Category Archives: Excerpt

Darwin’s World: the Prologue

So what’s the book about?  This excerpt may help. It’s Science Fiction, Action-Adventure, Time Travel, Survival, and the setting is the Pleistocene. Just not the Pleistocene you’ve read about before.

Prologue

I drifted from sleep to drowsiness. The walls were plain white, not as I remembered, but I didn’t wonder at the discrepancy. There was an open door to the side of my bed and I could make out bathroom fixtures in the adjoining room.

I lay half-awake until I felt the urge to use the bathroom. There was a coverlet over me, so I pulled it aside and got up. I used the toilet, cleaned myself, and flushed. I felt groggy; I couldn’t still be asleep, could I?

The bathroom was simple. The walls were white, though not glaringly so. There was a toilet, a basin with a towel, and a shower enclosure with a larger towel. I stepped into the shower, and as soon as I was inside, warm water sprayed gently over my skin.

A recessed shelf held soap and shampoo, so I washed my hair and bathed. I noticed while shampooing that my hair was short and quite thick. My arms were faintly hairy and the hairs were dark, as was the small patch on my upper chest. Strange; I didn’t remember being like this. My hair was sparse and gray, wasn’t it? Something had happened but it didn’t seem important. Perhaps I was dreaming.

I saw no controls for the shower, so I stepped out onto a mat and the water flow behind me stopped. I toweled myself dry, hung the towel over the shower enclosure, and returned to the room where I’d awakened.

The bed had been made in my absence. One wall now looked out on a tranquil forest scene. Beside the wall stood a figure, watching me. There was a chair so I sat down.

“Your name is Matt,” the figure said, and I realized that it was so.

I repeated the name. “My name is Matt.” There seemed nothing more to say.

“This is phase one of your awakening,” the man said. “You will be here for some time while we complete your transformation. Don’t expect to understand everything immediately. You will know more next time we wake you.”

Curious. Perhaps this wasn’t a dream after all. But I waited to hear more.

“We took you away from the time you were born in. In that time, you died. Your body had begun to break down from the changes that time brings. We recognized the onset of lethal changes in time and took you from the hospital. We brought you from your time to ours.”

I remembered; there had been a hospital, although the memories were vague and incomplete. How had I come to be there? I couldn’t remember. Despite the mention of dying and hospital, it didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t understand why, but I wasn’t worried. Was this a dream or was it somehow real?

“You have been harvested and we will now complete your transformation. The process will take some time but you will not recall what happens. Some of the procedures are painful. We induce unconsciousness to spare you pain. You will be transplanted to a different timeline after the transformation is complete. I will explain more when you wake. You will alternate between sleep and wakefulness as we process you. You will have questions and I will answer such of them as we consider meaningful.”

“How long will I be asleep?” For some reason, that seemed important to me.

“As long as necessary,” he replied.

I was beginning to feel drowsy and I thought I might want to ask another question, but he disappeared as I drifted into sleep.

#

I woke up faster this time. As before, I made a trip to the bathroom. The bath worked as I remembered and I now remembered much more about my previous life. When I went back to the ‘bedroom’, the only room I had seen other than the bathroom, the man was standing against the wall again.

“We will now continue your orientation. This is your second waking period. Much of the physical work on your body is complete. There will continue to be mental changes, but additional physical changes will be so small as to be undetectable by you. Such changes will add strength and coordination as the transformed body and brain adjust to each other. You will accomplish this task yourself.”

I had a lot more questions this time. “You mentioned that my body was breaking down and that I would die. Am I about to die?”

He answered slowly, “That body was terminal. We got little from it other than your genetic code and memories. We retained most of those. The body that we’ve grown using your genetic code is so changed as to be a new body. You’re physically equivalent to what you were in your early twenties. Mentally, I estimate that you will be approximately equal in cognitive ability to someone in his late thirties. Your memories will be those of a man who has lived a long time, at least as your culture measured such things. We have augmented your memories to add knowledge that we deem important, so what you remember is an amalgam of your own memories and those we chose to add. But no, you are not about to die of the causes that were killing your original body.”

He paused for a moment. “You have enough of your original memories remaining to understand the concepts I’m explaining. You may die after being transplanted, but we cannot estimate when that will happen. It may be that you will live much longer than you ever expected to, or you may die during the first day after being transplanted.

“For our purposes, it does not matter. Remember that you were terminal when we harvested you. Every day that you survive now is a day of life you would not have had if we had not intervened.”

“You said early twenties as far as the physical development stage?” I asked.

“Just so,” he responded. “The concept has little meaning. It’s simply where we stopped development. In your time, change began at birth and continued until eventual death. Early development made you larger and stronger and your body morphed from baby to toddler to child and adolescent before becoming adult. You are physically adult now.

“From that point, you added experience, learning, and a few other changes. Many of the changes were harmful. Your cells accumulated damage. Some of the changes altered the genetic code you were born with. Your muscles became weaker, joints became stiff, cartilage ripped and atrophied. Over time the changes became so overwhelming that life was no longer sustainable.

“There were also mental changes as your body aged. Physical changes within your brain caused later memories to fade, although your early memories remained nearly intact. We supplemented your memories with generic knowledge. The memory of your personal history is yours alone. We selected memories of things that were commonly known to others in your time and augmented your memory. Some of the memories are highly specialized. It would not have been possible for you to acquire all the memories you now possess in a single lifetime.

“Also, as a part of preparing your body to make you more suitable for transplanting, we removed the tendency of your cells for programmed death. The changes you experienced and the death that was inevitable were the result of accumulated damage to weak areas within your genetic code. We corrected those weaknesses, but you should know that we cannot prevent future mutations. Some of the weakened areas came about because of influences from such things as solar radiation. Other influences may also be encountered after you leave here, influences from naturally-occurring radiation and chemicals. We cannot predict what will happen to you except to repeat that your DNA sequence contains no known weaknesses. Another way to state this is to tell you that you are less susceptible to genetic change than others from your time. But less susceptible does not mean you are immune to the things I’ve mentioned.

“It is no longer certain when you will die. Disease is unlikely to kill you in the near term, but we cannot be certain that a disease may not evolve in future which will terminate your life. Still, your own body will no longer kill you unless an accumulation of damage cancels the work we’ve done.

“You can die from a multitude of other causes. Trauma, blood loss, drowning, or a broken neck can kill you. A knife or spear that pierces your heart or lungs or brain will cause death. Given time, your body will heal from lesser injuries, but there’s no certainty that you will have the necessary time for this to occur.”

I thought that over. “You keep saying that you’ve ‘harvested’ me and that you intend to ‘transplant’ me? Can you explain?”

“Certainly. We are from your future. Our science is far more advanced. Despite all we’ve done, or perhaps because of it, humanity is dying. We have conquered death as you knew it, and if any of the mutations I spoke of occur in the present time it’s a fairly simple matter to correct them.

“Still, our people continue to die. Most commonly this occurs from suicide. People don’t die from age or disease, but we also do not reproduce. There is no incentive to do so, and the practice became uncommon when it became clear that we must reduce the population of humans lest the Earth be unable to support us. Numbers declined naturally thereafter and this continued for more than a century. A much smaller population now inhabits the planet. The human population of your time numbered in the billions. There are now less than one hundred million people alive, and the number continues to decline. We estimate that humanity will become extinct within a century, possibly less.

“We have explored the solar system but found nothing that was of more than transient interest. There was nothing beyond the Earth that we needed. We have the ability to transform ordinary matter and to conserve and recycle what we cannot transform. We might have established viable colonies throughout the system but we lost interest in doing so. We never got beyond the outer boundaries of the home system. Einstein’s limit prevented that at first, and by the time we reached the level of knowledge to evade that limit and colonize beyond the home system, it no longer seemed important. The Earth now provides all that we need.

“Our people have no future other than death. Almost all now alive accept that. A few of us refuse to believe that extinction is inevitable and we are attempting to change our future. There are less than a hundred of us engaged in this project. We have the equipment and knowledge to harvest a specimen such as you from the past. We accept responsibility for harvesting and preparing the subject for transplant. There are similarities in what each of us does, but also differences. The different methods may be beneficial. We cannot yet say.

“Each of us places our transplant into a dimension we’ve selected. We chose this dimension because there are no native humans, and because the Earth of that dimension is physically similar to our present world. Life there will be hard and there will be danger. We prepare you to face the dangers and give you the ability to overcome hardships. Whether you do so is up to you. We believe that some of the transplants will succeed, but accept that some will not. We cannot say which transplant will have the qualities necessary for success.

“I have sent more than a hundred specimens to the selected dimension. Others have sent as many and some may have sent more. I have not begun harvesting the offspring of my transplants yet. I will do so shortly, then prepare the selected individuals for transplanting here in my own world and time.

“We do not know what the eventual results of our experiment will be. The harvested and transplanted specimens may adapt to life here and become as the rest, content to live out their lives without ambition. We hope they may retain the drive and curiosity that we have lost. It is not possible to say. We will continue the process and hope that it succeeds. It is worth noting that none of us engaged in harvesting or transplanting specimens from ancient cultures have terminated our own lives.

“In the meantime, we have established humans on a dimension where they did not naturally occur, humans of our type. Some of the dimensions we’ve explored have humans much changed from what you are and what I am. We leave them to work out their destiny in their own way. We hope they feel the same once they develop the ability to cross dimensions, but we understand that they may not. This, too, was a part of our reasoning when we decided to begin the transplant program.

“We hope that your descendants will possess an enhanced sense of survival. There will also be other qualities, and some of those qualities may not be advantageous. We will be very careful of which specimens we choose for transplanting here.

“You’ve said that I could die from any number of violent processes. Will you assist me to avoid that?”

“No. We give you a healthy body, a mind that is well developed for your time and culture, and then we release you. You will be transplanted to an Earth that has no naturally occurring humans, but the only other advantage we provide is that we select a location where survival is possible. We avoid extremes of weather and places we suspect of being geologically unstable. You may choose to seek such places on your own, but that is a choice for you to make.

“You will be alone when I transplant you, but there are other humans within a reasonable distance. You may seek them out, or not. The choice is yours. Some will be male, some female. Some will have been there a considerable length of time, others will have been transplanted after you. I cannot say, because I do not know what the others engaged in this activity have done. I do not know what they will do in future.

“The time period on that alternate dimension is between glaciations. According to your reckoning, the conditions are similar to the late Pleistocene period. However, some geological processes took place there in a fashion that is different from what happened on our Earth. Your knowledge of the past will be useful, but you should expect differences.

“There will be humans transplanted to each of the major continents and they will be released within the zone that lies between 40º north and 40º south of the Equator.”

I was beginning to feel drowsy, and I watched him for a moment. Then, with no further speech, he simply disappeared. I wondered if he was perhaps a hologram or if his appearances were ‘in the flesh’, so to speak. I fell asleep while wondering.

#

I soon fell into a routine; I would wake, use the bathroom, have breakfast, then use the well-equipped gym that opened off the bedroom. It was accessed through a door that I hadn’t seen before but that was otherwise similar to the bathroom door.

Work as much as I could; take a break, have lunch, work again. Break for supper. Shower and sleep. These were the things I did.

I don’t know how long this went on but it probably lasted for weeks. After the first two ‘weeks’, I was stronger and more agile than I’d ever been. I expected muscle soreness but that never happened. After a time I stopped gaining strength. From that time on, I worked on developing coordination and agility. Both qualities improved rapidly.

At the end of one of my workouts, the man appeared and looked at me. After a moment, he disappeared.

The next awakening found me in possession of more memories. Some I thought were my own, and some I was certain were of things I’d never done. But they were there. I wondered how long it would take to integrate them into my own memories, the ones I’d acquired at the cost of pain and occasional blood loss before the futurist had found me.

There was something new when I awoke this time. A table now stood in the ‘bedroom’ and a knife and axe lay on the table. The knife had a blade that was a bit less than a half-inch at its thickest and about ten inches long. The blade was two inches wide and tapered to a wickedly sharp point. The knife had wooden grips and a small cross-guard in front of the grips. A heavy pommel at the rear of the handle provided balance. I picked the knife up and examined it. I liked the feel of it and the edge was sharp. I tried shaving my arm and it easily removed the hairs. The blade had a clouded or mottled appearance. I concluded that this knife was made by repeated forging and folding to produce a strong blade that would take and hold an edge, while retaining some flexibility from the softer layers. It was a tool, but it might also be used as a weapon.

The axe was larger than a hatchet but smaller than a standard woodsman’s axe. The haft was wood and was about two and a half feet in length. The back of the blade was flat; it would useful as a hammer. Call it a camp-axe, more useful than a hatchet but still not large enough or heavy enough to be unwieldy.

I had nothing better to do, so I examined the knife and axe carefully. Some of my memories had to do with knives and axes, and some of them clearly were of places I’d never been and people I’d never met. For whatever reason, the memories left me pleased with the appearance and usefulness of the tools.

How would I use that axe and knife after being ‘transplanted’? Pioneers in North America had considered themselves adequately equipped if they had an axe, a knife, and a shovel. I had no shovel and the axe was small, but the knife was superb.

Some primitive societies had not used metal shovels. They’d made do with sticks or carved branches and those had worked well enough. Perhaps I could do the same. I hoped that the knife and axe would go with me when I was transplanted.

The two were fine weapons, but also too valuable to risk unless there was no other choice. I would need weapons that could be risked or used up in an encounter. The weapons would necessarily be things I’d made and that I could make again if they broke or were lost. A club, a spear, eventually a bow and arrows would be needed.

Meat or fish would provide protein. Vegetable protein would help, but I couldn’t count on finding it where the futurist placed me. I would have to hunt. I would also need to defend myself from predators, including humans. I finally placed the camp-axe and knife on the table and noticed that the man was back.

“Our work with you is done. It is now up to you to make your way when you are transplanted. This will happen after your next awakening. The tools you see will go with you. We will also provide a sturdy costume. The costume consists of belt, undergarments, shirt, trousers, socks, and boots. It is similar to what you are familiar with and the shirt and trousers have numerous pockets for carrying things. There is a simple leather scabbard for each of your tools, and you may choose to carry them in your hands or wear them.”

“How long before I’ll be released?”

“You will sleep, and when you wake you will be fresh and prepared for your first day in your new timeline. The process for transplanting you is painless and does not cause disorientation. You will be provided food before you depart and there will be no immediate dangers where you are released. You should consider what you will need to do immediately on arrival. I caution you that danger may not be far away. You should plan accordingly.”

I was getting drowsy again as he disappeared. I wondered how he did that. I supposed that it was not important, but it would sure be a handy ability to have.

I woke up energetic and hungry. There was a meal prepared, the same type I’d had before. The clothes I’d been told about lay on the table. I got dressed and put the hatchet on my left side, facing to the rear. The knife hung on my right hip.

The hanging tools felt comfortable and I didn’t want to chance the tools being left behind. Regardless of what the Futurist had said, I was cautious enough not to take unnecessary chances.

I ate the meal, whatever it was. I had never been able to identify the ingredients; the meals had been tasty and that’s all you could say for them. If one of the dishes was meat I hadn’t recognized it as such. There were no obvious muscle striations or the connective tissue that separates individual muscles. Just…something.

As soon as I’d finished eating, the man appeared.

“It is time. Come with me.”

He walked toward a different part of the wall and a door opened. Beyond the door was a small chamber with no discernible features. It was blank; a floor, a ceiling, three walls, and the door I walked through. That immediately disappeared and became a wall behind me.

Another door appeared where the opposite wall had been. Beyond it was grass, and three hundred yards away there were large trees. I stepped through the door and glanced behind me, but there was nothing there.

I was alone. I had near-perfect freedom. I could live or die, I could prosper or fail.

With the feeling of aloneness came the realization that I was a very small entity surrounded by a very large and dangerous world

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Advice

I’ve followed my own advice this week, keeping to the habits I’ve established.

Despite playing a gig at an elementary school and another jam band get-together at a community center, I’ve revised several chapters of Darwin’s World and written two chapters of Talent. One has been sent to Gina at Beyond the Far Horizon. This gives me a buffer as soon as Chapter 12 has edits posted; Gina has the two chapters for Monday and Tuesday’s postings, and with Chapter 12, she’ll have the following week’s submissions ready for posting too. Talent has about 32 000 words so far, of a planned length between 65 000 and 75 000 words. So Book five is about half done. It seems like I only began writing it a short time ago.

Did I mention that I work fast? And that I work long hours?

Darwin’s World has the potential to be my most popular series. DW is the first novel, the Trek is the second, and DW is almost finished with the revision process. I finished revising Ch 29 this afternoon and tomorrow I begin Ch 30 (of 34). The chapter revisions are going fast now; I suspect I’d achieved a breakthrough in my ability to write by the time I wrote these chapters. But for whatever reason, I expect Darwin’s World to be published commercially next week.

Just in time. Sales of Combat Wizard and Wizard at Work have slowed. Perhaps it’s the end-of-the-month syndrome; if you’re publishing indie, expect that Saturday sales will be among your best, and after-payday sales are much better than before-payday sales.

But adding a third book to my list on Amazon won’t hurt. That means that potential readers have three books to find, not just two. The more books you have available for purchase, the better you’re likely to do.

Darwin’s World is assembled, all the front material is ready and the end parts are in place. I’ll probably add a chapter of The Trek to the end as a teaser, but other than that, the book’s assembled. Pricing…always a subject to be agonized over, but this book is about a third longer than the two in the Wizards Trilogy on Amazon. I suspect I’ll price it slightly higher, most likely at $5.99. It’s easier to drop the price than it is to raise it, although that’s invariably going to disappoint people who paid full price to get the first downloads available.

That’s the other part of being an indie author; you do everything yourself, and if you get it wrong…

Combat Wizard; an excerpt

The book is available on Amazon. The first book in the Wizards Trilogy, this one’s a bit dark; the themes I explore are science fiction oriented, but at the same time the characters are ordinary people similar to those you might know. I just place them in extraordinary situations.The language is what soldiers commonly use, so be warned. It’s not polite parlor conversation.

Some of the situations are nothing you want to experience in real life. As for experiencing them vicariously in fiction, examining how you’d feel if you were there…

Welcome to my story.

Chapter 1

 

The patrol had been routine, at least in the beginning.

I wondered if I was becoming careless? Careless gets people killed.

Had I approached too close to that box before I acted? I don’t know. There’s no way I can know. The explosion happened and men died.

For most people, getting blown up is the worst thing that can happen. It’s only the beginning for me. The explosions haven’t injured me, at least so far. Not physically, anyway.

The nightmares are worse. The explosion only happened once, but the nightmares play out again and again. There is no answer when I wonder if there was something I might have done.

Casualties; it’s such a detached, bloodless word. There’s none of the fear and agony and hate, none of the emotions men feel when an IED blows.

Junior officers learn the term because it’s part of the trade of soldiering. Maybe it helps. You end up with too many scars on your feelings if you can’t learn to be dispassionate.

The casualties are really dead and maimed men and women, barely more than kids. They’re soldiers one moment, then they’re broken. They’re changed from people vibrant with life and a future to casualties, things with no future, or one that’s changed out of recognition.

The details are often unclear. The bodies are covered, the outlines blurred, even the blood is hidden. The thick coating of dust from the explosion rains down on everyone, the casualties and the ones who escaped.

Maybe if I could call them casualties too, think of them in that dispassionate way, but I can’t.

The things that visit my nightmares aren’t ‘casualties’. They’re people, and I was in command. I let them get killed. I should have been able to do more.

#

The mission began with a briefing session even though we’d done it, something like it, a hundred times before. But if there’s time, we always begin by briefing the troops. Everyone involved needs to know why we’re going out and what we hope to accomplish.

The patrol was heavy for a reconnaissance patrol but light for a combat patrol. The command element was myself as patrol leader and the squad leader and his deputy for assistants. There were also two additional fire team leaders but hopefully they wouldn’t need to take over. I got a sketchy briefing from the patrol leader who’d conducted the last sweep through the area, but he’d seen nothing suspicious and his squad hadn’t made contact with hostiles.

That’s the most common result of patrols up here, but occasionally things liven up. The medic we carried with the patrol got a workout from time to time. Good people, those combat medics. They’ve got guts by the yard.

Today’s mission was to get out among the populace while at the same time interrupting any plans the jihadists had to mortar the compound. We planned the route to make sure we looked at locations they’d used in the past, but not nose into places that would agitate the locals unnecessarily, places like the mosque. The next step was to make a hasty map table using whatever was available to indicate points of interest. I used ammo cans to represent buildings, empty boxes that had held pistol ammo to line the ‘road’. These represented the mud-brick walls. I used the map table to brief the troops.

“We’ll leave the compound here, turn right here, patrol to the square and turn right again. There are possible enemy contact points here and here where trails lead down from the mountains, so look for signs that mortar teams have visited this point or that one, and keep your eyes peeled. Don’t get so focused on the ground that you forget to watch the rooftops.”

A succession of right turns would bring us back to the compound. We would provide our own security, and support was available from the compound. A mounted force would be on standby until we got back. Another patrol would go out an hour or two after we came in, depending on available manpower. They’d follow a slightly different route.

Simple, compared to some earlier patrols I’d done.

Finally, do a hasty inspection of the troops to make sure they’ve got water and extra ammo. Ask questions; do they know the mission and the chain of command for the patrol? See that the radio operator has fresh batteries and spares. Talk to the medic too, but I’ve never seen a medic go out unprepared. They’re very professional. As a last step, have a private chat with the NCO’s to ensure everyone knows the essentials, then it’s time to go.

I nodded at the guards and the interpreter as we passed through the gate. The “terps” are mostly local hires. Few Americans can really speak the local language. Misunderstandings are inevitable. Not everyone can be a linguist, but you’d think the Army would provide more language training before people deploy.

Maybe it’s too expensive. Congress doesn’t like to spend money unless it benefits a powerful Congressman’s district. Catering to the needs of soldiers won’t get a politician reelected. ‘It’s just politics, fellows. I’d like to help you, but you know how it is.’ Yeah.

The gate guards have cheat sheets with simple commands in Dari, stop, come here, be careful. It’s better if there’s an interpreter but sometimes there aren’t any. The phrase sheets are just in case no “terp” is available. We really don’t want to shoot some poor sap because he didn’t understand the guard when he said “Stop!”

The squad fell in behind me in my usual patrol formation, just the way I’d explained it to them in the briefing. When I take a patrol out, I’m the one out front.

The troops don’t mind. The guy in front is the one who gets shot at. You want to be first, Chief, knock yourself out. I’ve heard the comments, ‘fucking spook, don’t know shit about infantry’. Infantry or not, my unusual formation works for me, most of the time.

We walked past the compound’s walls after leaving the gate. They’re Hesco barriers, made from concertainers. The containers are stacked two levels high before being filled with sand, and they’ll stop direct fire. Even an RPG round won’t penetrate more than five feet of sand and the bottom layer, double thick, has more than that. The people inside the compound have little to fear barring the occasional mortar attack. Mortar shells go over walls.

Someone is always watching, even when you don’t see them. Don’t get distracted, just try not to pay the watchers too much attention. Look for the ones acting suspicious.

They might have AK-47’s under those loose clothes. Or explosive vests.

Every country that had obsolete weapons dumped them on Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded. The guns are old, but they still shoot. Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and China sent Soviet-made AK assault rifles, PK machine-guns, and rocket-propelled grenades, usually referred to as RPG’s. Switzerland and Britain sent Oerlikon 20mm cannons and a few other weapons left over from WWII. The thrifty Afghans kept them all, even after the Soviets left. There would be another enemy to fight. In Afghanistan, there always is. Between invasions, Afghans fight each other.

Weapons and ammo are cheap and plentiful. A lot of them are bought with American money. Some of the money comes through the CIA, some of it’s paid out by the Army. Liaison officers are handed bundles of cash to be passed on to a warlord. The money comes via the embassy. Diplomatic pouches bring in a lot more than embassy documents. The money is handed over in the optimistic hope that it will buy the warlord’s loyalty. It does…sometimes for a whole week. Afghans imbibe betrayal with mother’s milk.

What the American government doesn’t buy more-or-less directly, true-believers and drug users buy in a roundabout way. The Internet has been a real boon to fundraisers. They’re helped along by banks who are happy to process the transfers so long as they get to skim a bit off the top. Pogo was right. We have met the enemy and he is us.

Opium poppies grow in the Middle East, far more than the local addicts need. The poppies are ugly things when mature, tall skinny stalks and tiny flower petals surrounding the top of grossly swollen heads. Those heads produce the raw opium. It’s collected, refined, and sold around the world. Street dealers know it as tar or heroin. The money comes in and ammo gets bought. The jihadists never run short of ammo.

If it sounds like I’m negative, even pessimistic…well, not exactly. My attitude needs to improve before I’ll reach pessimist.

#

I led the patrol along an ancient track, now worn lower than the surrounding ground. It had probably been level before traffic loosened the packed dirt. Sooner or later a wind comes along and the loosened dirt blows away. After a century or two, the track is several inches deeper than the surrounding landscape. It’s not much, but more than one infantryman has been grateful for that tiny bit of protection when the PK machine-guns opened up. Hit the ground, snuggle up to that tiny lip at the edge of the track and wish your uniform had thinner buttons and zippers.

There are only so many ways to patrol after you leave the gate. Foot patrols go left or right, usually stay within a couple of kilometers of the compound, and generally can’t maneuver because there are buildings and walls lining most of the dirt road. Patrols that plan to go farther travel in mine-resistant vehicles. But such vehicles are large and many of the village tracks are narrow. There’s still a need for foot patrols to go where the armored vehicles can’t.

I’m familiar, maybe too familiar, with this route. My attention wanders. I have to keep reminding myself to stay alert. I’ve been doing this for a year and I need a break. And sleep. Even someone I could talk to, maybe share a little of the stress. But there’s no one.

My precognition has warned me so far, but it could fail at any time. PreCog has never been a Talent I felt confident using. I’ve had hunches often enough to never disregard them, but sometimes there aren’t any hunches. Some of the IED’s surprised me when they blew up. The failure of my PC warning system didn’t put me in danger, but I was responsible for others. And anyway the hunches barely give me time to deploy my bubble, not change the patrol route or hold up long enough to recon ahead.

The enemy knows the route at least as well as I do. Not that familiarity matters. Any number of jihadists could have scampered out with an explosive magnum opus and planted it since the last patrol passed. In that respect the routes are always new.

I walked, looked around, tried to listen to any slight warning signal from my Talent. And thought. You’ve got time to think when you’re on patrol, most of the time. Just follow the routine, and think.

They’re creative, the true believers. Stubborn bastards, too; kill a few hundred, and a few thousand volunteer to replace them. We’ll run out of soldiers long before the Middle East runs out of believers.

The jihadists view their fellow humans as a means to express political and religious beliefs. In’shallah. If you’re an innocent bystander, just tell Allah that Mullah Omar sent you and collect your virgins. Assuming you’re a male. Is there a female Paradise?

There’s plenty of time to wonder about things like that, walking patrol. Are they true-believers who find their version of paradise in being reincarnated as a jihadist’s reward? Or are they sinners, punished by being a virgin for the martyr to deflower? Do they get replaced when one is de-virginized, or maybe just recycle their virginity?

Nothing to do in Paradise but eat grapes and dates, listen to the fountains splash, and deflower virgins. The Prophet said so, or maybe it was a sheik. How many virgins can dance on the head of a pin?

No dancing, Chief. Just keep walking, look ahead, and watch the rooftops for movement.

There’s a sheik somewhere that knows the answer to the virgins conundrum. They can be quite creative, those sheiks. Fatwas, interpretation of doctrine, are readily available, delivered up to the faithful on demand.

You can think of a lot of weird stuff while you’re patrolling.

Weird comes natural to me. I’m a psychokinetic, a PK, with a few useful additional Talents. I’m not a wizard, even though there’s an agency of the government that calls me one. Who knows, maybe they’re right. What if all the ‘wizards’ of legend, Merlin and the rest, were psychokinetics, telepaths, or precognitives?

I use my mind to move objects. I can do it if the object is not too big, too heavy, or too far away. And if I’m not too distracted by mulling over how many virgins are waiting in paradise.

I reached out ahead and stirred the trash ahead of us. Nothing blew up, this time.

If the trash hides a booby trap, stirring it around will trigger the explosion. Mines and command-detonated IED’s won’t react to my efforts.

Not many countries have exploding trash. Afghanistan does.

We kept moving. Nothing grew along the dirt track except trash, and nothing moved except when it was stirred by the wind. Or me.

#

The troops get to unwind after a patrol. As for me, I lie down and wait for the headache to go away. A cold washcloth across my forehead helps. There’s nothing else I can do but close my eyes and wait for the headache to go away. Aspirin barely helps.

The headaches are a side effect of my PK Talent. They were worse before, not so bad now. I was nauseated after every session with the computer, vomiting, holding my head and trying to keep the worst of the pain away. Think migraine level pain but maybe worse back then. Now I just get a headache.

Firing wires to the IED’s are well disguised. They rarely lead to a house unless the local jihadist doesn’t like the dweller. He knows we’ll likely raid the house. Maybe the hapless homeowner won’t survive. The jihadists occasionally plant dummy wires, but we still raided the hut to make sure. Sometimes the bombers get careless.

Political posters plastered the walls, a change made since I was last here. A dozen posters in a row were the same, then the photos changed. Perhaps there was an election scheduled.

A dog sniffed at a carton five hundred meters ahead. Maybe some grunt’s pet had gotten out of the compound. The dog probably smelled the Afghani who’d handled the carton last. An American carton, picked up from a dump by an Afghani; they’re so poor they rummage through our garbage if they can get away with it. We try to stop them and sometimes we do. There’s already enough trash on the roads for them to use when they hide IED’s. We don’t need to give them more.

I made a note to check that carton as soon as we’re close enough. The dog might have smelled something else, maybe a bomb.

There were no people around this morning, only that curious dog. It might be significant, or the people might be listening to a political speech on the other side of the village. I would know by the time we got back to the compound, not that it would do much good then.

People are usually out, walking along, chatting with neighbors, carrying huge bundles and driving donkeys with even bigger bundles strapped on. Young guys ride bicycles to somewhere or nowhere. Kids use a stick to roll wheels, holding races in the track. Laundry hangs overhead on lines. The bread merchant in his stall would be selling traditional flat loaves to women, both haggling good-naturedly over the price.

Women here frequently dress in loose pants with a kind of knee-length jumper over that, scarf covering their heads. Occasionally there’s one wearing a blue burqa. Only the feet are visible, often wearing medium-heel stylish shoes. Go figure. Vanity, thou art everywhere, even under a sack.

But the people weren’t visible on the day of that last patrol.

#

I began my tour in Afghanistan as an attached supernumerary. Even though the Department of the Army, DA, had sent me to an infantry company TDY, no commander was going to turn troops over to a temporary-duty rookie warrant. I wasn’t even infantry, the Army had given me an intelligence military occupational specialty, MOS.

That first company commander added me to his 3rd platoon. A suspicious second lieutenant, the leader of 3rd Platoon, wondered how he got so fortunate. His platoon sergeant was even more suspicious. ‘Who are you, why are you here? How come I’m stuck with you?’ I didn’t need telepathy to know what they were thinking.

I couldn’t tell them. They wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

“We’re on QRF duty today, Chief. If we go, you’ll go with us. I won’t have time for you, I’ll be too busy, so stick with third squad. They’re short-handed anyway. You can use that rifle, right?”

I nodded and the platoon leader went away. The platoon sergeant gave me a curious look and then he left too. Maybe he’d seen stranger things, or at least thought he had.

QRF; the company was a standby quick-reaction force to assist whichever unit needed us. We were what once were called reserves. Reserves had marched into battle from behind the combat line, but QRF troops get where they’re needed by helicopter or armored fighting vehicle.

The day went by. No call came in for assistance. We stood down the next morning.

I followed the squad to the dining facility, a long canvas version of a Quonset hut that was metal-framed and air-conditioned. Two long rows of tables stood along the walls, folding metal chairs at the tables, an empty aisle down the middle. The dining shelter had checkered tablecloths, condiment bottles on the tables; A1 Sauce, mustard, ketchup, hot sauce. The bottle of Tabasco on the table was half empty. Tabasco is an essential food for soldiers.

#

I learned how field soldiers live while I served with that company. They can play dominoes or cards after they’re dismissed, maybe play a little beach volleyball or toss a football around. Wrestle with the guys, lift a few weights; barbells are easily improvised from rolls of barbed wire slipped over an iron pipe. Clean weapons, fill canteens and hydration bladders, wait to be called out again. Hang out in their hootch and write letters, just yak with squad members. Welcome to the infantry. Most of the time, infantry duty is boring. Sometimes it involves heavy labor. Occasionally it gets very interesting very fast.

I talked to the people in third squad, tried to learn their names. Pretty quiet bunch; short-handed because they’d lost one man killed and another had been wounded and was still hospitalized.

They were standoffish; I wasn’t one of them, never could be. There’s no room for a warrant in a light infantry platoon, although Special Forces commonly uses them. I got the rank because of security concerns. The Agency expected me to fit in without being noticed, but instead I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Way to go, superspooks.

The troops unbent enough to tell me about the man who’d been killed. Private Willie Jackson had been new in-country when the IED blew up. Not bad soldiering skills on his part, just bad luck. The explosion triggered an ambush and he bled to death before help could arrive. The battalion had a memorial service with a kind of improvised ‘altar’ down front. They’ve had a lot of practice since arriving in the Middle East.

Jackson’s boots stood atop a square wooden box, heels together. A taller box stood behind this, bayoneted rifle upright, blade stuck into the box. Jackson’s helmet rested over the rifle butt.

The troops had put up their own memorial. They’d nailed two planks together in a cross and it now stood in a place of honor at the end of their hootch. A woolen scarf, probably Jackson’s, draped the crossbar. An empty soda can and a full water bottle stood at the base. RIP, Willie Jackson; the name was on the crossbar, written in marker.

I was an unknown quality to the troops, temporary, not someone they trusted. The rumors soon began. They decided I was some sort of CIA spook. Close, guys, but not quite.

The CIA does incomprehensible things in Afghanistan, the Delta Force guys only a little less so. And who knows what the Special Forces types are doing? Growing beards.

‘Who the fuck gets to grow a beard in the Army? Special Forces, that’s who. Gotta fit in with the locals, that’s what they claim. And who sent this fucking spook to mess up our squad, anyway? We lose Jackson, they send us a fucking warrant named Tagliaferro? Jesus, the Army’s finally lost their fucking minds.’

The second time we drew QRF duty we got called out. The Chinooks whop-whopped in, dropped the rear ramp, and we shuffled inside. We sat along the sides of the fuselage in metal-framed seats with slung canvas to sit on. I was nominally an officer so I got a seat, along with the squad leaders, platoon sergeant, and the platoon leader. The other seats went to soldiers who’d been in-country longest. The remainder of the platoon got the middle of the deck to sit on. Newbie, pull up a section of floor. The rest of you, slide back between that guy’s legs and make room.

Increasing vibration, thumping noises, the helicopter lifted off and gained altitude fast. The helicopter’s crew chief manned an M-60 machine-gun at the starboard door as soon as we were off the ground.

I’d ridden in a Chinook before, but never with this much company. There were about thirty troops with their gear in the aft cabin now. These things are huge.

The flight smoothed out once the chopper reached altitude. I had body armor and helmet on, just like the others. My rifle was held upright, magazine not inserted in its well. We can stick the magazine in and chamber a round after we get there. The lieutenant will tell us when.

I kept my mouth shut, listened, and learned.

“All right, people, magazines in. Do NOT chamber a round until you feel dirt under your feet, and then only when you hear shooting. If we start taking fire, you’ll know it. You grenadiers, keep your muzzles up and downrange. Bravo Company had an accidental discharge last week and it could have caused a lot of casualties. I don’t want casualties in my platoon, so keep your head out of your ass. Do it by the numbers people, just like you’ve practiced.

“Chief, you stay close to Corporal McGregor. Do what he does. When people start firing, put some rounds where the squad is shooting, OK? I’ll talk to you when we get back.”

Thump, bounce, the wheels hit the ground and roll. The rear hatch drops and I hustle out, trying to follow the guys in front. Stay with Corporal McGregor and go where he goes. Magazine is in, the rifle’s muzzle is up, the safety is on. McGregor is running so I run too. I’m breathing a little harder, the altitude is higher and the air is thin. The squad leader waves us into place, so I flop down between the SAW gunner and a rifleman. He gives me a dirty look and motions me aside. I move over and make room. The rifleman needs to be next to the gunner. He’s carrying extra belts of linked 5.56mm rounds for the SAW, the squad automatic weapon.

I’m at the end of the squad but there’s another squad beyond me. Having people around you in a combat situation is comforting.

Look to the front. There’s nothing there but brown, flat, dusty desert. Nothing is moving. I hear gunshots off to the side and look wildly around, but the guys next to me aren’t moving. No one on this side is shooting, so I calm down, try to just keep my cool.

There’s a weed out front of me, maybe forty meters away. Could a jihadist hide there?

I watch the weed. It’s dead and dry. Nothing’s there, but still…does my Talent still work? I’ve had this doubt before. So far, it’s always been reliable since I started the AI-feedback course at the School.

I reached out with my PK and tried to pull the weed. It snapped off, leaving the roots in the ground. I started to look around and the private next to me growled “Keep still. Are you trying to draw some rag’s attention?”

It turned out later that the gunshots happened because a new troop fired a round and three others nearby decided they should too. They got a memorable ass-chewing from a weary company XO, the First Lieutenant Executive Officer. He’d seen it before.

I didn’t remember drinking but my canteens were empty. When had that happened? They’d been full when we took off. I was thirsty by the time the Chinook delivered us back to our Forward Operating Base, FOB. That was my first lesson; QRF duty educated me. I was more careful with my water after that.

Whatever the MOS claimed, after that first deployment I was an infantryman and soon after that I became a true veteran, a combat infantryman. I got my baptism of hostile fire.

I went on my first combat patrol with the 3rd platoon. The platoon leader was experienced and his platoon sergeant even more so. I watched and learned. I gained more experience working with third squad for six weeks, then transferred TDY to a Stryker unit.

I worked with the Stryker Troop for a couple of months. I managed to fit in well with the guys in the Stryker I rode before transferring again, still TDY, to a transportation company for convoy duty. That assignment lasted for almost five months.

During each of my abbreviated tours of duty, I used my developing Talent, moving things from time to time and keeping my ability secret. I don’t know that the PK helped much, but I got stronger with exercise. I suffered fewer headaches too.

The troops in the new units understood I was no rookie even if I was some kind of spook. There was too much ingrained dust in my BDU’s, boots too scuffed by the desert sand; no, some kind of weird intelligence dude but not a rookie.

I expected the compound would be my final operational assignment. Even if I had no alert orders and was still showing up on the patrol roster, I’d been in-country now for more than a year. The Army, the School, hadn’t forgotten about me, had they?

Concentrate, it’s time to concentrate. There’s still a patrol to lead. These guys depend on me.

That cardboard box was still there, although the dog had moved on. Maybe he’d learned to be wary of soldiers. The box was now less than two hundred meters ahead.