There were four of them in the foxhole.
A 105-millimeter German howitzer shell had dug it out when
it had exploded. Four American Marines were hunkered down
inside, hugging the dirt walls as closely as possible for
maximum protection. The Battle of the Bulge had produced some
good-sized artillery craters from both sides of the front.
With bullets and shrapnel flying around, beggars couldn't
be choosers. They had all dove in after a few close mortar
blasts nearby. Fragments of metal exploding outwards from
artillery or mortars were deadly as bullets. You could smell
the cordite and almost taste the razor sharp shards of metal
in the air. Paul had seen one guy from his squad whose head
exploded like a ripe melon after being struck by a piece of
shrapnel. In this god-forsaken war, when shit happened, it
The four of them had made it to the
front lines just in time for the Bulge to break out. Lou had
been around since D-Day, and had invaluable experience. No
matter what the rank lines, they all looked up to him for
advice and leadership. His real name was Luigi, but he insisted
on being called Lou. One newbie private kept calling him Luigi
after being corrected. Guess he thought it was funny. It wasn't
so funny when the newbie lost two teeth. Lesson learned. Everyone
in their squad made sure to call him Lou after that. Lou hailed
from the Bronx, where his Italian family had been in the olive
oil business for generations. It was rumored he had a lot
of pull with the mob, but he would never confirm or deny that
fact. Georgie was from an upstate New York farm where life
was more idyllic, and his innocence and naivete were well
known. Given enough time, the war would shred his innocence
away like yesterday's confetti. Charlie was from Detroit,
and had been exposed to life in the streets enough to have
a bad boy attitude. But the war was the great churning pot.
It could turn a badass into a baby or cowards into heroes.
It all depended on the situation, the desperation, and the
frame of mind.
Paul was from a small farming town
in Ohio, which was quite a switch as to where he was now.
He remembered his mother begging him not to go, but his father
had a look of pride on his face. After encountering some real
battle action, he realized he was part coward and just wanted
to keep his head down where it was safe until all this madness
Lou had just peeked over the edge of
the foxhole and ducked back down just in time to miss the
bullet that came whizzing across where the top of his helmet
had just been a half-second ago. "Guys," Lou whispered,
"I just saw three Krauts inching their way towards us,
about fifty feet away." There was desperation in his
voice. "I don't want them to reach us. A grenade on top
of them danger close should do the trick. That good with you
The three all looked at each other
with round eyes. Danger close meant just that, dangerously
close. They all nodded.
"If that's what it takes, give
'em a pineapple," Charlie answered.
"Okay, take cover against the
wall of the foxhole, as tight as you can."
In this kind of situation, you wanted
to be as insulated from the shrapnel of the grenade as possible.
It would be powerful and close.
Lou pulled out a grenade as they hunkered
against the wall of the foxhole. He pulled the pin with his
left hand, while still holding the handle in place. Being
a damn smart soldier, he also kept hold of the pin until the
grenade left his hand, in case it had to be put back in. He
looked at the three others wide-eyed, let the handle flip
free of the grenade and counted one, two, three, and tossed
it up above the Germans in a shallow arc. He immediately dove
into the dirt wall of the foxhole. It was close. One second
later it went off with a loud 'WHUMP'. It had been a perfect
Several pieces of shrapnel dug into
the far side of the foxhole, leaving small smoking holes.
The explosion left their ears feeling numb even though they
had covered them with their hands. Paul opened his eyes immediately
after the blast and saw pieces of clothing, a hand and wrist
with the watch still attached, and a pair of spectacles fly
There were immediate, multiple screams
of agony. Lou scrambled out of the foxhole. There were three
rifle shots, and the screaming stopped abruptly. Lou jumped
back in, showering them with dirt, and hunched down for cover.
"Three dead Krauts." He smiled.
"The more the merrier."
Lou liked killing Krauts. It made his
Georgie piped up. "Guys, I don't
think anywhere is safe right now. I think we should keep moving.
Less of a target that way, right? Besides, I hate cowering
in foxholes. Feel like a damn coward. Rather just get up and
out, face the enemy and take as many of them out as possible."
"Okay, let's grab our gear and
" Lou said just as a German grenade fell in
the middle of the foxhole.
"Everybody out!" Georgie
Paul saw the grenade land. He had heard that the fuse for
the Germans' grenades was about four to five seconds. Two
had already passed. There was no way in hell they could climb
out in the remaining time. Of course it could be a dud, but
you had better odds of winning the lottery. He looked around,
seeing everything as if in slow motion. Georgie and Charlie
were frantically trying to claw their way out of the foxhole.
Lou wasn't trying to get out. Instead he was just standing
there, his eyes closed, probably praying. He turned back to
look at the grenade, a million thoughts running through his
mind in a millisecond. Settling on the only course of action
that seemed right, and going against instinct, he threw his
body on top of the grenade. Immediately there was a white
hot flash while a sledgehammer the size of the moon smashed
his whole universe.
* * *
The whiteness hung around him like
a cloud. He felt as if he was drifting in and out of consciousness,
but he couldn't tell where it ended or began. Finally some
clarity began to return to his thoughts, but he still felt
"Why did you do it?"
Who the hell was talking?
His sight was beginning to return.
Looking around revealed only white. He seemed to be standing
on some sort of white stage in a huge auditorium, with white
seats stretching outwards. In the front row were seated three
men dressed in white.
All Paul could think of saying was,
"Am I dead?"
"Hardly, or you wouldn't be asking,
would you?" The man in the middle answered sarcastically.
"I guess that's true," Paul
answered as his head continued to clear. "Why
am I still alive? That Jerry grenade should have shredded
The sarcastic man in the middle, who
was holding some sort of tablet and writing utensil, answered,
"We pulled you out a millisecond before the blast, so
we could ask some questions."
"How could you do something like
that?" Paul asked in amazement. "I felt the grenade
The man in the middle responded, seeming
perturbed, "Most of the things we are capable of doing
would seem like so-called magic to you. We can just do it,
"I'll take your word for it. My
name's Paul. Who are you?"
"That seems appropriate. Your
species values names for individuals. You can call me James,
for familiarity's sake. The other two men won't need names,
since they are here for observation only. We are an alien
species to you humans, and represent many others in the study
were are conducting."
Paul answered, "But you look so
"Amazing, isn't it?" James
answered, slowly shaking his head from left to right, as if
addressing a five year old.
Paul looked at the other two. All he
got from his observation were steely, penetrating stares,
as if they could see everything inside him, including his
thoughts. He felt a chill run up his spine. It was as if ghostly
fingers were touching his consciousness, reading his every
"In a way of explanation, the
other two individuals with me are familiars. In other words,
they can tell exactly what your thoughts, feelings, and reactions
are. There is nothing you can hide from them. They are here
to make sure you answer honestly."
"Why wouldn't I answer honestly?"
Paul said angrily.
"Well, your species is known for
being dishonest at times. Plus, for you, it's wartime,"
he said with a disgusted look on his face. "You may feel
as if you are being interrogated."
"Sure as hell feels that way."
"Let's not call it an interrogation
For us, it is a fact-finding mission. We've done it before
with other species."
"Other species? Just how many
more are out there?"
"A considerable amount. Some much
more advanced than your own, some less. Your species has been
given special priority."
"Special?" He was confused.
"You say you are so far advanced compared to us, you're
able to pull me out of certain death to ask me questions,
and you say we are special?"
James looked at the two other men in
white and they nodded their heads. James made a notation on
"Yes, you are special. Every other
sentient species we know of, including our own, value our
own lives above all else. We have never fought wars or had
any kind of violent disputes for the fact that we cherish
our own life above having our own way. There is always a way
to work out a dispute without violence. It's deeply ingrained
into our being. But you, you humans, have violent conflicts
strewn all down through your history. Some conflicts over
pride or a single female! How ludicrous! Your species is reckless
and violent. Also, you are very intelligent.
"That's why we are here. To try
to figure out how intelligence and violence can coexist in
one species. There is research being conducted at this very
moment during your conflict by some of your governments that
will unleash an unlimited amount of power, both peaceful and
"Do we humans scare you, James?"
Paul said with a smirk. It felt good to give him a jab.
Paul imagined machine-gunning all three
of them where they sat. The two silent men jerked as if startled,
probably feeling Paul's violent thoughts.
"Yes!" James yelled. "You
scare, as you would say, the hell out of us!"
Paul felt more relaxed and confident
now, as if he had the upper hand. James had to take a minute
to settle down, though you could tell he was still shaken.
James tried to put aside the conversation
up to this point, even though it was difficult.
"Back to the original question.
Why did you do it?"
"Attempt to give your life for
your comrades by covering the explosive device with your own
"I wanted to save their lives.
I guess we humans cherish life to the point of giving up our
own for others." Paul could be sarcastic also.
"Madness!" James screamed.
The two other men were shaking.
"No," Paul answered calmly,
Many minutes passed while the three
men in white gathered their composure.
James said in as calm a voice as possible,
"We can save you."
"Yes, we can keep you here with
us or even put you back in your own existence on your planet,
safe and unharmed."
"What about my Marine buddies?"
they will certainly
Paul jerked. No way
no way could
he take the easy way out on his buddies.
He stood up at attention. "Send
"Send me back to where I was before
the grenade exploded."
"You are truly mad! You can save
"No! Not at the cost of their
"Very well. But I must tell you,
by our standards, this is sheer insanity."
"Right," Paul said indignantly.
"I have a feeling our species will meet again."
James answered with a sigh as he made
a notation on his tablet. "And I have a feeling you are
correct. Prepare yourself. We will be sending you back in
a few moments."
Paul tried to think of something poignant
to leave with the aliens.
Just before he vanished to go back
to his destiny with the grenade, he stood at attention and
sharply saluted the three aliens, pronouncing loudly, "Semper
The three aliens looked at each other
with bewildered expressions.