I peered out of the open access panel over the stubbly corn fields overgrown with prairie grasses, weeds, and wildflowers. What exactly is the difference between a weed and a wildflower or a wild grass, anyway? It has something to do with what is supposed to be there and what is not, I guess. Certain things are in a place because someone put them there, and other things get to where they are because they just wind up there. No telling, really, how a lot of things end up where they do.
Kind of like me, I guess you’d say.
I had not seen Ed’s Ghost for over a day, and I started thinking about what a ghost might really be. I had never been what you would call a “spiritualist,” or (in the old fashioned way of talking) a “dualist” – that is, one who believes in the a separation or coexistence of a man’s mind and his body. I never found any reason to start thinking that way – until I met Ed’s Ghost, that is.
I looked at my rifle. My stolen rifle. My rifle stolen from a guy who had a heart attack while he was trying to peacefully take a leak on a roadside. Poor fat fool. Since he was dead, did my taking the rifle from him count as “stealing?” I suppose if I stole it from anyone, I stole it from the Project. If there was anyone that could afford to lose a rifle, it was the Project. And if there was anyone who would serve up your head on a platter or your chest against a firing squad for stealing a rifle, it was the Project. I would plead ignorance and fear, I suppose, if I got caught, and just hope for a blindfold. Bastards. Like they need all the rifles they’ve got.
It was a peaceful looking rifle. Black. Gas-operated. Air-cooled. Magazine-fed. Select-fire. 5.56 millimeter bore. My uncle Niles said these were almost the same kind of rifles that they used way, way back before the war. In fact, Uncle Niles said that his granddad (is that my great-granddad? Great grand-uncle? I don’t know) had used almost the same rifle in a place thousands of miles away where we went to go kill people for killing the people who were helping us to kill people. He had stepped on a bamboo skewer of some sort – the thing went right through his boot when he stepped in a pit. The damned leg got infected and they ended up having to cut it off. Uncle Niles showed me a picture, once, of his great granddad and some of his friends using drugs in that same war. Not the kind of drugs we have now, mind you. We have safe drugs now. Him and his friends smoked things right into their lungs. How crazy.
That was before his leg had to come off.
Anyhow, it was a peaceful rifle – nothing like the street sweeper that I used to use on patrol. I held it up against my shoulder and looked through the ghost rings. Funny name, isn’t it? Ghost rings. I thought about Ed’s Ghost while I did that, and I thought about Ed doing the same thing. I swept the barrel over the stubbly fields way down below, and I thought back to Ed getting pressed though that steel grating – the whole big load of titanium ingots coming down on him like a ton of heaven or a ton of hell, and turning Ed into pulp in less than a second. Pressed him right through that grating, clothes and bone and kevlar helmet and all. And Cindy only had his one gold tooth that they found that she could identify. The gold tooth with a cross engraved into the back of it. Crazy.
And I saw a three-man patrol way down below – looking for me, no doubt. They were less than 100 meters away when they came into view, stretching their way across the corn field, just like they were trying to flush out some kind of game – which they were, of course. I trained my ghost rings on the man in the rear, and flipped off the safety. Snap. He went down like a sack of silicone caulking. The other two crouched down and shouldered their rifles. Before they could figure out where the shot had come from I trained on the second one. Snap. Right through his teeth. I saw it. Down he went.
The last man let his rifle drop on its sling, and he turned to run. I put the front sight right between his shoulder blades, and took up the slack on the trigger.
“Hombre, easy,” I heard the voice of Ed’s Ghost.
I thought that I shouldn’t let him get away. I thought that he would let the garrison know my location. I thought I shouldn’t shoot a man in the back.
“Ed, I can’t shoot a man in the back,” I whispered into the ether.
“Easy,” he said again.
There was a flash of white light and I saw bits of fatigue coat go blowing into the air. Probably a little soldier-meat, too, but I didn’t look too closely. The guy had hit a white phosphorus anti-personnel mine. He probably never knew what him him, I thought to myself.
“Like a ton of heaven or a ton of hell, Hombre,” said Ed’s Ghost. “Take it from someone who knows.”
It got silent. So did I. I snapped the safety on and crawled back into the main shaft of the windmill.
The wind picked up, but I fell asleep, and dreamed of wild prairie grasses and gold teeth.