“Son of a…!” Enrique Hernandez cursed the radio and kicked the leg of the metal desk on which it sat, stubbing his toe.
“This radio is a total piece of crap!” As he limped around the room, Enrique continued to mumble curses under his breath.
Enrique had been trying to reach one of his remote outposts for three days with no success. While he had little training on the AN/PRC-150 radio he was using to communicate with his troops, Enrique couldn’t believe that it was all that difficult.
Before the troops were sent out, each was assigned a single frequency in the 1.6 – 60 MHz range. A daily check-in time was established to ensure that all was well. The group that had followed a family of survivors to the eastern edge of the next county had missed their check-in three days in a row now. Enrique assumed that there was something wrong either with his radio or the radio at the remote location.
“Maybe the batteries in their radio died,” suggested Ariela Guttierez.
Normally, Enrique would have paid close attention to what Ariela had to say – not because he was interested in what she had to say, but rather because he was interested in her.
Ariela was Enrique’s cousin … once or twice removed, he couldn’t remember. They had grown up together – played together as children, gotten into trouble together as teens and joined the military at almost the same time. Their military careers had taken different paths, but Enrique preferred not to dwell on that. Ariela had scored well – nearly perfect – on the ASVAB test giving her the pick of occupational specialties and supplementary training. Enrique had been stoned when he took the ASVAB test and fared much more poorly both in terms of test score and military occupations.
“Shut up, you stupid …” Enrique’s voice trailed off as he looked into Ariela’s amazing eyes.
“How could anyone be so beautiful?” Enrique wondered.
“I’m sorry, Ariela,” Enrique apologized, quickly. “I’m just upset about the radio.”
“I know, Enrique,” Ariela’s voice was like honey. “It’s OK. You’re under a lot of pressure. Can I help?”
“If you can get this damn radio to work …” Enrique paused. His abuela had taught him not to swear around women. “If you can get this radio to work, you’ll probably save my life.”
Ariela grinned. She didn’t believe that Fernando would kill Enrique if he was responsible for the radio’s failure, but there was a remote possibility. Fernando allowed very little room for failure.
Ariela pulled back the aluminum-framed chair in front of the big metal desk and sat down. The handwritten list of frequencies sat next to the radio. Ariela punched in the first frequency on the radio’s keypad and pressed the transmit button on the handset.
“Troop One, this is base. Com check,” Ariela was all business.
“You loud and clear,” a thickly-accented voice replied.
Ariela punched up the next frequency on the list on the radio’s keypad.
“Troop Two, com check,” Ariela continued her test of the radio.
“Troop Two, here, five-by,” came the response.
“Enrique, I think the problem must be on Troop Five’s end,” Ariela suggested as calmly as she could. “Troops One and Two are just as far away and they’re responding to a channel check.”
Enrique stopped himself before he swore again in front of his female cousin, “Maybe their batteries are dead … just like you said.”
“The cold is hard on the DC power units for these radios,” Ariela continued. “Maybe they haven’t kept it in a warm enough place.”
“It would be just like those idiots …” Enrique pulled back before he went into another tirade. Enrique’s father had told him many times that a good leader never lets his emotions get the better of him.
“Should I send a scouting party out to check on Troop Five?” Ariela asked.
“We’re running short on people back here,” Enrique mulled over the idea. “Who do we have that we could spare … and that wouldn’t get lost or freeze to death out there?”
Shortly after Enrique’s father, Fernando, had taken over the National Guard headquarters, Enrique had been put in charge of its administration. Enrique knew that his father was testing him. Enrique also knew that it was a pass/fail test. Failure most likely meant Enrique’s death and perhaps the deaths of many of his friends and relatives. Fernando had never put this much responsibility on his son’s shoulders before.
Although Enrique wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, he knew when he was in over his head. Enrique would never have admitted it to anyone, but he knew he could never handle the responsibility of running the show at the National Guard headquarters without some serious help. His cousin Ariela was a natural choice. Not only was she incredibly pleasant to be around … almost distractingly so … but she was also incredibly smart and the only one in his circle of family and friends that Enrique knew of that had military experience.
Ariela realized early on that she would have few prospects after graduating from high school if she stayed in her little Midwestern home town of 20,000 people. She was a top-notch athlete in high school, lettering in track, cross country and volleyball all four years. Growing up in Fernando Hernandez’s extended family, Ariela was also mentally tough. With the possible exception of Fernando’s oldest son, Enrique, there was no choice. Everyone in Fernando’s family; everyone that worked for Fernando had to be mentally tough.
In her junior year of high school, Ariela developed shin splints. However, it was only after her coach noticed the swelling in her shins and forced her to stop running that Ariela even considered slowing down. Pain was simply something that needed to be set aside to do what needed to be done.
Ariela’s performance, despite her shin splints, dropped only a fraction. Even her coach hadn’t noticed much of a change. It was not until Ariela’s coach saw her remove her tall socks one day that she saw the swelling and addressed the problem.
“Ariela,” her coach sat down next to her on the bench in the locker room, “your shins are terribly swollen.”
“Yes,” Ariela blushed at being discovered.
“You can’t run like that,” the coach continued. “You’ll injure yourself permanently.”
“But coach ….” Ariela couldn’t imagine telling her uncle Fernando that she had stopped running.
“No ‘buts’ about it, Ariela,” I’m benching you until you heal up. “The rest of your life is far more important than a few cross country meets in high school.”
Tears began to well in Ariela’s eyes, “I must be tough,” she thought. She looked at the ceiling and blinked away the tears in her eyes – a trick she had learned from her mother.
“Yes, coach,” she said quietly.
“Now, get some ice on those shins,” Ariela’s coach instructed, “and schedule yourself an appointment with the doctor to make sure there’s no permanent damage.”
Ariela sighed. Members of her family did not go to the doctor unless they had a life-threatening injury or illness. Shin splints certainly didn’t qualify.
When Enrique approached Ariela to assist him at the National Guard headquarters, she was curious. Although she had not been a part of Fernando’s plan to take over the guard headquarters, she was aware that he had done so.
“What about the guard members?” Ariela had asked, innocently.
“All of them are AWOL,” Enrique embellished the half-truth.
“All of them?” Ariela was incredulous.
“They went home to their families – to protect them,” Enrique continued his enhancement of what had actually taken place.
“Oh,” Ariela scrunched her beautiful face into a scowl.
In the Marines, Ariela had worked, unsuccessfully, to develop “the look”. The Look was intended to intimidate and demonstrate that you had no fear of a potential enemy. Ariela was simply too feminine and too beautiful. It wasn’t that she feared potential enemies. It was just that no one could believe that a woman as beautiful as Ariela could do harm to another human being. In typical Ariela fashion, this meant that Ariela worked doubly hard on her combat skills.
“If I cannot prevent a fight,” Ariela reasoned, “I will prepare for many.”
Ariela also recognized that her disarming looks could be one of her greatest advantages.
Now, as Enrique all but begged her to help him manage the National Guard headquarters, Ariela’s combat-trained and combat-honed mind smelled a rat. Something just wasn’t right about all of the National Guard troops going AWOL. Ariela could understand some of them leaving to protect their families, but not all of them.
After two tours in Afghanistan, Ariela could look into a person’s eyes and tell whether they would run or fight. She’d met most of the members of the local guard units when she came back from her second tour. Several of them had the “run look” about them, but many were combat veterans who had already proven that their colors didn’t run.
“I will help you, Enrique,” Ariela agreed, “on one condition.”
“What? What?” Enrique was practically panting.
“If you lie to me, we are done,” Ariela was matter-of-fact.
Enrique knew his cousin was serious. She was rarely anything but serious.
“So sad for such a beautiful girl,” he mused.
Ariela put out her hand, “Are we in agreement?”
Enrique took her hand, shook it and lingered just a bit too long. Her hand was so delicate yet so vibrant and strong ….
Ariela pulled her hand back and gave Enrique her fiercest look. Nothing more was said.