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SOLDIER OF FORTUNE

On a moonless Friday night, Hanst and his comrades sat in adormitory room. Routine hung on them like a pall. They drank beer and contemplated options. They became restless with the same songs struggling from a busted-up radio. Eyes wandered from wall to ceiling to floor. Hanst stood and paced, finally pausing at the window with a view of Paise Hall and the Physical Sciences Building.

As if voltage struck his brain, he received his inspiration. They would explore the infamous steam tunnels under-running the university.

Unsubstantiated rumor had it that discovery in the tunnels brought immediate expulsion from the college. The threat was a vapor — only incidental to Hanst and his cadre. His proposal met their enthusiasm. Hanst told the small group to meet back in his room at zero-hundred, allowing thirty minutes to prepare for the mission. As they left, they commended Hanst for his idea. He grinned, stole a glance at his new Soldier of Fortune. The magazine was a well-source and had, again, served him well.

Alone, Hanst removed his civilian clothing and began to layer on soldier's garb. First, the U.S. Army-issue trousers, featuring myriad pockets, loops, metal clasps, then, a camouflaged shirt, a khaki clip vest, and surplus boots, with little holes in them so his feet could breathe through arduous troddings. Finally, he encased his torso in a military jacket of durable canvas. Examining the man in the mirror, Hanst felt brawny, like a monument. He had a strong chin, a penetrating gaze. Melodies from "The Sands of Iwo Jima" filled his mind, unbidden, but welcome.

Hanst retrieved three flashlights from his footlocker, clicking each on to ensure working order. He was ready to move out. He hoped his friends were as well prepared. They returned at zero hundred, prompt but inadequately equipped. Hanst glared, drew a long, loud breath, but grudgingly agreed to lead them. They slipped unnoticed from the dorm and walked in a line to a steam tunnel entrance west of Raston Hall on the sidewalk to Paise, occasionally passing people stumbling home from Greek Row. Hanst despised these types; he steeled himself from comment, shaking his head as the race weakened before him.

One of the party lifted the grate. After careful surveillance for deep-night strollers who might detect or delay their entry, Hanst slid through the gaping mouth into darkness. His friends followed, the last sliding the heavy disk in place overhead, resealing the orifice. Three simultaneous beams fractured the darkness. The trek commenced.

For the first thirty yards it was necessary to crouch and oftencrawl. But soon the small tunnel opened on a large perpendicular corridor crowded on one side by foot-thick steam pipes and on the other by switchboxes at intervals of fifty yards. The pipes, wrapped with insulation in some places, in other places exposed, made sounds like snakes, cats, farts, deadpirates, or rattling chains. The group regarded them warily. Here and there, yawning entrances broke the pipeless side of the tunnel. Each entrance branched into another conduit. Each led, Hanst assumed, to an alternate venture. Options, exponential, might have overwhelmed the group. Sensing this instinctively, Hanst led the way through the first entrance and down its corridor. They began to descend rapidly.

The temperature had shot up since they had emerged from the original tunnel. No one removed his outer garments for fear of skin burns. The pipes and valves, perilously close at times, still strained and banged at the intruders. They felt as if the scalding objects demanded an accounting of their trespass in this prohibited zone. The course varied, becoming easier at stretches, or harder, with each corner turned or new tunnel entered. Occasionally they would come to another overhead grate. Here, they would pause to take turns looking up through the small holes and see a star or two. Astronomy from the guts of earth.

They came to a dead end, so the cadre retraced its most recent course to an old, spray-painted graffito declaring love they had noted. From there, they took a route they had previously overlooked. When they reached another entrance to the outside world, one of the party suggested it was too hot to continue. Hanst agreed. The band had been in the steam tunnels for an hour and a half.

With all his strength, Hanst pushed the cover up. He heard voices above and halted, controlling his breath and mastering his heart-rate. It put him in mind of a scene he had once read about or heard of, in which an American serviceman hid in a rice paddy from the V-C, breathing underwater through abamboo straw. A minute passed, and he tried again. Hanst's capless head gophered up out of the ground in front of Mahler Gymnasium. They had traversed the entire campus.

The grate clanked to one side of the hole — an alarm in the night. They emerged, and the last out pulled the cover back in place. Someone imagined he heard a shout or thought he saw an malevolent shadow. They broke into a sprint, Hanst bringing up the rear, casting wary glances, from moment to moment, over his shoulder.

They returned, pleased and fatigued, to the dorm.

As the group disassembled, Hanst affirmed their bravery andcamaraderie. This night had been one of the most exciting and pleasant he could remember. He was proud of them all, he said.

In the instant before Hanst turned off his light and climbed wearily into his cot, he glanced again at the magazine. He was sure that the focused gaze of the mercenary on the cover, with a smile just behind it, was one of approval for this night's action.

Might he have even seen the soldier wink, or the corner of his eye at least rise, pleased?

Hanst slept a sleep of martial dreams.

      — Brian Ames