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 He wracked his brain, but his mem­o­ries seemed to dis­in­te­grate as if they’d been replaced by the dust.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.

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