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Wagner shakes his head to try and clear it. What is this? Moments ago he was somewhere else, somewhere warm and still. The hideous pitching and rolling goes on and on. He remembers being on a cruise ship once. They had said that the way to beat seasickness was to keep your eyes fixed on something stable, like the horizon. But there is no horizon here, just a dim room full of uniformed soldiers. Wagner looks down at himself and sees that he is a soldier too, a private. He reads upside-down the patches on his shirt. His name tag says 'Wagner,' right next to 'V Corps, 29th Division,' and some kind of insignia. He takes a deep breath. Shouldn't he remember what that means?
Someone taps his shoulder. "You okay, Pal?" His name tag reads Semler, and he is a private too.
"I guess I'm okay," answers Wagner. "Where are we? Where we going?"
"Boy, you really are seasick," answers Semler with a half-hearted chuckle.
Wagner just looks at him, confused.
"Well, son," says Semler, "you're ridin' on the bumpiest troop ship in the ocean, headin' for Omaha."
Wagner shakes his head. Omaha? In Nebraska? "What are you talking about?" he starts to say, but thoughts and memories begin to focus in Wagner's brain, like balloons popping to the surface from a deep ocean. He puts the pieces together.
Omaha Beach. That's where we're going. It's D-Day. And I'm right in
the middle of it.
A whistle blows from up above and urgent voices holler down the hatchway.
"Time to go, time to go!"
Wagner looks around frantically. "Already? Wait! What do I do?" But no one waits. They are all standing up now, putting on their packs and clutching their rifles. The deck heaves and men stagger like drunks, but they are not drunk. Their eyes are focused and very frightened, like Wagner's are, as he too gropes for his pack and rifle and coaxes himself to his feet. He is swept up in a rushing tide of boots on metal, of grunting and shuffling, of whispered curses. His pack feels like it weighs a ton.
is strange that there is no talking going on. It's like being on an airplane
before it crashes. They are herded up a ladder, and as Wagner crests the top,
the sounds explode around him. Waves crash over the side of the great, heaving
ship. Cannons boom all around and ships are everywhere, bouncing in the waves
and firing. Winds howl and swirl, and the air smells like hot powder and steel.
The guns are all firing in the same direction and Wagner looks that way. There
is a beach ahead, appearing through a cloud of smoke and debris. It is being
rained on with whistling bombs and fire. The orange explosions stand out like
bright flowers against the dull, gray sky. Wagner's stomach rumbles with each
blast, and he wants to go to the bathroom, but there is no time. They are lined
up at the edge of the deck and Wagner sees men in front of him disappear over
the side. As he gets closer he can see down into the water. There is a
rectangular boat down there, a landing craft, popping up and down in the waves
like a cork. It looks impossibly small against the angry ocean. Others think so
too, because there is much jockeying and shouting going on. It is finally
Wagner's turn, and a sergeant grabs his arm and turns him around so his back is
to the ocean.
"Go! Quickly now!" shouts the sergeant. Wagner grabs the rope
ladder and it feels thick and cold and oily in his hands. He looks down and sees
the landing craft rushing up towards him and then away. Up and down, up and
down. He puts one foot on a rung and then the other. He swings away from the
ship and then back. His knuckles smash against the sides. He hangs on in terror,
sure he will be forced to let go and be thrown into the seething waves.
soldier!" shouts the sergeant from above and shakes him out of his terror.
Wagner manages to make it down to the next rung and then the next. His pack
pulls on him, and his arms feel like they will come off. He smashes into the
side of the ship one last time and his fingers let go. He falls through space
and knows that he will feel the gray, icy water engulf him. Instead, he crashes
backwards into the bottom of the landing craft and is pulled up by his armpits.
He takes a seat next to the soldier who helped him. It is Semler again.
"So far so good," Semler says.
wait for the craft to be full. A soldier descending the ladder gets his leg
tangled and falls over backward until he is hanging by his ankle. His leg is
bent at a terrible angle and he is screaming. It takes a few minutes, but
someone finally hauls him back up to the ship, a casualty.
pull away towards shore, cresting the waves. Wagner's stomach churns again. He
has a moment to think and his head clears. He remembers.
real wargame, Wagner." That's
what Bramley had said. Bramley always lost at wargames, but he kept on trying.
Wagner regularly beat him at Panzer Blitz, Russian Front, Battle
of Britain, you name it, year after year, even when Bramley started
practicing on his new super-computer.
might be clever at these games, Wagner, but I'll bet you'd never have the balls
for the real thing," he said one day, as the video monitor said 'Game Over'
one more time.
we'll never know that for sure, will we?" replied Wagner.
but maybe we will..." said Bramley, as he waved Wagner into his lab, a
gleam in his eye. "Just maybe we will."
hesitated. No one ever was allowed into Bramley's lab. He was some kind of
scientist, working on a top secret government thing. Wagner had been in the lab
once before, a few years back. He sneaked in there with Bramley's wife, back
when they had their little thing going. They had been up in the bedroom when
they found some keys in Bramley's dresser drawer. Bramley was away on one of his
trips to Washington, so Wagner and Evelyn giggled like a couple of high
schoolers and sneaked into the lab. It
had been a disappointment. Neither of them knew what it was they were looking at
and they didn't have the guts to push any of the buttons or turn any of the
knobs, figuring they might blow up the free world or something. Finally, they
just locked it up again and put the keys back. Bramley never found out, and like
a typical egghead, he was so preoccupied with his numbers and equations that he
never figured out that Wagner had been sleeping with his wife either.
Wagner was quite surprised when Bramley motioned him into his lab to show him
"What is it?" asked Wagner.
let's just say it's a real sophisticated computer, set up to play real wargames."
does that mean?" The machine looked like something out of H.G. Wells and
Wagner was getting spooked.
just take it for a test run and see. How about the Civil War?"
are you talking about?" asked Wagner, backing away.
laughed and pulled Wagner into a small booth. He pushed a button and there was a
humming noise. The next thing either of them knew, they were right in the middle
of a battle. They were wearing gray uniforms and had rifles in their hands. All
around them were confederate soldiers, moving grimly forward up a long, low
hill. Both Bramley and Wagner were dizzy, disoriented with vertigo, and they
bounced off the moving soldiers like pinballs. Relentlessly they were herded
forward towards the Union guns, dug in behind a fence in the distance. By the
time their heads cleared they were about a hundred yards away and the Yankees
sent a wall of lead their way. There was a sickening series of thuds, like rain
on a canvas roof, and men dropped all around them. Someone pulled Bramley and
Wagner out of the line of fire and guided them down into a ditch, where they
fell, gasping. If they had kept moving forward with the others they would have
been mown down like wheat. There was no doubt about that.
Wagner looked at Bramley and he seemed to shimmer for a moment. The dry
dirt of the ditch behind him morphed into the smooth, white wall of the booth
back in the lab. The sound of guns and shouting echoed into the past, leaving
the soft sounds of the lab, and the heavy, frightened gasping of Wagner and a
low chuckle from Bramley.
was that?” asked Wagner after he had stopped shaking and they had managed to
drag themselves out of the white booth. “Some kind of virtual reality game?”
no," answered Bramley. "That was the real thing, buddy boy.
Pickett’s Charge - Gettysburg. And we were there. Pretty cool, huh?" He
wouldn't explain much more, except to say that he had been working on the
machine for twenty years, and that he had finally got all the bugs worked out.
if we had been killed back there?" asked Wagner.
the beauty of it. If you die, you die. There's real danger there, not
just a bunch of pixels moving around a video screen. The machine takes you back
to the right time and location, figures all the variables, and plucks you out
after a prearranged number of minutes. If you're still alive. I only gave us ten
minutes on that one, because I knew we stood no chance at all of surviving any
longer there. That was a doomed attack if there ever was one. But it sure was a
was appalled. Bramley had gone
completely mad. He vowed never to
have anything more to do with the man. He mumbled some sort of apology and left.
In the next few weeks Wagner kept thinking about Gettysburg. He thought
about how the gunsmoke had stung his eyes as they charged up the hill. He heard
the sounds of the guns echo in his mind as he tried to sleep at night. What
would have happened if his head had cleared sooner on that battlefield? Would he
have kept on going, or would he have run?
Bramley called him every day. He wanted to go into the machine again - to
play out a whole scenario. Wagner could choose the battle. Of course it would be
a scenario where they got to be on the winning side. Wagner kept putting him
off. This was crazy.
now Bramley was on the phone again. "Come on, Wagner, show some
balls," he said.
looked down at the floor. How many other people had ever had an opportunity like
this? "Can you do World War
II?" he asked finally.
"Of course." Bramley's voice rose in pitch.
"How about The Battle Of Midway?"
"I can set it up right now."
Ten minutes later Wagner walked through the open door of the lab. Bramley
was pushing some buttons and typing some things into the computer.
"Almost ready," he called over his shoulder. "We're gonna
do a random scenario."
"Random?" asked Wagner.
"Yeah, I've been thinking. Let's
just plop down somewhere. It's too easy if we know exactly where we're going.
It'll be World War II, but it can be any one of 17 battles."
"But you said..."
"I know. You wanted to do Midway. And it still might happen. But
you'll have to be in suspense. Don't worry, I programmed in a handicap for the
kind of handicap?"
that soldier that pulled our butts out of Pickett's Charge?"
kind of handicap."
how much time do we get?" asked Wagner.
hour. That should do it. That should be enough time to see what kind of a
wargamer you really are, Wagner."
last thing Wagner heard before the machine hummed to life was, "Remember,
Wagner, if you die, you die."
jerks upright in the little boat. Where was Bramley? He had been right next to
him in the white booth. Wagner scans the faces in the landing craft. All of them
are pale and drawn, but none of them is Bramley. How were they supposed to keep
track of their score now?
looks down at his watch. It is an old-style gold watch with silver hands - a
Bulova. 11:29. They have until noon - not much time. One hour to get to the
beach and kill Germans, only these will be real Germans, and they will be firing
back. Wagner swallows hard.
and at 'em boys!" someone shouts, and the landing craft stops in the water.
The front of the boat flops down and the men get to their feet, weaving.
"Wait!" someone shouts. "We're
still 50 yards out!" There are little pings in the water as bullets land
all around them.
"It's too hot here boys!" shouts the sergeant.
"This is as close as we can get!"
A soldier steps into the water with a muffled yelp as he promptly sinks
in over his head. Everyone tries to crowd back away from the front of the boat,
but the sergeant jostles them forward.
it's Wagner's turn. When he hits the water, it feels like a frozen hand is
squeezing the air out of his lungs, and then his head is under. He knows he will
drown. He tries to claw towards the surface but his pack and boots are cement.
He gives one last, mighty push with his arms and legs and manages to pierce the
surface and gulp some air. He hears a voice calling out.
"You can stand here," the voice says. "It's just a little
Wagner takes two heavy strokes towards shore and finds out the voice is
right. When the waves are at their lowest point, his feet touch the bottom, and
his head is above water. His panic subsides and he makes his way closer in.
There are no bullets pinging here. He looks to see where the voice came from. It
is Semler again.
is out of the water from the waist up when the bullets return. They kick up
around him and he feels naked and helpless. He tries to run, but the water holds
his legs back, like in one of those nightmares where your legs won't move. Ahead
on the beach, he sees rows and rows of American soldiers dug in behind an
artificial seawall. It looks like the safest place in the world but it seems
miles away. Any second he knows he
will feel bullets rip through his chest, his stomach, his face, but he is not
hit, and a wave washes him up on the beach like a seashell. He crawls past rows
of wounded and dead men and grinds towards the wall, breathing in great gasps.
He finally gets there and flops down on the sand. Semler crawls up next to him.
"So far so good," says Semler.
soldiers try to get organized. There are men everywhere, dug in. No one knows
what to do, because so many officers have been hit. They are constantly showered
with sand coming over the wall from German artillery blasts, so they keep their
hands on their helmets. There is a grassy no-man's land between the wall and a
series of bluffs, about 100 yards away. It is littered with the bodies of
American soldiers who tried to advance and were swatted like bugs. No one can
They stay put, observing. Wagner wonders what Bramley is doing. He looks
at his watch. 11:45. Fifteen minutes to go and no dead Germans yet. Wagner
decides that in the next scenario they will have to program in a little more
examines his rifle. There is water dripping from it, but on the end of the
barrel is a condom. They must have put them on to keep the inside of the barrel
dry. He wonders if it worked. He takes the condom off and fumbles with a
cartridge of ammunition until he figures out how to get it loaded. He raises his
rifle above the wall and aims for the top of the bluff. He squeezes the trigger
and the gun fires. The recoil jams pain into his shoulder. No sand flies on the
bluff, so it seems he missed altogether. Wagner
aims again, lower this time. This isn't so bad. This could be fun.
Semler stirs from his position. "I'm moving up," he says.
"I'm gonna go for it. I can take out that pillbox. I'm not gonna
stay here all day like a goddamn mole."
Wagner grabs Semler's arm to pull him down, but he shakes it off. Semler
climbs over the wall and out in the open with Wagner clinging to his ankle.
"Let go!" shouts Semler, and he pulls Wagner over the edge with
his leg until they are both exposed. Bullets splash sand all around them. In an
instant, they are both on their feet, weaving like running backs, bent over and
grunting, heading for the bluff. There are cheers from the soldiers behind them.
The bluff is very close now, and soon they can take shelter against it, safe.
They dive forward and roll into it, and Wagner cradles his face against its
cool, sandy side.
far, so good," he says as he reaches over to Semler. His hand recoils in
horror, for he has placed it into the warm, gushing mass that used to be
Semler's face. Wagner screams and tucks his knees into his chest. He tries not
to look, but there are bits of gore everywhere. The sand turns red, and he puts
his hands down to push himself away from Semler. He notices his watch. 11:59.
is sick to his stomach. His cheek is pressed up against a cold, corrugated metal
floor. The entire room is heaving and rolling. He is on some kind of a ship.
There are soldiers everywhere, moaning and clutching their stomachs.
all seems familiar somehow. When a voice calls from above and they all stand up,
Wagner knows what to do. He crests the ladder and wonders what he is doing here.
He is still wondering as he climbs down the ladder to the landing craft. In the
boat he looks for Semler, but he is not there. By now his head has cleared, and
he remembers where he is. Again.
Bramley must have set it to run twice. No Semler this time. No
Even though it is his second time, the icy water still takes away his
breath as he walks off the end of the landing craft. When the bullets zing
around him, the terror is still nearly overwhelming.
If you die, you die.
He makes it to the beach again. This time he loads his rifle a bit more
easily. He aims at the cliff, a little lower this time. Dirt flies, just below
the crest. He sees two soldiers running bent over across the top. He fires
again. A German's head explodes in a red cloud.
Wagner feels a moment of exhilaration. He wants to raise his arms and
shout, but he knows he has to stay down. He watches the top of the bluff and
wonders what they are doing up there. Will
they come and get that guy who just got his head blown off? Suddenly there is a
sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. I just killed a man. For real.
He pictures Semler's ruined face. He puts his rifle down in the sand and
waits for noon.
Wagner is sick to his stomach. His cheek is pressed up against a cold,
corrugated metal floor. The entire room is heaving and rolling. He is on some
kind of a ship. There are soldiers everywhere, moaning and clutching their
Wagner's head begins to clear and fear wells up inside him. It is fear
mixed with anger, as the vertigo begins to wear off.
he is on the landing craft again, heading for the beach. An icy hand grips his
you, Bramley. It's a loop. A goddamn loop.
did this on purpose!" Wagner yells to the sky. "You're back in the
lab, laughing your ass off!" The other soldiers in the landing craft look
at him like he has gone mad, and then look away. It is not an unusual thing for
a soldier to lose his mind in a place like this.
grits his teeth. I will fight this battle forever, one hour at a time. Over
and over and over. If I try to avoid the battle, or if I hide, it won't matter.
After an hour I'll be back. If I try to tell anyone they'll think I'm crazy. And
sooner or later I will die. It's Omaha Beach, after all. I will die.
But Wagner is still alive for now. He
plunges into the icy ocean and manages to keep from drowning. He dodges bullets
on the way to the beach. He makes it to the sea wall and keeps his head down. He
tries to think his way out of this. There has to be a way.
is sick to his stomach. He is on a ship that is rolling and heaving. How many
times is this now? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? He has lost count. He has tried
everything, but it is a loop. He has killed some more Germans. It was not what
he thought it would be. There was no satisfaction, only remorse and horror. He
is losing his ability to continue. Maybe there's only one way out.
is sick to his stomach.
will be my last time. I'll end it on the beach. It won't hurt too much. Anything
is better than this.
makes it to the sea wall and fires his gun one last time. He imagines he is
shooting Bramley, blasting his body to shreds. Finally, Wagner stands up and
closes his eyes. Bullets fly around him and he is hit. His arms pinwheel back
and there are sharp pains everywhere, and he knows he is being cut to pieces.
Wagner thinks one last thought.
You win, Bramley.
is sick to his stomach. His cheek is pressed up against a cold, corrugated metal
floor, and everywhere around him there are others, moaning and clutching their
stomachs. The entire room is pitching and heaving. Wagner sits up and looks
When the vertigo leaves him, he screams.
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