Dream On

“Thirty seconds to drop!” The jumpmaster screamed into the comm, fighting for airtime with the crescendo of Chinese flak and the roar of the rickety transport plane’s engines. The 82nd Airborne hadn’t made a jump this hot since the last world war and Allied Command expected casualties to be just as high. Still, they would take whomever survived first contact with the enemy, the situation was that dire. The remaining Allied forces from throughout Southeast Asia were digging in around Kuala Lumpur, and were the only thing that stood between the Chinese and the crown jewel of Singapore. On the run since Vietnam, the Allies were preparing for a fight to the last man. This was their last stand against an enemy that had routed them at every turn. It was last call for American Order in the Pacific, but for the paratroopers of the All American, the party was just about to start. John was their plus one.

“Light’s green, Godspeed ladies and gentlemen!” John anxiously waited his turn to shuffle to the door, it had been years since his last static jump. What could go wrong? He was just about to jump into hell on earth with only a rifle and a grudge. I’ve done worse, right?

My turn. John took his leap of faith, with bloodshot eyes widening as he took in the scope of the battle below. Tracers and artillery lit up the night as far as he could see. Hell on earth was an understatement. The virtual reality intelligence reports had not done Kuala Lumpur justice. Some things never change.

The paratroopers before him were already taking fire before they hit the ground, and so was John. Fuck, Fuck, Fuck. John pulled his chute hard to the right, narrowly escaping contact with an incoming SAM. He looked up, the C-17 that flew him in took a direct hit and was now racing him for the battle-scarred earth below. How many lives did he have left? He took a deep breath and steered for what appeared to be an open field, the voice from his AR headset whispering time to impact. “Five…four…three…two…”

***

Son of a…fucking fuck! No matter how hard he tried the nightmare of Kuala Lumpur kept bleeding back into reality. He just couldn’t kick it, most days it felt like he never left. He was only on temporary leave, but he wondered how they could ever let him back into the field in his condition. Every man needed. Every man counts. Wasn’t that what his mentor said when the war broke out?

Endlessly wandering the streets of DC was not what John had in mind when Langley’s doctors told him he’d be able to walk again. Losing your legs was, quite literally, not something you were supposed to walk away from. Pulled from the rubble of Kuala Lumpur as PLA forces closed in, John should not have been alive. Nor should he have been this healthy. He imagined himself stumbling through the halls of the Northern Virginia hospital, writhing in agony as memories of Kuala Lumpur flooded his brain. After all, that’s what he’d seen in the movies, and what he’d seen his own mother go through after the death of his father at Debaltseve. She was screaming, barely able to fight gravity, let alone reality, upon hearing of Colonel Yuri Petrov’s demise at the hands of Russian paratroopers. His orders were to defend Debaltseve to the last man, and he did, because by all accounts he was the last Ukrainian left standing in that damned city, felled by a hail of bullets as he charged the advancing Russian forces one last time.

John didn’t think about his father much these days, but his death marked the beginning of John’s life. A life with filled with death and destruction for the refugee-turned-warrior, his service with the Agency the latest pitstop in the Valley of Death. With the 101st, he’d seen service in both Afghanistan and Kurdistan, earning his first Silver Star on the outskirts of Kirkuk for clearing an IRGC-occupied house single-handedly. With a knack for violence and languages, it wasn’t long before US Army Sgt. John Petrov found himself earning the legendary green beret, landing with 1st SF out of Okinawa. His first assignment involved cutting through dense jungle and Islamic State fighters on Mindanao. But while he was busy waging another battle in a centuries old war, the shadows of a sleeping giant followed him wherever he went. Weapons, cash, tactics, all flowing one way or another from People’s Republic of China. For years, Beijing quietly undermined every US military effort from Mogadishu to Manila. And we just fucking watched.

***

John once again awoke from his daydreams to the sound of church bells. The Potomac waterfront where he spent his morning was gone and the gates of his alma mater now appeared before him. Another fucking nightmare. Truthfully, Georgetown was one of John’s happier memories. He enjoyed the classroom for the first time. Outside of his studies, he devoured the works of everyone from Kissinger and Machiavelli to Clancy and Cole. He really did love his work, he just despised everyone around him. It was nothing personal, it was just how he treated most people. Well, she was an exception. As a refugee, he never quite found himself at home. Sure, his fellow soldiers were his brothers but holding onto people was hard for the man who once dropkicked an IRGC colonel off the Mosul Dam. The death of his father and his cold reception in America would prove to be lasting scars. The move to Colorado had been hard on him, but it was harder on his sister and mother. His sister Sasha was strong-willed, but she kept searching for rock bottom. While John was away in Kurdistan, Sasha, like a lot of rural America, got hooked on opiates and nearly died of an overdose, just 3 days into John’s tour. John loved his family, but the loss of his father forced him to accept that family was something he would have to do without. John’s name wasn’t even John. He had adopted it when he came to the US, taking after the American volunteer who fought alongside his father and sacrificed his life so John and his family could get out of the city. The death of his father felt like his own, and in order to survive he had to forget his homeland. His birthname was Dmitri Yurievich Petrov, he was the son of a dead man in a foreign country and a refugee of a lost war in a forgotten part of the world. For a long time, that was all John thought of himself. Just a dead man in purgatory, waiting for final judgement. Then he joined the Army.

***

John forced himself back into the present, fighting the flashbacks with every ounce of his will. The coma had been three months of hell, but now he had control. Not now, not ever. Dmitri is dead, John is what’s left. He found himself perched on top of the old student lounge, staring out into the Arlington skyline, unconsciously counting the number of patrols on the Potomac and AA defenses on its river banks, ever the spook. John thought about going home, but his house in Alexandria just didn’t feel like home since I-Day. He couldn’t bear to see or touch the remnants of his family and friends. They were all gone. When will it be my turn to see them? Turning his gaze back to the campus below, he held back the tears of the past for the hazy landscape of the present.

Georgetown University was more than 200 years old but in the decade or so since John last attended it, the campus had become almost unrecognizable. Gone were the days of students running around with AR headsets and e-pills through the campus at all hours. Occupying the student lounge was the Georgetown Rare-Earth Victory Fund. Just about every section of every city across the country had one. Georgetown established the first chapter of the Victory Fund, just mere days after the events of I-Day. They would have started sooner, but the Chinese information disruption operations delayed even DC’s response to the war.

The days of student protests against the American government and its overseas adventures were gone, the relative peace and ignorant bliss of the Georgetown student’s coming of age story transformed into a war epic. In an age of altered realities, blood was still all too real. Wandering from the student lounge to the Chapel, John was reminded of exactly why it was a different war for these kids. The charred, makeshift memorial to the victims of I-Day occupied most of the courtyard. It was here that the war came home, on the very first day.

***

On I-day, the People’s Republic of China didn’t restrain its operations to the South China Sea or even East Asia. They hit everything. Swarms of suicide drones blocked out the sun over San Francisco, leaving the Naval Station McCain and neighboring Silicon Valley in ruins. American infrastructure collapsed under a wave of virtual and physical sabotage. It was at Georgetown that SECDEF was lost to a radicalized undergraduate student’s suicide bombing. The student wasn’t even a real Chinese operative, just a grieving pawn of months of coordinated mind games and information operations by Beijing to undermine and divide an already fragile America. The student was convinced that the Secretary of Defense Kampo had facilitated a massacre of indigenous people in Latin America on the behalf of an American multi-national corporation. The same indigenous group with whom the student had spent a semester abroad. A support group run by Ministry of State Security operatives helped foster her rage. They encouraged her and others to take action and provided them with material support for their vendetta. The attack killed dozens of staffers and students alike. The first casualty in war is the truth, but war is never as honest as when it kills the friend standing next to you.

The campus began to fade and with it so did the war, his older life and the Potomac bike path coming into view. He’d always been a soldier, but before this war he’d always thought of himself as the loudest bump in the night. Now, he wasn’t so sure. Years of hunting terrorists made his legend, but it took the PLA just weeks to make him the hunted. When he was dropped into Malaysia…Fucking shit! Shaw! Get the fuck down! He didn’t know if those screams were real or just in his head. The roar of a transport jet on final approach to Reagan National triggered a rush of memories from KL. The blood, the rubble, the crunch of tank treads over American bodies. The hum of seeker drones driving soldiers mad. The mangled corpses that littered the streets and the stench of burnt flesh that made Kirkuk smell like a perfume shop. Then the slow turn of a Type-00’s main gun to his position. Fuck! John stumbled, his right leg shooting off a bolt of pain. The ghosts of war possessing a new body. The former CAG sergeant caught himself against the side of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. His face already well over the edge, John puked up the hospital food gels and, guessing from the colors, his pain meds as well. Well, they were clearly working. Stomach empty and mind cluttered, he pulled himself back from the ledge and continued his stroll to Arlington National Cemetery across the river. He wondered how long he could keep this up.

Essentially raised by death, John didn’t make a habit of attending funerals. He felt like death though, so he figured a cemetery wasn’t the worst place for him to rest. For all the battles he’d fought and all the people he’d lost, there was only one grave John wanted to visit. She was a casualty of a war America had not yet begun to fight. It was a war she and John had fought for most of their adult lives, going as far back as Afghanistan. America had been at war with China for only a couple years, but the two rivals were fighting on the edges of the earth for decades. John and his dead friend were part of that crew of wayward soldiers, fighting in the night to keep peace in the day.

John desperately missed his old battle buddy. She was one of the first women to serve with the 75th and one of the fiercest hand to hand fighters he had ever encountered. He’d seen her take down Russians twice her size….and that was just in the bars back home! John chuckled at the memory of her throwing some prick across the room in that dive bar on U Street. Her tombstone said little of the life she lived, though. Her birth and death years were listed, both falsified. Her name was an alias John had never heard her use. The only truth to the bleak monument was an epitaph John had inscribed himself. It read:

“In hell, but I’ve got plenty of company.”

While the rest of the team secured and evacuated their HVT from Baku, she and John held off the Spetsnaz team in hot pursuit. While searching for a way out of the city they got separated, and those were the last words of hers that crackled over his comm. The whole mission was bungled from the start, and while Langley considered it a success with the loss of only one American operative, the loss of his best friend drove John into a rage he had not felt since childhood. The furniture on the 7th Floor was ugly, anyway. He rested his hand on the very top of the marker, closing his eyes, trying to remember her. Talk to me, you know I can always hear you. The wind kicked up, the brisk fall air catching him by surprise. He felt another jolt of pain from his new legs. Is that you? Can you hear me? The wind did not reply. Scolding himself for getting emotional, John turned his gaze to the never-ending plots of identical grave markers that seemed to never end. Only a few rows from where John knelt was the start of the present war’s graves. That marker was only a technicality, as he knew plenty of others whose blood Beijing had on its hands.

In less than 3 years of war, some 70,000 Americans fell to Chinese steel and silicon. Tens of thousands more were taken prisoner or wounded. It did not occur to John until now that he was among those statistics. He stood, shook off the sense of frailty and practiced working each of his toes before his walk back to the cityAN overly-developed awareness of his own mortality was just as dangerous as a sense of invulnerability in his line of work. Self-preservation will get you killed, John.

So many of the bodies buried beneath him at Arlington hadn’t survived more than five minutes with the enemy, whereas John had more than five wars under his belt. For most, war is a temporary endeavor. An endeavor to see new worlds and die in the mud, to fall for the flag or raise it in glory. War is an experience. For most people, it should not be a lifestyle.

***

From the gates of Arlington, John could hear the tell-tale whop-whop of rotors along the river. Before he could react, there was a red flash across John’s eyes. He fell to his knees as the fall scenery faded from his vision…Fuck. No, no, no, no. Not again. I have control now, this shouldn’t be happening. Remember your training Dmitri, no fuck you, it’s John…John felt his adrenaline spike as his senses synced with the battlespace…Shaw, get the fuck down Shaw! Everybody get the fuck down! Chinese jets roared overhead and the pockmarked-hotel across the boulevard from John disappeared in a fireball. Shaw and her team were pinned down in the building next to it. Tracers lit up the night and the hum of seeker drones rang like a chorus of heavily-armed crickets. Artillery of unknown origin pounded the next block over. John felt the warm blood dripping down his arm and onto his rifle. Shit. Shit. Shit. This is not happening. Breathe. Breathe…Breathe. John was losing control, it was as if time was collapsing in on itself. Am I waking up or passing out?

The pain from his legs was suddenly excruciating, shooting out into every corner of his body. His arm was suddenly heavy, what felt like blood dripped down his torso. The air turned heavy and humid, choking John with the smell of rot and cordite. Someone was screaming over his comm link. Shaw!

“John, what the fuck are you doing, it’s locked onto you! Get out of there, you stupid son of a bitch!” Huh? He turned, the Type-00’s barrel was staring back at him less than 100 feet from where he stood. He thought about running. Everything is so heavy. He heard another voice in his head…it was his targeting assistant.

“Five…”

What the hell was going on? John was paralyzed. Is this what dad felt like right before he went?

“Four…”

Will I get to see him again? Will I get to see all of them again? Would he finally be at peace?

“Three…”

No, there’s no peace in this hell. I won’t go down. Not like this. Dad didn’t die so you could die too, John! Get up and fight! The thought of his father’s sacrifice being in vain shocked his system. Every nerve ending lit up and his muscles were on fire. Shaw’s voice came back to him. His eyes frantically searched for cover. Nowhere to run.

“Two…”

Unless… John pulled the last EMP grenade from his vest and started running…for the tank.

“One…”

The beast didn’t break lock and neither did John. He stared right down the barrel as let the grenade fly.

“Impact.”