“Dust”

By Christopher Rieckmann

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Dust. The first thing he noticed was the hot, dry air and the dust creeping through the tiny slit between his mask and pali scarf. He felt dizzy, and he didn’t know where he was, almost like waking up after a long, deep dream. He stood still trying to calm his breath, but the heat remained unrelenting. It was dark where he was. He found himself under a shelter, a bridge of sorts with bright sunlight on both sides. He felt sweat running from his forehead along his mask down his nose and tasted the salty liquid on his lips. It dripped from his neck all the way down to his boots. A waterfall of sweat. He wanted to move, get out of this heat, out of his clothes, but something made him freeze. He looked down and noticed black boots, pants, a jacket, a protection vest, and gloves as he vanished into the shadows. Only then did he realize that he was not alone.Four other persons clad in black had surrounded him. Calm, almost like statues – statues with weapons. As he looked closer, he noticed three machine guns, one sniper rifle, pistols on every hip paired with different types of grenades. He could even identify and remember how to use every single one of them: M4s, AWP, 4 USPs, 3 HE grenades, 4 flashbangs, and 2 smokes. What was this? Why do I know this much about armory? Where am I? He tried desperately to remember how he got to this place when, all of a sudden, one of the strangers turned around and stared him straight in the eyes.

The first thing he noticed was this familiar feeling in his guts. He looked into eyes that he’d seen before, feeling their glare upon him. The man in front of him knew who he was, and he felt the same towards the stranger. But how was that possible? He wracked his brain, but his memories seemed to disintegrate as if they’d been replaced by the dust. Another wave of sand, carried by the heat, gusted through the tunnel. Blinded by that wave, he almost missed the M4 flying his way. Catching it at the last second, he looked up at the familiar stranger, wondering why he passed him his rifle. Yet, all the other man did was nod and turn around, leaving him alone with the M4. He checked the bullet chamber and the magazine without even thinking about it. How the hell would I know how to do that? All of a sudden, a quiet but clear and firm voice in his left ear commanded, “Go! Go! Go!” and the group of four burst into a sprint with two gunmen leaving the shadows of the tunnel. He did not think about his next move, but something forced him to start running as well. He knew to group up with the two guys to his left even though he didn’t understand why. It felt as if something else was controlling him and his movements. And he could do nothing about it.

The soil cracked under their heavy boots when they made their way out of the tunnel and up a ramp. He flinched and squinted when they stepped out into the sunlight. On his right, he spied a golden sandstone building with Arabian ornaments and a balustrade. To his left, he noticed two wooden boxes alongside a wall that towered above him. Suddenly a memory flashed into his head: He knew this place or rather he knew a map of this place. A big red X with the words A-Spot had been marked on this plateau. He recalled seeing it scribbled on the map at the briefing yesterday. Or was it this morning? Last week? That part he couldn’t remember.

Their group of four ran around the corner of the building into a wide alley. The tall building cast a huge shadow. His eyes welcomed this pleasant darkness, but the heat continued to hover. Soon he was wet to his bones. “Smoke!” said another voice, and he knew that his two companions who’d left the tunnel were securing the huge doors to the shelter’s main entrance. The doors split the whole area in half. He remembered that from the map. The smaller team made their way towards the place marked B-Spot. The task force commander had called the two spots the places of interest for a possible group of terrorists. An informant had leaked some information about potential plans to attack this part of the city with timed bombs. Still trying to think about the details, he ran into the back of the second guy in the squad. Both of his comrades had stopped at the corner of the building. The impact made the man almost drop one of the flashbang grenades. “What’s wrong with you, Coates?!” a voice shouted over the radio. Coates – is that my name? He looked down at his body and noticed something glistening in his left breast pocket. A brand new dog tag: Sgt. Ryan Coates – SWAT Special Response Unit. Again the same voice shouted in his ear: “Flashbang!” With a flick of his wrist, his comrade threw the grenade around the corner. All three of them covered their ears, looked back, and closed their eyes. The bang was louder than he recalled from the vague memories of their drills. But in spite of the shrill noise in his ears, he knew what always came next: The three of them rushed out of their defensive position around the corner of the building towards two slightly opened wooden doors. Back to back, they moved forward while aiming at three angles, covering the hazardous areas. All of a sudden a shadow moved to their right. Coates’ body twisted, and the strange force now made him drop down on one knee and aim at the left-hand side of the wooden box. As soon as he saw a man stumble blindly from behind that box, the force made him pull the trigger rapidly, and every single bullet found its target. The man – still covering his eyes with his hands – fell into the dust. Coates couldn’t believe what he’d just seen – or rather what he’d just done.

I didn’t kill that man. Something else did – through me. What was that? Coates stared at the corpse in the dust as the force made him stand up and rush towards the two doors. He heard gunfire in the distance as he carefully peeked around the first door. He wanted to stop and breathe, hide, or at least ask a question. Yet, as soon as he realized that this narrow pathway was safe, the force made him run again. The sound of more gunfire rang out over the building rooftops in front of him. Only now did he realize that his comrades were shouting at one another over the radio. They must have all run to the B-Spot area. “Tunnels Coates, TUNNELS!” bellowed a voice that he’d not heard before. He remembered the tunnels as the connecting short cut to the B-Spot, but before he could decide, the force took over again and moved him in exactly that direction. Every muscle in his body ached from the weight of his gear, but he found himself sprinting nevertheless. As he rushed through the bottom tunnel and up the staircase, the sounds from outside seemed muffled and far away. His mind was cloudy, and he was on the verge of fainting when he heard a heavy explosion. The tunnel began shaking as sand and dust fell from above. Once his surroundings had calmed down, he realized that the noise was coming from his earpiece. Silence. Coates was scared to move. Even his invisible companion didn’t make an effort to control him. Suddenly, two single gunshots echoed through the tunnel. “COATES! Where the FUCK are you?! Terrorists down! Bomb has been planted! Get your ass over here. NOW!”

And there it was – the force that made him move again. Through the tunnel and into the bright daylight. As he was entering the backyard that he remembered as the B-Spot, he heard a slow ticking and saw his comrade crouching over what seemed to be the source of the sound. Swinging his M4 onto his back, Coates slowly made his way towards the man.

The bomb started to tick faster but not quite as fast as his heart was pounding. The timer displayed eight seconds remaining. Seven, six, five. He could do nothing but stand there, watch his brother-in-arms try to defuse it, and trust a man who he still couldn’t remember. The dust seemed to settle at last. Even his body, which was dripping wet and tired, calmed down. He reached into the pocket where he kept his dog tag. This time he felt a piece of paper. His hands began shaking as he took it out of his pocket. It was a photo of a beautiful woman with a little boy in her arms, both of them smiling directly into his eyes. Four, three. He could only focus on his little family at this moment. Two, one. The ticking stopped, and the world grew silent. “Bomb has been defused! Counter-terrorists win!” echoed through his earpiece. He smiled in relief. A single tear fell down onto the photograph just before the power was cut and the computer screen turned from dust to black.