The sound was unlike anything I had ever heard before. .50 caliber machine gun rounds were flying around us like angry bees, tank shells were zooming over our heads, and up in the cloudless sky, hordes of jets were performing a lethal tango with each other against a backdrop of innocent blue.
The sound was the first thing that had struck Michael and I as we jumped out of the helicopter, hovering a few feet above the ground, onto the beach. This Italian beach had once been a beautiful tourist area, complete with colorful beach towels and picturesque sand castles. But now it was scarred by mortar craters, burning tanks and bodies. The ocean had turned a dark, violent shade of red.
Now, though, the sound had been replaced by a distinct ringing in my ears. I seemed to be watching from a distance, unable to move, as Michael pulled me down into one of the mortar craters.
"Talis!" he called. He propped his assault rifle on the rim of the crater and returned fire at the invisible enemy.
My name awakened me. I ripped the empty magazine out of my sniper rifle and shoved a new one into it. I joined Michael at the rim of the crater and fired, at times at a silhouette, at times at nothing in particular. It seemed to be an eternity before the radio crackled. The voice of an anonymous officer, annoyingly calm, reached our ears.
"Private Talis, what are the exact coordinates of Structure 3, over?" I grabbed the radio.
"Command, where the hell is Structure 3?"
"Look approximately a thousand yards due southwest. That building is Structure 3. An enemy tank division is using the building for cover. Please give us the exact coordinates of the building so we can direct an artillery barrage at it."
I turned around and, sure enough, through the smoke I could see the top of what looked like a hotel. I checked the map as Michael continued to fire his assault rifle. Strangely, I didn't react as a slew of machine gun rounds bit into the ground next to me.
I picked up the radio again, and related the coordinates.
"Thank you, Private Talis. Ten 120-mm rounds incoming. Take cover."
I set the radio down and glanced over at Michael. He was staring at something behind me. I turned to look. My mouth fell open in horror. A family, caught in the middle of the battle, was running straight for Structure 3. They would never make it to the building before the 120-mm artillery rounds hit.
I was about to look away when an unexploded grenade rolled into the crater from somewhere. It Michael in the face, and rolled another few inches. Without thinking, Michael jumped at me and covered me with himself seconds before the grenade detonated.
When I came to, the first thing I heard was the voice of the calm officer. He was saying something about thirty seconds until the artillery impact. I opened my eyes, and saw Michael several feet away from me. He seemed fine, but...something wasn't right. I crawled over to him and rolled him over. His back had been torn to shreds by the grenade fragments.
"Talis?" he mumbled. Blood was beginning to run from his mouth.
"Michael!" I shouted. "You will not leave me here on this God-forsaken beach. You hear me?"
"The...the medical pack..." Michael managed. With a great effort, he lifted his hand and pointed outside the crater. The pack and the radio had been thrown by the grenade blast and were lying in the sand about ten feet from our crater. A line of enemy tanks was approaching, though, and would see me if I ran for either one. If I stayed in the crater, however, both the family and Michael would die, but the tanks would not see me.
And now came the Choice. I had enough time to radio the officer to cancel the artillery strike, to save the family. I also could make it to the pack and toss it to Michael so that he could try to save himself. If I did either one, though, the tanks' machine guns would tear me to shreds.
After two seconds, I made my choice. There was no way that I was just going to save myself, and I didn't even know the family. Michael had been with me from Day One in the Marines. I took a deep breath and sprinted out of the crater. I grabbed the medical pack and tossed it back to the crater where Michael could reach it.
Somebody shouted something in a foreign language. The language of our enemies. I turned to face the tanks. If I tried to run, they would know where Michael was hiding. I grabbed my handgun out of its holster and fired a shot at the lead tank's machine gunner. I hit him, but as he died, he squeezed the trigger.
I collapsed. That was weird. I hadn't even felt the bullets. I closed my eyes, and the sound gradually faded away to nothing.