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A Grey Moon Over Chinaby Thomas Day
There were times on the island, late in the summer of 2027, when I thought I could hear the sun hissing off the ground. It was the same noise that the insects made in the jungle, out there on our miserable little cluster of Pacific islands, misbegotten and nameless somewhere south of the Marshalls, and it pressed down on me like the dust that hung in the air and stained it yellow.
But if I closed my eyes, I could imagine the noise was the sound of water, instead. On some days there was only the sun, hissing down on the islands and the ocean, but on the afternoon Sergeant Polaski was to arrive it was the sound of water, cool and clear in the shadows. I was standing on the rutted ground by the runway, remembering a picture Id seen of a river in Las Serranías del Burro, when the cough of his airplane intruded, rough and dry on the still air.
It backfired again and throttled down over the jungle, then shuddered onto the dirt runway in a cloud of smoke. When it had rumbled by I closed my eyes again, unwilling to give up my thoughts to a man whose arrival would surely end what little peace Id found here.
The plane turned and taxied back, then waited out in the sun with its engines idling. Minutes passed.
I opened my eyes. The airplane shimmered in the heat while its crew wrestled a crate down a ramp into the dirt.
When I turned in the direction of the voice I found myself looking into the barrel of a revolver, gripped in the hand of a short, blond man with a pale, unremarkable face and expressionless grey eyes.
He let down the hammer. "Thats not real bright, Torres, standing out in the dirt with your eyes closed." The crew pushed the ramp back up into the plane.
I hated Polaski. Hated him and loved him. I hadnt seen him since 1st Engineers, where wed served together until the unit was disbanded. It was broken up after Polaski killed an officer with an anti- tank roundbroken up mainly because the MPs couldnt decide whod done it. Polaski himself fingered a half- breed Samoan named Tulafono for it; it was the day after Tulafono had beaten me with a tire iron for swearing in Spanish.
Polaski was kicked back to sergeant in a demolitions unit, but Id kept warrant officer and was sent to join the forward units in the Pacific. Now Polaski was here, too, evidently as part of an Army plan involving heavy demolitions. It was a plan I didnt like because I knew nothing about it, which was why Id picked Polaski up at the airstrip in the first place. That, and the hint of anticipation Id felt when I first heard he was coming, the sense of a change in the wind that I didnt yet understand.
"What are they planning for these islands, Polaski?"
"Nothing you need to know about." With a shriek from the brakes the plane jerked forward again, a wavering blob of silver in the heat, and left behind a cloud of smoke and the crate, dumped on the runway like the stool of a great bird. "It isnt going to work, anyway," he said.
The engines spun up and the plane bounced around over the ruts, then rose tiredly up over the jungle.
Polaski didnt answer.
"I heard were looking for someone," I said.
Still he didnt answer. I was almost wishing hed gone, too, leaving me to my thoughts of how to get out of the war, how to get away and find a place of my own. How to get off of the planet altogether.
"Do you have a priest named Katherine Chan?" he said.
"The crates for her. Lets go, Im in a hurry."
Polaski and I had been picked up off the streets in Army sweeps at the age of fourteen, then sent to Technical Warfare School. For a country with too many immigrants, too little oil, and an aversion to drafting its own citizens, conscription as an alternative to deportation had become just another of the Armys growing number of dirty secrets. The four-year Tech- War School, itself a secret and open only to the conscripts with the most potential, was designed to provide regular Army units with technologically sophisticated soldiers, able to fight in the Pacific with little support.
Polaski called us the "Shorts"; in addition to what ever the Army thought of as intelligence, it had picked us for endurance, and in the end that had meant squat and tough. So we were squat, tough, smart and educated, and something of an embarrassment: Greater knowledge of the war hadnt always brought the Army greater loyalty.
"I need to see your captain," said Polaski. Hed taken over my truck by the runway, and now its electric motors hissed and spat as he ran down trees and rocks in the jungle.
"We havent got a captain," I said
"You need to see Bolton."
"No. We get them from Airmobile on the big island."
The jungle dropped away with a smack of high grass on the hood and a dry scraping sound as it dragged along underneath. We were in the big clearing by the beach, next to the helicopter pad and the mess canopy with its leaning, rusted poles. Scrub grass and rows of bungalows stretched away to the jungle on the far side.
Polaski dropped me off and drove away to find Michael Bolton. But before hed gone fifty yards, a familiar furry streak raced in from the side toward the trucks front wheelsMcGaffertys dog, low to the ground and barking for all he was worth.
Polaski swerved sharply. But he swerved toward the dog, not away from it, as though hoping the dog would overshoot. But it was a miscalculation, and with a sound muted by the distance into a soft thumping, the dogs body tumbled out from underneath the wheels and lay still in the dirt. Polaski kept going.
"At least you could stop and look!"
I shouted at him again and looked for a rock to throw, but it was too late. He was gone across the clearing.
The dog was dead. Its back and neck were broken and it bled from half a dozen wounds. I stroked its muzzle with the back of my hand and pulled out a rock that had lodged in its mouth with the broken teeth. I moved him away from the track, then trudged back to the mess.
The air under the canopy was heavy and still, punctuated only by the wet sound of sunflower husks spat across the floor by Sergeant First Class Tyrone Elliot. He was leaning back in a chair with his feet up on the table, a tall, powerful Southerner with mild eyes and black stubble on his dark face. His jaw was broad and square with thick muscles bunching in his neck as he chewed. Deep lines ran from the corners of his eyes and down past his mouth, as though hed been tired for a long time. The hands on his knees were big and still.
He didnt say anything for a while, but sat and chewed and watched the receding back of Polaskis truck.
"So your old buddy Polaskis here," he said finally. He rummaged in his pocket for more seeds. "So maybe well forget to tell him about the water, what do you think?"
"Polaskis all right," I said. "He gets things done."
"He should have stopped, though."
Elliot launched himself out of his seat to slam his hands together overhead, then just as suddenly sat back down and wiped them on his fatigues. "Polaskis crazy, Torres. I been with him in the 89th. He aint all there, you know,
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