handed us each a cigarette and told us that two men from each sector were being sent for a mission at the easternmost reaches of the border. “Pack quickly,” he said. “The truck is waiting for you below.

Our sector fell just left of the wall’s geographic middle, covering a stretch of 2.9 miles that had seen little action since the end of the war. We were known in the capital, we soon learned, as Sector Dot, and, the Invisible Sector. After the initial sting we carried our rifles with pride. To us, the rest of the wall was invisible, as we had never seen another sector.

Every soldier from our sector came from the same county in the south of the state, most from the small cluster of agricultural hamlets near the mountains where I was born. We had grown up with the same stories our grandparents told about the hysteria before the war, countrymen fighting countrymen — kinsmen fighting kinsmen — and the jubilance afterward once our new state was established. We could all evoke the old state slogans pronouncing the evils of the Northern people as if they had been nursery rhymes whispered in our ears at night.

Brodsky was a distant cousin through a series of unsuccessful marriages. He was large and thickset, prone to breathing through his mouth. I had been told to avoid him when we were children. His grandmother was known to roam the fields at night searching for her husband who had died at the outset of the war. His family bore a reputation of poor military aptitude.

When our lottery numbers were called to serve our five-year terms our families rejoiced. A huge party was held for all the new soldiers, boasting a bounty of food from every corner of the county. The old folks told their stories, and we all listened in our freshly donned fatigues, not yet understanding the tedium of staring all night into the darkness of a silent, enemy land. We listened to the old men’s battle tales, our own feats of grandeur kindling within.

***

The sun was searing through a slit in the truck’s roof when we finally stopped. We had passed what we thought to be a sector station an hour before without adding new soldiers, and had begun to question the veracity of our CO’s intel. We jumped off the truck and stretched in the white light. Jutting from the base of the wall was a squat concrete building, much larger than our own, and closer to our vehicle, a small wood shed. In the distance the outline of a mountain etched the horizon. No one was in sight. I told Brodsky to question the driver.

Before the glaze had receded from Brodsky’s eyes, an officer came dusting toward us from the station, followed soon after by a pair of austere infantrymen. I stood at attention, relieved at the potential for clarity. The officer looked us up and down. He had a narrow face, sharp at the cheekbones, and a long, pale scar that meandered down his chin. The infantrymen passed us without so much as a glance and boarded the truck. We were told to use the outhouse if we needed, to eat if we hadn’t yet, we were already behind schedule. I asked the officer if he could tell us anything more about the details of the mission.

He squinted at me. “You’ll be briefed fully when the time comes.”

We climbed back onto the truck and took our seats. Our new colleagues sat closest to the cab. In the shadow of the canopied bed I could make out the hollows below their high cheeks, their stoic expressions. They looked so natural amongst the steel and machine screws and weather-beaten canvas that I began to feel fraudulent beside them. They wore the same uniform as we, the same flag upon their sleeve, but that was all we seemed to have in common.

I began checking my gear for the third time, trying to appear busy. Brodsky mashed at the charging handle of his rifle. I produced a pack of cigarettes from my pocket and, offering it to the new men, asked their names.

“Private Dunn,” one of them said, ignoring my generosity. “Private Dent.”

I had no idea which was which. I told them our names, and they barely acknowledged us. I asked if they knew anything about the mission.

“Two men from each sector,” one of the privates said.

The engine growled to life, vibrating the length of our metal benches. As we rode on, the cabin grew hotter, a distinct odor of sweat and gasoline baking around us. The land sprouted tufts of tan and mint green and hunter that reminded me of home.

We reached the next pickup later that afternoon. Brodsky and I swung our legs over the bumper and smoked. Dunn and Dent remained in their seats.

Adjacent to the station, there was a multi-car supply truck with stacks of unmarked crates beside a stock of provisions — enough for a company. An officer was overseeing a small team of soldiers doing the loading, marking items off a clipboard each time a new crate disappeared into the front car. When they had finished, two soldiers peeled off from the group and approached us. The supply truck gunned its engine. As our new conscripts brushed by onto the truck, I gazed up at the top of the wall. A pair of soldiers peered down from the edge, waving.

Once the station was out of view, I offered cigarettes to the newcomers. Ricketts, a short man with a protruding forehead, took one without thanking me.

“Bullshit,” Ricketts said. “This is just some bad joke bullshit.”

We all put an eye on him. Ricketts’ partner, Mankew, who was also short, sighed.

“Just a crank idea some egghead in the capital dreamed up to manipulate perceptions, give the speculators something to speculate about, push some market up a few points.”

I hadn’t heard this sort of talk since a brief furlough in the capital before deployment. It spoke of the conflict with a level of sophistication I had not encountered in our county.

“You know something more about the mission?” I asked.

“Quit it,” Mankew said. “I’m sick of hearing all your shit already.”

“They haven’t heard it.”

Ricketts stomped out his cigarette.

“Let me ask you fellas a question? How many are we here on this vehicle?”

Brodsky and I looked at each other. “Six,” Brodsky said.

“Yes, very good. There are six of us. Six of us so far on a mission where each sector should be represented by two men. How can this be?”

The inconsistency had not occurred to me. We had got on the truck at our sector just left of middle with no others yet aboard.

“One infantry truck,” Ricketts continued. “One supply truck. Where are the other men?”

“Hold your tongue,” someone said. I wasn’t sure if it was Dent or Dunn. “We have our orders from the State.”

“Monkeys,” Ricketts said.

I racked my brain. “There could be more than one envoy,” I said.

“There could be more than one,” Mankew repeated.

We drove through the night at a steady pace, no faster than forty miles an hour at any interval. Sometime near dawn, I startled awake: I’d had a dream about selling our land back home. Everyone was asleep except for Ricketts, who was peering out a frayed hole in the canvas.

“We’re close to the salt flats,” he said. “I can smell them. Got to be five hundred miles or so from the coast.”

The air was cool, the night clear.

“Do you know what a salt flat is, Pinter? It’s a lake where a lake has no business being. It’s the barren, shit-crusted example of why water and desert can’t coexist.”

“Do you really think there aren’t any other trucks?” I said.

“I don’t know, Pinter. I couldn’t say for sure, but I’ll tell you this: It might not matter.”

***

By first light we had made the next pickup. Two more men came aboard, reedy fellows named Hedgwick and Peersaw. I gave them cigarettes, and they started talking. They said they knew as much as we did, except for something their CO had whispered as he passed them in the barracks: “Be sure to pack a bathing suit. The islands get warm this time of year.”

We picked up more men: Kilroy and Shaker, Beattie and McIlroy. A second supply truck rode behind, its windows completely tinted. Ricketts said he knew where we were headed. There was a cluster of islands off the coast of the divide, disputed territory, lands that had changed hands at least a dozen times since the war. It was a secret war unto itself. The men began nodding as he spoke, all but Dent and Dunn who kept their own counsel away from the others.

I had heard of the islands before. In the capital I had seen a report about a humanitarian effort to aid the indigenous people of an uncategorized island: Island 821. Pledges were being collected by the national relief organizations, volunteers were being mobilized. Help was in dire need. These were our brothers and sisters.

As night fell, the road grew rockier, a heaviness saturated the air. We slowed to a crawl, pitching like a ship in turning weather. We skipped more stations. In the cigarette-studded darkness, we shared the same mental terrain. Beattie said he’d heard of an island rich with rare resources. Peersaw swore an old classmate had been killed while working at a highly experimental island research facility. Kilroy and Shaker speculated that they weren’t the first pair ordered from their sector. There had been a similar mission before ours that had ended unsuccessfully. Even Brodsky threw in with a nugget privy to Sector Dot: this was not another dispute in our storied conflict, but a joint effort against a separate but common threat. It became a game, and soon I could not tell what was rumor or conjecture or plain fiction. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone anyway. Whether our enemy to the north was foe or ally in this mission, I wondered what our distant kinsmen were saying about us. We had coexisted for so long, I wanted to know what information they were privy to, how it might save us.

***

In the morning, as we were idled at yet another sector station, an officer told us to disembark. We were given a half-hour break to bathe and to eat a proper meal in a hastily built roadside structure obviously erected for our arrival. The day was overcast. Clouds like soiled dish towels unfurled over a lush carpet of forest. A faint hint of saltwater carried on the breeze.

After breakfast, we lined up along the front of our makeshift mess hall. The drivers, who we thus far recognized as an elbow hanging out an open window or the hum of an old state anthem playing on the radio, were huddled like gulls by the cab of the fore supply truck. Before long, a man pushed through the steel door of the sector station and marched toward us, a sense of destiny in his gait. He conferred with the officer on hand briefly, then began addressing us.

“My name is Sergeant Donald Pickett,” he said.

He was a tall, fit man who stood with his chest out and his lips pursed. He was dressed in fatigues a shade slightly darker than ours with unencumbered cargo pockets and an ACU shirt as solid at the shoulders as burlap seed bags.

“I am your commanding officer,” he continued. “Whatever you believe you know about this mission, whatever you have discussed, this will mean nothing when we enter the fray.”

He ordered us back onto the truck, gestured to the drivers with a twirl of his finger, then mounted the bumper himself. We rode in silence. As the afternoon passed, we began discarding our hats and jackets, mopping the sweat from our brows with our standard-issue bandanas. Sergeant Pickett remained as is, scanning us every now and then with an expression that belied nothing. Only Dent and Dunn remained in their uniforms.

When it seemed the heat had reached its apex, Ricketts bolted to his feet.

“Bullshit,” he said. “This is complete bullshit. Four days on this heap without a true word about the purpose of this mission and now this. They give us a CO, put him in the back of our truck like he’s one of our mates, and he sits here saying not a Goddamn thing.”

I braced myself in my seat. Brodsky stood and I punched him in the thigh.

“We want to know the mission,” Brodsky said, and now the others spoke up with him.

The sergeant stood. He had a pistol at his waist, the holster clip unbuttoned, the safety turned to the off position.

“We reach our departure point within the hour, gentlemen. Everything will be made clear then.”

He stared at Brodsky a moment longer and reclaimed his seat. I pulled Brodsky back down beside me.

The road bifurcated. We turned and angled south, away from the wall, and reached the coast by nightfall. Our final destination was a small barracks in a military fortification at the edge of a deserted fishing town.

Besides a small crew of general laborers, we seemed to be the base’s sole inhabitants. We were ordered to unload the trucks, then gather for a mission briefing. The promise of this information put a charge into us. As I lifted a crate, Ricketts put an elbow into my ribs and leaned in close to me.

“What do you think this shit is?” he said. “Why don’t we get to know? It’s our lives.”

“Quit it,” I said. “The sooner we finish, the sooner we’ll find out.”

“Maybe,” he said.

At 2300, we met in a decrepit meeting room at the rear of the barracks. There was an atmosphere of unrest crackling in the air. It seemed as if any sudden movement might incite outright panic. Sergeant Pickett stood at the front with his hands clasped behind his back, staring at the wall behind us.

“I have a story for you,” Pickett started. “There is an island not far from the shore of our illustrious state. This island lies exact as God’s design on the divide that separates us from our great rival. There are men on this island who honor no allegiance. Tomorrow, we board a hovercraft destined for this place. You have been chosen for this operation because of your unique abilities, for your excellence in military service, for your loyalty to the state. You have been selected specially by your CO’s to carry out a task vital to the state’s survival,” he said. “You must have made an impression.”

We all kept our gazes forward. The same questions buzzed between us. What abilities? What accomplishments? Who of us but Dent and Dunn fit the soldier Pickett described? We knew all of this was a lie. Ricketts would tell us this speech had been crafted by an egghead from the capital with aspirations for higher office, and we would believe him, because we weren’t gullible any longer.

“Not much is known about these people,” Pickett continued. “They are an unknown quantity, and thus we face the singular challenge of engaging an enemy whose defense we know nothing about, whose motives are uncertain, and on a terrain where they possess a distinct tactical advantage.”

“So it’s a suicide mission then,” Ricketts said.

Pickett didn’t acknowledge him. “Our mission is a simple one. Stealth, cunning, exploration. We learn as much as we can about our enemy, then we slip away. Poof. A hero’s welcome.”

That night, as I lay in my mildewed cot, the conundrum lingered. Why us? The short and oblong, the stupid and paranoid, the country boys. Why us for a mission of such great importance to the state? Why Dent and Dunn, who were so different than the rest of us? I knew then we had been chosen because we were expendable.

Someone screamed, kicking at his bed with both heels. It was Shaker.

“Why even tell us, two men from each sector?” he said. “Why tell us such a blatant lie?” He was laughing crazily.

“The illusion of safety,” Ricketts said. “Even now, even after all we’ve been through, we’re still hopeful there are more of us on the way.”

I imagined my own welcome home. Mine and Brodsky’s. There would be a grand feast, all of our favorite foods from the fields of our friends and neighbors. We would have our own story to tell of the war. As Ricketts spoke, his voice like a lullaby from my childhood, I imagined telling my family about my own courage under fire.

***

Brodsky shook me awake, and I clasped a hand to his throat.

“Time to go,” he said.

The barracks were frantic with departure. Men were scouring the floors for misplaced equipment, yanking at the damp straps of their packs. Mankew sat carving his name into the rotting wood wall with his standard issue knife.

The coastline was tufted with chaparral. Beyond the stone beach, the sea sparkled below the bright sky. Sergeant Pickett was already waiting for us. The trucks were gone and a hovercraft was moored in the dock. Pickett ordered us to load our provisions onto the craft, along with a stack of unmarked crates.

Ricketts took a step toward him. “What’s in them?” he said. “We won’t do a thing until we know what’s in them.”

“You won’t do a thing? Is that true?” Pickett asked us.

No one moved.

“OK,” Pickett said. “Private Ricketts, why don’t you take a look?”

Ricketts hesitated a moment. He glanced at me and winked, then approached the crates. He produced his field knife, pried apart the nails, and discarded the top. We heard the shot before Ricketts touched a hand to his chest, or maybe it was afterwards, it happened in such a vacuum. But whether the sound came first or Ricketts’ realization of what it meant, not an instant later his shirt went crimson wet and he fell to his knees.

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.

I found Brodsky sitting at the stern of the craft, staring back toward our state. He was pensive, calm. There was a hardness about him, an immediacy in his gaze I had not witnessed, that I believe had not existed yesterday or any day before.

“Pinter,” he said. “There is no hope for us.”

He rose to his feet and walked toward the craft’s bow. He didn’t bother to take his rifle. I left mine, too.

We hopped the low lifelines, splashing into the swells, and started along the margin of beach. Dent called to us over the craft’s PA.

“Are you stupid,” he said. “Repeat. You must be stupid.”

We did not turn.

“Get back here,” he yelled. “Come back.”

The shore began to curve out of sight of the craft. We heard Dent’s footfalls in the breakers behind us.

“You’re not soldiers,” he said. “None of you. You’re not soldiers.”

As the sun climbed higher, the glare beat off the sea and the sand, and piece by piece we discarded our jackets and our shirts and our boots.

“I’ll kill you,” Dent kept saying. “I swear to God.”

We did not look back.

We walked clear around the island. There was no mining project or research facility. There was no sign of indigenous populations. We knew this not from visual confirmation but because there was no sign of resistance, just more discarded uniforms like the ones we had seen prior, and I began to wonder where the artillery had come from in the first place. Whether the general laborers back at the state’s edge were not trained killers with their own orders to carry out. Taking the last curve that brought our craft back into view, we saw a group of men marching toward us.

“It’s them,” Dent said. “There’s too many. Where are your rifles? For God’s sake why didn’t you bring your rifles?”

As we grew nearer, I realized the men were naked, tanned a shade I had seen on the skin of some of the fishermen from the farthest south of our state who were famed for staying on the water for months on end — men we champion in our state brochures. They were carrying rifles, rifles like our own that we had left aboard the craft, and those of the Northern soldiers. The sun was behind them, and I swore I saw a pair of reedy fellows in the glare, flanked on either side by shorter silhouettes. A man was leading them, a dark heat shadow shimmering against the white shore, and as he closed the distance between us the jungle seemed to shake and grow lush with his every step. They were our countrymen, or they were coming to kill us. I could not tell. I would have my answers soon. I kept walking toward them.

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