"Everyone, please, congratulate the Alameda High School class of 2002!"
A chorus of whoops and cheers drown out all other sound - a thick black cloud of caps rise suddenly into the air, briefly shadowing the crowd, before drifting back down into the mass. Short brick buildings surround the group - shading the heavily-clothed students from the roaring California sun - blocking out the sky except for a pinprick of blue visible through the clouds. The students turn and run to their families and friends, embracing and celebrating, the air of frenzied celebration being replaced with the excited chattering of hundreds. Brodie stands alone for a moment, watching the huddled groups around him. He searches for any familiar face among the parents standing around - there aren't any.
He walks out of the grounds and to his car. There's nothing for him to look back to.

He steps off the bus to a barrage of insults and instructions. It's dark. He's jostled into a room, then into a chair. His hair is buzzed off. He's jostled into another room. More shouting. His bag is torn from his hands and replaced with a stack of detritus. He's jostled into another room. Shoved to a locker. He shares a glance with a scared-looking kid, about his size, in the bunk next to him. The lights click off, and he sits awake, briefly second-guessing his choice. He thinks about home, expecting a bout of homesickness to hit, but he only feels guilt. He clutches the photo of his sister and lies in the bunk, his eyes eventually weighting themselves closed and taking him to sleep.

It's hot, and sandy. Bright. Wind whips through the narrow streets and sends stinging bites of sand into his face and uncovered forearms, and rattles loudly against his goggles and helmet. He can't hear over the sound of the wind, and the shouting, and the not-distant-enough rattle of a point-five-oh. He can hear the distant firefight begin to grow in intensity as he and the men around him move slowly down the street, weapons raised to the windows and rooftops. He hears a shout. A blast of gunfire tears into the point man, blowing fist-sized holes through his body. Another shout, and more gunfire. He scrambles behind the charred carcass of a sedan and begins to fire at shadows on rooftops.

Now it's dark and cold. Still sandy. The landscape stretches out in a sickly digital green around him, perforated only by the impossibly bright amplified light of streetlights. A hammer swings, and they all pile through the broken door, moving in an unnaturally coordinated manner, lights scanning indentations in walls and interior balconies. He heads towards a door and through it; his rifle falls from his hands as he is struck from the side. He falls, a weight coming down on top of him, and falls still, shocked and confused from the assault, his goggles shattering on the hard stone floor and the eyepieces jamming into the bridge of his nose. He swings his elbow wildly at the weight on his back, making contact with the figure's ribcage, and scrambles to his feet. The dark figure rushes at him, tackling him into the wall. He swings at the figure again, knocking him back, and picks his rifle up by the barrel. He swings, feeling the jarring impact in his shoulders, and brings the weapon back around, striking again, feeling the stock shatter against the figure's chest. He throws the shattered rifle and draws his knife, rushing the figure and thrusting the knife into its neck with a yell. He keeps stabbing, again and again, falling back as the lifeless figure does, letting the knife go with the body. He stumbles back, his knees giving out beneath him, and falls against the wall, breathing hard, staring into the darkness. Another figure rushes in - a familiar silhouette, and stops in the doorway. The figure says something, but Brodie can't make it out over the ringing in his ears.

It's light again. Behind him, the city of Fallujah burns. Ahead of him, the city of Fallujah burns. He moves down the street, moving carefully with his squad. They check the doors ahead of them better now. The point man turns down a side street and disappears from view for a couple of seconds. From the rearguard, Brodie doesn't see anything, but he hears the shout of contact and he drops to the dirt. He waits for shouts, or shots, but nothing comes. He stands and shouts over his shoulder, waiting for a response, but nothing comes. He turns and peers around him, looking for his squad, but the street is empty. He approaches the alley carefully, treading heel-toe with his weapon raised, and corners the alley. Greeted by empty brick, and scattered trash, he moves down the alley, his heart beginning to race as he moves further in. A sound begins to rise behind him, approaching from out of the howling wind. He turns to look, and everything goes black.

He wakes up in sheer darkness. He can feel the weight of his kit having been taken from his body - his rifle and battle rattle, his helmet, his pack - one of his boots - all gone. He stands shakily, searching the darkness with outstretched hands, stepping tentatively through the darkness. He walked for hours, searching for any solid surface beyond the floor. He began to scream into the darkness, spewing vulgarity into the void, at first providing vivid descriptors of the suffering he would bring upon those responsible, and before long deteriorating into random threats and barely-comprehensible exclamations. He begins to sprint, hoping that eventually he will come into contact with a wall eventually, instead falling to his knees out of exhaustion. He stays there, kneeling, listening for a sound in the darkness, any indication of shared space, an echo, anything. He stays silent, hoping, waiting. After what seems like hours, he lets out a frustrated yell, before passing out, dropping heavily onto his back.

Brodie wakes again, this time with a start, pushing himself up from the floor and to his feet, reaching instinctively for the pistol at his waist. He feels the warm plastic grip slid into the crook of his hand and he draws the weapon quickly, looking around him in abject shock and confusion. He's still in the dark space, the utterly unencroachable darkness spreading around him, but at his feet he can recognise the shapes of unconscious figures, familiar silhouettes of men he'd fought alongside for months now. He rushes to the nearest figure, shaking them by the shoulder, but the lump melds into the floor, the sharply defined curves of the figure beginning to straighten out and slip through his fingers. The mass begins to melt, transitioning from a solid shape in the floor to a growing pool of viscous liquid. His friend melts away, adding to the darkness. Brodie turns and watches in horror as the remaining figures, some stirring from their sleep, some unmoving, some already up and stumbling around, begin to flatten and melt into the floor. The one closest to him turns and screams out to him, begging for help, and Brodie reaches out to the figure he recognises but inexplicably can't remember, desperately grasping for the figure but it melts into him, splashing against his legs and soaking his feet. He places his pistol to his temple and screams as he pulls the trigger, but the pistol melts through his fingers and he falls, clutching his knees and screaming into the void.

Brodie wakes again to the sounds of yelling - unfamiliar voices with familiar accents. He pulls himself to a crawl and opens his eyes quickly, recoiling then blinking as glaring sunlight burns into his retinas. The shapes and colours of the alley burn themselves into his memory, the hot air burning his throat and chest and the rough sand scattered along the ground digging into his exposed forearms. His gear had returned to him; and his hand began to sear with dull pain as he placed it on the ground. A mess of slag metal had seared itself into his hand, the gunmetal grey of his melted beretta having melded itself permanently into his palm. He stared wordlessly at the injury as men in familiar fatigues moved slowly down the alleyway, towards him. Brodie looked towards them, slowly, noticing slowly the filth that coated the floor. Strips of fatigues, gore, melted steel and the lingering smell of iron. He gazed solemnly at the mess as the men hauled him to his feet and out of the alley, past a vomiting soldier and a shocked sergeant, past the scraps and refuse of his friends, and into the back of a waiting Humvee.

"And that's all you remember?"
Brodie didn't respond. He stared at the slag in his palm wordlessly, and nodded.
"Nothing moving? No insurgent activity? Shots, explosions, muffled talking?"
Brodie shook his head.
"Were you under the influence of any narcotics?"
"Have you been suffering from immense stress, beyond that expected?"
"Have you ever been diagnosed with schizophrenia, or any similar mental illnesses?"
"Are you lying to me?"
The investigator sitting across from Brodie sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Brodie usually would have had sympathy for the man - most soldiers understood the pain that accompanied military bureaucracy - but at that moment he didn't. His mind wasn't even in the room, let alone with the investigator. The whole experience seemed out-of-body; like he was just a passenger in his own mind. He wanted to scream, shout, run back to the alleyway and start throwing grenades around like confetti at a parade. But he sat still.
"You do realise that this isn't the extent of our investigation into this event, right? Seven men are dead. Your whole unit went AWOL for a week. And all you can tell us about what happened is snippets of barely-connected abject bullshit. For the love of god, corporal, they're bringing in the three-letter-agencies on this one. So help me, and I can help you."
Brodie sat in silence.
"Fuck me. First phosphorus, now this shit."
The investigator stood and walked out of the room, letting the door click locked behind him.