Divided We Fall(10)
Author:Trent Reedy


    PFC Nelson wiped his nose with his hand. “Looks like we got all sides.”

    Sergeant Kemp stepped up to us. “Both parties, plus maybe some others. Some drunks. Crazy biker-type guys. And enough news reporters to cover it all. This here’s real bad.”

    Other Guard units came in from all directions to set up a perimeter in a circle around the crowd. I drew in a deep breath. It was a relief to see at least a couple hundred Guardsmen and know my unit wasn’t alone out here.

    An Army Black Hawk helicopter swooped in among the TV news camera drone copters. It flew in circles around the immediate area, shining a bright spotlight down on the chaos below. “ATTENTION!” a voice blasted out of a loudspeaker on the chopper. “THIS IS AN ILLEGAL ASSEMBLY. RETURN TO YOUR HOMES. THIS IS AN ILLEGAL ASSEMBLY. RETURN TO YOUR HOMES… .”

    “Everybody get your ProMask on. They’re going to CS gas the whole area.” Lieutenant McFee handed the radio handset back to Sparrow.

    “Oh shit,” Sparrow said next to me. “I hate this thing.”

    Everybody hated the gas mask. I pulled open the Velcro flap on my carrier case, yanked the mask out, and pushed it to my face. At once my cheeks and chin began to burn a little. Some idiot hadn’t cleaned his mask from a two-week summer training session when the guys must have been in CS. Still, getting a whiff of the tear gas live was worse than any residue left in the mask. I pulled the web of elastic straps down behind my head and tightened the buckles on the bottom two, then put my hand over the front of the mask and pressed hard while blowing out. Then, while my hand covered the filter canister, I sucked in. The mask tightened to my face. A good seal. Now with every breath I took, I sounded like Darth Vader.

    Some of the people in the crowd were shouting stuff at us. Getting closer. I watched them through the little blurry windows in my mask. One guy shouted something I couldn’t understand. He lit a rag that stuck out of a bottle. Then he took a few running steps before he let the thing fly.

    “Get down!” Sergeant Kemp shouted. I dropped to the ground. The bottle crashed on the street maybe fifteen or twenty feet in front of us. Fire and broken glass erupted all around it. Some people in the mob cheered. There were only nine of us in the squad, ten with the LT. If the rioters attacked us, what were we supposed to do?

    The lieutenant pulled our two team leaders close and said something to them. Both of them quickly loaded a forty-millimeter gas grenade into the M320 grenade launchers mounted below their rifle barrels. Seconds later, I heard the popping sound of the launchers firing. Kemp had fired short so the gas round would hit the street about twenty yards in front of us and then bounce toward the crowd, spraying white hard-core nasty tear gas. Ribbon fired a second round the same way.

    The other Guard units must have had the same orders, because a faint white cloud developed at the edge of the crowd. Weirdly, nobody seemed to notice for a moment. Then more screams and swears erupted out of the crowd. Some people ran away. One guy vomited in the street as he rubbed his eyes. Stupid. Rubbing your eyes in a cloud of CS gas was the dumbest thing to do. It made it burn ten times worse. Sergeant Kemp fired one more gas round. The protestors scrambled to get away, but bumped into each other as they tried to get out of the gas. Then the wind must have shifted, because some of the gas drifted back toward us. The exposed skin of my hands and neck burned like crazy. It must have been terrible for the protestors in the worst of it.

    “THIS IS AN ILLEGAL ASSEMBLY. RETURN TO YOUR HOMES.”

    “Okay,” the lieutenant called out. He said something else, but I couldn’t hear him over the roar from the crowd and the helicopter.

    “What did you say, Lieutenant?” Sergeant Meyers said.

    Nobody could hear anyone when we were talking with these stupid masks on. The lieutenant passed the word down the line, like that telephone game they used to make us play in school. Luchen’s mask came up next to my face. “The squads are going to start moving forward. We’re going to move up in a wedge.”

    Oh no. What kind of plan was this? We were supposed to march forward into the crowd and … what? Stab them with our bayonets? Part them until they closed in behind to surround us?

    McFee ordered our squad ahead with a hand motion. Sergeant Meyers, on point, held his rifle up above his head with both hands in a kind of “raise the roof” gesture. We started forward. Kemp looked back at us guys in his team before moving up. I walked after them on the far left. Inside my mask, I could hear my every breath heavy and loud. I kept my thumb on the safety switch of my weapon with my finger right next to the trigger.

    Oh God, I prayed. Please help me get out of this one. This stuff isn’t cool anymore. I just want to —

    Something smacked into my mask and my weapon went off. Through the cracked plastic of my mask’s eyepieces, I saw the flash out of the end of my barrel.

    “Hold your fire!” someone shouted.

    “Oh shit,” I said. How had that happened? Someone threw a rock and hit me and I was surprised. Must have accidentally —

    Another gunshot went off. Wasn’t me. A third shot.

    “Who the hell is shooting!?” Sergeant Kemp yelled from somewhere.

    Our formation had stopped now. A rock hit me in the chest. Screams came from the crowd. The cracked lenses in my mask blurred my vision. When I closed my left eye, I could barely see around the white cracks in the right lens. I started to pull my mask up, but someone grabbed my wrist.

    “Keep that mask on, Private,” said Sergeant Kemp. “You don’t want —”

    Another shot.

    “The protestors got guns!” Sergeant Meyers called out. “Shoot ’em! Aim for the ones with guns!”

    “No! No! No!” Sergeant Kemp pushed Luchen’s barrel down. I didn’t even try to shoot, but went down on one knee.

    Protestors scrambled to get away. Another Guardsman, far enough away to be from one of the other Guard units, raised his M4 and fired. One, two, three rounds. Blood sprayed from some guy’s neck, his head snapped back like a yo-yo, and his Broncos hat went flying. Another round sliced through a man’s chest and cut into the belly of the woman behind him. Both dropped. Another guy’s hip shattered as he was hit. He screamed as he fell, his leg at a wrong angle. I hoped it was just the way my lenses messed up my vision.

    Another soldier fired. I couldn’t tell who. One, two. Three, four. Four more people fell as they ran. Screaming people trampled a teenage girl in their rush to escape. A bullet cracked through a storefront window behind us to our right. Someone inside screamed. Some dumbass reporter kept shouting at the cameraman who was filming him and the shooting.

    The Black Hawk finally silenced its loudspeaker and flew away. The capitol square was mostly empty now. Except … Out where the protest had been, there was blood. There were bodies.

    “Let’s go! Let’s get some field dressings on these wounds,” Sergeant Kemp yelled. “Casualty treatment. Move it!” He ran forward and I followed. Some of the other guys might have been with us. I think Lieutenant McFee stayed in the intersection, sort of waiting there on his knees.

    We reached the first person on the ground. “I can’t see shit. I’m taking this thing off!” I said.

    Sergeant Kemp grabbed my mask and held it on my face. “Private! Private, listen to me. There are cameras all over the place — TV news crews, comms. You do not want them to see you. Keep your mask on. Keep your armor vest on to hide your name tape. You do not want to be identified. Got it?”

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