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When Your Number Comes Up

by Bob Welbaum

“Listen up. I’d like to introduce you to Private Jerome Stanley. He just arrived and will be another driver for our armored personnel carriers. Stanley, this is your platoon leader, Staff Sergeant John Evans, and your hooch mate, Private JJ Hobbs.”

The slim young man smiled shyly. “Thank you, First Sergeant.”

Sergeant Evans walked quickly and extended a hand. “John Evans. Glad to meet you.”

Hobbs was right behind him “Good to see you, guy.”

“Glad to meet you both. Hope I can be a help.”

“I’m sure you will be a big help, once you get oriented. Is this your first tour over here?”

“No, Sarge, this is actually my second, although it’s been eighteen months.”

“Good, you’ll get up to speed pretty quickly, although some things have changed. The insurgency is hot again. And we’ve still got those damn improvised explosive devices to contend with. Seems like every time we get this figured out, they come up with a new twist.” Evans paused as tears came to his eyes. “Lost a helluva good APC driver last month.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“And they’ve come up with a new drone,” JJ Hobbs chimed in. “Really fast sucker. Like you can’t see it until it’s right there.”

Jerome sighed. “Sounds like we’re not making much progress. Guess we’re gonna be stuck here for another ten years or so.”

Sergeant Evans shrugged. “Well, it is what it is. We’ll fill you in more during your in-processing tomorrow. JJ, show him to his new home.”

JJ grinned. “Sure thing. C’mon, Jerome, it’s not far. At least distance-wise.”

* * *

In-processing: Jerome was enough of a veteran to know the drill. But there was a surprise.

At the Personnel Station, an earnest young staff sergeant, showed him a printout. “Each day we get our missions on a sheet like this. But it not only includes your day’s orders, it’ll also give your biometric readout.”

“My bio- what?”

“Did you get chipped?”

“Oh, you mean that thing they put in my shoulder?”

“Yeah, the chip, to monitor your vital signs.”

“Oh, that. Got it just before I left stateside. Never understood why they put it in my shoulder, though.”

The staff sergeant smiled wryly. “That’s so they can still get a health reading if all your limbs are blown off.” He pointed to the upper right corner of the sheet. “But at this post we have an additional data line. Seems one of the eggheads at the Biometric Lab is conducting an experiment. He wants to see if the data can also predict life expectancy.”

Jerome frowned. “How in God’s creation will one little chip tell me how long I’m supposed to live?”

The staff sergeant shrugged. “It checks blood sugar, cholesterol, heart efficiency, blood-oxygen levels, stuff like that. Seems like a shot in the dark, especially in a war zone. But I must say, now that I’ve quit smoking, my ‘croak date’ has actually been growing about two days farther out per day for the past month. Hope that continues.” He extended the sheet to Jerome. “Anyway, here’s your order sheet for today, for what it’s worth.”

Jerome took the sheet and his eyes immediately went to the life expectancy. “According to this, I’ve got, let’s see, another 59 years, three months, and 11 days. Croak date, huh? Very specific!”

“That’s if you can get through the next year first. Good luck!”

* * *

“Everybody up!”

Morning already? Jerome tried to wipe the sleep out of his eyes. Guess the time change was playing havoc with his body.

At Roll Call the day’s order sheets were handed out. A routine patrol was scheduled at 0900, although nothing in this area was routine. Jerome couldn’t help noticing his life expectancy had decreased by two days. “That’s weird.”

“What?” Hobbs, his hooch mate, looked over his shoulder.

“My life expectancy dropped by two days. Weird.”

“Oh, that. Remember last night when you grabbed two ice creams for dessert?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Your low-density cholesterol spiked. Happens to me all the time. Don’t worry, just lay off the desserts for a couple of days and it’ll go back to where it was.”

“Oh. But it still seems weird to me.”

* * *

With a feeling of apprehension, PFC Jerome Stanley climbed into the APC driver’s seat. Since this was his first patrol, he would be second in a line of four, protected by the others, but still able to see everything ahead.

The convoy moved out of the post, turned left on the dusty road, then proceeded toward a village just up the road. The adults they passed watched impassively, with the kids staring, fascinated by the vehicles. But everyone was peacefully going about their business.

Then it was through the countryside, back south on a parallel road, and return to the post. The entire trip took about three hours. Best of all, it was routine. No explosions, no drones, no shots fired. It was enough to lure you into a false sense of security.

Jerome parked, then climbed out of his dirt-splattered APC. “Well, that wasn’t so bad.”

Hobbs was right behind him. “No, thank God. Things were pretty quiet today. Got lucky, I guess.”

“I guess. Let’s just hope it continues.”

“Sounds good to me. Ready for some chow?”

“Sure. But easy on the desserts this time, okay. Gotta keep extending that lifeline.”

* * *

“Morning, gentlemen.”

“Morning, First Sergeant.” The platoon gave the post’s ranking NCO their full attention.

“This is a good day to be careful. Intelligence reports a new group of insurgents has moved into this area. They’re infiltrating the village two miles north of this post. That’s too close for comfort. Way too close. The mission today is to go through the village, house to house if necessary, and root them out, then check out the local area. So load up on the ammo, this is going to be a dangerous one.” The First Sergeant paused as his eyes searched the gathering. “Stanley, we’ve got some people at sick call this morning. You think you can drive lead today? Route will be the same as yesterday, just follow the GPS.”

Lead on the second day here? Aren’t we rushing things a bit? But this was a war zone, so there was only one appropriate response. “Yes, First Sergeant.”

“Good. Here are your order sheets. Note the earlier start time of 0830.”

Jerome took his order sheet from the First Sergeant, quickly scanned the page, then let out a chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” asked Hobbs.

“The biometrics. They’ve got today’s date for my croak date. Is that a computer glitch or what?”

Hobbs leaned over to look, then scanned his own sheet. “Mine hasn’t changed. But that has to be a glitch. The computer just substituted today’s date for your life expectancy. Stuff happens.” He paused to double-check his own date. “It is strange, though.”

“Yeah. Can’t wait to see what it shows tomorrow. Well, we have our orders. Let’s get cracking.”

The platoon prepared for the day like the professionals they were. Four armored vehicles were loaded, and the men, weighted down with as much equipment as they could carry, climbed aboard. With a wave to the First Sergeant, four diesel engines roared to life, transmissions were put in gear, and the convoy moved single file out the gate and into the countryside.

The First Sergeant said a silent prayer as he watched the vehicles turn left and disappear, heading north toward the village.

“Morning, First Sergeant.”

“Oh, good morning, Captain. You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes, just for a few minutes. Can we talk here?”

“Yes, sir. Wherever you wish.”

“I’ve just been messaged by division HQ and...” A low, rumbling noise from the north echoed through the camp. “Geez, what was that?”

The First Sergeant paused. “Sounded a bit like thunder. At least, I hope it was thunder.” Both men looked up.

There was not a cloud in the sky.

Copyright © 2020 by Bob Welbaum

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