Private Richard Machine came out of the latrine thankful he’d made it in time. The 20 minute ride back to Camp Polkner had been bumpy; at times he’d cursed his luck certain he’d explode. Machine swore he’d lay off the hard liquors; it always soured his stomach the next day. Since the crisis was over, he decided to stop at Geedunk to pick up some hangover foods. There was no telling how long it’d take the commander to get on site and they’d missed both breakfast and lunch. Besides, the chow hall wouldn’t open again until 6pm and that was too long to wait. Fortunately, Geedunk was on the way off base, which meant he could hit it up and be back before West killed the prisoner.
When it was his turn, he set his stuff on the counter and leaned down to ask, “Samantha, when are you gonna dump Tommy and head off into the sunset with me?”
Samantha blushed a little, laughed, and asked, “will that be all?”
“Uh, no. Once you dump him, I’ll show you what you’ve been missing, girl,” Machine grinned, “let me get a pack of Clovers and some Lights. We’re gonna be out there all day.”
“What’ve they got you two doing, now?”
“Same old ditch digging,” he shrugged, never willing to go into details with civilians, much less women.
She reached across the counter, grabbed his bicep and squeezed, “doesn’t seem like you’ve done much digging.”
“Oh. That’s cold,” he flexed, “try me now.”
She squeezed his arm again, pretended to faint, “I guess you are a strong one.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“Fourteen seventy six. Credit or debit?”
“Credit,” Machine swiped his wrist across the RFID chip reader, “see you tonight?”
“Of course. Tell Tommy I get off at 10. So, sometime after that.”
“I can get you off before that.”
She slapped at him, “get to work, soldier. Can’t you see you’re holding up my line.”
Machine looked over his shoulder, no one was behind him, “your line, my ass. I’ve got work to do. See you tonight.” With that he vacated the store.
He dropped the bag of food onto the passenger seat of the Rider, climbed into the driver’s side, cranked the beast up, and pulled on his seatbelt. The clock on the dash read 1:45 pm. He idly wondered where the last hour went while smacking the pack of Clovers on his palm. Unconcerned, Machine tore off the plastic wrap, stuck a cig in his mouth, and lit up. Regulations said no smoking in government vehicles, but no one who drove the old Tesla-C2s ever listened to that reg. They all figured that was for enclosed vehicles, the Dune Riders were nothing more than a motor encased in a steel frame with bucket seats thrown in for good measure.
19 minutes later, Private Richard Machine drove over the last dune before he reached the grave site. No one was visible. The hair on his arms and neck came to attention. Machine sat up a little higher as if that would help him see what wasn’t there. The trailer was still next to the hole, the mound of dirt was next to that. But, no one was there. Machine hollered over the growl of the Rider, “damn it, West. If you killed that pothole, I swear you won’t have to wait for the commander. I’ll kill you myself.” Private West had a habit of pranking people. Machine just knew he’d pop out from behind the mound yelling, “gotchya!” Parking next to the trailer, Machine figured he’d hook it up when they were ready to head in. He picked the bag up out of the passenger seat, held it in the air, “hey asshole, I brought you some food and smokes. Come and get it. Or, I keep’em for myself.” Nothing. He popped open his lemon-lime soda, took a swig, and bellowed, “listen, man, I saw your girl at Geedunk, either you get out here right now or I’m gonna steal her from you.” Still nothing. Slowly, Machine edged around the mound, as he made the back of it he saw brick red all over the ground. Every fiber in his body cried out, his stomach flipped as he stepped forward to peer over the edge of the grave.
The food bag and his soda hit the dirt when the realization of what he saw sank in. He fell to his hands and knees to vomit. In the grave lay a bloody, headless, and buckass naked body. Machine immediately recognized the tattoo on the left forearm. He’d been with Tommy on the day they’d gotten matching command tattoos from the badass artist, Gable, who worked on the Gambling Strip. Eight months ago, they’d gotten a 96-hour pass for handling some of the commander’s dirtier work. That weekend they had partied hard up and down the Strip, once they were totally sloshed they’d gotten tattoos. After heaving what was left of his guts out, Machine stood up. He stared down into the grave, “don’t worry, Tommy. I’ll find the son of a bitch. He won’t get away with this.”
Watching his military career slip between his fingers, Machine strode back to the Dune Rider where he grabbed the trailer’s gear key from the glove box. If he could find the pothole before the commander got there, he could kill the kid, and claim they were attacked. There’d be an official inquiry, but he could make it through that because his sister was a military lawyer. In no time, he had the trailer’s toolbox open. He pulled out their two gun belts, checked the spare clips, and took the two pistols from the gun case. He also slid their two full canteens onto the belts. Loaded down, he locked the toolbox, then dropped the key into his pocket. From the open pack of Clovers, he took a cigarette, lit it and inhaled deeply. The groceries. Can’t leave’em. Still sucking on his cigarette, Machine walked around the mound, kept his eyes to the ground, avoiding the gruesome sight in the pit. The grocery bag lay in the liquid mixture of soda and alcohol-infused stomach juice; the bag was disgusting, but the foodstuffs and the pack of Lights were fine. He pocketed the pack of smokes, the way this day was going he’d need every cigarette he could muster. The food went into the toolbox. The nasty bag was buried a few feet from the trailer.
It took sheer will, but Machine managed to steel himself. If he was going to hunt down that wretched pothole he’d need to follow whatever trail was available, which meant he’d have to start at the body. It only took a few seconds for him to find the dark droplets that headed away from the grave. The blood trail followed the distinct prints of a shovel and two feet. The bastard walked up the track with West’s head. Machine grunted.
He followed the trail up the track for an hour: blood, foot prints, and a shovel. The prisoner hadn’t been too bright after all. Quite suddenly the trail changed. First, the blood disappeared. Then, the shovel. There. Machine pointed. The sun glinted off something depending on how he moved his head and shoulders. With shovel in hand, he attempted to pick the trail back up, to no avail; desert winds blew away the last vestiges. It looked like the pothole was headed into the Smoking Forest. Not that it mattered to Machine, with no trail to follow there was no sense in continuing. He needed to get back to the site and call in this disaster before the commander arrived. As he walked his own trail back, he noticed brick red splotches reappeared by a giant sage. Instinct told him not to look, but loyalty told him to investigate. He owed Tommy that much.
The divot was obvious, the question was whether to use the shovel or his hands. Machine chose to dig in the shallow hole with his hands, caelum forbid he cut into West with that cursed shovel. When he pulled the sand and blood encrusted head out of the pink prison shirt, he nearly vomited again. He set both down on the ground and went to work knocking some of the grime off of West. The effort was for not, West’s head was so caked it’d take a pressure washer to get that crap off him. Finally, Private Richard Machine gave up. He tied the nasty prisoner’s shirt around the shovel, grabbed a handful of Tommy’s hair, and began the long trek back to the grave site. The grimy head bounced off his thigh, the filthy shirt slapped his back, and the shovel ate into his shoulder. He smoked the Lights, talking to Tommy as he walked; making promises to take care of Samantha and swearing he wouldn’t rest until that piece of shit pothole was in the same condition—decapitated.
The border patrol radioed Camp Polkner’s duty desk, “Sarge, you’re not gonna believe what I’ve found. Might wanna call the commander, this shit is crazy. Over.”
“Language, soldier,” the duty sergeant ordered, “this is an open squawk box. What is it? Over.”
“Some of our GSE and a headless body in a pit. Copy?”
“What?” the duty sergeant slipped.
“GSE and a headless body,” the patrolman repeated, “Over.”
By order, the commander’s secretary always listened to the duty desk radio, this way he could notify the commander of any problems. He dropped everything when he heard the exchange. The commander didn’t want to be disturbed, but this was precisely the type of situation that called for a disturbance.
The secretary knocked three times, waited a few seconds, then entered without permission. Before the commander could raise his head to object to the intrusion, the secretary blurted, “Sir, there’s been an incident. You’ll need to attend this.”
“What are you on about?” Commander Randle Dante, Sr. barked, his head still ached from drinking one too many bottles of wine last night. That worthless O’Malley had called to gloat about getting the promotion that they both knew Dante had earned. One of these days that arrogant SOB would get his comeuppance.
“The crew we were supposed to meet, Sir. Well, a patrol found the location, the GSE, and a body. The desk sergeant ordered a security detachment to the scene. We’ll get the call any minute, I suspect.”
“Get the car. We’re going. Now.”
The border patrolman had never seen a dead body before, much less one missing its head. He was only a year out of basic and had been assigned to patrol the nether regions of Poterit Dan as punishment for scoring lowest in his training class. He wrote down the serial numbers of the trailer and the Tesla-C2 Dune Rider, plus took notes on everything else he saw. The time was 3:33 pm. He shook his head knowing that this was going to be the hardest report he’d ever written. Generally, reports were easy just a couple of sentences in the passdown log about not seeing anything. But, this. He’d have to ask his supervisor what to do for this. He felt certain there was some long form he’d need. Complicated stuff always required a long form.
The commander’s driver sped over the dirt track. Through his rearview mirror he could see Commander Dante weaving with every bump. The man looked like he was about to hurl. The driver prayed, don’t let him barf. For Iphi’s sake, I don’t want to clean that up. In 15 minutes the driver stopped the jeep between two trucks, one belonging to the security detachment and the other to the patrolman. The commander hopped out before the engine was off.
“Well?” Commander Dante demanded.
“Attention!” the patrolman snapped to.
“At ease, for Iphi’s sake,” the commander hissed, “just tell me what you found.”
“It’ll be easier to show you, Sir,” a sergeant from the security detachment interjected while motioning the commander towards the grave.
Out of curiosity, the driver followed. Normally, he kept to the vehicle and waited in silence. Today, he couldn’t help but follow. After driving Commander Dante for over two years, this was the first time he’d seen the man hustle. When the two security guards and the patrolman pointed into the blood-caked hole, the commander’s mouth dropped. The driver peered in, then took two steps back. He slipped in someone’s vomit; as he fell onto his ass he saw yet another strange sight. “Commander Dante, look over there,” the driver pointed up the dirt track where a ragged soldier had appeared. The man held a shovel over his left shoulder with something pink tied to it and what could only be the missing head swinging back and forth in his right hand. The driver added his own stomach fluids to the ground.
“Lt. Musgrove, when you’re finished, return to the jeep,” the commander ordered. “When I’m ready to go, I don’t want to wait. Patrolman, take your hand off that gun. We don’t need another body. Sergeant, take these men up that hill. Don’t get too close. You’re to escort him down here. Maybe now we can find out what in Iphi happened here.”
As Private Machine crested the dune, he cursed under his breath; standing by the grave were five soldiers, one of whom could only be the commander. He watched as one of the guys fell down, then pointed right at Machine. Today was not his day. Putting one foot in front of the other, he continued the agonizingly slow march. Three of the soldiers made their way up the track, one had his hand on his gun. Fucking newbies, man. I oughta kick that dude’s ass. When they were close enough to speak, the men halted their advance, Machine kept going.
“Private, we’re to escort you,” the sergeant began, “dow—”
“I’m going,” Machine cut him off. He turned to the patrolman, “you don’t get your hand off that gun butt, boyo, I swear I’ll give you a reason to pull it. You don’t know what I’ve been through today. Don’t try me.” The patrolman blanched, looked over at the security sergeant, decided it wasn’t worth it, and dropped his hand. The four of them continued down the dune to the commander.
Machine held up Private West’s head, “Sir. He got Tommy.”
“I see,” Commander Dante replied. He thought about O’Malley. If this got out he’d never get another promotion. In fact, he’d quite possibly lose command and be demoted, or worse, forced to retire. Can this be contained? There’s no way. Too many people know something happened. The commander contemplated his options. “Sergeant, we’ve got an escaped prisoner. Radio base for a search team. You two,” he pointed at the patrolman and the other security guard, “put Private West into the trailer. Take him to the morgue. Private Machine, my jeep. I’m taking you to the infirmary. You’ve been out in the sun too long.”
“I’m fine, Sir,” Machine said. “I wanna hunt this motherfucker down. He’s headed for the Smoking Forest.”
“I know you do,” the commander nodded his understanding, “the search team will get him. I need you to get fixed up in the infirmary.”
Machine grunted, “yes, Sir.”
Lieutenant Musgrove sat in the driver’s seat, engine revving. When the commander and the private were in, he pulled out.
“Now, Private, tell me exactly what happened,” Commander Dante ordered.