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 by Wayne Faust  

© 1999 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved


    Wagner 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 in great swells, over and over. He decides that he must be in the hold of a ship, a very large ship. He smells steel and powder and canvas and vomit, especially vomit. He retches, but nothing comes out except spittle. It feels like his throat will turn inside out and spill out of his mouth onto the deck.

    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.

     It 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.

    "Move 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.

    They 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.

    They pull away towards shore, cresting the waves. Wagner's stomach churns again. He has a moment to think and his head clears. He remembers.




    "A 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.

     "You 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.

    "Well, we'll never know that for sure, will we?" replied Wagner.

    "Oh, but maybe we will..." said Bramley, as he waved Wagner into his lab, a gleam in his eye. "Just maybe we will."

    Wagner 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.

    So Wagner was quite surprised when Bramley motioned him into his lab to show him the machine.

    "What is it?" asked Wagner.

    "Well, let's just say it's a real sophisticated computer, set up to play real wargames."

    "What does that mean?" The machine looked like something out of H.G. Wells and Wagner was getting spooked.

     "Let's just take it for a test run and see. How about the Civil War?"

    "What are you talking about?" asked Wagner, backing away.

    Bramley 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.

     "What 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?”

    "Hell, 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.

    "What if we had been killed back there?" asked Wagner.

    "That's 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 rush, huh?"

    Wagner 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.

    And now Bramley was on the phone again. "Come on, Wagner, show some balls," he said.

    Wagner 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 first time.

    "What kind of handicap?"

     "Remember that soldier that pulled our butts out of Pickett's Charge?"


    "That kind of handicap."

    "And how much time do we get?" asked Wagner.

    "One hour. That should do it. That should be enough time to see what kind of a wargamer you really are, Wagner."

    The last thing Wagner heard before the machine hummed to life was, "Remember, Wagner, if you die, you die."




    Wagner 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?

     Wagner 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.

    "Out 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.

    Now 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 farther."

    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.

    Wagner 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.

    The 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 move.

    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 time.

    Wagner 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.

    Suddenly 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.

     "So 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.

     Thank God...




    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 stomachs.

    This 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 handicap.

    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 stomachs.    

    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.

    Soon he is on the landing craft again, heading for the beach. An icy hand grips his heart.

    Goddamn you, Bramley. It's a loop. A goddamn loop.

    "You 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.

    Wagner 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.




    Wagner 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.




    Wagner is sick to his stomach.

    This will be my last time. I'll end it on the beach. It won't hurt too much. Anything is better than this.

    He 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.




    Wagner 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 around.

    When the vertigo leaves him, he screams.  




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