Dissociative Identities

“Grizzled veteran”, those were his words, right? Shit. What gives that pasty, greasy teenager any right to comment on my nature?  I suppose a number of episodes might qualify him as “veteran”, but “grizzled”… what does that even mean anyway? Very little of the pointless mission lecture registered with the vet following that comment and probably just as well. As the silenced helo skirted the edges of one ratty pile of mortar and rubble after another, one look at the blackened cityscape ahead summoned visions of missions past into the tightly muscled figure of the war-fighter. He had been here before. No, not in this specific city and obviously not with the same team, but he’d seen enough combat against idealistic “insurgents” in bombed out, inner city shells to know this hell hole would be no better, and no less dangerous. The interior of the helo was dimly lit and shadows from the smoldering jump light danced over the half-dozen or so faces that joined him. He figured he would be lucky to see half of them tomorrow.

The mission briefing, like countless others before, was long on detail but bereft of truly useful information. Drop in, find the target, plant the bomb; make sure it goes off (never heard that one before). Oh yeah, and if you make it out, we’ll pick you up (free of charge?). Bring plenty of ammo, there will be gunplay. This would not be the first such mission in his scarred career, and hopefully not the last. “Two minutes.” He absent mindedly checked the magazine and shifted grenades. There is no comfortable and safe position to carry a grenade. “A has left flank, B on the right”, crackled the coiled diaphragm into his ear. “Cover the target, and C will plant on my mark”, Lt chattered. He had to suppress a chuckle at the absurd simplicity of it. One third right, one third left, the rest in the middle… So it was with most military planning, true genius. “One minute.”
“Good to go?” Lt piped. All too eager thumbs up all around him signaled ready as their airborne taxi neared the target. Nothing special here, three square blocks of beige and white plaster over sandstone and cement. No vegetation in sight, a mindless scatter of uninhabitable dwellings that some squalid number cling to as “home”. Easing closer now, one could make out torn colored awnings that once shaded vendor’s wares from the sun. Small, non-descript vehicles with Arabic bumper stickers and non-discerning graffiti dot the streets. Few had any wheels and more than several were burnt, twisted hulks. Unconscious victims of errant rocket propelled grenades or Molotov cocktails. Open balconies ringed most multi-story buildings, ripe for occupation by some fear-adrenaline spiked kid with an AK-47 and nothing to live for. Memories of previous disasters filtered slowly into his brain and into the pit of his stomach. Overall, a wonderland of dangerous corners hiding deadly beasts unknown. One look at the smooth faces around him and he knew this would not end at all well.
The helo dropped black licorice ropes earthward as it drifted over a compound wall. The light burned red. He was slightly startled by the innate rise to action by the team awakened from the mesmerizing trance induced by the muffled chop of the overhead blades and the monotonous hull vibration. The last of the left flanking team, he swiftly dropped the few meters to the roadbed below. First rule: find cover. An abandoned auto repair shop opened up on his left and he dropped quickly into the open pit under the car lift. Safeties off. His two squad-mates dropped in behind him as the helo headed back into the heavens. The silence just before a battle provided welcome calm and focus, if just for a few seconds. Someday he might work at a place just like this… “Move to the site and secure flanks”, Lt voiced over the headset.
The side exit from the repair shop opened to a flight of stairs leading to a narrow alley behind the row of local shops. In most situations, a potential deathtrap, but here, the high stone walls kept them out of site from balcony snipers and lookouts. A quick hand gesture to Gabriel (real name or just wishful thinking? he really wasn’t sure) sent he and his M4 down the steps to cover the corner. He followed closely behind. Tor (definitely wishful thinking) covered the balconies and team A’s back with his lurking SAW. In the distance to the right, an AK-47 opened up with its unmistakable slow bark. It was followed directly by the rapid plinking of a silenced M4 in retort. “Tango down” from team C. It begins, he thought. Grasping to the tenuous element of surprise and exploiting the distraction of opening gunfire, team A pushed ahead. The alleyway had a solid wall along the left all the way to a two story “fixer-uper” in the middle of downtown Hell. Keeping the wall to their backs, they moved rapidly down the alley to the back, door-less, entry. He was always amazed at the lack of physical doors on such places, lots of doorways, but no doors. Once you have nothing to protect…
The vet wasted no time entering the structure. Most of the upper floor had collapsed, leaving a large open area inside the structure.  It was ringed by the intact stairway and a bit of the remaining upstairs hallway. Sure enough, they were not alone, for long. A quick burst from the vet’s M4 dropped the young man squatting along the upper hallway, looking out the window toward the earlier gunfire. Tor took the initiative and quickly set up the SAW in one of the second story windows while Gabriel covered the lower floor entrances from behind an overturned desk. The old vet peered out the lower floor window at the town square. The downed chopper with UN markings was in the square, not 10 meters from the front door of the structure they occupied. They had reached the target. “Tango down, holding two story south side of square” he whispered, his voice breaking mid sentence from lack of use and raging hormones.
The enemy had found them as well. Gunfire erupted from a small pile of sandbags at the base of an old hotel across the square. It was inaccurate, but effective causing them to instinctively meld with the flimsy walls as if they offered protection from the penetrating projectiles. They no longer held any advantage of surprise. Things were not going well for team B. An extended exchange of gunfire resounded from their direction followed by a pair of muffled explosions which left them with one man standing, but injured. The right flank crumbled as the injured man crawled toward an elevated location to snipe from and later, to die. C team had moved up but had come under fire from the upper floors of the building to the left of A. Time was not on their side and Lt knew it. There was urgency in his voice, “A, take out second floor, west side building”.
The vet waved the command on to Gabriel and they headed into the small “playground” that occupied the space between the buildings. The neglected plot offered little cover, but had to be crossed. Perhaps at one time there had been a slide or a merry-go-round, but now only an abandoned shopping cart and a still smoldering tire fire stood in remembrance. The uneven ground hinted at the historical presence of grass, a past oasis for children in a world stumbling headlong into madness. Stubby tufts of green ground under boots as they skirted the tires and came up along the southern wall of the three-story building. Gabriel arced a flash-band into the lower window and sent the stunned gun-wielding college student to the great beyond, emptying his clip into the paper-thin walls of the lower floor kitchen. Scores of utensils and brightly patterned dishes paid the ultimate price while several feet of laminate cabinetry was thankfully put out of its misery. Gabriel’s providence was sealed at that moment by a single bullet from a hunting rifle in the hands of a marksman a hundred meters away on the roof. Before he could reload, he suddenly dropped like a rag-doll to the ground beneath the window with a trickle of blood rolling down his right temple. He felt no pain.
The vet had seen this before and knew the shooter was no amateur. How often had pre-mission intelligence failed them… He instinctively leapt though the window and rolled to a stop beneath a serving table. “Tango down, man down” he called out, having never seen the source of Gabriel’s lightning bolt. Tor made an educated guess as to the origin of the shot and proceeded to shower the tops of two buildings on the east side. Fire attracts fire and Tor had committed a classic faux pas. The vet spun to his feet and ran through the kitchen to the back stairs. Tor had the full attention of the second story gunner now. The vet could ill afford the luxury of checking the stairs for the odd claymore and raced against time up the stairs. As he rounded the turn at the top of the steps, the RPG pointed at Tor departed its tube. Tor’s future killer expired with three rounds from the vet’s M4 in him even before the RPG hit the plank board wall Tor was hiding behind. Again, “Tango down, man down” he whispered as the RPG ended Tor.
The assault force was down to three now, the vet and the last of C team (Lt and another single name misfit, a “Johnson” something or other). Few able-bodied defenders were left as well. Silence permeated the maelstrom as the remaining combatants paused to reflect on the situation. Years of confidence training had wired the Lt to make snap decisions. “Cover us, we’re planting” was the resulting order. “Shit”, the vet thought, now we open the final chapter… Lt and Johnny boy moved out from the defilade under the east building overhang and raced toward the downed chopper. Odd, their desperate footsteps kicked up no dust as they covered the 20 meters in stride. True to his word, Lt went straight for the target. Johnny took up a kneeling position on the west side as Lt cracked open the briefcase to arm the bomb. Just a few more seconds… Out of time, the enemy had circled around behind. The RPD repositioned below Tor’s final resting place opened fire, too much firepower, too close. The vet watched helplessly as Lt and Johnny disappeared in a hail of fire and metal.
“Enough already”, he yelled and emptied the last of his clip blindly into the base building. The RPD dropped silent as plywood and plaster splintered in all directions. Lucky shot he thought, but little time to exploit it. He hurdled from the window while instinct reloaded his weapon. Ten meters to the target, five, dive over lifeless bodies of fallen comrades, at the bomb. Lt had it nearly armed having only to key in the unlock code to finish. Five numbers (he was paying attention during that part of the briefing) and he was home free, the battle won, to the victor goes the spoils, bonus points, etc. The pasty, greasy teen would be happy. “You never hear the bullet”, cliché, but true. Two numbers in, the bullet sliced through his throat. He slumped to the ground as a perfectly circular crimson stain spread over the ground beneath him.
The kill cam pans back to the view through the sniper scope of the shooter camped on the third floor of the building he had leapt from, next time, next time… The pasty, greasy teen cursed out loud and begrudgingly banged out “n1” on the worn keys qualifying the last shot. Still, camping snipers always struck him as seriously cheap, but the hiding spot was worth a try in the future. He made a mental note to avoid exposure to fire from the spot in the future. The scoreboard registered the defeat, recording the result over the web as combatants pounded out their perfunctory “gg”s. “Switching Sides” scrolled up the display as the countdown timer began its toll. He reached for the warming can of Amp, only to find it had run dry for the third time. He’d have to run another mission without proper caffeination. A quick glance at the clock, daylight would be on him in a couple of hours and the McDonalds morning shift would be waiting. Probably four more missions and a quick shower before serving a hundred McBreakfasts… Enough “Grizzled Veteran”, who next? “Russian Sniper Instructor”? “Suicidal Jihadist”? “Disgruntled Postal Worker”?  Ah… The level comes back into view and he selects a standard AK-47 assault loadout.
Three years of hit and run battles had left an indelible impression on the young man. He had lost scores of friends in the various skirmishes that displaced hundreds of his fellow countrymen. This time, they had a prize to defend and folks would be coming to try to relieve them of it. A dozen of his fellow ideological warriors were prepared to meet the call when the city network or any of the guards at the crash site reported in. They were finishing the noon meal when the call came in: “Chopper inbound, 15 minutes out”. His “commander” began outlining yet another stupidly simplistic defensive plan as he drifted off. Some things never change, collective insanity often meeting the very definition of sane thought as he loaded his weapon and checked magazines…