Fueled by anxiety and disillusionment, Stiller's churning stomach growled almost as loudly as the tank engines. He hated these artificial battles. Too many innocent people died. As a West Point graduate, he followed Pentagon directives even when he disagreed with them and these battles brought in a lot of money needed to compensate for the deep budget cuts.
He glanced over at his heavy weapons platoon where a soldier dropped a round into a mortar. The tube was painted in the US Postal Service blue-and-white with the legend, "We Deliver." The mortar round exploded on the hilltop and re-arranged some rubble. Piles of stone and wood were all that remained of a village. Had any of the poor bastards survived the barrage? Most of them probably had no idea why they had been moved there yesterday. The platoon lieutenant gave a hand signal to cease fire and Stiller relaxed slightly. The contract called for twenty-five rounds and all had all been fired. His troops had completed Phase One.
He activated his cell phone and heard a lilting female voice say, "My panty liner is so wonderfully soft and absorbent that I don't even—" He held the phone away from his ear and wished the Pentagon would go back to using radios. Once the commercial finished, he called his lieutenants in charge of the rifle platoons, "Move out!" He clicked his stop watch.
The three rifle platoons stood up and moved towards the slope.
"Faster!" Stiller yelled into the phone. "Get those troops running!" Speed would help determine which unit won the grand prize and there was a lot of money at stake.
The lieutenants yelled and waved their arms; the soldiers trotted up the hill. Their bobbing heads transformed the Golden Arches decal on the back of their helmets into moving bands of color. They all wore a red-and-white bulls-eye patch below the division badge on their shoulders. The patch was the logo of the department store that was the official sponsor of his infantry unit. Stiller's wife liked the extra discount she received there on diapers for their infant daughter.
The soldiers fired from the hip—as stipulated by the producer to increase the drama—even though none of them could see a target. The bullets kicked up sand and rock splinters along the crest of the hill.
Recording the action, two camera crews stood on the beds of a pair of 4X4 trucks. Overhead, a helicopter circled the hill providing a different perspective. Blue and white letters identified the trucks and helicopter as part of the World-Wide Broadcasting Corporation.
"Come on." Stiller beckoned to Mathis, his company sergeant. They climbed the hill and were swallowed by an acrid cloud of cordite left behind by the rifle fire.
A hum-vee plastered with so many logos that it wouldn't be out of place at a NASCAR race rolled after the rifle platoons. The vehicle carried the two umpires and the referee in charge of scoring.
When the first rifleman reached the hilltop, Stiller clicked his stop watch: four minutes, thirteen seconds. Much less than the five minutes the goddamn producer allocated to the move. He should be happy with the time and with his men firing a truck-load of ammo to make his video look good.
His phone buzzed. "Sir," the first platoon lieutenant said. "I counted forty-five people alive. A fifty-five percent Kill-Ratio is an outstanding score, sir. Much better than anything I've seen from other units."
"Keep looking for more survivors." His stomach threatened outright rebellion. Out of a hundred illegal immigrants penned into the village, less than half had survived and would be allowed to stay in the country.
He and Mathis reached the village. The mortar-blasted area offered no shade from the mid-summer sun. Waves of heat radiated from the sandy soil and distorted everything in view. His troops faced a long, hot afternoon. Stiller removed his sunglasses and wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve. He found a spot where he had a view of the slopes and established his command post. A quick assessment of the area told him the counter-attack would come from the woods closest to the village, either the north-western or western slopes.
"I want the first platoon facing west," he told the assembled lieutenants, "the second fronting northwest and third due north. The woods on the east are too far away from the slopes, so I don't expect any trouble from that direction. Any questions?" He looked at the two men and a woman. All much younger than he. "Okay, go and set up your troops."
The referee walked over and gave him a signed form, the official tally. Fifty-two killed. Good. They found a few more survivors and he still had a great Kill-Ratio.
He and his men lunched on cold rations while a convoy of ambulances transported the survivors. After the last vehicle left the hill, the referee displayed his wristwatch to Stiller. "The counter-attack can take place anytime after fifteen minutes from . . . now."
Stiller nodded his understanding. The next event was deadly and involved a mob of people desperate enough to attack professional troops. Soon, five hundred bankrupt citizens, armed with machine pistols and high on booze and drugs would try to take the village from his company.
During the Terrorist Wars, Congress revamped the justice system and tilted it to benefit for-profit institutes. Insolvency was now a crime punishable by stiff prison sentences because individual bankruptcies lowered the profits of the lending companies. The Attorney-General then cut a deal with the entertainment industry to give the felons a chance to get out of debt while reducing the number of expensive jail cells required. The Attorney-General proclaimed the arrangement a victory for the taxpayers.
"Captain?" Sergeant Mathis look worried. "I can't get air support." He waggled his cell phone over his head.
"All I get is a loud squeal."
Stiller punched the power button on his cell phone. Nothing but noise. Not even a commercial! He leaned on a mound of rubble to keep his knees from buckling. Bile flooded the back of his mouth and left him with a horrid taste.
It had to be the producer! What was the fat fuck's name? . . . Zephyr . . . Zachery Z. Zephyr. 'Z-Cubed', as he liked to be called. The sonuvabitch wanted more bloodshed so he blocked the requests for air support. Without the cell phone, he also couldn't direct the fire of his weapons platoon at the base of the hill, and his riflemen had used most of their ammunition on the way up the hill. He looked around for the camera trucks that should be in the village with his men. Both crews were still at the bottom of the hill, drinking beers. Even worse, the hum-vee with the officials sped down the hill to join them. Stiller almost threw up his lunch.
He took a deep breath. The whole day was an outrage. First, he had to shell the illegal immigrants because it was too expensive to send them back to their native countries. Second, he had to fight off a frenzied mob of bankrupt people. Third, Zephyr put his men in extraordinary danger to punch up excitement and to increase the ratings of his reality show.
In the last year, his respect for the Pentagon had plummeted because they supported this gross and dangerous spectacle to placate the entertainment industry, amuse the public and earn money. He could take no more of this immoral charade and he resolved to resign his commission before the day ended.
If he survived.
He pulled out the canteen-shaped bottle of sports drink, took a swig, spit it out and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. "Boisenberry! I hate that flavor."
Mathis chuckled and offered his own canteen. "Coconut-kumquat."
"Gawd!" Stiller swallowed a mouthful. "How can the supply people accept this shit? Better round up some runners, Mathis. We'll have to do things the old-fashioned way."
While he waited for the runners, he wondered if the other officers felt like he did. Two other rifle companies had undergone similar maneuvers recently. The producer would splice together a two-hour-long special from tapes of all the battles.
Mathis returned with three privates.
"Tell the platoon lieutenants I want an ammo check," Stiller told one of them. "Fast." The runner sprinted towards the closest platoon. An idea sprang into his mind. To another runner, he said, "Go down to the tanks and tell them to get their asses up here. Go! And don't come back without them."
The ammo report was as bad as he anticipated: an average of twenty rounds for each rifle. His troops didn't have enough ammo to stop a force of five hundred maniacal attackers. Not without air or heavy weapons support.
"Fix bayonets." The lieutenants looked at him as if he were insane. The soldiers hadn't practiced bayonet fighting since boot camp. The officers gave a terse order and the blades flashed in the sunlight. Every bayonet carried the logo of a condom company on both sides of the blade. "Set all rifles on single shot," Stiller yelled. "No automatic fire."
Mathis pointed in the air. The network helicopter swooped down and hovered behind the south side of the hill. Stiller frowned. The position of the chopper made no sense. If the attack echeloned to the north face of the hill, a distinct possibility, the helicopter would be in the line of fire.
A deep growling noise interrupted his thoughts. Thank God! The two tanks, call names Bud-1 and Bud-2, bellied up the top of the slope with his runner on back of the lead tank. Stiller placed a tank on each of his flanks. With armor anchoring his lines, he felt a bit safer.
"Here they come!" a soldier shouted. A burst from an automatic weapon sent bullets whizzing over Stiller's head. The soldiers in the second platoon returned the fire.
"Hold your fire!" their lieutenant yelled. "Wait 'til they get closer. Much closer."
Stiller moved towards the point of attack and sucked in his breath. Only fifty attackers ran up the slope. Where the hell were the other four-hundred-fifty? In answer to his question, gunfire and more shouts came from his rear. Bud-2 fired its cannon and opened up with its turret machine gun.
The fifty attackers flopped to the ground and sniped at his men. Stiller cursed at them. They would pin down a portion of his soldiers; troops needed to repulse the much larger attack. Someone had given the attackers a good strategy. Z-Cubed?
Stiller ran over to Bud-2 where heavy fire from the insolvents churned up the dirt on the edge of the hill. Protected by the bulk of the tank, he saw the main strength of the debtor force charge uphill on the east flank of the hill, an area undefended except for the tank. He had been outflanked! He backed away from the tank and grabbed a runner. "Get the first platoon over here. Fast! You," he beckoned to another runner. "Get the other tank."
Now the position of the helicopter made sense. It hovered out of the line of fire of the attack and could take ground-level film of his men getting overrun.
The fire power of Bud-2 rattled the attackers and slowed them enough for the first platoon to move across the hill and drop into firing positions.
To the panting runner, Stiller said, "Round up as much ammo as you can from the other platoons."
The defaulters slogged forward, firing their automatic pistols and howling, "Debt free! For you and me!"
The crack of weapons rose to a deafening volume then subsided, only to rise again.
"I'm hit!" one of his soldiers yelled. The man gripped his forearm while blood flowed through his fingers.
Bud-1 joined the defense and the two tanks ripped holes in the attackers who surged forward but in smaller numbers. Stiller heard more screams followed by cries of "Medic!"
The cannon blasts, the steady fire from both the turret machine guns and the infantry broke the attack. The survivors retreated towards the woods and prison, their chance at economic redemption ended. The bodies of those who no longer needed a jail cell littered the slope. His men had executed a large number of people who wouldn't be guilty of a crime back in his parents' time. He gawked at the red-stained grass, then forced his mind back to business.
He waved to the commander of Bud-1 who stood in the open turret. Stiller pointed to the area in front of the first group of attackers. The tank commander nodded and the tank spun around, sending a shower of sand over the nearby soldiers.
"Get me a casualty report," Stiller told a runner. He saw a number of soldiers writhing on the ground.
Stiller heard a blast from Bud-1's cannon.
"Where you goin', cowards," a soldier near that tank yelled.
"Come on back and give us a fight," a second called out.
When the runner returned, she reported, "Sir, fifteen wounded. No KIA."
Stiller tried his phone. "Now! Mortgage rates guaranteed to be lower than any other lending company—" He closed his eyes and held the phone against his shoulder until the spiel ended, then called for medical helicopters. Two arrived within minutes, one emblazoned MERCK and the other WYETH.
Stiller heard more approaching helicopters.
A pair of them set down outside the village. One had WWBC on the side and the other COCA-COLA. To Stiller's surprise, the division commander, General Westly, jumped out of the red Coke bird followed by Colonel Maitland, his battalion commander. Both wore starched and pressed Class A uniforms in contrast to his rumpled, sweat-stained fatigues.
Z-Cubed and a few go-fers climbed out of the WWBC helicopter. Z-Cubed wore an iridescent blue-green djellabah and yellow combat boots. Six-foot tall and weighing close to two-hundred-and-fifty pounds, the man's weight was concentrated in a huge paunch that stretched the material of the gown. A rubber band held his black hair in a pony tail but his untrimmed beard flowed in all directions. When Z-Cubed moved, the sunshine changed his djellabah into shimmering patterns of light that dazzled the eye. It was like looking into a bank of strobe lights. He kicked a rock, said something to a go-fer and backhanded the man in the chest.
Stiller came to attention, saluted the officers and watched for an opportunity to resign his commission.
The officers returned his salute.
"This man," Z-Cubed wagged a fat finger in Stiller's face, "screwed up the whole production. Shoot him or hang him or whatever you do with traitors."
Stiller made a fist and shifted his weight. Before he could throw a punch, General Westly gripped Z-Cubed's elbow. "That's how our officers respond when you fuck with them." Westly's voice came out like a snarl. "You changed the script without telling him and he changed his tactics." He turned to Stiller and held out his hand. "You turned a potentially bloody defeat into a victory. Well done, Captain."
"My boss loved the new script." Z-Cubed pounded a fist into an open palm. "The public is tired of watching people get slaughtered by air strikes. Viewers want to see some dead-beats get to the top and win."
"Captain Stiller," Colonel Maitland said. "Everyone in your command can now wear a combat badge."
The Pentagon hadn't been in a battle since the Terrorist Wars ended and almost everyone with combat experience had retired. The Pentagon's press releases justified these battles as a way to fill this experience gap. Stiller knew this was the 'good' reason given out to the media while the 'real' reason was making money.
"What am I supposed to tell him?" Z-Cubed said, hands on hips. "I couldn't shoot the script because an officer can't get his men killed properly?"
Stiller cleared his throat to get the general's attention.
"You may not like it," General Westly replied, "but Captain Stiller is a hero."
"He is?" Z-Cubed gave the general a wary look.
"Sir, I want to res . . . I am?" Stiller didn't feel like a hero. He felt like someone who had been used by unscrupulous people.
"He is. You are."
Z-Cubed tapped his foot while he stared at Stiller. He made a frame out of his two thumbs and forefingers and sighted Stiller through it. "My God! The man'll photograph like a movie star. Look at that jaw line. The strong nose. The blue eyes."
Stiller's mouth dropped open.
"I can see it now, General." Z-Cubed grinned. "The show will feature this man as the heroic officer. We'll interview him before and after each film clip. He'll give us a voice-over of what's happening on those clips. Stiller'll be a national hero for his sterling defense against the low-life scum who dared to attack his unit."
Stiller gawked at Z-Cubed.
Z-Cubed stroked his beard. "Hmm . . . Our unspoken sub-text will be the superb training and adaptability of American officers." Z-Cubed hugged himself. "This show will break all market share records. We can raise our advertising rates."
"I have an opening up at Division," General Westly said.
Stiller broke his opened-mouthed stare at Z-Cubed and turned to the general.
"I need someone to re-organize the training. Someone who can teach the rifle company officers to think under fire. I love the way you compensated for the lack of air strikes and mortars by using the tanks. I want you to teach these people how to think like that. By the way," Westly paused to give Stiller a smile, "the position is to be filled by a major, so I'll have to promote you."
Stiller's mind threatened to shut down from the over-load, but before it did he postponed his resignation. After all, he had a family to support. It would be selfish to resign without talking it over with his wife.
"Not a bad day, Stiller," Colonel Maitland said. "You put up a great fight, you'll be on national TV and you get a promotion."
"And you knocked off those undesirables," Z-Cubed said, "in a most bloody and colorful fashion too. It'll be a TV classic in no time. The residuals alone will be worth a mountain of cash. You win the prize, Stiller. All ten million dollars."
Stiller blinked and tried to sort things out. His wife would love it that Wal-Mart sponsored the division staff and provided more lucrative discounts than the other store. His rifle company would split up the prize money. With his portion, he'd buy shares in Pentagon Inc., the subsidiary that owned all military advertising space and dealt with the corporations that wanted to rent some of it.
His resignation faded into oblivion. Maybe the Pentagon knew what it was doing.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Hank Quense. All rights reserved.
About the author
Hank—assisted by his faithful mutt, Manny—writes Science Fiction and Fantasy stories (along with an occasional writing article) from Bergenfield, NJ. All of these stories are humorous or satiric because he refuses to write serious genre stories. He feels that folks who crave serious Fantasy and SF can get a full measure in any daily newspaper.
In the spirit of disclosure, Hank reports that all of the story ideas (the good ones anyway) come from Manny. Hank merely translates the dog's ideas into a manuscript.
Hank can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org while Manny refuses to get an internet address until someone develops a paw-friendly keyboard.
The pair of them have sold stories to Andromeda Spaceways, Cyberpulp, Fantastical Visions, Neo-opsis, Irish Fantasy Quarterly, Faeries (France), Electric Spec, Scyweb Bem, Glassfire as well as several anthologies.
Visit their website at http://hankquense.com