The Coffin Case

Today a bit involving my fiddle habit, and a wonderfully successful trip to our local flea market, where I went with my kid looking for nothing in particular. As usual, we split up and she went to look for her interests, and I dawdled about looking for mine. This flea market is pretty darn good, because you can always find something. This is what can make it dangerous.

But not this time. No, I found probably one of the best deals I have ever come across, and it came in the form of what is known as a “coffin case.”

I glanced about at a set-up of two guys who probably made a living tearing down houses and barns. Tons of junk. Those types of guys keep everything they find that might be of value, and they bring it to the flea market looking to make a quick buck. One of the reasons I like this flea market is that the booth spaces are cheap and there is a heavy concentration of average people just looking to unload…stuff.

This is in contrast to “antique malls,” where you will almost never find a deal. I don’t like antique stores or malls much. But I do like this particular flea market.

Well, amongst the junk at the two dude’s table was a violin’s coffin case, they are called that because of their resemblance to a coffin. They haven’t made them since the nineteenth century, so I looked closer. In the case was a bleached-out, heavily worn, apparently full-sized violin, complete with bow and what looked for all the world like a removable sound post (this is still a mystery). There was also a dead mouse and other gross stuff.

I said, too many problems. I walked off.

I got fifty steps away and it hit me. That was a real coffin case, how much did they want? I figured a lot. So I turned around and asked. I was pleasantly surprised.

“Fifty bucks.”

A steal for the case alone. But still, it was a flea market.

“Will you take forty?”

Done deal. Handed over the cabbage. I walked back to my truck and wondered what the hell I had done. I set the case (with an obviously split lid) upon the tailgate of my truck and looked hard at what I had bought. Within the case was an obviously old, but still straight, bow. There was an object tied on a cord, it looked like a removable sound post, hand-whittled (this is still a mystery to me).

Then I looked at the violin. Friends, I have never seen such a well-worn fiddle. Ever. However, it was apparent to me that it had not been abused, just used. A lot. I looked closely at the wood, it seemed to be a spruce top and a maple bottom with <zero> varnish remaining. The scroll was obviously hand-carved and strangely twisted a few degrees, although the fingerboard was ruler-straight.

What the hell? I put everything back in the case and locked it in the truck. Then I kept walking. Found a pair of boots, it was a good day.

Later, I was itching to make a close examination of the violin. It also desperately needed cleaning.

So, I did so. I used a violin polisher/cleaning compound, I must have put twenty coats on the instrument, my rag was black with the dust of ages. Then it was time for some photos.

As I said, an honest spruce top. However, I discovered the purfling (the lines around the edge) was not inlaid wood, but hand painted. This is the first sign of an inexpensive violin. Then I looked at the bottom and I was confused.
The bottom appears to be a one-piece crafted slab of native maple. I’m no expert, but this is not shoddy construction. Also, the fiddle is lighter than a feather. Cheap violins are frequently heavy. The mystery got deeper. Then something (besides the twisted scroll) looked odd, I set this mountain fiddle next to Clarence, the Maggini clone.
Notice how the body is significantly narrower than standard (by 3/4 in), and the bouts (the cups on the side) are smaller. The length is fairly close to the same. Could this be an old “ladies size?” Maybe, but I didn’t know.

I started asking myself what what going on here. The violin was obviously very old, probably Civil War era. I guesstimated that it had last been played in the fifties, due to the remnants of steel strings as opposed to gut (they came into widespread use during WW2). Whoever had owned this violin was a probably a person of limited means, but good ingenuity. I found several hand-carved pieces, including one of the old pegs.

Also without a doubt, this violin had been played a LOT for a very long time. I’ve never seen so much honest wear on a fiddle! Not abuse, sheer use.

So, my theory is that this fiddle must have, or did have, a pretty sweet voice. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been played so much for so long. But that’s part of the mystery for now, as I’m having my luthier put a new sound post in it. Also, I’m waiting for new furniture to come in the mail (I chose a new rosewood tailpiece, chinrest, and pegs. I think the rosewood will look great on this old girl, as opposed to ebony).

I have everything else already, strings, etc. It is possible that my luthier might find a surprise or two. But that’s why he makes the big bucks.

So, violin evaluated and cleaned, I decided to tackle the coffin case. Friends, this is where I started. See below.

Note: in the upper left of this image is the mystery sound post-looking thing on a piece of waxed string. What is that? But I digress.

The case was fixable, but it was a mess. I almost get hantavirus looking at this image, I remember the dead mouse and the numerous rodent droppings and general filth. With regret, I decided the ancient felt could not be saved. So, out came the putty knife and a little elbow grease, followed by a vacuum cleaner then a damp rag.

In the meanwhile, I bought some quality green felt and I glued the split and loose stuff with Elmer’s wood glue and I let it sit, clamped, for 24 hours. Elmer’s is great glue, by the way, I recommend it.

The next day it was time to play cut-and-paste with my new felt. I chose the traditional green color. It seemed right. Here is what it looked like as I started, the case was cleaned and ready.

I took my time. I measured and cut each piece carefully, and I made them all before I even thought about gluing them down. It took a while. Then I test fit them to make sure they’d work. I labeled each piece on the “down” side. Then when I was ready to apply the contact glue I laid each piece out in the order in which it had to go in the case.

Then it was the moment of truth. The spray glue came out. I made sure to do this part in the basement, that stuff stinks. I applied the glue, I assembled the new felt into the case. Then I walked away as it tacked up. If I would have hung around I’d have been tempted to fix minor imperfections. Experience has taught me that that is a sure method to create large problems from small ones.

Behold, the coffin case’s new look!

It turned out OK, for a layman’s work.

Managed to (probably) save an old mountain fiddle, did a quick rehair on the old bow (it plays just fine), and gave the coffin case a new lease on life.

All for under a hundred bucks.

Seriously? Yeah. You can’t buy the cheapest violin on Amazon for that kind of money. This means that for less than a brand-new, mass-produced, very inexpensive violin, I have saved a part of Appalachian culture from hanging on the wall of a Cracker Barrel. I do not doubt for a second that this fiddle played for some family for at least a couple of lifetimes.

Now it’s my turn. These relics, we never really own them. We are simply their caretakers. This is part of the fascination for me.

I’ll let you all know how Old Twist (my nickname for this fiddle) turns out. How it sounds.

The coffin case, though, turned out just fine. Now it’s good for another century.

The Death of the Tank

A constant theme on this website (and in my fiction) has been that we need to re-think land warfare.

I have seen the Highway of Death in Kuwait and southern Iraq, it’s sobering to see first-hand how easily heavy armored formations can be converted into mortal scrap. I thought then, and I think now, that I would never want to be a tanker. Viewing all those destroyed vehicles probably led to my first trilogy, where a new brand of infantry rules the battlefield- the armored infantry.

Now, this is not a new idea. Heinlein in Starship Troopers was the first to describe this type of future battlefield, where soldiers in powered suits led the fight. Then came Haldeman’s The Forever War, a deliberate ideological answer to Heinlein’s book.

I extrapolated the concept in my books, and one of my overriding thoughts was that tanks are ultimately vulnerable. Yes, they are big, heavily armored and uniquely threatening, but they are simply too vulnerable to infantry with advanced weaponry, or air power in all of its forms.

We got a taste of this in the Gulf, a steaming cup of bitterness in Armenia, and now a blaring large-screen TV full of death in the Ukraine.

Friends, the age of the tank is drawing to a close. The cycle of action/countermeasures really has reached its zenith, and the range of anti-armor weapons has finally eclipsed the ability of tank manufacturers to overcome them.

What do I mean.

Well, in the Ukraine we are seeing heavy armored formations being smashed and stopped by infantry employing sophisticated disposable anti-tank weapons, along with loitering drones that do the same thing.

Some would say that the Russians are using lousy Soviet designed tanks that blow apart at the slightest provocation. This is true, but the wider point is that these same weapons would be effective on good Western designs as well. Do you seriously think that potential adversaries aren’t taking notes about the Ukraine? That they aren’t making their own versions of the Javelin or the Switchblade?

I am never one to underestimate an enemy. Yes, the M1 Abrams is an extremely well-designed and hard to kill beast. No, it does not come apart at the seams like a T-80. But it is still vulnerable to a top-hit or a mobility kill. A destroyed tank is a destroyed tank, period.

What will be needed on the future battlefield will be maneuver forces that are small, fast and hardened. That will operate seamlessly with AI, that have the range and endurance to cope with any threat. Forces that have their own organic drone swarms, forces that are dispersed yet can deliver mass at will.

What am I describing? I am talking about true armored infantry, people inside of armored, powered suits matched to their own artificial intelligences.

The present battlefield is already awash with drones, cyber threats, massed artillery, air power in all forms, mines, the works. The ingredients are there to make a very impermissible environment for maneuver forces, especially the tank.

Imagine if the Ukrainian light infantry (who have done a tremendous job) had powered suits, such as described by Heinlein? Or Haldeman? Or me?

The massed artillery wouldn’t mean shit. Neither would the tank. Or land mines. Obstacles. Drones.

What do I mean.

A scenario. Alright, imagine an artillery battery servicing their weapon some ten klicks to the rear. They are pouring shells into some town.

An armored infantry squad, some twelve soldiers in powered suits, avoids the attacker’s concentrations and obstacles via real-time drone intel and they bound past the forward trace of the bad guys. They do not need to mass for the assault, each soldier is separated by a kilometer or so, they communicate via encrypted text on their helmet’s HUD. They simply have an objective and a time.

They make their own way to the battery, the squad leader’s AI helps him/her to manage the attack plan as his troopers converge upon the Objective Rally Point from every direction, helpfully randomized by each suit’s AI. They arrive and mass for the final assault. Their accuracy and precision is literally inhuman, but the killing will be of their own accord.

The squad assaults. Each trooper is assigned a target, their onboard computers helpfully designate fires and targeting priorities. They fall upon the battery like fire ants, within seconds the guns fall silent, their operators butchered, the tubes blackened and bent. As they attack, their AIs record everything for later BDA and intel. There is no need for a leader to scratch his/her head about Actions on the Objective, his AI gives him a checklist and sees to it that he completes it within seconds.

The battery destroyed, the team exfils to all points of the compass. They are hopeless to track and hard to kill.

Once back at FOB X, the squad downloads the data and they recharge their powered suits. They do an After Action Review, aided by AI, and they plan the next assault. Rinse, wash, repeat.

This. This is what future warfare will look like. Lighting attacks by rapier-like forces against logistics and combat formations.

Where does the tank fit in?

It doesn’t. A squad of armored infantry, each equipped with smart munitions and drones, could bring a tank battalion to a screeching halt.

Regular light infantry is doing this right now in the Ukraine. Imagine giving them powered suits, such as described in my books.

Heavy armored formations no longer make sense in peer-on-peer conflicts.

The death of the tank is upon us.


Terror. It doesn’t work.

Why do I say this today.

Because as a former professional officer in the US Army I am confused and disgusted by what I’m seeing in the Ukraine today.


The whole point in engaging in armed conflict is to further your nation-state’s aims by using violence. It is the purest bullshit that “violence never solves anything,” because it does. To paraphrase Josef Stalin, “No man, no problem.” However, when you remove the man, his community remembers. It matters how you remove the man (or woman). I’ll come back to this point in a moment.

The ultra violence we are all seeing in this most disastrous of wars is reminiscent of World War Two for a reason; ie it seems as if the Red Army of 1941 has been dropped out of history and onto the world’s front pages. Indiscriminate shelling of cities, deliberate targeting of civilians, “filtration” of populations and removal of entire communities NKVD style, the opening of “requalification camps” for teachers in captured territories, hell, even chucking people into wells.

Any student of the Second World War will recognize these tactics, they are old-school hallmarks of Soviet occupation. They are meant to deliberately terrorize and cow the population. Period. To a certain extent, these tactics work, but only in the short-term.

I’ll ask you a question. Why are the Ukrainians fighting like weasels for their homes, besides the obvious?

Because the Ukrainians remember occupation and the terror campaigns of the 1930’s, when millions died under Soviet rule. These campaigns to force the Ukrainian peasantry to accept force collectivization worked, in the short-term. Long term? Not so much. At this point there can be little doubt that the Ukrainian population as a whole is willing to put up a tremendous fight against Russian forces, and any idiot can see the result; very, very heavy casualties amongst the invading forces.

I won’t say that Western forces haven’t tried terror before, because we absolutely have. The examples are too numerous to count. I’ll cite one, the deliberate targeting of the civilian infrastructure and population of Germany in World War Two. We burned the German cities to the ground, we killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians in cities like Dresden, Berlin, Düsseldorf, etc.

The result? A strengthened Nazi party, an SS, Wehrmacht and Volksturm that fought like hell until the last day of the war, and in some cases past the official end date. See the fight in Aschaffenburg, to name but one example. True, the Nazi leadership hanged a few people to concentrate the minds of the locals, but many fought from their own accord.

They fought to the bitter end because of terror, the effects of which were studied after the war. The strategic bombing campaign in Germany was ruled a net loss and huge resource sink because it failed in its aim: to sap the civilian population’s resolve and will to fight.

As a result of experience, Western armies no longer rely upon civilian-focused terror. Not because we’re nice guys, but because it doesn’t work.

If you kill a bunch of teachers and pregnant women, resolve hardens amongst the population to make the fight as painful as possible for an invading force.

It matters how you remove the combatant, the man who is giving you problems. Civilians will accept the loss of a soldier, although they will grieve his death. Everyone understands that when you sign a contract, you are putting your one and only ass on the line. It’s the same with partisans.

What people don’t understand is when you kill seemingly innocent bystanders, especially when it’s as obvious as the nose on your face that you did it on purpose. Not a good look to dump a missile on a train station that was painted with “for the children.” Counter-productive to drop some random guy on a bicycle. Stupid to pop a mayor, and her family, and dump them into a hole.

These types of actions make even the biggest milquetoast think “this could happen to me.” This supposed weenie will summon whatever courage they possess and reach for a rifle or support local forces, regular or irregular.

So, if you’re wondering why the Ukrainians are fighting like hell, then look no further than the dead of Bucha.

Terror. It kills a lot more of your soldiers and wastes resources.

This is the definition of unprofessionalism.

Getting going

No, this isn’t a photo from this year. It’s last year or something. However, spring has sprung around here after another tough winter and I think it’s lifted my mood somewhat. There have been so many distractions, unpleasant events worldwide. The Ukraine. Afghanistan, etc. It’s had a real negative effect on my writing, but right now I’m starting to see the signs of a thaw.

So, without further ado, it is time to refocus on the basics. What this website is all about, plus my paid site over on Writing, specifically science fiction and the creative processes contained within.

This morning I busted out another chapter of The Promised Land trilogy, my latest sci-fi books. The premise is an exploration of the dawn of the human interstellar expansion, but with an unusual twist. If you’d like to check it out, just click on the link above and find the FREE STUFF tab. There are three free chapters of the first book in the series, The Storyteller’s World. By all means hop aboard, for three bucks a month you get two complete rough draft manuscripts of both The Promised Land and my alt history trilogy, The Ohio Rifles trilogy.

So, the juices are flowing once more. My laptop is no longer my enemy, it has transformed into a garden of fresh delights and discoveries, hence the photo above, one of my best gardens ever around here.

Writing season has begun, and I am glad as hell for it. The desert of this winter was a real chore to manage, with its constant drumbeat of terrible news. The bad news is still there, of course, but its impact has somehow been lessened and I can write again. This takes away nothing from the plight of Ukraine, or my dead Afghans. But somehow I’ve made an adjustment in my daily life, I’ve had to take a distance from the headlines for self-preservation.

There is nothing I can do, the realization took a while to take hold.

I cannot grab up my old body armor and go do the thing. I cannot hold a rifle and defend a land that is not mine. It is irresponsible for me to lose myself in a final, savage fight over a city with an (for me) unpronounceable name. These realizations came to me when I performed a prosaic chore here at home. I took my nightly meds, kindly provided by the VA, and thought “What the hell were you thinking?” My last war trashed my ability to fight in the next.

The US Army had that one figured out a decade ago, this is why they sent me to the Medical Board and after a very long process, they retired me.

I put my boots in a closet, only to be worn on Memorial Day, if I feel like it. Most times I don’t. So there the worn out desert boots sit, the dust of Afghanistan still clinging to the seams.

But the dust is still in my lungs and head. It was only when faced by the pile of pills that I realized I can’t function in combat anymore. What if I had an episode when the shells start falling? If my battered ears faced their last straw? If my left arm finally stopped working? If I couldn’t pull the trigger again when I really needed to? If, if, if.

The answer was right in front of me the entire time, in the form of a row of brown bottles on my kitchen counter. If I went to fight, there would be no meds. No support. No let-up. My fat and battered body would fail me, and maybe my mind.

The Army was right. But the realization was hard, very hard.

Ultimately, though, the epiphany, if that’s what you want to call it, was healthy. My writing recovered, and now I’m back to doing what I need to do.

Write. Create. Take care of my family and friends. Bury the past where it belongs, leave my boots in the closet and my body armor in the basement. When I die my kids can sell them on eBay, rather than leaving them to rot in an unmarked grave, or hanging on the wall of some soldier as a souvenir.

This is the brutal truth.

With age and retirement comes new priorities. Or rather some older ones, as I’ve been writing since 2014. As of late I’ve neglected them and now I feel better, refocused on the job at hand.

Finishing the bridge novel in my new series. Maintaining my small but loyal fan base. Putting out content on my various websites and pages. Helping my old friend to restore his house. Taking care of business here in the literal farm I bought, my shelter, my domestic bliss.

Is that really so bad?

I’m shaking my head at what it took to see the obvious. My soldiering days are done. For good. I’m a writer now, a husband, friend and father. A Jack-of-all-trades. A blogger.

I am also a witness to the ugliest, largest scale combat in Europe since World War Two. I witnessed the demise of my Afghans as well.

As a witness, I now realize there is nothing I can do.

With that comes acceptance. With acceptance, the thaw came at last.

For what it’s worth, I wish strength to those who face the shot and shell. More importantly, my tax dollars support the brave who face steep odds. May they find a warrior’s luck, may they defend their homes, may they avenge their dead, and may this needless horror-show of a war end with victory for the justified.

I curse those dangerous men who dream of fire and glory, paid in blood with other men’s lives.

I will continue to write, and tell the soldier’s tale.

The story of the grunt, the person who carries the sword. The supremely inglorious bastard, the private trooper who follows mostly stupid orders and faces the battle, sacrificing their sanity, chunks of their bodies, and often enough their lives.

This. This is what I can do, as a memorial of sorts. Leave a record of words, so that those who follow can see what we faced in these often benighted times.

My boots have marched their kilometers, heavily laden.

Now they sit in darkness, as does a considerable chunk of our globe.

One day they will turn back into dust, as will we all.

But our words and deeds remain. I’ve done my deeds. Now I’m back to producing words.

May they be true.

The Dam Breaks

Alright, guys, early this morning I finally say down and wrote.

It’s been a while. Too long. I have sat on the midpoint of my new novel for far too long, held off by terrible news from overseas and pure intimidation.

Intimidation, you ask? Intimidated by what? It’s just a story.

Yeah, just a story. In the bridge novel of my new space opera trilogy I have to create a new world in my head and make it believable for me. If it’s believable for me, then it should be a device to keep my readers doing their job, which is to read my books. There are published books, then there are the rough draft manuscripts behind my paywall. It’s all out there, and it’s my job to hook my readers in. To entertain them. To get them to enjoy my various universes.

So, it’s a big ask, this second book in my space opera. I have been stopped cold by intimidation.

No more. This morning I sat behind my trusty MacBook and typed like a demon. Before I knew it, I pounded out 2200 words, my coffee had grown cold. Yeah, it was a waste of good premium coffee, but it was not a waste of time.

This. This is what success feels like, the creative dam breaking. Right now I feel like I could pound out another chapter, no problem. Finally, I can write again.

The stupid dam has broken, I am free once more.

So, its time to bust open the creative faucet and pound out book two of the Storyteller trilogy.

Link up with me behind the three-dollar barrier! We’ll have fun.


Forcing my hand

Hey, everyone.

Not a particularly long post today, I just wanted to say that there are now two complete RD manuscripts out over on my Patreon site.

I chose to add the final chapters to my WW1 alt history over there early to 1. get the end out to my fans and readers and 2. to force me to schedule the next chapters in the WW1 trilogy. Also, this sharpens the mind so that I can continue to write on the other trilogy I have cooking, a space opera set in the fairly near future where humanity begins, in a novel form, to spread throughout interstellar space.

Accelerating the release of my latest forces my hand, in short. It makes me put in the work of scheduling the next book in the WW1 trilogy (the complete trilogy is written, in RD form) and writing on the space opera bits.

I need this. The news is nothing but doom and gloom, and I do not care to see it.

Instead, I choose to be productive, and the Patreon page is a godsend to that end. I have an obligation to those who pay me to write, and I take that commitment seriously.

So, by all means head over there and check it out. There’s bonus content, rants, and two complete novels plus the beginning of a third, soon to be followed by a fourth. No shortage of things to read, really.

Hope to actually publish this year.


The Black Fiddle

Once again, Fiddlershop has done superb work!

Long time readers will know I’ve taken up the hobby of playing the fiddle again, and I own a few.

Well, one of them was my Great-Grandmother’s violin, possibly a German made fiddle of unknown age (minimum 1900) and an odd size, kind of a 7/8, not a modern size. It was in pretty sad shape and was in need of a total overhaul, and Fiddlershop came through! Here is the link to what Grandma’s ol’ girl sounds like now- it is a very nice violin with a surprisingly deep sound.

If you’d like to see what they did, click on this link. I highly recommend Fiddlershop for repairs that must be done right, or to source a new instrument.

Free Stuff!

Hey, everyone.

Perhaps I have mentioned my pay site before, where there’s an entire new space opera novel posted and the better part of an alt history. If you don’t know this, allow me to do a brief recap.

You can see it at

NOTE: To see the FREE STUFF tab you must scroll down and click on the “See all 162 posts” button.

Here’s the skinny.

For three bucks/mo you get the novels and bonus content. Stuff I don’t put out on here.

For five bucks you get it all. The novels, my analysis, everything.

Ten bucks? All the above plus naming rights for a character, or maybe write up some fan fiction. There are limited slots for this, and some are still available.

You probably spend more on coffee a month, so it’s your call, really. I’d love to have you aboard.

One of my very favorite things about the pay website is fan interaction! You get a chance to shape the work as it rolls out- I listen to my peeps, and my fans and betas have made an enormous impact upon my work.

So, today I did what I should have done months ago and I started to organize the content (some 150 posts), and the very first thing I did was to create a “FREE STUFF” tab for all of those who may happen by.

By all means head on over to and check it out!

We’ll talk inside.

The Battery

Here’s to the brave ones. They are fighting and dying in the heaviest combat Europe has seen since World War Two. May they not perish in vain. I dropped this a week ago into my pay site, now it’s time to release it into the wild.

John couldn’t remember the last good meal he had eaten. His stomach was running on empty, the last stew that had passed his lips was probably heavy on rat. He had been glad to have it. Even now, on the eve of the attack, he remembered the stringy chunks of meat fondly.

A few hundred meters away a Russian battery of 2S-family self-propelled howitzers was firing with metronomic and murderous regularity into downtown Kiev, they were marked as his victims. An hour before he and Vasily had crept on their bellies to look at the battery. John had returned to his waiting band, and he pulled his sketchy plan out of his ass, a product of his long ago service as an infantry officer in the US Army.

The misplaced and worse for the wear soldier addressed his twelve person crew. He couldn’t say “man,” because two of the fighters were women. Women with balls bigger than a lot of men he knew. Girls who had volunteered for this suicide mission ten klicks behind enemy lines.

John had seen too many times what the 152’s could do.

They had to die.

John had laid out a “sand table,” a rough graphic illustration of the set-up, and he explained through his ‘terp and right-hand man Vasily what needed to happen. He frowned. Vasily’s English wasn’t as good as his last ‘terp, Wahab. But Wahab was dead, his bones forgotten in another shitty war. John gestured at the little layout and spoke.

“See the four rocks? They represent three arty pieces and a command truck.”

He waited as Vasily spoke Ukrainian in a low voice. He looked over his fighters, he saw nods. A good sign. He continued when Vasily stopped.

“There is an ammunition truck that comes and goes. If it appears, we will have to kill them. But the priority is the guns…”

John continued, his plan was simple. Four groups of three. Four vehicles. A security element. Vasily stopped speaking. John looked each of the fighters in the eye in the gathering gloom of twilight, then he dropped to his knees, took his rifle by the sling in his right hand and started to crawl towards the guns.

He didn’t look back to see if his guys were moving. He knew they would.

As he crawled through the muddy, loamy smelling cold forest floor, his path was lit by the strobes of the muzzle flashes. Each shot vibrated in his heaving chest, his breath came hard and fast. Motherfucker, he thought, you are too old and retarded for this shit. A branch poked him in the glasses. He held his swearing in with a mighty effort and concentrated on his crawl. It would be a fucking miracle if everyone got to the kickoff point without getting lost, even though the distance was less than two hundred meters.

The edge of the forest was their goal.

It took some unknown amount of vomit-inducing time and effort to reach the brush by the clearing. By the time John reached the attack point, every muscle in his body was jello, every centimeter covered in mud.

Everything but his weapon.

Very carefully, very slowly, John inched his long rifle forward. He took a deep breath and held it. Another. To his right he heard a faint rustle. He turned his head and saw a shape. It was Vasily. He couldn’t see his face, of course, but he saw his weapon. A nearly-comical crude tube with a bulging protuberance.

John breathed in again. He let it out. It was time to trust in the plan. His plan. The one that was sure to get someone killed.

From ahead, a flickering light. An orange-lit face, a glow.

Jesus fucking Christ, kid, he thought. That habit will get you killed. The two conscripts were the battery’s rear security element. Their PKM machine gun was on the ground. The crew was standing and smoking. Unfortunately, they were looking right at John and Vasily. Fortunately, they had comprehensively fucked their night vision.

As slow as molasses, John shouldered his outdated weapon. Long and wood, it was a relic from a war almost passed from living memory. Its name was PU, and it fired full-powered 7.62 rounds. John knew it was reasonably accurate, he had holed a few beer cans to try it out. Not quite a US M-24, but good enough.

As he brought the thick point of the German-style reticle up onto the base of his target’s neck, right above the top of the kid’s body armor, he thought it might actually be better for these conditions. Muddy, dark, and short-range. Sixty meters, tops. A clout shot.

But it had to be right.

John took a breath, let it out halfway and held it, as he tightened upon the crude trigger with his right index finger.

He was mildly surprised when the weapon fired. As it should be. The kid went down as if his strings had been cut, John tracked his very fucking surprised friend as he worked the bolt.

All hell broke loose.


As advertised, Vasily knew what he was doing with the RPG. The command truck, the Fire Direction Center and commo hub, blew sky high.

Everything slowed the hell down.

The other conscript dove for the PKM, he hit the dirt where he should have been in the first place. But John was ready for him. The tip of the thick black reticle rested squarely upon center mass of dummy’s helmet. He pulled the trigger and smacked the kid on his Kevlar with a full-force 7.62.

It really didn’t matter if it penetrated, which it did, because it snapped the boy’s neck.

John reloaded and tracked the gunner on fire-watch on the closest track. The flames from the blown command truck lit him fairly well, John could clearly see him swinging his gun to and fro, looking for a target. The little three-power scope on his Mosin rifle brought his contorted features into stark relief, John didn’t fuck around and he shot him in the chest.

BOOM. Clank!

Vasily swore mightily.

Jesus fucking Christ, John thought. Fucking rocket motor was bad! The RPG round that should have taken out the closest track hit sideways and bounced. Fucking Commie junk!

He reloaded. He needed to take down those gunners.

BAPBAPBAP. BAPBAPBAP. Thumb sized green tracers from a track’s NSV-T 12.7 streaked through the night, wildly. John sighted in on that happy fucker…

His peripheral vision saw movement on top of the track. There was so much gunfire that he didn’t hear the burst from the submachinegun that was fired point-blank into the gunner’s chest. Through his scope, as he shifted to the final gunner, he caught a glimpse of Daryna’s face. She dropped a grenade, an ancient F-1, down the hatch and jumped for dear life, smoking PPSh in hand.

The final and most distant gun revved its engine and started to move. John shifted his aim, but the gunner dropped down inside the vehicle. John’s final shot went wild.

He felt a tug on his foul tunic.

“Come, John! We chase fascists!”

John couldn’t help it, he laughed. What the fuck. He sprang to his feet and ran with Vasily, the man was jamming a PG-7 round into the launcher as he sprinted through the dark.

He wasn’t shitting me that the Red Army taught him how to use that thing, he thought, as he followed his new friend through the wild fight. Bullets snapped and whispered past as the two ran pell-mell through the flickering fires and caustic smoke. The 2S gun was pulling away from them, a snorting, lumbering black shape, when the engine revved and it lurched sideways.

A massive tree shuddered, there was an almighty clang.

John felt a hand on his tunic, yanking him to a stop. He heard Vasily’s voice.

“Hit tree. Now I take time. Not stand behind, please.”

So calm, John thought.


This time the rocket motor worked just fine. The track died and its crew cooked.

Vasily yelled something. He kept repeating it. John didn’t need to be a savant in Ukrainian to know what. It was time to scatter and be the fuck gone. The plan said for the survivors to split up and try to make it to the tiny village of Pivdennie Selo.

His Mosin rifle pumping, John got gone.

Who would shoot me first, he wondered. Nervous sentries or Russian conscripts.

Neither, it turned out.

A Ukrainian colonel let John, Daryna and Vasily drain his last bottle of vodka. They were the only ones to make it back to the misto-heroy, or hero-city.

Valhalla would have to wait.

The Good Earth

Me, running a roto-tiller on the corn patch.

It’s really good exercise, running the gnarly little machine. It helps to clear the mind. I spent several hours turning husks and leftovers into good dirt. The rhythm of working the soil, the sun and fresh air. The smell of the earth, the crumbly loam.

Amazing good stuff.

The promise of a fresh crop and a good garden, this dark soil. I’ve been working these patches for years with various manure and inputs, the quality goes up with each passing season.

Finally, the job, like all jobs, ended. I looked over my little patches and sighed.

This is the farm that I bought. My refuge. My island, divorced from the madness.

I couldn’t help but to think of the distant war as I looked over my fresh upturned black gardens. They say the Ukraine has some of the world’s best soil. I don’t see any reason to doubt that. Right now, the soil is taking back its children in large batches.

This is what the earth does, long accustomed to the fights of its children.

The earth, the soil, it must be fed.

A vision.

I see a line of skirmishers advancing through a field. Poorly trained and hastily equipped. Do they scream as they run, or are they silent? Grim? A machine gun, manned by people who don’t care to die, tracks the runners. A sergeant taps the gunner when the range is right, the gunner squeezes the trigger. The firefight sings. It shrieks. It stutters and roars. Who wins? Does it matter?

A young fighter spins toward the earth, holed and leaking. The copper and lead have done their job, the wounds are fatal. The blood and fluids soak into the rich black soil, and the process begins anew.

The contested field usually grows cabbages or sunflowers. This year it will grow weeds.

Back in the present, I wipe sweat from my brow.

May my soil never know the sacrifice of old. May it be fed chicken shit and compost, and not the sunset of youth.

This is my wish.

But the earth, it must be fed.

My wishes mean nothing.