LINE OF DEPARTURE1The Central MediterraneanFORTY MILES FROM LAND THE SEA heaves in predawn darkness. No buoy, no man-made mark interrupts the undulant glitter of stars on an easterly swell.The destroyer is a sharp-edged shadow against Cassiopeia. Since midnight she has cruised slowly before the prevailing sea. But at 0400, suddenly, she heels as her rudders bite water. The hum of turbines rises to a whine, the sound rolling out into blackness, and a phosphorescent waterfall shoots from the screws. As she gathers speed she begins to pitch, dipping her bow to the swell, then lifting to shake hissing spray into the sea. Above her wake a stain of smoke unrolls against the sky.The Line of Departure for an amphibious assault is drawn not through dark waves, over the mirror of stars, but across a Navy chart in number-two lead. On one side, in the minds of men, is peace. And on the other, the irrevocable commitment to battle.The destroyer crosses the line still accelerating, sonar pinging into the deep, radar sweeping the sky. Its gray sides fade to black. A single dimmed stem light retreats into the night. The waves of its passing widen and then disappear, merging at last with the unchanging sea.Half an hour later six gray ships slowly lift into view to the east. At first only their masts show above an empty horizon, against the faint glow that precedes morning. Then they grow closer. Not speedily, but with a steady and inexorable pace.They are not so sleek, nor so fast, nor so heavily armed as the destroyer that escorted them, ten miles in advance. But they are larger, swelling with displacement curves rather than the fine lines of speed. Instead of guns and missile launchers, their decks are cluttered with helicopter pads and replenishment stations, stacks of containers and nested landing craft. In the faint light rises deck on deck of superstructure, topped by the vertical spikes of booms and funnels.Flung wide across miles of sea, the task force moves across its face with ponderous eagerness; and from each ship, above the antennas and signal lines, streams the red-and-white-striped ensign of impending battle.The landing has begun.U.S.S. GUAM LPH-9High in the island of the helicopter carrier, a stocky man in khakis thrusted his face angrily into binoculars. He raised them with the ship’s roll, leaning into the coaming, examining a shadow that steamed parallel to her, four thousand yards away. The glasses remained level for several minutes; then Captain Isaac I. Sundstrom, Commander, Mediterranean Amphibious Ready Group, jerked them down. He muttered into the fresh wind of a twenty-knot passage, and turned for the interior of the flag bridge.“Commodore’s on the bridge!” At the shout officers and enlisted men looked up from dimly lit charts, flickering radars. They glanced at one another, but only one man—a lieutenant, junior grade—moved cautiously toward Sundstrom, his hand rising automatically to his helmet, saluting unseen in the darkness.“Good morning, Commodore.”“Dan. Morning.” The words were short with anger and fatigue. “What’s going on? Are we ready to hit the beach?”The lieutenant’s name was Dan Lenson. Seen by the faint radiance of a vertical plot, he was taller than the commodore and almost unnaturally thin, hair somewhere between sandy and dark. He too looked tired. Rubbing a sun-bleached mustache with the back of his hand, he pitched his voice above the roar of wind, the hiss of radios.“Commodore, we’re on two-eight-zero true, speed nineteen. The amphibs are in circular formation for movement to assault. Guam’s the guide, in station zero. Barnstable County is dead ahead; Newport, on the starboard beam; Spiegel Grove, starboard quarter; Charleston, port quarter. Coronado lagged back during the night; I shifted Charleston to her station at 0200. Screen units: Ault is twenty thousand yards ahead of the main body, sanitizing our track in to the beach. The other destroyers are deployed along the air threat axis.” His eyes shifted to a board behind the commodore. “Equipment status: Both of Coronado’s boilers are on line now and she’s catching up, eight miles astern last time I looked. Ault has an anchor casualty that’s being worked on right now. Barnstable reported radar trouble again—”“She’ll need that during beach approach. Damn it,” said the commodore, looking out at the darkness.“Yes sir.” The lieutenant waited, then went on when his senior did not continue. “Other than that, all units of Task Force 61 and embarked marines report ready for the assault. We’re at H minus one hundred now.”“Where are we on track? Are we up with intended movement?”“I hold us dead on so far, sir.”“I think we’re falling behind. Let’s play it safe. Goddamnit, I don’t want to be late again!”“That will make it harder for Coronado to catch up, sir. If she isn’t in position for that first wave—”“You heard me, Dan. I don’t like to give orders twice.”The lieutenant studied him. Dawn was coming. He could make out the sagging, lined face under graying hair. “Aye aye, sir,” he said at last. “I’ll signal another knot speed increase. Mr. Flasher—”“Got it,” said a voice from the darkness.“Dan, you’ve got to keep me informed. I’m not getting the proper reports.”“Sir, the chief staff officer was up here most of the midwatch. I thought he was—”“Don’t count on that zero, Dan. He’s disappointed me too often.”“Uh … yes, sir. We’re ready to go, then, as far as I can see.”“Have you talked to the Guam’s bridge yet this morning?”“Just a few words, Commodore. Would you like me to—”“Forget it,” said the older man. His face settled, his head lowering itself toward his chest; his eyebrows drew together. “I told you last night to keep close tabs on that brownshoe son of a bitch. Remember how Fourchetti screwed things up in Bizerte, when that helo went into the drink? That’s not how I want things run. When my captains look bad I look bad. And I don’t like to look bad. That’s the name of the game, Dan.”“Yes, sir.”“I’ll do it. Just like I have to do most of what gets done around here.”“Yes sir,” Lenson said again, to the commodore’s back.As the door to the bridge wing opened a blast of sound hit them. Fifty feet below, on the flight deck, ten helicopters were beginning their flight checks. The roar of their engines warming up made Lenson cover his ears. Several of the near aircraft had engaged transmissions, and their blades began to whip around, slowly at first but then faster until in the dim deckedge lights they blurred into misty disks. The smells of exhaust and kerosene and hot metal mingled with the wind that blew back along the deck from the sea.The commodore seemed not to notice it. Below him, around him, something massive was taking form out of the night. Leaning over the coaming, he swept his gaze along the length of his flagship.From her blunt, rounded bow, where the flight deck stopped abruptly, aft along a flat sweep of deck to the forest of antennas and nets at the stern, the carrier teemed with men and machines. Men ran in the growing light among the vibrating fuselages. Flight-deck personnel in comm helmets and colored jerseys bent to check chocks and unplug starter cables. Armorers rolled bomb dollies toward four streamlined attack helos that now were adding their scream to the symphonic din that pounded along the deck, spilling out over the sea. Marines in drab utilities clambered in and out of cockpits. Another helicopter came into view, rising from the red-lit hangar below; the elevator locked and a tractor swung in, towing it toward its launch station. Hatches slammed open, and from deep in the ship more men streamed out onto the flight deck. Helmets pulled low, packs jogging on their backs and rifles held nursing-close to their chests, the marines bent low beneath the revolving swords of the rotors.Sundstrom raised his glasses, and after a moment, so did Lenson. Ahead of them, beyond four thousand yards of rushing sea, was the same frenzy of activity. Barnstable County was a tank-landing ship, an LST; she was smaller than the Guam, but at seven magnifications her decks, too, were busy with sailors in faded dungarees. Aft of her, on the horizon to their right, was another ship, too far and small to see movement, though it was there; and two more gray specks, far back; destroyers and frigates, escorting and protecting the larger ships that now moved and readied themselves here in the center, the heart, of a vast formation that had flung its moving nets of steel and data, radio waves and sound over three thousand square miles of the central Mediterranean.Lenson, looking at the commodore, saw his lips move. He leaned toward him, careful not to brush his arm; Sundstrom disliked being touched. “SIR?” he shouted, into the mounting roar of engines.“Sloppy …”“Sir? Do you want me to—”But he had already turned away, disappearing up a ladder leading to the bridge deck; Guam’s captain held sway there. Lenson straightened, and half-smiled. He went back into the flag bridge, pausing to dog the weather hatch against the steady beat of engines.“Dan?” It was a chubby lieutenant with overlong hair. His helmet strap was unbuckled and he had shoved it back. “Where’d he go now?”“Hi, Red. Up to see Fourchetti, I guess.”“What for?”“Probably wants him to go to general quarters. He does it earlier every landing. I think—”The ship’s announcing system blared out just then, jerking their heads around. “FLIGHT QUARTERS, FLIGHT QUARTERS. ALL HANDS, MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS! SET MATERIAL CONDITION ZEBRA THROUGHOUT THE SHIP.”A gong began to sound, strident, insistent. From below them came the thud of running feet. The red-haired lieutenant, buckling on a lifejacket, shouted, “Want me to take it for you? You haven’t had breakfast, have you?”“No, been up here since 0100 … I ought to check on SACC too. Thanks, Red.”“I hear ya. Now get outta here.”“I stand relieved.”
Three decks down, deep in the steel labyrinth of the ship, Lenson groped through a litter of maps and overlays, messages and green-bound Marine Corps artillery pubs for the cup he had left wedged there at midnight. The coffee was cold, but thick with sugar. As he sipped at it he slumped backward in his chair.“Tired, Lieutenant?”He bobbed upright; seeing a second-class petty officer old enough to be his father, with the seamed face and graying hair to match, he smiled. “A little. Between here and the flag bridge, I forget what my rack looks like. You getting the circuits up, Mac?”“Sure, Mr. Lenson. What’s the skinny?”Turning, they both looked straight ahead, to where one end of the compartment was covered with a huge map. Fully nine feet by nine, it writhed in five colors over the bulkhead: sea blue, shading toward green near the shore; yellow of beach, of sandy plains; the crowded green terrain of foothills, black Vs of washed-out gullies, red lines of roads. Glossy plastic protected the dozens of symbols and numbers that had been drawn over its surface in the last forty-eight hours.“We still got over an hour to H,” said Lenson. His voice was a murmur over the ceaseless hissing from the speakers; the petty officer had to lean forward to hear him. “Anyway, when the rest of the team gets here, get your comm checks started. You should have the gun ships—Ault, Bowen, the two Turks, and the Italian can—coming up on the Gunnery Coordination Net. The Turks may take a couple of calls to answer. They weren’t very cooperative at the presail conference. So—” He glanced at his watch and got up—“You’ve got her, Mac. Be back as soon as I can.”Lenson paused in the passageway to dog the door, then broke into a run. He turned at a stenciled arrow and slid down a metal ladder. A hundred feet on, the corridor narrowed and filled with breakfast smells. By a door marked OFFICERS COUNTRY a row of khaki and green caps stirred like impatient guests as the carrier rolled. In the wardroom he pulled out a chair between two other men, both of whom were eating as fast as they could. “Anything good, Stan?” he asked the one to his left.“It’s all good,” muttered the supply officer.“It all tastes the same, too.”“Lay off, Dan. It gets old after three months out here.”“Hey,” said the man on his right, a marine major. “You just come down from the bridge?”“Flag bridge. Not ship’s bridge. Why?”“What’s going on? How far out are we?”Lenson reached eagerly for the cup the steward rattled down at his elbow. “Uh—another hour to H—we’re twenty miles from the coast yet.”“Shit,” said the marine.“Eager?”“Drivin’ those Cobras is better than sex. And they pay you. What do you do aboard?”“I’m with the staff,” said Lenson, not enthusiastically. “You know your supporting fire—ships’ guns, aircraft, artillery?”“Sure.”“I coordinate that. We keep the opposition’s heads down as you go in, take out positions that threaten the ship-to-shore movement, then cover the marines as they head inland.”“Staff, huh? You work for Ike Sundstrom?”“That’s right.”“I hear he’s kind of hard to get along with.”The lieutenant stared at his coffee. “He’s the man in charge,” he said at last, his voice hard. “He wouldn’t have four stripes if he didn’t know what he was doing.”The marine stared at him for a moment, and seemed about to speak. Then his look dropped to Lenson’s heavy Academy ring. Then continued on up the left bicep, where it emerged from the short sleeve, showing the puckered flesh of an old third-degree burn. He nodded, looked away, and said nothing more.A plate appeared in front of the thin j.g. He began to eat rapidly, greasing the food down with coffee.Seven minutes later he was in his stateroom. Throwing himself on the lower of two bunks, he covered his eyes with an arm for a moment, and then removed it.Under the upper bunk, wedged into the webbing, a photograph lay fixed six inches above his open eyes. The woman was dark-haired, and she was in bed. Her arms were crossed under her head, and the wary alertness of her eyes contrasted strangely with her teasing smile, with the way her bare nipples poked erectly out toward the camera.A few minutes went by, and he lay motionless; once he checked his watch. The ventilators breathed air into the tiny room. His shirt and trousers were soaked with old sweat. I need a shower, he thought. No, I need sleep.But he knew there would be no sleep. Not that day. Any minute now, he thought, lying rigidly in his bunk. Any minute—“LIEUTENANT LENSON, LAY TO THE FLAG BRIDGE,” said the ship’s announcing system suddenly. It hissed for a moment and then went on: “ATTENTION, ALL HANDS. H-HOUR HAS BEEN DELAYED ONE-HALF-HOUR BY THE COMMANDER, AMPHIBIOUS TASK FORCE. I SAY AGAIN, H-HOUR HAS BEEN DELAYED ONE-HALF-HOUR BY THE CATF. MAKE ALL PREPARATIONS FOR H-HOUR AT 0630.”The depression in the bunk that had taken Lenson’s weight was already gone. He was halfway back to the radios, the charts, and the short angry man who paced impatiently high above the sea.U.S.S. AULT, DD-698Ten miles ahead of the flagship, a huge-bellied man in khaki trousers and grease-smeared T-shirt thrust himself through a hatchway and into a tiny compartment. Elbowing away a knot of equally dirty sailors, he aimed his face upward toward a mass of gears, shafts, and cables that came through the overhead and continued down through the deck.“Where’s the flashlight, Steurnagel? You think I’m a friggin’ owl?”One of the sailors hastened to thrust a light at him. The big man flicked it to one side to examine a handwheel and brake assembly, then forward, into the very bow, to the chain tube. The anchor chain itself filled the locker beneath their feet, fathoms of rusty tumbled links each five inches across and twenty pounds in weight. Then he aimed it upward, to the massive mechanism that fed it onto the forecastle, to the ground tackle. He stared for a long moment, then turned so quickly that the three other men in the closet-sized space flattened themselves against rusty steel. “Polock!” he bawled aft, through the hatch. “Mason! Lay back to the gear locker. Biggest prybar you can find, two lifting hooks—six-inchers—and a hundred feet of twenty-one thread. Smee!”“Yeah, Chief.”“Operator’s station, up on the fo’c’sle. Tell whoever’s on it to cut power to the windlass—don’t ease out, don’t haul in, just stand easy. Move!” Men turned instantly, pelting aft and upward, boots echoing from steel amid machinery crowded so close they had to turn sideways even as they ran. “Stewie! Haul ass up to the bridge. Find that new ensign. Or Mr. Jay, or the XO if you see them first. Tell them Chief Wronowicz has a jammed shift mechanism on the—no, better keep it simple. Just say a casualty on the anchor windlass.”When the first class, too, was gone the large man sighed. He reached up to touch the gritty, half-greased surface of a cam, and his teeth showed under a half-growth of dark beard. Behind him, unseen by him, the two sailors who were left exchanged apprehensive looks.“Blaney,” he muttered.“Chief?”“I want BLANEY! Get that slack-wristed scumcock down here on the double!” His roar echoed around the compartment, and the men crouched as if a steam line was about to break. He had his mouth open again when a sudden humming came from the windlass motor, beside him, and he jerked his hand free and danced back with the lightness of a squirrel.“Watch it, Chief.”“I’ll have ’em shut down, Chief,” said one of the men, and he, too, disappeared. Wronowicz, rubbing one of his massive, greasy hands with the other, glowered at the jammed mechanism, then glanced up and around him.The Ault’s wartime designer had built her forepeak for thin midgets. Gear lockers and paint lockers and ground tackle had been crammed into the sharp stem of the old destroyer. The bulkheads and overhead were lined with cableruns and piping; the deck was slippery with oil. This far forward, the engines’ whining roar was deadened to a rumble, but the vibration of the seas as the bow shattered them a few feet ahead made the confined air tremble around the waiting men. The stinks of grease, rust, paint thinner, and the powerful smell of Wronowicz himself mingled in a miasma of confusion and disaster.The humming died. The sailors dispatched aft came running back, swearing as they tripped over knee-knockers, hanks of heaving line, cans of red lead. Immediately the chief set them to work. As one hastily connected a sound-powered telephone, two others braced themselves around the windlass mechanism and began to maneuver the pry, a tapered nine-foot iron bar, into place with its sharp end under the jammed assembly. Wronowicz, meanwhile, had been looking around. He found a wooden block and wedged it tightly under the bar, against the winch housing. As he stepped back he bumped into someone behind him, and barked, “Jesus, get your ass out of here! Wronowicz don’t need a goddamn audience of thousands when he’s working.”“Chief?”The voice was hesitant. His head still turned away from it, the big man’s face altered; then he turned, moving an inch or so to give the other room.“Ensign Callin,” he said, his voice flat.“One of the men said you were having some trouble down here,” said the officer. He was husky too, though nowhere near the size of the chief; he was clean-shaven, with a truculent look, though his voice had none of the confidence of his build and expression. No more than twenty-one, he wore a set of gleaming, oversized gold bars, and his new khakis were creased and clean. “What’s the, uh, problem?”“Brace yourselves against the roll,” said the chief, looking at the waiting men, two of them hanging on the lever end of the pry, the others standing ready with wrenches. One, looking scared, was holding a hammer he had taken out of his belt. “Got a jammed anchor winch, sir,” he said to Callin. “This motor here turns the wildcat through these gears. This handwheel shifts between the wildcat and the capstan. The lower part of it here engages up into these notches. There’s a lot of slop in ’em now and this pawl here, see, didn’t engage right. Plus I think that handbrake assembly’s hosed too. The way the wildcat—”“The capstan, you mean?”“No, sir. Line goes on the capstan, chain goes on the wildcat. Anyway, it’s jammed tight as an Irishman in a Hong Kong whore. Stewie, is she dead now? Breaker open?”“Main deck says yes, Chief. They didn’t understand before. They were trying to rock it out.”“‘Rock it out.’ I’ll rock that asshole’s … see if they have the stopper on.”“Says it’s on.”“Fuckin’ well better be. All right, let’s put some Swedish steam on that bar.”“Chief,” said the ensign quietly, “what are you doing up here? Isn’t this first division’s space?”“Those fuckin’ deck apes can’t find their butts in the dark with both hands, sir. If somebody don’t get this jam cleared we can kiss off standing in close this morning.” He motioned to the bar. “Okay, girls. Hop to it.”Two men heaved at the pry. It moved slightly under their weight, then stopped. The pawl moved a bit, then slid back between the notches.“Ask them topside if they’ve got the brake on“Yes they do, Chief,” said the man with the phones.“We need some slack. Who’s on the control?”“That new guy—what’s his name, the black kid—”“Take him off. Get the petty officer on the switch. Tell him I want her backed off about three inches. Just that much. You two, get away from that pry.”“Chief,” said the ensign again, “how long—”“Look, Ensign, I can’t tell how long it’s going to take to fix until I fix it. This always happens when the goddamn BMs gundeck their maintenance. Sometimes it takes coupla minutes, once it took a day. I had to unbolt the axle frame and take it all apart. You better get out of the way, sir, there’s likely to be a lot of grease and shit flyin’ around in here.”Callin’s face closed even more. He set his lips, then moved back. “Go on, then, Chief. If it doesn’t work in a couple of minutes—”“Yeah, good, sir.” The motor hummed again, and the chain rattled and scraped in the hawsepipe. The humming stopped. “The other way,” said Wronowicz, watching it. “A cunt-hair will do it.” The motor reversed itself. The gears made a grinding noise, making them all start, and then reversed too.“Hands to it, now,” said the chief, drawing a massive forearm across his mouth. Black grease smeared his beard. “Heave!”Again the men set themselves against the rolling ship. Again the bar gave for the first inch or two and then set solid, wedged tight, giving not at all. The sailors strained, their necks rigid, muscles bunched, sweat starting on their faces. Nothing moved.“Chief,” said the man at the sound-powered phones,“they got a problem with the steering engine aft. Can’t tell if it’s controls, or what.”“Call an electrician, tell them.”“Say they did. He don’t know what’s wrong with it, he says.”“Jesus H. Christ,” bawled Wronowicz to the universe. He stared at the sailors; they had slacked off, unable to put their full strengths to the bar for long, but afraid to take their hands from it so long as he was watching. His massive shoulders slumped, but it was a slump of exasperation, not of defeat. Not yet.“Get off that bar,” he said to them.“Chief—don’t you think a block and tackle, get some multiplication of force on it—?”“Yes sir, Mister Callin. Multiplication of force. Lots of room down here for that. Just let me make love to her once first.”The sailors moved apart silently, and Wronowicz put his shoulder to the bar. He tested it, waggling the end to be sure the pointed shaft was deep inside the mechanism, just where it refused its greasy union, and braced his grease-spackled boots.The bar suddenly sank into the fleshy part of his arm, just above an old tattoo. Wronowicz grunted deep in his chest and shifted his legs to one side, so that he leaned forward, into the ship, the bar coming out of his shoulder and into the guts of the winch. Slowly, he began to straighten. The bar bent, arched, the iron set as stubbornly as the massive back that bent into it, that humped in swelling muscle under the filthy T-shirt, dark with sudden sweat between the wide shoulder blades.“Chief—”He grunted again, mindlessly. His eyes, turned from the others, were squeezed closed. His lips drew back, showing dental gold and decaying teeth, and his breath hissed out between them.Callin bent through the hatchway, his face dark. “Chief! Leave it,” he muttered. “Let the boatswain’s mates do it. Go back to the engineroom. We need you there.”“ … Can do it.”“Get aft!”The sailors exchanged looks. That had been an order. But not a muscle of the chiefs body cahnged, only to lean harder, harder, into the rigid metal, as if will alone could force matter to yield.“ … Coming!” he grunted.With a grating sound, the bar stirred. The chief relaxed slightly, took a new hold, then levered his whole weight upward and then down on the quivering hilt. The bar bent slowly, and the mechanism rasped and moved slightly and then suddenly gave a bang like a pistol going off. The ensign jumped.Wronowicz stepped back, sweating mightily, and the iron fell with a clang. “Hand me that light,” he panted. “Yeah … there. It’s in. Steurnagel, finish her up. Grease this fucker good; that’s prob’ly what caused the jam. And get all this crap out of the locker before you secure, or it’ll lop some poor fucker’s head off next time we drop.” He turned, and his eyes met Callin’s for a long moment.“You say there’s more trouble back aft, sir?”When they had left, the big man a pace behind the one in khaki, one of the sailors wento down on a knee to pick up the iron. An inch and a half thick, it had bent near the end of the shaft through an angle of thirty degrees. The men looked after the two figures. “God damn,” whispered one of them.“Pretty good,” said one of the others; then added, in a low voice that nevertheless carried clearly to every man who stood there, his hands dangling by his side:“—for a old man.”U.S.S. SPEIGEL GROVE LSD-12Ten thousand yards astern of the Guam, deep in the belly of a squat old ship, a private first class named givens sat nodding in the midst of a score of other marines, hunched like fetuses in the dim red light, jammed together like subway passengers at rush hour.Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned … .The operating handle of a machine gun dug into his left side, the curve of a mortar baseplate into his right. The shelf he sat on was steel; the low overhead, also of metal, crisscrossed with insulation and swaying with lifejackets, pressed down to the crown of his lowered helmet. Strapped to him, wired to him, part of him, he wore the issue pack, haversack, blanket roll, two canteens that sloshed with the roll of the ship, a pistol belt and sidearm, first-aid kit, gas mask, and poncho. Two canisters protruded above his pack, and he carried a third under his arm. They held mortar shells. His polished black boots were planted solid and motionless on the gritty floor of the amtrac. His face was expressionless except for tension at the comers of thin, tightly closed lips. His bony scarred hands rested on the oiled barrel of the 81mm mortar that he carried clamped between his legs.Will Givens, age eighteen, swayed motionless, his eyes closed. On one side of him a corporal named Cutford snuffled in his sleep. On the other Sergeant Silkworth, the mortar team squad leader, whispered mad obscenities to himself, polishing his battalion-famous profanities. The closed interior of the amphibious tank stank of diesel oil and old vomit. The twenty marines had been sealed there without movement for two hours now.Nodding there, half-asleep himself, Givens dreamed his way back into the morning.Fourth platoon had had reveille passed on them at four that morning by the gunny. Will had rolled out faster than usual, knowing this was the day. He’d been pulling on his second pair of socks when Corporal Cutford leaned out of the blinking light of the overhead, his face blank and lightless as the inside of a mortar tube, and said:“Fuckhead. You.”“What you want, Corporal?”“You, Oreo. Shit detail.”“I had it yesterday, Cutford. And the day before.”“And you got it again, Oreo. Dee-dee into that head. You hear me? Haul ass, fuckhead! We hittin’ a beach today. No time waitin’ breakfast for shit-eatin’ prives.”He finished dressing, enough for the detail at least, his worn soft trousers bloused into unlaced boots, skivvy shirt from the day before. In the head he bent to draw water into a scrub bucket amid the Niagara roar of urinating marines, then pulled swab and disinfectant from the cleaning locker. The solution rushed over the terrazzo, chasing into rusty dark corners under the thrones, islanding the men as they squatted. He swabbed away grimly, ignoring curses and threats. Today no one lingered; the head emptied as quickly as it had filled. Givens lifted the swab, swirled it to separate the gray strands, slapped it down to the deck, drew it along in swift parallel lines, taking up the gray water. Under it the terrazzo came clean, white base and green and red and blue flecks of color showing sharp and clear in the sour ammonia tang.“Will. I’ll finish up.”Givens looked up. The marine lingered uncertainly in the hatchway, his face white as porcelain. Pimples showed where his uniform collar rubbed, and though he was no older than Givens his skivvy shirt showed a line of blondfuzzed gut above his belt.“Cutford told me to do it.”“He did? Naw, I’m on the list for today. He’s just on your case again, man.”“Yeah … all right, Washout. Thanks.” He straightened, passed over the swab, and went out to the bunkroom to pick up his blouse.The chow line was short; two cooks in ketchup-stained “Spiegel’s Eagles” T-shirts were ladling out the last scraps of sausage and dry toast. Givens got the last egg and slid into a seat with some infantrymen. They glanced at him without welcome, but kept eating. The upcoming operation was making everyone silent, and they were all tired; the heavy seas of the past few days took a lot of energy from men cooped belowdecks, stewed in the same sweaty air, heat, damp, and boredom … .He came back from memory to reality, to now, at a sudden snarl from the amtrac’s engine. The marines stirred as the starter whined again and then the diesel, not ten feet from any of them, burst into clattering life. A dim blue light came on over Cutford’s head, like an infernal halo, and the corporal leaned forward. Sweat glistened on his skin, and against the hair at his open blouse Will Givens caught a twisted gleam of gold. He leaned too, tensing, to look forward to where the A-driver crouched in his turret.The gears meshed with a bang and the ’track began to roll. Its treads clawed at the steel deck, jolting over tiedowns, sending every slam and lurch straight up their backbones. Givens wedged himself into the seat, tightening his hands on the mortar. Low and heavy, the amphibious tanks floated with only a couple of feet of freeboard. Sometimes, he remembered, when they hit the water they didn’t float at all. The men locked inside didn’t have much of a chance then.Any minute now …Twenty-five tons of steel and men launched itself into the sea. He felt a moment of falling, then heard the clatter of the diesel change timbre, become a heavier mutter. The exhaust burbled like a drowning giant behind them. Received, then yielded up again reluctantly by the sea, they leaned with a slow waterlogged roll. Givens stared across the aisle at Washman—“Washout”—and the white boy stared back at him, his face sober. They looked at each other for several seconds and then Washman managed a scared wink. Givens smiled slowly and then winked back.The amtrac began to turn. The big ’tracks, efficient and fast for something of their weight on land, were underpowered and logy in the water. He felt his body grow light, and then crash down. They were in open sea, on their way to the beach. A single ray of sun came shooting back from the A-driver’s viewport. With the twenty other captives he stared at it as it danced along, briefly gilding the pronged barrel of the machine gun, swaying to Silky’s bulging crotch, Harner’s vacant grin, the tops of Cutford’s white socks, Givens’ long fingers splayed over the spiral threads of the tube, and then fled out of their dark compartment as the track turned once again. He steadied the mortar with his knees and reached up to wipe his forehead. His hand came away dripping and he used his sleeve next. His mouth began to water. He slipped off his helmet and pulled from the liner the candy sack he had saved against this ride.At the sound of his retching the other marines groaned. The lifejackets danced in close gloom as the track corkscrewed. The seas grew steeper as they closed the beach, bottlenecked by the rising bottom, and the ’track soared and plunged and rolled. The air stank of diesel fumes. Givens had started it, but most of the troops were sick now, using utility caps, paper bags, shirt pockets, anything to keep it off the deck of the amtrac. They had swabbed it up too many times before. Only Silkworth and Cutford leaned back against the vibrating steel, the squad leader watching with a smile of disdain, the lance corporal with an expression that could be either contempt or hatred.U.S.S. GUAMEight miles to seaward of them, high on the bridge of the flagship, Isaac Sundstrom dropped his binoculars to dangle against the rows of ribbons on his tropical khaki.“Lenson! Get me Haynes.”“Sir?”“Colonel Haynes. Where is he?”“I think he’s in Helo Direction, sir, or he might be—”“Find him. Ask him if it’s convenient for him to come up to flag bridge.”Colonel Stephen Haynes, USMC, was in charge of the two thousand-plus marines in MAU 32. His troops were embarked in all six amphibs, and directed from Haynes’ command center on the Guam. When he came up Sundstrom was staring landward again, his binoculars on the leading wave. The coast was a line of brown, the surf a strand of white caught between blue sea and a climbing slope of foothills. Between the flagship, sixteen thousand yards out, and that seemingly motionless line, nine ships stood closer in. Two of them were the LSTs, Newport and Barnstable County. The third and fourth were Spiegel Grove and Coronado; the LSD and LPD carried both amtracs and assault boats. They were underway, steaming parallel to the beach while black specks tumbled from their stems in plumes of spray: the second assault wave. Beyond them, low and black against the land, the destroyers rode close inshore. Ault, Bowen, the Italians and Turks. Their guns pointed toward the empty hills. And beyond them, closest in of all, a line of dark dots yawed and threw foam, streaming blue smoke as they wallowed almost imperceptibly toward the surf.The two men watched tensely, silently. A rumble grew above them and suddenly two jets flashed overhead, canted lazily away from the beach, and slanted down above a headland to the east. Metal glittered beneath them, tumbling, then dirty smoke leaped up. Moments later came the brrump of a stick of bombs.“How do they look, Steve?” said the commodore at last, not turning.“Not too bad. Scattered, but that could be the seas. Surf height’s four at last report. That’s pretty rough for the mike-sixes.”“You think so? I think they’re dropping the goddamn ball on us. The boat group commander’s four hundred yards left of where he should be. That’s why none of them are on track!”“They look pretty close on the screen,” said the colonel. “You’re a perfectionist, Ike. That’s what they told me about you before we met.”“Somebody has to be,” said the commodore, but Haynes’ words might have pleased him; at least he smiled. “Other than that, how are we?”“Some problems. Nothing we can’t iron out. We’ve been at this for a while.”“You’d think after three months in the Med … but some people just can’t get it straight. Like this chief staff officer of mine, Hogan. Like my intel team. Nothing personal, Steve, but a few of your men, too. And the ships’ commanding officers don’t have the big picture either. Their noses are down in their own little rice bowls. They don’t understand somebody has to quarterback the whole pie, make sure the operation doesn’t fall through the cracks. And frankly, anyone who doesn’t realize that—well, he isn’t worthy to be wearing khaki.” The commodore leaned back against the coaming. “Fine day, though, isn’t it?”“Except for the surf,” said the colonel. He stared to landward. “Some of those bulldozers, when they come off the causeways … this beach is notorious for soft patches in the sand.”“You’ve warned them about it? Ordered them to wear lifejackets?”“Of course, Ike,” said Haynes quietly. “I’ve seen drowned men before.”“Is everything else on schedule? When they hit—how soon can you be ready to pull out again?”“I’ll be ready anytime. But I’d hoped to get a couple of days ashore. The men get antsy cooped up. Forty-eight hours—”“I want them to prepare for a quick withdrawal. As soon as objective is reached.”“Understood,” said the colonel, losing the agreeable look he had worn since he arrived on the bridge. For a moment he and the commodore stared at opposite ends of the beach.Below them at that moment, two decks down, Lieutenant Lenson was repeating himself for the fourth time, shouting over the whine and static of unsynchronized transmitters at a Turkish destroyer.And inshore of them, deep within one of the warlike silhouettes that rode gray against white of surf and brown of hills, Chief Wronowicz, squinting against fluorescent light, grunted a warning about voltage regulation to the nervous watchstander in front of Number One switchboard in the forward engineroom.Four miles inland, the skids of the first helicopters slammed into the dirt at the landing zone.And Private First Class Will Givens and nineteen other seasick marines felt the scrape of beach under the treads. They seized their weapons as the nose lifted. The engine roared anew, shifting gears to maneuver inland, and then two dozen tons of amtrac skidded sideways as the driver braked. The hatch banged down into a blinding wall of daylight, and they pounded down the ramp, yelling as they dropped to their bellies onto sand and scrub, jacking cartridges into their rifles.A long blast of fire ripped out ahead of them. Givens saw the muzzle flashes between the dunes. Burdened with the mortar, he drew his pistol clumsily. “Machine gun,” screamed Cutford, beside him. The dark face was distorted. “Ready—advance!”“Oorah!”They charged forward. He fled over scrub brush, air hot in his throat, the sand turning his run into a nightmare stumble. Ahead of him the hidden gun chattered steadily. He fired wildly, not aiming, just making noise, and at that moment something caught his foot and he fell. Fell hard, knocking the wind out of him with agonizing force. He lay there for a long moment, watching the sand and trying to breathe. So many grains, alike from a distance, but up close each unique and only itself …A man walked toward him across the dunes. His eyes found Givens, steadied on him. Givens stiffened. He started to get up. The man walked up to him.“You’re dead,” he said.Givens sagged back into the sand. The umpire strolled on. A marine ran by him, shouting. The umpire caught his arm. The man crumpled. He grabbed at his leg and began shouting for a corpsman.Cutford returned, cursing him. Pulling the mortar from his unresisting arms, the corporal ran on under a double load, not looking back.And the whole immense mechanism of Task Force 61, over two thousand marines, three thousand sailors, eleven ships, forty aircraft, continued the strike inland toward a dot on a map, toward an imaginary enemy somewhere in the silent sweep of sere and empty hills.For it was all an exercise. It was all a game. Every man knew that; just another in an unending series of practices in a Navy that—it sometimes seemed to them—had been built and manned and maintained for forty years of peace, five thousand miles from home, just for drill. It had been the same through three months of the six-month deployment. This was just another exercise. It would go well or badly; some men would make mistakes and be reprimanded, others would do well and be complimented. But then it would be finished, and then there would be liberty. And then it would be over, and could be forgotten; because it was a drill, and none of it was for real.This time.THE BAQA’A VALLEY, LEBANONThe air over the camp blazed with light; it boiled with windless heat above flat asphalt, off the tin roofs of the wooden barracks—built by the British, one of the men from the Committee had told him. The tall man thought it a sign, the dark humor of a God beyond history but determining it all, who fought for those who fought for Him. The desert air boiled above the obstacle course, the barbed-wire gate, the dusty road that stretched off toward the firing range.Hanna Abu Harisah crouched in full sunlight, blinking sweat from his eyes. In his pocket his thumb found the stopwatch.“Begin!”The assault pistol leapt of itself into his hands. Short-barreled, with a collapsible stock, it had a moment before been invisible beneath his civilian jacket. In the same motion he was at full sprint across the tarmac.Running. Ahead, the glint and shimmer of aluminum. Behind, the thud of many pairs of boots. When the flat pop of automatic weapons began he flinched but kept on. His back felt naked. He ran as if to outdistance bullets. His own weapon jerked in his hands and spent cartridges leapt up to brand his forehead, glittering like broken-off bits of desert sun. They were past practicing with blanks. A manshape sprang up to his right and he sprayed it without stopping, hearing three rounds clang off plate steel.Ahead, the boarding ladder. He went up it three steps at a time, screaming through scorched lungs, pistol extended and hammer back. Inside, darkness. Shredded upholstery, overhead luggage bins racked by bullets. A second manshape. He swung and triggered without thought. After two rounds the striker clicked on an empty chamber but he had anticipated that and his free arm swept up. The lever popped free as it left his hand and the grenade hit the cutout in the chest. Behind him he heard firing, thuds, muffled screams from the crew compartment.A whistle trilled faintly outside and he paused, panting. It was over. He retrieved the dummy grenade and watched his men as they filed down the boarding ladder. Dark-haired, sweating, they clutched their gleaming new weapons, pantomimed deadly jabs with their hands at each other. Some grinned; some looked bored; one, a new recruit not used to exertion in the heat, was vomiting over the handrail as he descended. Another had cut his forehead, and dabbed at blood with the corner of his kaffiyeh, which had come partly unwound.As Harisah lit a cigarette he searched their eyes, their gestures, evaluating them against men he had known and fought beside in years past. Four had been tested already, on a border raid four months before. The rest were unblooded. But they had spirit. They had responded well to the physical and political training, accepting the trade: his harsh discipline, in place of the apathy and squalor of the camps of the Transjordan.They’ll do, he thought. Not all of them; as with any group a few would be flawed, cowards or too foolhardy. But only a mission would find them out. All in all, he was content.He took a deep drag and silhouetted himself in the open door.“Skhot’!”They stared back at him, turning to hear, gripping their weapons.“Thirty seconds, from a hundred meters distance,” he shouted, looking down into light-filled desert, into their upturned faces. The language he used was neither classical nor dialect; it was the new medial speech of the radio station, the newspaper. They were from many lands; it was their common tongue now.“So. Do you know why you are doing this?”They stared at him, heads lifted, eyes alight.“I will tell you. Should you be assigned to seize a plane in flight, be aware: They have trained teams to take them back on the ground. They are as skilled and as well armed as you. Yet if you know how they will attack, you can defend—or better yet, prevent them from attacking by using your hostages.“Very well, return to your places. We’ll do it again, up the rear ramp this time.”As they filed away, the tall man glanced across the terrain, past the barracks huts, the wire. From here, from the top of the ramp, he could see far across the desert, see to the mountains that danced above the hot plain.Beyond them, and beyond a plain and another range of mountains, lay his land.His people’s land, taken now by others. These others owned many things. Jet fighters. Missiles. Tanks. Some said, the atom bomb. There were not many of them. Yet they were rich. They had power.But there were ways yet to fight them.Harisah took a last drag and flicked the cigarette to the desert floor. He raised his weapon above his head and looked down on his men. Staring at the mountains, he opened his throat to the sky.“Sharaf! Majd! Khulud!”Sweaty, exhausted, their teeth gleamed whitely as his men looked back and up to where he stood. Their hoarse shouts, their upthrust fists echoed his. “Sharaf! Majd! Khulud!”Honor. Glory. Immortality.Their enemies did not have the ultimate weapon. He did.His enemies were not ready to die.Copyright © 1998 by David Poyer.