43.050278°N 74.469444°E Transit Center at Manas (formerly Manas Air Base), outside Bishkek, KyrgyzstanJune 6
THE MESS HALL WAS deserted. Master Sergeant J. J. Bartley sat alone at a long, well-worn table that had seen thousands of airmen, soldiers, and Marines pause from their work long enough to pound down some grub before returning to their duties. On the table rested a chipped plastic coffee cup and two file folders. The expansive room seemed twice the size J. J. remembered the last time he passed through the air base. Of course the room was full of hungry servicemen then, many headed to Afghanistan. That was Manas’s primary role over the last decade: the jumping-off spot for troops headed to hostile country.
As an Army Ranger he did two tours of duty in Afghanistan before being hand-selected by Sergeant Major Eric Moyer to be part of a unique spec ops team. He made several other missions into the country as part of that squad, including one he was sure would be his last moment on earth. As it turned out, a pair of F-18s came to the rescue of the six-man unit as they fought off overwhelming numbers of Taliban fighters advancing on their position. The jet jockeys saved their lives by dropping a pair of ICM bombs on their location. The Improved Conventional Munition bombs exploded fifteen feet above their heads, leaving the ground littered with dead Taliban and a ringing in J. J.’s ears that took a week to go away.
That seemed a lifetime ago. Since then, as the sniper and explosives expert for his team, he traveled to a dozen different places on the planet, none of which he was allowed to name, and carried out missions he was forbidden to speak about.
“Stare all you want, Boss, but that coffee ain’t going to do any tricks.”
J. J. didn’t have to look up to know that Sergeant First Class Jose “Doc” Medina was approaching. He raised his gaze anyway and returned the medic’s smile. Jose was a solid man with a keen mind, quick humor, and an admirable steadiness. If the sky were to rip in half and a million alien ships from another dimension appeared ready to take over the world, J. J. was sure Jose would look up and say, “Well, look at that. A man doesn’t see that everyday.” J. J. liked the man for another reason. In addition to his being a superior soldier, he also saved J. J.’s life after a gun battle. He owed the man several pizzas for that.
“Hey, Doc, where you been?”
“They have a great rec hall here. I was shooting pool with the Air Force guys.” He pulled out a chair and sat.
“All in the name of inter-service fun, no doubt.” J. J. lifted his cup. The coffee was cold.
“Of course. You know I believe we should respect all branches of the military, even the inferior, less skilled ones.”
“You heard me.”
Jose shrugged. “Maybe a couple of twenties.”
“Each.” Jose pretended to look guilty.
“How many airmen did you fleece?”
“Oh, who keeps track of such things? I was just killing time.”
J. J. narrowed his eyes.
“Okay, just four. My conscience was beginning to bother me.”
“Lucky for them.” He put the cup down. “Seen Pete and Crispin?”
“Not since Crispin gave his little demonstration. He did a good job. I was impressed, and I’ve seen his tech kung-fu in the field. All those itty-bitty surveillance drones were a hit. Left the local tech boys drooling.”
“Yeah, I was there, but I haven’t seen them since.”
“Do you need them? I’ll go round ’em up.”
“Nah. Just as long as they’re front and center when the new guys arrive.”
“Ah, that’s it.”
J. J. cocked his head. “What’s it?”
“You look down, Boss, like you’ve lost your favorite girlfriend.”
“‘My favorite girlfriend.’ You know I’m married. Tess won’t let me have girlfriends.”
Jose slumped in his chair. “Wives are funny that way. My wife won’t let me date either.” He paused to let the quip die before establishing a more somber tone. “I miss them too.”
“I didn’t say anything about missing anyone.”
“I was listening to your face.”
“Sometimes you confuse me, Doc.”
Jose chuckled. “You know what they say about Hispanics: we’re inscrutable.”
“I thought that referred to Asians in old movies.”
“Eh, Asians, Hispanics, whatever.” Another pause. “You’re thinking about Boss and Shaq.”
“They’re home safe and sound. I’m not worried about them.” Images of the team’s former leader and second-in-command strobed in his mind. Last he saw them, they looked well and happy. He could hardly tell both were severely wounded and the latter lost an eye. Both retired shortly after the mission in eastern Siberia and took jobs with a civilian security firm.
“I didn’t say you were worried about them. I think you’re worried because they’re not here. You went from team member to boss in short order. There’s gotta be some psychological whiplash in that.”
“Psychological whiplash? They teach you that at Fort Sam Houston?”
“Nope. Medic training taught me many things but not much psychology. Life, on the other hand, has taught me a ton.”
“Okay, Doc. What’s eating me?”
Jose sat up and leaned forward on the table. “Nothing bad, Boss. You’re just being human.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being called Boss. Every time someone calls me that, I think of Moyer.”
“You’ll get the hang of it.” Jose paused. “Can we talk like a couple of old buddies?”
“That’s what we are, Jose.”
“Well, at least in here. Anyone else walks in this room and I’ll go back to being formal.”
The corner of J. J.’s mouth inched up. “You have a formal side?”
“I’m nothing if not a model of Army decorum.” He inched closer to the table as if he were about to whisper a secret. His volume remained the same. “Okay, here’s how I see it. We are creatures of training. We enlist and start at the lowest rank. Time in service and experience lead to promotions. We have a good idea how that’s going to progress. You’ve just been pushed up the ladder faster than expected. The view is different up there.”
“So now you’ve been selected to take over for a man we admire and respect. He’s one in a million. He’s got it all: brains, courage, loyalty, and a soldier’s sixth sense. He left under tough circumstances. Nearly lost his daughter to kidnappers trying to sway him in his mission. Took a beating. Nearly died. To hear him tell it, he did die and came back. His cover was blown so his usefulness as field operative was gone and that’s all he ever wanted to do.”
“He is a great man. Taught me more about soldiering than basic, AIT, and Ranger training combined.” A wave of sadness ran over J. J. “I can’t be Eric Moyer, Doc. In my mind, he will always be Boss.”
“But he’s not, J. J. He was team leader. Now you’re the man. No one is asking you to be Eric Moyer. The Army—the team—wants you to be you.”
“Is that enough?”
Jose straightened and stared into J. J.’s eyes. “It is in my book.”
“It’s not that I’m afraid—”
“You’d better be afraid. I don’t trust a man who says he’s not afraid. Such men are either liars or lunatics.”
J. J. raised an eyebrow. “Really? And which am I?”
“You’re neither. I’ve seen you afraid and you’ve never been braver. You can do this, J. J. I got your six. You know that. Pete danced a jig when he heard of your promotion. At least I think it was a jig. The man has no rhythm.”
J. J. laughed. “You got that right. First time I saw him bust a move I thought he was being electrocuted.”
Jose chuckled, then the grin evaporated. “Seriously, J. J., I’m proud to follow you into battle. Don’t doubt yourself and don’t doubt us. Besides, if you screw up, Moyer will kick your butt then turn on me for not straightening you out.”
“There’s a terrifying thought.” J. J. gazed into the black fluid in his cup. More than self-doubt was eating at him but he had endured all the pep talk he could. Jose seemed to sense it.
“You happy with the new guys?” The medic motioned to the personnel jackets.
“Yeah, as much as I can be. It’s hard to judge a man’s character from notes on evaluation forms. Both are experienced and decorated. Seen lots of action, mostly in the last half of Iraq and in the wind down of Afghanistan. Both Rangers. One comes in at the same rank as me: Master Sergeant. He’s got six months on me as well.”
“Doesn’t matter, J. J.; you’re team leader. He’ll know that.”
“He’ll also know that I was frocked. I have the extra stripe but not the official promotion and pay.”
“It’s just a matter of time, J. J. You know once there’s some head room, you’ll get the full promotion and maybe more. It’s all a numbers game. There are scores of soldiers working at a higher rank than the Army is allowed to give them. Functionally, you’re the man, and I’ll fight with any man who disagrees.”
“You’re a pal, but you may want to hold on to the boast for awhile.”
The door to the mess hall opened and a skinny airman stepped into the dim space, saw them, then walked to the table. “Master Sergeant Bartley, I’ve been asked to tell you the transport plane you’ve been waiting for has touched down. It’s pulling to the tarmac now.”
J. J. glanced at the rank insignia on the man’s upper sleeve: one stripe and an Air Force star in a circle. “Thank you, Airman. I would like to meet the plane. Can you get me there?”
“I was told to have a vehicle waiting.”
J. J. stood, lifted the cold coffee to his lips, and drank. He grimaced. “Where did the Air Force learn to make coffee?”
The young airman remained straight-faced: “From the Navy.”
“Figures.” He set the cup down. “Gather the team, Doc.”
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