When the hot sand embedded itself into Meghan’s neck, it didn’t burn anymore than it usually did. As gritty as it was between her teeth and buried underneath the hairs of her arm, it was the sun above that scorched the most. It was overwhelming even at the best of times. But at hot as it was, it shown even brighter. That’s why Meghan was out at noon, when the sun was tucked high enough not to be blinding.

The ground around her erupted, freshly fired rounds burying themselves just around her feet. She and her friends took cover behind some tall-standing boulders that weren’t good for much aside from blocking gunfire. Still, some managed to whistle by almost tauntingly. Meghan had learned how to survive in the most unpleasant environments, live off whatever she could get her hands on, and kill with whatever she could not, but she had never learned to whistle. That was one talent, possibly the only physical ability really, that her older brother still held over her. It didn’t take much in the way of muscle-mass to survive on the campaign trail the way James did, assisting some pot-stirring politician who, ultimately, he one day dreamed of replacing.

Another whistled by.

Miguel fired a few rounds in return, making his way up the trail a few paces behind the others. He was joined by a few friends who, unlike Meghan’s half of the team, hadn’t drawn the short straws. In a short matter of time, the gunfire stopped.

Meghan stood up from behind cover, grateful, but only half so. She could see the fallen bodies on the other side of the ridge, and while they no longer posed a threat, their attack had surely alerted others.

The young adults hurried along the worn path, eventually coming upon a man with a donkey who, God willing, would not do anything to get himself gunned down. Caleb up front yelled something in a language the man understood but Meghan did not. He yelled it again, even longer, when the man reached for his donkey. Given the amount of luggage the animal was carrying, there was no telling what the man was up to.

Meghan cursed to herself, but before anyone could pull the trigger, before the man was able to reach for what they could only assume would be a weapon, Laurie had zapped him down. She was the other girl in the group, and she had an uncanny ability to get close enough to men to use her taser. Even the ones who, presumably, wanted her dead.

When Caleb checked the luggage atop the donkey, he didn’t find any guns. It didn’t matter. There was a radio, and it was far more threatening. He took the batteries out and chucked it down the steep incline beside them, the radio tumbling until it eventually splashed in the river snaking idly by below.

The group didn’t have much farther to go. They made it to the entrance of the cave in a matter of moments, with Laurie and Caleb silently shooting down the two sentries posted outside. Meghan and Andre followed them inside, while Miguel and Jamison hunkered down near the entrance. The escape route had to remain open, for it would take at least fifteen minutes for back up to be flown in from the nearest base, and there was a solid chance those choppers would get shot down.

No, these six friends needed the skills to manage on their own, and they had them. Caleb and Laurie quietly took down four more men before a guy tucked away in a corner noticed his good friend fall and managed to get a message through his radio before falling down to join him, their blood pooling together in recognition of the bond they had previously made together.

The cave was filled with a cacophony of yelling and gunfire, and while it was disorienting, it wasn’t unexpected. Meghan went prone and fired off a few founds under a nearby table, hitting some poor soul in his ankles. When he fell to the ground, she planted a round between his eyes. He stared back at her unable to look away.

This was far from the first time a man had looked at Meghan that way. A farmer’s daughter and an athlete in high school, she had developed the kind of figure that distracted adolescent boys, and a few girls – though they would never say so in their quiet backwater town, from whatever their teachers wanted them to focus on. Meghan wasn’t tied down throughout much of her time at Middlepoint County High, but she never had any trouble finding a boy when she needed one. She just struggled with commitment, and as she aged into adulthood, the number of men she left staring wide-eyed as she walked away, sent off one last text, or closed her laptop only grew. It would only be a few years until she found herself overseas, leaving men only marginally less functional than she had before.

Killing didn’t get to Meghan the way it bothered many of her friends. She had been surrounded by it all her life. Uncle Benjamin – who insisted his name never be shorted down to Ben – was a regular hunter, the activity being the one thing that regularly pulled him away from the physical newspaper he insisted on having delivered and the many war novels that lined his bookshelves. Meghan’s own father also hunted, but it was time spent with Uncle Benjamin, learning to hold a rifle and quietly stalk prey, that she enjoyed most. It was the bulky men on his aging paperbacks that had convinced the girl, at only sixteen, what career she would eventually go into.

So here she was, laying down gunfire with a handful of good people from all over the country whose stories were different yet similar enough to matter. Their lives had all brought them here, to this cave, where they were willing to risk the remainder of their breaths on every advancing step.

When they reached the end of the cave, they found an older man surrounded by the only women who were welcomed in. A few of his sons took cover nearby, flipping over tables and reaching for whatever weapons were within reach. Laurie and Andre targeted one apiece, firing rounds that pierced through the cheap tables as easily as apartment walls. It was Meghan who kept her eyes on the old man, shooting him twice in the chest as he reached for a grenade and nearly pulled its pin.

The team took a few pictures before fighting their way back out of the cave. Command would have to make do with this scant amount of evidence, for the situation was too hot for them to bag the body now. They would find out later that this was not the man they wanted, though he was still a wanted man. Someone would eventually mourn his loss and take up arms in his name. Then Meghan and her friends, or a handful of youngsters just like them, would get sent out to gun them down. Some other day, the cycle would repeat itself, just as it had countless days before.

The real bad guy managed to escape despite the midday raid undertaken to eliminate him before it was too late. It was unfortunate, but Meghan didn’t let this setback eat at her as she stepped into the shower and allowed the warm water to rinse the warm sand and soot from her skin. They would find a way to catch him. Tomorrow was another day.