Here's another chapter! Aren't you proud of the speed at which I've updated? We're wrapping it up here, folks! I'm super excited. As always, your comments are much appreciated and inspire me to continue writing. Thank you all!
"At 100 hours, we board Hovercraft A."
The hovercraft we're using is a smaller version of the one that rescued Madge and I, making it less detectable to satellites and the naked eye. I settle myself into the seat next to the cockpit and buckle myself in. An automatic rests on my lap, the gun glinting under the overhead lights.
The soldier to my left carefully checks his ammunition with trembling fingers. The boy can't be more than 18. He loads his gun methodically, cursing when one of the bullets rolls onto the steel floor with a quiet ping. The band around his arm denotes that he's in my unit.
"Hey," I say. His body jerks as he looks up at me. His cheeks turn pink with embarrassment. "Take a deep breath, soldier. I'll get you out of this." He does what I tell him to, but his hands never stop shaking.
"Thank you, sir." His voice cracks at the end and his eyes flash back to his weapon.
I nod at him before turning to the pilot. "All systems go?"
"Yes, sir. Turning on the engines…now." He pulls a lever on the control board up. The gentle whirring of the engine makes the walls vibrate. With a sudden pop, the hovercraft takes off from the ground, and the mission is underway.
"We will parachute onto a field approximately two miles away from the enemy's base. Silence is crucial."
The hovercraft is flying at 5000 feet when it reaches the field we're supposed to parachute into. I can count the times I have actually jumped from a plane on one hand. Standing in the doorway separating me from the mile long drop, I feel my breath catch. Luckily for me, I only have a second to think before I have to jump.
One of the worst and best feelings in the world is falling straight through air. My stomach jumps into my throat and I quickly deploy my parachute. At such a low altitude we have to deploy the chutes almost immediately after exiting the craft. If we get too close to terminal velocity, the parachute will not have enough time to save our lives.
The black fabric soars out around me, jerking my body momentarily upwards before allowing me to continue downward, much slower than before. The glasses I'm wearing have the dual purpose of shielding my eyes from the wind and giving me night vision.
It's less than two minutes before my boots make contact with the ground. I quickly strap out of the pack and shove as much of the black parachute into it as possible while waiting for the rest of my team. They gather around me, their boots virtually soundless on the grass. I count heads as they gather around me. I close my hand into a fist, leaving my pointer fingers extended so they're facing each other and move them together, rotating my wrists when they meet so the right moves above the left. This is the sign used to ask for injuries. I check for the response. Everyone holds their right hand above their heads, tapping their two first fingers to their thumb twice. I let out a silent sigh of relief: everyone's safe.
"After landing, we'll hike two miles south to the northern flank of the building."
We dump our gear at the edge of the field, where the grass meets the tree line. Training sets in quickly for my men. They walk across the forest floor without making a sound. Muscle memory from years of hunting prevents me from even having to think about it anymore. I focus solely on the mission.
We move quickly, covering the first mile in 15 minutes. Sweat breaks out across my forehead. Adrenaline shoots through my body, lighting my veins on fire with a mixture of fear and anticipation. I want to move faster, just to burn some of this liquid energy that is filling me.
Not a word is spoken or a sound heard. A branch breaks off to our right. Everyone freezes, their hands hovering near their weapons, ready to shoot to kill. I hold up a hand to stop them and close my eyes. More movement in that direction tells me it's most likely an animal. A human would have seen us and frozen, careful not to make a sound. An animal would have no such thoughts. I open my eyes and look over to where the sound is coming from and sure enough, a slender doe is picking her way towards the field we just came from.
I feel Grant let out a breath behind me. We continue towards the base, moving quicker through the woods than we were before.
Finally we see the lights in the distance. We've made it.
"When we reach the base, we wait. It may take hours, or minutes, but we are not to invade until 5 minutes after the first gunshots."
The top of the hill leading down to the base is littered with trees. The placement is perfect for the enemy; hidden in a valley, rival guards have a clear view of any attackers. I lie down on my stomach, positioning my automatic so it's ready to fire. My finger rests on the trigger guard. We're not expecting any trouble and the last thing we need is to accidentally let off a shot.
We stay in the shadows, letting the natural lack of light hide us from enemy eyes. Night vision glasses will not be able to pick out the difference between a patch of black shadow where there are no men, and one where there are. This is the safest we will be all night.
I glance around at my men, counting heads and gauging reactions. The soldier two men down from me is silently crying, tears cutting a course down his cheek. I'm pretty sure it's the same boy whose hands were shaking so badly on the hovercraft. I want to do something to comfort him, but I can't risk it. Grant, on the other hand, looks exhilarated. His eyes are flashing as they dart over the concrete walls of the base, taking in everything. It's like every moment in his entire life has led up to this singular moment of glory.
The contrast between the two men is staggering.
We lay there for a very long time. The breeze cools the sweat from my back and I'm thankful for the thick vest covering my torso. I start to number my heartbeats, using them as a countdown to the next time I'll see Madge. Or to my death, if I want to think that way.
Sometime around 550 beats, my eyelids start to droop. I haven't slept in over a day, every second of that spent planning and worrying and running. Fatigue becomes my worst enemy, and for the first time I fear I'm not good enough for this mission. That picks my heartbeat right up.
I keep my gaze locked on the door we're going to enter through, carefully searching for anything that will give us away. There's a flood light over the set of double doors that will quickly give us away. I'm hoping that by the time we get that far, all attention will be focused on the diversion.
My earpiece crackles with static and I know someone far away on a hovercraft safe from harm has just turned on the communications system. I'm now linked to every other Commander on the field as well as those monitoring our attack. The system stays silent as we all wait for that first pop of the gun.
And there it is. A loud, violent sound ripping through the silence. Every muscle in my body tightens. My eyes are glued to the scene. Our soldiers sprint down the hill, making a break for the doors on opposite sides of the building. I watch a bullet tear through a man's neck, sending him flying backwards. He doesn't get up. A piercing scream tells me someone else has been hit.
My every instinct is urging me to run down that hill and do something to stop the carnage, but my instructions were clear. I was to wait the required five minutes before making a single move unless not doing so would jeopardize the mission. These are the longest five minutes of my life.
"The only thing we know about the inside is what I gathered under captivity. And I can tell you right now that it's not a lot. We're going to be thrust into unfamiliar territory with nothing but the guns in our hands, the clothes on our backs and the people we see around us. We will have no information and no clear direction. That, right there, is the dangerous part of the mission."
I lead the charge down the hill, my automatic held up as my eyes scan the top of the building for snipers. Apparently the enemy has been drawn away, just as we hoped for. I test the door, which is locked of course. I use my gun to shoot off the handle and kick it in, waving my men in with the tip of my gun. They rush inside the building, quiet as ever, and press their backs to the walls. My eyes take a quick inventory of my soldiers and then scan the surroundings. It's clear.
"We want to surprise them. Find our way around so that they're trapped. We want them to surrender and we want them to do it quickly. The goal is to avoid a massacre."
I lead my men into the compound. The inside is like a maze, each corridor splitting up in some sort of pattern I can't yet determine. I wish vehemently that I had more information about the place, but wishing won't help anything.
I take lefts, trying to move closer to the east wall. The halls are eerily silent. We practically sprint through the hallways, stopping at corners to check for enemy soldiers. As we get closer, I begin to hear gunshots and yelling. People talk through the com, giving details of the surroundings. My brain easily processes the dual information I'm getting about my surroundings; half from my companions, and half from what my own eyes are telling me.
"If you see somebody not wearing a NUO uniform, you shoot them. We want to minimize our casualties."
"But, sir? Don't they also count as casualties?" There's a pause.
"You can't think about that."
I lead my team around another corner, where we see our first insurgent. His back is to us as he runs down a long hallway. I quickly check behind me before stepping around a corner, aiming and shooting. His scream tells me I've hit.
Without a word, we continue forward, stepping over the man bleeding-out on the floor. Tears stream down his face as his hands claw desperately at his bloody shoulder. I try to not to think of him as a person.
I stop my men against one wall. The gunshots are so loud and crisp that I know we are very, very close to the fighting. The scent of blood sits so heavily in the air, I can practically taste it. I turn and meet the eyes of each and every one of them and know that they understand what we're about to run into. With that knowledge, we're off.
"Once we get there, we want them to feel trapped. Take them out before they have a chance to kill you."
Right away I start firing, taking down two men before they even spot us.
"They're coming from behind!" one of the men yells as he turns down a corner, issuing a warning to his comrades. My team floods into the hallway our guns held up. More gunshots ring out from behind me. I trust my men and their aim, feeling a strong camaraderie with them.
For a second I think of Madge, split between wanting her with me and wanting her safe. The thoughts drift away when another body falls to the floor. We keep moving forward, never letting them see us coming. It's not until we turn another corner that we reach trouble.
"Today, if one of us falls…we have to leave them." There's silence. "It will be the hardest thing you will ever have to do. But if you stop, you will be shot. And I'd rather have one dead man then two. Understand." Silence again. And then nods of agreement.
When the first enemy shot hits, we hurry back behind the corner. I curse under my breath when I see who was shot. The boy with the trembling hands.
Before I can do anything to stop him, Grant sprints into the hallway and pulls the kid into the safe corridor. I turn on my com with a click of my tongue and request back up. It's a shot in the dark, but it's better than nothing.
I wait to see Grant fall, but miraculously he comes back unharmed. There's a trail of blood leading from the floor to the kid, blood coursing out of his neck while he tries to hold it in with shaking fingers. Tears trail down his face, his teeth chatter together. I know he has, at best, minutes to live and it breaks my heart. It seems wrong that the youngest and most innocent among us would be the first to fall.
Grant falls to his knees beside him and presses his hand over the boy's. I join him on the floor, pushing back the wave of fury I feel towards Grant and the bastard who shot this kid. I smooth his hair out of his eyes. My hand is so dark over his pale skin.
"Come on, Preston. You can't die on me now, man." The boy isn't listening to him, I can tell that. The unfocused quality of his eyes, the quick breaths, the jerks that run through his body. He's dying.
"I don't—want to—go," he says. His words are strangled, barely recognizable. "Don't—make me—go." I look at the boy with a troubled expression. "I—like it here." His words puzzle me. I'm momentarily brought away from the battle raging around me. Why would this kid want to stay here, in this clinical hallway? Is it the pain? Does he want someone to be with him when he dies? I trust my other soldiers to protect us while we lend this dying kid our companionship. "Please—let me—stay." He keeps muttering under his breath, his eyes staring up at the light above our heads. His tears don't stop until his heart does.
Grant lets out a grunt of pain when he realizes the boy, Preston, is dead. He falls back, staring at his blood soaked hands. He looks beaten. He cares too much. In the military, that's the kind of thing that can get people killed.
I grab onto the collar of his jacket and lift him to his feet, pressing his back against the wall.
"That was a damn stupid move, soldier. Now is not the time to be playing hero." The irony of that statement is not lost on me. Grant looks dazed, like he can't believe what just happened. I wish I could give him a moment to grieve, but we're in the middle of a battle and he just risked his own life, against direct orders. "If you ever pull a stunt like that again, I will kill you myself. Understand?" Grant doesn't say anything, instead opting to look at his bloodied hand.
"He didn't want to die." His words are hollow. The gunfire echoing around us is a constant reminder that we don't have time for this. I take a breath.
"None of us do," I say gently.
"That's what he was saying while he was dying. He didn't want to go. He wanted to stay here. He wanted to live." He pushes me away, causing me to stumble backwards, and starts frantically wiping his hands on his pants making bloody streaks on the fabric. He starts crying, his hands trembling just as bad as Preston's did.
I slap him, right across the face. He looks at me, blinking like he just came out of a trance. He wipes the tears from his face. "I'm sorry, sir," he mutters to me.
"We will morn him later," I promise. "But not now. We can't." His eyes turn to liquid steel, the fierceness coming back into him. He holds his gun so tightly his knuckles turn white.
"We want to show them our strength. Make them feel completely unprepared and pathetic against us. Use any force necessary to take them down."
My soldiers stay against the wall, looking for an opportunity to attack. We're stalemated, neither able to move forward. I check the area for any of our allies, then un-strap a grenade from my belt, type in the security code, and throw it. My men press themselves to the wall as we wait for the explosion. Three, two, one…
The wall trembles behind me. Smoke and debris trickle down the hallway. I run into the hallway, gun out, violently coughing. The heat makes my eyes burn, but the explosion has seriously injured the enemy soldiers. I kick the guns out of their reach and we continue forward.
I have my men spread out across the hallway as soon as I realize this area has a grid pattern. I take seconds to note when another one of my men goes down, but I don't let myself think about it. A part of me also knows the shots I fire are adding to the list of people I've killed, but I can't think about that either.
"If we do our job right, the battle should last under an hour. If not…" A pause. "Let's just do our job right."
Just as we wanted, the battle ends relatively quickly. Static on my com causes me to freeze, thinking that the system has gone down and we're isolated. Then a voice comes on.
"Cease fire. I repeat cease fire." I slip my finger from the trigger to the trigger guard. The intercom system in the building flickers to life, giving off a quick burst of static.
"This is President Morris of the Peoples' Militia." He takes a breath as we all stand perfectly still, our muscles tensed and our eyes locked on the enemy. "We surrender."
With those two words, all the stress and anxiety I've been holding in my muscles releases and I lower my gun. Everyone follows suit. The insurgents drop their weapons and get onto their knees, placing their hands behind their heads. In that instant, I know I've beaten the odds once again. I get to go home to Madge.
"When the battle ends, things are going to be chaotic. All you will be able to see are the dead. They will haunt you. That, men, is the worst part. The way you react in those first few minutes at the end will decide whether or not you have what it takes to be a soldier."
I survey the carnage, taking in face after bloodied face. My stomach roils at the sight, knowing that some of these people are dead because of me. I begin the walkthrough, taking the weapons and positioning the soldiers with their noses against the wall, hands behind their backs, ready to be handcuffed.
One man is hunched over a body, his hands running over the face of a pretty, blonde haired girl. Tears stream down his face as he frantically tries to keep her alive. His fingers tremble at her throat, checking her pulse.
He stands up and looks directly at me.
"You did this to her!" he screams. "You rebel bastard! You killed her!" His hands are clenched in fists at his side. I watch him. The way his eyes are half hard, half broken. I can't look away. I recognize that look, like his entire world has just been destroyed. All I can think of is Madge.
Before I can process what's happening, I see a handgun leveled at me. Two gunshots fire simultaneously; one at me, and one at him. We fall together and the edges of my vision go black.