Ben and his best friend, Ray Schmidt, became super soldiers against their will. They don't even realize what's happened to them because part of the process is to erase part of their memories. The wipe isn't holding with Ben, something that Wil had anticipated. He decides to speak to the younger man in private, calling him away from his girlfriend in the middle of the night.
They walked far from the living quarters, nearly to the perimeter fence. VanLipsig stopped, looking around him. He headed toward the spaceport, Ben in his wake. They got to a transport pad and the Colonel keyed in a sequence of numbers so quickly, Ben couldn't follow it. They teleported to a small ship.
"This is mine," VanLipsig said. "Follow." He led the way to the galley where he produced mugs of real coffee. "Sit. We need to talk."
"You recognized me that day at the parade grounds."
"How? You shouldn't have known me."
"I don't know, Colonel. I saw you standing there and knew I'd seen you standing like that before. Only before, you were outlined with flames and there was destruction all around."
"That pretty well describes my life, Sergeant. Be more specific."
Ben closed his eyes and moved his hands around as he spoke. "You in the middle of a room. Bombs going off outside, fires, dead people.... Lots of dead...."
"You shouldn't remember a damn bit of that," VanLipsig mumbled. "Not me, nothing."
"I wasn't hurt in a rock climbing accident. Ray wasn't injured on a mission and I'm not quite who I was before—am I?"
Colonel VanLipsig inhaled sharply, sucking in his cheeks as he thought it over. "Tell me what you remember."
"You, obviously. And a woman with dark hair. I see her sometimes when I'm with Delissa. They don't look a thing alike, but Delissa makes me feel like she does. Hot and dizzy, like I can't get enough of her. There's something special about her...."
"Forget the woman," VanLipsig said quietly. "Forget everything."
"I can't, Colonel. It keeps coming back a little like a broken pictures. I can't explain."
Wil, who knew exactly what Ben meant, nodded. He blew a smoke ring and took another puff on his cheroot.
"Kid, I'm probably the one man you know how understand completely what you mean."
"You had me wiped!" Ben rose from his seat.
VanLipsig had him by the shirt, lifting his toes off the deck before he could blink. "Sit down, son. This isn't how it's supposed to play out. The only reason I'm talking to you is that you're a loose canon running around trying to find ammo. I can't have that. I need you and your team to work with me. You may not like me much, I don't blame you if you hate my guts, but you'll do what I tell you."
"I know how to follow orders, sir," Ben said in a derisive tone. "Even if I don't agree with them or like the man giving them."
"Good. At 0800 tomorrow, you and your team will join me for target practice."
"Aye, sir. Anything else, sir?"
"You'll be briefed on the mission after I see what your men can do."
"I've got a feeling you've already seen that."
"But I want to see now."
"What's different about now?"
"You'll learn that when I decide to tell you, Marine."
"Yes, sir. May this Marine be dismissed now, sir?"
"Get out of here. Planet code is 55941."
"Thank you, Colonel."
He went back to the cargo hold and typed in the planet code into the teleporter. It cycled on and he found himself standing on the pad near the base once more. He walked back to Delissa's place and knocked, but no one answered. He realized his conversation with Colonel VanLipsig had lasted far longer than he'd realized. What else had happened up there? In his mind, he'd been there 20 minutes tops. By his watch, he'd been gone nearly two hours.
Curious and puzzled, he wandered back to the barracks and lay down on his bunk. Sleep came on him faster than usual and he didn't budge until Ray shook his shoulder.
"It's 0730, Ben. We got orders to report to the target range at 0800. Where'd you go last night?"
Ben told him. Ray nodded. That jibed with what Delissa had said.
"No idea, but he was pretty adamant."
They arrived at the target range. VanLipsig wasn't there. Their team gathered around them waiting for orders. By 0910, there was still no sign of the Colonel.
"Well, First Sergeant, what do we do?" Ray asked Ben.
"He's a colonel, we wait."
"Yes, First Sergeant," Ray said with a disgruntled kick to the soil.
The grass by the tip of his boot exploded and they heard the muffled sound of a weapon fired with a suppressor. Ray jumped back then dove for cover when someone opened fire on them. Bullets came at them from every direction. They dropped to a
prone position and crawled to what meager cover there was. A couple of the men were hit, but most of them made it to the bunker unscathed. Even the wounded got there, only more slowly. The weapons fire continued until they were all inside.
Ben sniffed. Something smelled wrong. He couldn't place it, but he knew something wasn't right.
"We need to get out of here, Sarge." He pointed to a flashing red light mere inches from Ben's head.
Ben recognized the smell. It was the adhesive they used to position the explosive charge.
"Sergeant, someone's shooting at us!" One of his men complained.
"And we're about to blow up! Out!"
He flung himself out the door, landing on his belly. The others followed him, scrambling away from the bunker, staying low to the ground. More shots rang out, this time of a heavy thumper, one of their most devastating weapons. Big chunks of earth flew in the air showering them with dirt and debris. Miraculously, no one was hurt. Running low, Ben urged them to get a safe distance from the bunker before it exploded. Less than a minute later, a flash of bright blue light and a puff of smoke appeared in the bunker.
"Flash bang? Really?" Ray was furious. He stood up, earth rupturing around his feet. "We get it, Colonel. Wanna see how fast us homeboys can duck! You gonna shoot me, just fucking shoot! I'm tired of this!"
Bullets whizzed around him a few more seconds, quite pointedly not hitting him, but coming close. As suddenly as they'd begun, they stopped.
A tall man appeared at the tree line across the field. Others emerged from hiding places, some in full sniper camouflage gear, others in fatigues. All of them carried weapons. Colonel VanLipsig walked over, lighting a cheroot as he walked.
"That was pitiful. Didn't any of you see us? Or hear us? Dear God, we made enough noise to alert the dead!"
Ben's team looked at one another, ashamed. They hadn't even anticipated an ambush. Why would they? From their own people?
A medic tended the wounded as VanLipsig ripped them a collective new asshole. When he was done, he ripped into Ben specifically—with a little bit of Ray on the side.
"Pitiful! If we'd tried to hit you, you'd all be dead!"
"Were you using live ammo?" One of Ben's wounded men asked.
"Obviously, Marine. It went through your leg, didn't it? Moron."
"Colonel, permission to speak freely?" Ben said.
"Sir, this wasn't an accurate test of our knowledge. My men are the best there is...."
"No, Sergeant, my men are the best there is, or you'd be dead. Let me point out something—you are never off duty in a war zone, never off your guard. You pay attention to your surroundings or someone gets dead. Since my ass is dependent upon what you ladies do, I'm fairly certain I've got a right to do what's necessary to assess you."
"This is hardly standard protocol."
"Boy, ain't nothin' I do that's standard. I go where others can't. I pull off major miracles on a daily basis. In case you haven't figured it out, kid—I'm the evil twin of Jesus. Get your girls back to barracks. You're confined until I say so. All leave and privileges are revoked until further notice. That means you too, First Sergeant. So tell that hot girlfriend of yours she ain't gettin' laid for awhile and march your sorry ass on home."
He motioned to the men surrounding them. Without a word, they shouldered their weapons and headed back into the trees surrounding the field.