obey Lanning didn't know what was worse about Iraq: the heat, the sand, the bugs . . .
Or the people trying to kill him.
Considering that the air was full of flying lead and the thunder of automatic weapons fire, and shards of ancient brick were raining down on him from the crumbling wall behind which he crouched as bullets tore into it, he decided he might have to go with the last item on that list.
This sucked. Royally.
Tobey looked over at the man kneeling a few feet away from him and shouted over the roar of gunfire, “You gettin' anybody on that radio, Sagers?”
“Not yet, man. I'm transmittin', but I don't know if anybody's hearing me. I'm not getting a thing back.”
Tobey bit back a curse and glanced at the truck that lay on its side in the road, next to the crater that the IED had left. The vehicle was just a burned-out shell now, sort of like the charred husks of the unlucky bastards who'd been caught inside.
A few minutes earlier, Tobey and Sagers had dropped off to relieve themselves. Seemed safe enough, since there was nobody around and nowhere for the enemy to hide except the ruins of some old building about fifty yards off the road. Hotchkiss, who was at the wheel, slowed down so the truck wouldn't get too far ahead.
Their business taken care of, Tobey and Sagers had been trotting after the truck when the improvised explosive device went off, toppling the vehicle, rupturing its gas tank, and creating a fireball that had engulfed it before any of the guys inside could get out.
That left Tobey and Sagers on their own.
Of course, there was an ambush to follow up the explosion. Tobey didn't know where the Iraqis came from. They were just there all of a sudden, shooting like madmen, mostly with AK-47s. Tobey and Sagers returned fire as they legged it toward the nearest of the abandoned buildings.
One stroke of luck was that Sagers was carrying the patrol's radio. That good fortune might have been canceled out by the slug that glanced off of the radio, inflicting damage it was impossible to assess under these conditions.
And it was also lucky, Tobey thought, that they had made it to the ruins without getting shot to pieces.
“Wasn't supposed to be like this!” Sagers yelled. He was a chubby East Texas boy, a redneck with an intellectual bent. “This sector was supposed to be peaceful and secure!”
“Ain't no such thing in this country, you know that!” Tobey shouted over the gunfire.
He knew it was only a matter of time before some of the Iraqis circled around to catch them in a crossfire. Another half-fallen-down wall rose about twenty feet behind them. He needed to get over there so he could meet the inevitable attack that would come from that direction.
“I'm gonna crawl over to that other wall!”
“You better keep your head down!” Sagers warned him.
“No, I figured I'd stand up and dance a little jig along the way!”
“Better toss me that picture of your girlfriend before you do! I'll look her up when I get home and tell her I found it in the desert, like in that movie!”
Tobey made a colorful and somewhat obscene suggestion about what Sagers could do when he got home, then bellied down and started crawling, pushing his rifle ahead of him and being careful not to let the sand foul it. Behind him, Sagers's M16 barked occasionally as he tried to keep the enemy distracted.
No way in hell they were getting out of here. Not unless the radio actually was transmitting and help would soon be on the way, if it wasn't already. They had no way of knowing if that was true, so Tobey had to assume that it wasn't and that he'd be dying soon, probably sometime in the next few minutes.
That possibility scared him, but more than anything else it made him angry.
He still had things to do in his life, and he didn't want to lose it over some patch of sand.
A bullet whined past his head. He'd heard that eerie noise more times in the last few minutes than he liked to think about, but something was different about this one.
It was going the other direction.
Some of the enemy forces were behind the ruins now, as Tobey had expected. He stayed on his belly and tried to wriggle along like a snake in a hurry.
When he reached the wall, he thrust the barrel of his M16 over the ragged top and squeezed off a few rounds, more to keep the Iraqis honest than anything else. He didn't believe he would do much damage.
He thought about Ashley. Beautiful, golden-haired Ashley. They had dated for a year before he deployed. Things had gotten pretty serious between them.
Then Tobey had gotten his new orders. The relationship took a hit, but not one that they hadn't been able to repair before he went overseas. They sent thousands of e-mails, Skyped almost every day, and things were okay. She wasn't happy when he'd decided to stay on for a second tour, but he had smoothed that over . . . he hoped.
She had to understand: there were times when a guy just couldn't leave his buddies.
Now it appeared the choice had been taken out of his hands. Except for him and Sagers, the other patrol members were dead. Nothing he could do for them.
He had Sagers's back, though, and Sagers had his. That was the way it would end, just as soon as the insurgents decided it was time to rush the ruins.
The firing stopped suddenly. Tobey knew it might be a trick to get him to look, but he raised his head anyway. What he spotted made his eyes open wide in shock.
Fifty yards away, just behind a little rise, a guy knelt with what looked like a section of pipe balanced on his shoulder. Tobey recognized it as a bazooka, the same kind used in World War II. Lord knows where the Iraqis had gotten such an ancient weapon.
But the antique still worked, because smoke suddenly gushed from it and the heavy round screamed through the air toward the ruins. With an involuntary shout, Tobey surged to his feet, forgetting about all the bullets flying around as he dived away from the wall.
The shell slammed into the wall and exploded, blowing the part that hadn't fallen down already into a million pieces.
The concussion drove Tobey into the ground. Debris pelted him. He was stunned, half-deafened. His muscles didn't want to work, and neither did his brain.
But he had held on to his rifle, and his mind was functioning just well enough to tell him that the Iraqis would be on top of him any second now. He forced himself to roll over and raise the M16. His grit-clogged eyes spotted dark figures swarming toward him. He barely had the strength to hold down the trigger and spray bullets toward them.
Slugs whined past his head and kicked up dirt around him. He dug his heels into the ground and scooted backward on his butt as he continued firing. When he put pressure on his legs, his right thigh screamed in pain. Glancing down, he saw the blood on his trousers. There wasn't a lot of it, and it didn't seem to be spreading fast, so he was hit but maybe not seriously.
Didn't matter. The enemy was still coming.
Tobey's back bumped into something. He glanced over his shoulder, saw that Sagers had retreated the same as him. The Texas boy said, “Gotcha, buddy,” as they sat back to back and fired at the attackers charging them from both directions. Tobey felt Sagers's body jerk as bullets pounded into it, but Sagers's rifle kept chattering until it fell silently empty.
Tobey's hearing had returned quickly after the explosion from the bazooka round, so he was able to hear the sudden rumble. Blood was running into his eyes. He seemed to be peering through a red curtain as machine gun fire swept through the Iraqis, shredding them and knocking the grisly corpses off their feet.
More explosions made the desert shiver. Tobey knew he was badly disoriented, but the only explanation that made any sense to him was that help had arrived. The call for help over Sagers's radio had gotten through after all.
The insurgents who hadn't been chopped down in the first volley turned and ran. All but one of them, who stood maybe fifteen feet in front of Tobey, staring death in the face.
He was just a kid, probably not out of his teens yet, no beard or mustache, so skinny the AK he held seemed almost as big as he was. His dark eyes locked in on Tobey's flinty blue ones. He was frozen in place by fear.
All Tobey had to do was press the trigger, and he'd stitch a line of slugs right across the kid's torso. He wanted to. For Hotchkiss and the other guys in the truck, for Sagers, who was slumped forward, no longer shooting or moving, for everybody this little shit and his friends had hurt.
But he didn't, and after a heartbeat or two that seemed much longer, the kid broke and ran. Tobey lost sight of him quickly as troops in desert camo thronged around him, some of them giving chase, others securing the area around the ruins.
A lieutenant dropped to a knee in front of Tobey and asked, “How bad are you hit, soldier?”
“Don't know, sir. What about . . . Sagers?”
“Your buddy behind you?” The officer shook his head. “Sorry, son.”
“Hell.” A wave of weakness washed through Tobey. Maybe he'd lost more blood than he thought. He started to topple to the side as darkness closed in on him, like curtains drawn to shut out the bright daylight.
“Hang on, soldier,” he heard the lieutenant say as he passed out. “You're going home . . .”