By Cat Johnson
Marine Gunnery Sergeant John “Crash” O’Malley has two goals for the immediate future. One, enjoy his liberty in New York City, and two, survive his deployment to Afghanistan. What he didn’t plan on is Trish. A guy can’t have a one-night stand with his best friend’s sister and then abandon her at midnight when his liberty ends, but starting a new relationship days before shipping out would be crazy. Then again, Crash never did do things the easy way.
What he doesn’t realize is that his friend’s displeasure over Crash breaking the “no sisters rule” is nothing compared to what the insurgents have in store for them in the Helmand Province. Now it’s a matter of survival because Crash’s new objective is to get home and make Trish his.
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
The night sky lit with the glowing red trails of incoming fire. It was like the Fourth of July back home, but a hell of a lot less fun.
Instead of being in a tank top and shorts, kicking back in a folding chair with a cold beer in his hand and seventeen more in the cooler, Crash was hunkered down behind a berm with the grit of Afghan dirt between his teeth.
The noise of the incoming rockets was deafening. Meanwhile, as crazy as it seemed, his attention kept straying to how the rocks beneath him were jabbing into his legs through his uniform. That was when he wasn’t occupied wondering if any deadly scorpions or black widow spiders were lurking nearby. God, how he hated anything with more than four legs.
The butt of the M4 semi-automatic rifle pressed into Crash’s shoulder as his jaw clenched with determination. He had no intention of dying today as Gunnery Sergeant John O’Malley. He was going to live long enough to be selected for Master Sergeant, and after that, Master Guns, and these bastard insurgents weren’t going to be the ones to take that away from him.
He’d survived a float to Iraq, plus two deployments to Djibouti and he hadn’t seen any shit like this. Yeah, at Camp Lemonier there’d been a vehicle-born IED that luckily never made it to the front gate, but there were no frigging rockets.
Crash was an aviation mechanic. He was an air-winger, not an infantryman. His MOS didn’t normally put him in the line of direct—or hell, even indirect fire during ground combat like this. The closest thing he had come to being shot at was the twenty-eight days of Marine Combat Training at Camp Geiger when he’d first come in, and those shots were blanks.
He’d be damned if he’d get killed during the drawdown, when the US was in the process of pulling out of this godforsaken country and turning the running of it over to the Afghan military.
“What the fuck!” Zippy was next to him, lying facedown like Crash, manning his own weapon. “These bastards have some big frigging balls.”
Crash had to agree. To attack an installation this size took some major cajones.
Camp Bastion was the main British military base in Afghanistan, as well as the air hub used by the US Marines. Adjacent was Camp Leatherneck, NATO’s headquarters for the region. Between the two, there was a good amount of firepower stationed here.
That didn’t seem to matter to these crazy motherfuckers lobbing shit at them. No, it seemed as if their Southwest Asia enemy, Taliban-Charlie, was not going to make this deployment easy.
“Command knew this was coming,” Crash shouted over the noise.
They had to have known. Too many orders had come down the pike recently, changes to procedure, all of which pointed to preparation for a suspected attack.
At least this time the camp had been prepared. Unlike last September when a small group of Taliban dressed in stolen US uniforms waltzed right onto the base one night thanks to cutbacks in security and patrols. That mistake had cost the good guys a few refueling stations, half a dozen hangers, eight Harriers and, far more devastating than the material losses, the lives of two US Marines.
For once it seemed the military had learned from past mistakes. This time, personnel had been issued extra ammo and told to sleep with their weapons within reach. Extra foot patrols had been added, no one was allowed to travel to the other side of camp after dark, and they’d been told not to gather in large groups, which included eating in the chow hall.
That last order had been the most inconvenient. Take-out food was fine at home when Crash could grab something to go from the window of a fast food joint and bring it back to the barracks. Here? Not so much. But for safety’s sake, all the new orders were necessary. For once command had made a change for a good reason instead of their usual arbitrary, bullshit rules.
Obviously, the big brass had taken whatever chatter they’d heard on the lines seriously. They’d been correct, right down to the timing of the attack—the end of Ramadan when the Muslim world celebrated the completion of a month of daytime fasting with a feast.
Crash had searched online and read all about the religious observance that had provided them with a month of relative peace on base. But judging by this attack, the opposition had taken their Lailut ul-Qadr, Night of Power, to mean something totally different than their religion dictated. The enemy was marking this holy date with a show of strength against the coalition troops, and they’d done it with a bang—literally.
Well, Crash had some power of his own. He gripped his weapon a little tighter. He was a damn good shot, but they’d been issued a limited number of rounds. Every shot had to count. And bullets wouldn’t do much good against mortars or rockets anyway. The bad guys were flinging all sorts of shit at them over the chain link perimeter fence topped with razor wire.
It didn’t matter. If Crash went down, he’d go down fighting, but he wanted it to be with a clear conscious. There was something he needed to get off his chest.
“Zip, I gotta tell you something.”
Over the sound of the incoming fire, Zippy must have heard the gravity in Crash’s tone. “Jesus, Crash. We’re not gonna die here today so keep your damn confessions for another time. All right?”
“Just listen, please. I need this off my chest.”
Zippy let out a huge breath. “Okay, go ahead, but I’m just gonna mock you with whatever you tell me later when we’re back home having beers.”
Crash sincerely doubted that. He launched into his confession anyway. “In May, while we were in New York, I slept with your sister.”
For the first time since they’d taken position, Zippy took his eyes off the perimeter. His gaze cut to Crash, just for a second, before it moved back to the fence. “We’re both gonna survive this, so that afterward, I can kick your ass.”
From Zippy’s mouth to God’s ears…
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