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"Hey Hernandez. Did your mother ever tell you that you were a special snowflake?"
Toni asked the corporal strapped in next to her who was porting the stubby SAW-K, a great burly man with coal black skin and steely whites. He was going to have fun fishing himself out of the drink carrying all that ammo.

The RAH-72 Arapahoe crew chief got up from his seat and flung the doors open. The cold blast from the downdraft of the helicopter rotor blades hit her. She looked out over the landscape. Wasn't much to see at night. Silhouettes of trees along the far ridge. The helicopter was skirting the spur around the ridge so as to approach the lake undetected from the other side. "Two minutes to the drop zone, Sarge," the chief said.

She nodded, and turned back to the corporal. He was scowling at her. Or maybe trying not to blush, if that were possible. "She did call you her special snowflake, didn't she? I know she did."
Toni patted him on the helmet. "Get your bib inflated, Snowflake."

The corporal pulled a string at his neck, activating the inflation device. It would be sufficient for him to maintain buoyancy, which was particularly vital when jumping from a craft like the Arapahoe because they couldn't jump with a hard duck. There wasn't room for one inflated raft, let alone two. That meant precious moments to get the raft inflated. The pilot broke in over her comm link. "Sixty seconds. Slowing to 10 knots and six feet."

"Rodger, sir,"
she replied. "Chalk 3 standing by. Request helocast from 20 feet. Don't want to make it too easy."
Snowflake didn't look very happy about that.

"Affirmative. Fifteen seconds."
Toni released her straps as the helicopter buffeted a bit and climbed a few feet. The land gave way to water and she could see the ripples from the rotor as they pushed out. This was the most dangerous part of the insertion, because they would be exposed for nearly half a minute while jumping.

"Go! Ducks in the water!"
she yelled, instructing her squad to exit. They pushed out, two at a time, one out each door, jumping feet first into the dark water. As the squad leader she took the position of "chalk pusher" and got them moving. Within fifteen seconds all twelve bodies had jumped. Toni gave her regards to the crew chief, activated the night vision on her Land Warriors, and stepped out of the craft.

The free fall took over a second, and she smashed into the cold water with a wet smacking sound. There was a moment of disorientation as she went under, before her bib pulled her back up. She was carrying a full ruck and it tried to drag her down. They hadn't put on flippers, so it was useless to try kicking her way back up. Maybe 20 feet had been pushing it, but aw fuck it, why not? You had to train like you fought, so you can fight like you trained.

She broke the surface and looked behind her. The duckies had been inflated and were moving toward her. They were filling up fast as they zipped by just slow enough for the Rangers to grab onto a side and pull themselves in. Toni always struggled with this part. That's why she was carrying the heavy ruck. As the craft neared her, she grabbed hold of the rope with her left hand, swung her M6 into the craft with the right, and used both hands to pull herself out of the drink. Grunting, she pulled her legs out of the water and over the side. Two hands grabbed her ruck and dragged her over.

Toni looked up. "Thanks for the assist, Snowflake," she said. She took the magazine out of her weapon and cycled it. All good. She slammed the magazine back in and loaded a round. With her Land Warriors she signaled to the other craft with an IR beam and painted the shoreline. They cut through the water. The lake wasn't large, but the point of the helocast was to practice the insertion technique.

They reached the shoreline and dragged the ducks into the tree line, stowing them out of sight. They wouldn't be able to use them to get out. Toni checked the map. The waterproof fold out map was obsolete with the advent of the Land Warriors, however it was important to not use the skill. Hell, at Camp Hoover her Warriors had been designed to fail. Every fucking time. Fucking cheaters. Okay. They would skirt around the ridge for about a mile and make a loop, and hopefully drop in behind the opposing force. "Scout team,"
she said, pulling her three-striper over to her. "Hoof it to the ridge line. Get eyes in the air and wait for orders. When we come around we'll see what we're looking at."
They'd probably execute a classic pincer move. They'd lay down a fire base on one side and sweep down on them from the other. The sergeant nodded and signaled his team to move. They'd deploy the MPRAQ-12 Cardinal, a handheld reconnaissance drone system that would give them a real time bird's eye view of the battlefield.

It took about fifteen minutes to make the long loop around the ridge. Toni had them move two at a time, expecting to make contact at any moment. The OPFOR was forever trying to find new ways to trip Blue Force up, even putting out deep patrols from their encampment. They swung around to an approximate 90 degree angle to the scout team. She sent the heavy weapons moving down the spur to the right and took the last four of her squad members down a narrow draw, making all too much noise with snapping twigs and dead leaves. She winced.

There were lights up ahead. Toni motioned for the squad to halt and they dropped to the prone position, taking up guard. She switched her Land Warriors on. Okay. The drones were in the air. And now she saw why they didn't bother to send deep patrols out. The camp was in the middle of a large clearing. The tree line was almost three hundred yards away from the first sentries. And they were heavily fortified. She counted three machine gun emplacements just on this side, protected with heavy sandbag cover from mortars. Two Joint Strike Vehicles with light armor, one with a Mk19 grenade launcher and the other with a heavy anti-air battery. Plus an Electronic Countermeasures dome. That thing, when switched on, would attempt to overwhelm their frequencies and render their electronics incapable of communication. There appeared to be an entire platoon of personnel, if not more.

Aright. This was doable. "Get the bees out,"
she whispered. Toni dropped her ruck and ran up the spur to her weapons team. Snowflake was unburdening his SAW-K and popped it up on the bi-pod. "See that ECM dome? On my mark, hit it with the AT4 and lay down suppressive fire."
He nodded, and patted one of his soldiers on the arm, who prepared the rocket tube. A shaped charge of molten copper fired at hypersonic speed would knock out a dome just as well as a tank.

She crawled back down the slope. The squad members she'd left behind had unloaded several long, thin cases from their rucksacks, clearly marked in blue lettering "TRAINING ONLY." They popped them open in a line. Inside, cradled in individual protective foam beds, were dozens of little tiny drones, each one smaller than her palm. Extraordinarily inexpensive and easy to replace. The MAQ-4 Lethal Autonomous Weapons System. Also known as the Killerbee. They hypothetically had a range of about 40 miles. Each one was capable of firing three tiny shaped charges with pinpoint precision. This squad was only packing a couple hundred of them, and she'd wondered why they were told to carry them at all on this mission. Until now.

The LAWS came with a handheld touchscreen, though it wasn't required to use. She could operate it with her Land Warriors or even halfway across the world, with the right signal. But the closer you were to it, the less likely a jamming system could overwhelm the signal. They packed advance electronic counter-countermeasures including frequency modulation and encryption, and each device kept in contact with all the others. However a powerful enough transmitter could render them unable to communicate with each other for a short period of time. Likely a much more powerful jammer than the OPFOR carried. Best be safe, however.

Toni switched on the touchscreens. The tiny drones came to life, beating miniscule wings just like real insects. They rose up, one by one, until they'd formed into an undulating swarm of mechanical insects, dispersing into the trees. They silently dispersed across the target zone. Radar wouldn't pick them up. If it was tuned that sensitive, it would pick up every insect out here in the Georgia hills. Toni set the LAWS to targeting mode with manual kill trigger required. The entire system could automate. With her overview fed to her by a conglomerate of the things' cameras, she began to see targets light up in red, indicating that one of the Killerbees, or many, had a bead on the target. Pretty soon every identifiable soldier was lit up. And the weapons systems. And the vehicles.

Toni sent a digital message out to the squad over the local link. "Await my mark. Do not leave cover."

The drones started to descend upon the camp, fluttering down like little silent snowflakes. Silent snowflakes of death.


The AT4 made a popping sound. Her Land Warriors picked up the sudden IR flag on the target. Obviously they couldn't use a real rocket. The ECM dome was flagged now as "destroyed." The squad opened up fire, weapons blazing in a line. Her ears filled with the sharp crackling sounds and her vision clouded with flashes of fire. They were firing out blue chalk rounds and probably giving the emplacements a good dusting, but probably not causing much of an impact. It stung when you got hit with one, though. Especially since they weren't wearing power armor for this exercise.

Toni only let the suppressive fire go on for two seconds before she pulled the trigger on the swarm. A moment later came a sound like a thousand loose pennies hitting a coffee table. This almost takes the fun out of it.
Targets neutralized.

"God-Fucking-Damnit!" Toni could hear the cursing all the way out at the tree line.

Never mind. That made it worth it. "Hooah!"
she yelled back. "Haha! Is that you Johnson? You've just been punked by Blue Force, you little bitch!"

She motioned for the squad to close in and put the touchscreen back in its case. The bees would be returning to their cradles. But she wanted to see the look on that asshole's face herself.

And sure as shit, there he was, Staff Sergeant Johnson, the same sad sack of shit that he was back in Ranger School, at the second machine gun emplacement. There was a smudge of blue on the side of his face and another on the back of his helmet. He had his hands up in the air. "How does it feel to be dead, fucker?"
she smirked, tapping him in the chest.

He scowled. "I'd ask you how it felt to be a bitch, but you got to have feelings first. The face? Really?"

She shrugged. "It's not supposed to do that with the training rounds. Guess you got unlucky."
She patted him on the cheek. "Suck it up, you fucking snowflake. You want to live forever?"
Yeah, that suited Johnson much better than that other snowflake. Toni had carried his ass all the way through Ranger School. Damn blue falcon. He was much better on the OPFOR, cause then she could fuck with him so much more.

Her squad moved through the camp to search for "survivors," but there was hardly any point. The bees had done their job well.

"All right, squad,"
she called out, bringing them in. "Good job, squad. Take five. Hell, take ten. Then we round up the equipment and debrief. Smoke 'em if you got 'em."

Yeah, winning was a lot more fun than losing.

Toni got called into the CO's office the next morning at 0730, right after morning PT. She barely had time to change into her BDUs and none at all to wash her hair. It wouldn't do to have wet hair when she went to see the company commander. Even though it was probably to congratulate her on last night's exercise. She knocked on the door and got called in.

She stopped in front of Captain Richardson's desk and snapped him a salute. "You wanted to see me sir?"

Captain Richardson peeked out from behind a sheaf of papers. The onetime 2nd lieutenant had done well so far, having grown into the command position. "At ease."
He returned the salute and stood. "Sergeant Perez. Do you know why I requested your promotion to staff sergeant even though you were three months away from time in service to qualify?"

Probably so it didn't seem like nepotism for that legacy snowflake puke Johnson to get his rocker so soon. Or it could have had something to do with the other things in her personnel jacket. Or that weren't in her file. When she'd returned from Camp Hoover, the captain had acted like she'd never been gone. Which was fine by her. She'd rather forget that crazy plae anyway. Aloud, though, she only said "On the merits? Sir?"

He grunted. "You are an outstanding individual, Perez. But you need temperance if you're going to be an effective soldier."
His words took on an edge. "I had hoped that the experience of leading a squad and being responsible for others before we see real action would teach you to dial it back a notch. And yet..."

He threw down the stack of papers and his eyes drilled into hers. "And yet I hear you ordering a GODDAM HELOCAST FROM TWENTY FEET!"

Oh, that? Uh oh. Someone must have complained. Probably Snowflake Hernandez. Toni snapped her hands behind her back to parade rest. "I did, Sir. Wanted to make it a more realistic experience like if the squad needed to bail out at sub-optimal level-"

Captain Richardson slammed his fist down on his desk. "My Soldiers are not your GODDAMN PLAYTHINGS, Sergeant. COPY?"

Oh, shit. CO was really mad. She wondered if maybe she'd stepped over the line. "Rodger, sir."
Well, it wasn't like it was all her fault anyway. There was the chief warrant officer who was piloting the thing. But no one could yell at warrant officers. They were immune to getting chewed out.

"You have a bad case of Too Hooah Syndrome, sergeant. I would rather have one average Ranger who can just do what he's told than a whole platoon of outstandingly hardcore Rangers with THS who can't follow the spirit of discipline. Understood?"
That sounded really dumb to Toni but she didn't argue. The captain took a breath. "Any one of my Rangers who gets hurt during training will not be able to fight in the real battle. And we need everyone in top readiness condition. Immediately."

Toni cocked her head. "What do you mean?"

He sat back down and motioned at the documents in his hand. "You'll find out in a couple hours anyway, so what the hell. The 75th Ranger Regiment has been issued deployment orders."

What? Oh, hell yeah! They were finally going to ship out and see some real action. Toni hadn't been on a deployment before. Just years of training. "Where are Merrill's Marauders going?"

"Officially, I can't say yet,"
the captain replied. "Unofficially -- Africa. Something about a humanitarian something or other. We're there to assist and advise, officially."

Well, that didn't sound too exciting. But from what she knew of Africa, the most humanitarian thing that could be done would be to put that continent out of its misery. It would most certainly be better than sitting around with Johnson for company. "Yes sir, you can count on my squad to be running at peak op tempo."
She nodded and snapped him a salute.

"I wasn't finished yet,"

he barked. Toni stopped in her tracks. "I know you will do your utmost to follow orders. But I am unconvinced that our conversation will do one bit to temper your...excessive hardcore attitude. And I just got this request from Public Affairs. Vulpesnet has asked for the Rangers to accept a media embed. Public Affairs will think it'll be good for something something. So I'm assigning this reporter to your squad."


Aw, fuck no! She was going to have to babysit some puke civilian reporter in a war zone? There was no way they'd let them go anywhere dangerous or involve her squad in any top-secret missions. "Sir. No. Please. Anything but that."
This was totally going to suck, but not in a good way.

The captain shot her a glance. "That's an order, sergeant!"
He cracked a wry grin. Damn officer was grinning inside with his own smugness, she just knew it. This was funny to him. "A true Ranger is able to embrace the suck on many different levels. You're just going to have to learn how. From this moment on, you are responsible for the well-being of every hair on her head. Now, why don't you show her to breakfast."

Fucking CO. But yeah, he was right. She needed to suck this up, too. "Yes, sir,"
she said.


Toni saluted and left Captain Richardson's office in search of this reporter. I'll make sure not one hair is hurt on this little special snowflake's head,
she thought, I might as well try to enjoy it.
The short trumpet call and the sight of a few soldiers speed walking for cover almost had Carolyne worried, but she knew Camp Merrill wasn't exactly in the middle of a war zone. "Unless you feel like getting caught out for colors, you should probably come with me," a young private said as he passed her by, walking towards the command post. He was carrying a clipboard and judging by the way he was strutting, he had something important to do. He wasn't bad looking, either, but the muscle bound high and tight crowd wasn't really her thing.

This wasn't Carolyne's first rodeo, but it was the first time she'd ever actually been invited along by the hosts. The 75th Ranger Regiment was into a lot of classified stuff, like any other special forces unit in any military on the planet. Carolyne knew that even if the government was trying to officially put this as a humanitarian mission, you don't send Rangers to Africa to help out locals.

The continent was practically on the verge of collapse, and with Jacques Danjou's mercenaries conquering western Africa, it wasn't hard to believe the Rangers were getting sent over to stop him. If her short career in journalism had taught her anything thus far, it was how to smell a good story - and this was looking like it'd be a great one, even if the very fact they were headed to Africa was so far off the record.

After all, it wasn't like the US had much in the way of resources anymore. Neither did China or Australia or any of the other countries not under Nikolai Brandon's thumb. If the entire continent fell into instability, that would be an awkward conversation for everyone in Washington.

When they made it into the command post, the national anthem started. Carolyne gave a look to the soldier with the clipboard. "You're telling me you all run for cover to avoid standing outside for a minute?"

"Wait," the private said, "You're that journalist, aren't you?" Carolyne gave him a wicked smile as his face paled a little. "You're not going to mention that in any articles, right?"

"Let's see,"
she said, "Private Barnes Retreats From His Own Flag."
Carolyne crossed her arms and looked away, a thoughtful expression on her face. "Sounds like a great headliner, doesn't it?"
She laughed, but judging by his expression, he didn't find it nearly as funny as she did. "Don't worry about it, your secret's safe with me. It's off the record."
"To The Colors" bled through the walls of the command post as Toni was walking to the door. Though it wasn't required indoors, she stopped, came to attention and faced the sound of the music. Her father would have expected no less of her. She watched a private scurry through the doors, and she scowled. Private Barnes. A recycle waiting to re-class and working in the personnel office until then. Someone else was in tow with him, too. A civilian.

"Private, Atten-tion!"
Toni called out to Barnes. He stopped in his tracks. "Private Barnes, for what reason did you fail to render honor to the flag?

"Uh, Sergeant," the soldier said, "I'm in a real hurry..." he held up the clip board and pointed to the personnel office.

Toni put one finger on the clipboard and brought it down to eye level. "The papers are all blank, Private."
He gave her a look like the first deer she'd taken down. What in the great world was wrong with people these days? Didn't anyone teach honor and respect for the country? How the hell were they going to beat the CCD if they were too apathetic to salute the flag? "Half right face! Front leaning rest position, move! Get down, private."

The burly private threw himself onto the ground. "You will say 'I Will' every time you go down, and 'Render Honor' when you go up. And you will not stop until you have done one pushup for each Ranger of the 75th who has given his life for his country this century. Start pushing."

That ought to set him straight. He had a hundred and fifty-three brothers in arms to atone for his lack of respect. Lucky man not to have found himself in the Marines, or he'd been there all day. As is, he'd be done in fifteen minutes if he lasted long enough. Toni turned her attention to the civilian. Wispy little thing of a girl, had kind of a plastic Barbie Doll look to her. Toni hadn't cared much to play with dolls as a child. Matched this reporter's description. She didn't think this girl would have been so young, though.

"Please excuse Private Barnes as he receives some additional instruction regarding his conduct,"
Toni said to the girl. "I'm Staff Sergeant Antonia Perez. You must be Ms. Weber. You will be embedded with my squad."
She held out a hand. Her stomach rumbled. "Have you eaten yet? I'll show you to the DFAC. We can still catch breakfast."
Judging by the amount of tater tots made last night, she was expecting some hash browns with her bacon and eggs.
If Carolyne had felt a momentary excitement at not being the only woman on the base, it died when the staff sergeant opened her mouth. Within seconds, Private Barnes was on his face. I thought that kind of thing only happened in movies,
she thought as she looked on in something approaching horror.

When the woman was finished, she introduced herself. Said she was Staff Sergeant Antonia Perez. Carolyne couldn't tell if it was her character or just her height that made her tower overhead. She gingerly shook the hand extended in greeting.

"It's great to meet you, Staff Sergeant,"
she said, still eyeing the private who was still shouting and doing push ups. Creepy
, she thought. "I'd love to go get breakfast with you."
She was going to be with this woman for how long? God help me.
"Sergeant is fine, "
Toni replied, and motioned for Weber to follow. "The DFAC is right across the way. "
as she led Weber out of the command post she caught the girl eyeballing Private Barnes, who had already made it to number 62. Good grief. She hoped Weber didn't have a thing for soldiers. An easy civilian female in the sandbox around a bunch of men would prove a challenge to any NCO's ability to maintain discipline.

Toni led the reporter through the chow line, grabbing a plastic tray for each of them and handing one to Weber. The private on the other end who'd drawn KP duty loaded her up with eggs, bacon and hash browns. "You're in for a treat tonight, they're serving Chili Mac. "
Chili Mac with white bread was the best. She grabbed a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a bottle of water.

There was cafeteria style seating with long tables in the place. Toni found an empty one and sat down, loading her food with pepper and ketchup before digging in. "After this I'll take you to the quartermaster and we'll get you issued some standard equipment you'll need, and then we'll get you a bunk. "
Toni drank up her coffee. "This afternoon we will conduct some survival exercises and then we'll acquaint you with the up link equipment that we'll be using so you can get your dispatches out to Vulpesnet when we're in the sandbox. Questions so far?"
Toni popped the top off her water and drank it down. Had to stay hydrated in this Georgia summer heat.
The scary thing about the staff sergeant was how she could swap from hellish rage to pleasant placidity in a heartbeat. It kind of reminded Carolyne of her mom, to be honest. But she was one of the good guys, and altogether she didn't seem half bad.

The food wasn't as bad as her brother always said it was, but it definitely wasn't good. Carolyne got herself a plate of eggs and some hash browns - nowhere near as much as the other woman took. Further down the line, though, she loaded up on fruit salad. A bottle of water rounded everything out and they sat down at an empty table. Carolyne got the feeling the staff sergeant didn't sit with others very often.

After the staff sergeant explained her plans for their day, she asked Carolyne if she had any questions."I'm a reporter, Sergeant."
Carolyne said with a small smile. "I always have questions. For starters, when are we actually flying out?"

Toni polished off her breakfast and slid the tray to one side. Ms. Weber must not be too familiar with Army operations if she expected Toni to give her an answer to that question. "We fly out when we fly out, Ms. Weber,"
she replied. "There's a saying in the Army. 'Hurry up and wait.' Our job is to be prepared to go. We don't ask when, we just hurry up -- and wait."

She finished off her water while waiting for the young girl to finish her fruit. No meat on her tray, Toni noticed. Who would turn their nose up at bacon? Maybe it was a religious thing. The girl obviously didn't have dietary restrictions, judging by the eggs she'd grabbed. While waiting, Toni reconsidered her answer. After all, she didn't do anyone any favors by antagonizing the girl.

" We don't release travel specifics for security reasons. You may find yourself around a lot of classified information on this mission that could harm you, or us, if it was published. As a part of your embed agreement, Vulpesnet has agreed that you won't report something we say is off the record. I don't want you to accidentally break the agreement because then we'd have to kick you out of country."
Plus, no one really knew exactly. It could be tomorrow or six days from now. Probably tomorrow at zero dark thirty. She drummed her fingers on the table. "Here's what I can tell you. We are a Rapid Deployment Force, which means it is our mission to have combat troops wheels-up and on the way within eighteen hours of receiving orders. So I wouldn't make plans for Friday night if I were you."

Toni stood up and grabbed her tray. "Any other questions or are you ready to get fitted for your body armor?"
"I think the rest can wait, Sergeant."
Carolyne said as she stood and grabbed her tray. There was a lot to do today, and she'd have plenty of time to build the background for her stories. This time was for getting to know the men and women of the 75th. She didn't feel like being an outcast. "Here's hoping they have something in my size,"
she said as they passed through the doors. It wasn't like there were a lot of size 4's running around the base.

Luckily for Carolyne, it didn't take all that long to get geared up. Which wasn't to say everything fit too great; turns out the smallest size they had in the Army was, inaptly named, "small." Carolyne happened to catch her reflection off of a window when she was trying the vest on. I look like a turtle.
Carolyne winced. She got the feeling the staff sergeant didn't look quite as ridiculous when she was wearing it.

By the end of it, Carolyne had been issued everything from night vision Land Warriors to canteens and water purification tablets. It must have been sixty pounds of equipment, all told. Altogether it definitely explained why old soldiers weren't known for having great knees.

After gearing up at the quartermaster, Toni took Ms. Weber back to her barracks. There were two twin size beds in her room with foot lockers at the end, a desk with a touchscreen, a fridge and not much else. Some pictures of her father and some of Toni's awards. "There isn't much in the way of women's acommodations here at the camp, so you'll bunk with me for now,
" she told Ms. Weber. "Although I don't know how long we're staying. Put your ruck and other stuff on the bed, but keep your canteen, belt and protective equipment."

The girl nodded very slowly. "Sounds good, I'll try to keep it quiet."
Toni kept a straight face at that. Why would she be loud?
Weber dropped her rucksack on the bed and paused. "I'm actually participating in that survival thing, aren't I?"

Toni blinked. "You want to survive, don't you? I can't make you a Ranger overnight, but I can at least make sure you don't get my squad killed out of ignorance."

"No, I get it."
She looked at Toni. "You just surprised me, that's all. This is my first time being an embed. I'm usually out there on my own."

Well, this was Toni's first time with an embed also. Toni geared up herself and rang up a Joint Strike Vehicle to get them to the range, stopping at the armory to draw her M6. No live fire today, but the squad needed to get this reporter acclimated to their movements. Which shouldn't take long. She gave Weber a quick walk through of land navigation, reading a map and determining coordinates that could be communicated over the communications link. "If you get lost and something happens to us. When we're outside the wire, don't go wandering off by yourself. Ever. If one of my soldiers grabs you by the back of your kevlar, you move with them. Copy?"

The girl nodded. "I won't fight them."

That was good to hear, because as if to drive the point home -- though it was mere coincidence -- the artillery simulators began screaming in. "Cover!"
she yelled and the squad turned to face the sound and dropped to the prone position. Toni reached up and dragged Weber down to the ground by her canteen belt. The girl fell face first, clearly not expecting it, but at least she got down before the explosions came.

"Whoever's controlling that has great dramatic timing,"
she spat out, along with a little dirt. She didn't look to be enjoying herself much. For some reason that filled Toni with a bit of self-satisfaction. Aw, Barbie got her face dirty.

Toni popped up. "Two hundred meters, two o'clock,"
she yelled to the squad. She turned to Weber. "That means we're going to run as fast as we can in that direction. If they're firing for effect, we want to get out of the kill zone."

They hoofed it to the trees, and repeated the exercise a couple more times. Weber was doing all right, and to her credit was fit, and paid attention, but there was no way she'd be able to keep up all day at this pace.

They paused for water and then practiced a close ambush situation, complete with an IED. They piled into the Joint Strike Vehicle, eight squad members marching beside it. Toni took the command seat and put Weber in the back with one soldier on each side of her. While they were rolling down the dirt path, a shower of dirt suddenly erupted alongside the vehicle, and chalk rounds began flying toward them.

"Hernandez! Bail out left!"
Toni yelled, and rolled out the vehicle. The soldiers on the outside were attempting to regroup and form a defensive line. Corporal Hernandez grabbed Weber and led her out the left side of the vehicle. He kept a hand to her back and crouched with her while two other Rangers came around from behind.

The OPFOR was really good at making this seem like a realistic ambush. There was shit flying everywhere and they were assaulting hard from the far treeline. They had no cover out here until they got off the road. "Get down!"
Toni yelled from the other side of the vehicle. "Low crawl off the road! Hernandez, get her to cover!"

Corporal Hernandez pushed Weber down and indicated how to crawl with her head to one side, flattened out on the dirt. Toni took her eyes off Weber for a minute to scurry to the far side of the road in order to throw a training grenade at the assailants. She was focused. Going to get the area cleared,
she thought, unconsciously touching daddy's dog tags. She glanced back as the other squad members started putting down more cover fire.

And that's when Toni saw Weber up on her elbows peeking around the side of the Joint Strike Vehicle to watch what was going on.

Smack. It was as if Toni saw it in slow motion, the chalk round striking Weber right in the bridge of her Land Warriors. Sure, it was a glancing blow, but it wasn't going to feel good. Aw, fuck!

Toni saw Weber drop and ditch her Land Warriors, squeezing her eyes shut as she gripped the bridge of her nose. Was she crying or laughing? Or just trying to catch her breath?

she yelled. The firing ceased. Toni got up and ran over to her. "You okay?"
She looked over Weber. Yeah, that would leave a bit of a bruise. But she looked like she'd survive.

Toni turned to Corporal Hernandez. "Corporal Hernandez. Why is our reporter dead? You were supposed to keep her down."

"Fucking fuck,"
Weber interjected before Hernandez could reply. . Then she chuckled. "Who the hell decided to make those hurt that much? It was my fault, I was being stupid."

Toni kept her eyes trained on Hernandez. "Your job is to keep Ms. Weber from doing stupid stuff like that. So she doesn't endanger herself and the rest of us when the shit hits the fan. She is not a trained soldier. You are. Copy?"

Hernandez nodded. "Yes, sergeant."

She turned to Weber. "As for you, your job is to stick with your escort and do what they tell you when the shit hits the fan. It is not time to be curious. The real thing will hurt much worse. And where we're going, anyone daring to attack us won't care how much a special snowflake you are. They will shoot you dead just the same. I hope you learned something today."

Toni motioned for the squad to round up their equipment and proceed to the classroom for rules of engagement and local customs instruction. What would normally be an awesome hardcore range exercise instead left her with nervous butterflies in her gut. This was going to be the worst deployment ever.

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