Posted By: UNSC Trooper<email@example.com>
Date: 3 February 2009, 8:19 am
1950 Hours, July 15, 2523 (Military Calendar)
Epsilon Eridani System, planet Reach, Spartan training exercise
Kurt leaned over the thick, termite-torn tree trunk at the edge of the forest. Ahead of him, an opening spanned across five hundred meters of mud, freshly-fallen colored leafs and a network of trenches surrounding a small hill topped with a bunker. A dozen Marines patrolled the settlement, trotted through the maze of tunnels dug deep in the ground and scanned the surrounding trees, passing beverages along to one another.
There was no activity in the dense forest behind him apart from occasional flocks of birds exchanging tree branches. Kurt was invisible for now; his camouflaged coveralls and dirtied face practically blended him into the brush completely.
In the distance, sunlight slowly crept through the trees as clouds parted overhead. The warm light hit Kurt, and he instantly dropped on his stomach. Any kind of sudden lighting would reveal his position in the forest. He threw a short glance at the Marines—they hadn’t spotted him.
He laughed for a second, at the sheer stupidity of the so-called ‘professionals’ Chief Mendez had hired today. Even with their numerous advantages—high ground, surveillance cameras and long-range vision binoculars—they still lacked something far more crucial: fear.
Patting the dirt off his clothes, Kurt tried think about what had happened in the last few days. Chief Mendez had acquired a whole new battalion of Marines to help train the Spartans, and John and Fred had tricked Tango Company again in their series of Capture the Flag games. Now, Kurt and four more kids were put up against a group of angry Marines … but at least Mendez had changed the game. This game was called ‘Castle.’
The Chief had explained the game to them, and the rules seemed simple to Kurt: find a way to infiltrate the trenches, get inside the bunker, and immobilize every one of the Marines using narq-darts, or by other means, within twenty minutes. If they failed, the Marines would win, and they’d go without a decent meal for twenty-four hours.
Kurt nodded in understanding, and trotted back into the darkness of the forest. Two girls and a boy rested against an overthrown tree in the middle of a small clearing, punching each other softly and fiddling with their weapons. Two of them held assault rifles, and one of the girls hugged a long-barreled sniper rifle to her chest. They laughed, joked, and made funny noises, their echoes resonating in the distance.
“Keep it quiet, guys.” Kurt whispered, crouching beside the three kids. Their voices were muffled by the clustered trees, but if one of those Marines ventured too far away from the bunker, they’d easily be located.
One of the girls, Maria, rose to her feet and wiped the mud off her trousers, her SRSC99-S2 sniper rifle hanging from her shoulder. The girl was deadly with the sniper rifle in her hands, Kurt knew. He’d seen her and Linda from Blue Team practice together; and sometimes competed over speed and accuracy on the Military Preserve. Linda had won most of the time, but Maria snatched a few quick victories whenever Linda’s strategy began crumbling.
“About time you came back from that scouting trip of yours,” Maria grinned, resting the butt of her sniper rifle on the ground. “What’d you see?”
“Marines—lots of them. Waiting to kick our asses back home,” Kurt replied as the other kids turned and locked their eyes with his. He gestured to Maria’s sniper rifle. “What’s the range on that thing?”
The tall girl looked at her weapon for a second, sighted through its scope and set it on the ground again. “A hundred meters, give or take.”
Kurt nodded at her, and gestured the other kids to stand up. They stretched, rubbed their eyes and yawned. It was a good thing Mendez wasn’t watching them; if he’d find out the team had been sleeping while Kurt was gone, they’d all clean toilets and scrub dirt in the NCOs’ quarters.
“So you guys have been sleeping, uh?” He remarked angrily. “Next time, I’m telling the Chief.”
They all snapped from their drowsiness and holstered their rifles at Kurt’s threat. If there was anything that would make them behave properly, it was the Chief’s punishment.
“It’s the pine trees,” The boy, Jai, replied, grooming his short hair. “They make me sleep. They ought to stop making us run around in the woods. We’re sensitive, y’know?”
Maria and the other girl, Vinh, chuckled involuntarily. Kurt felt he could reach out and punch Jai in the stomach for his joke. They were on a mission, and his mockery wouldn’t do anything to help them concentrate. He’d heard about Jai’s past—he was a troublemaker. Running away from the DIs and trying to escape the compound, frequent fighting with security guards, and disappearing from his bunk in the middle of the night.
It surprised Kurt that he hadn’t been kicked out of training. But the Navy needed every one of them.
“Vinh, you lead Team One. That’s you and Jai,” Kurt said, pointing to the girl and the boy. “Maria, you’re with me on Team Two.”
“Right.” Maria replied smartly, and hopped next to him in a single leap.
“Team One will scout ahead and search for a pattern in the trenches—anything that seems like a walkway leading up to the bunker. Maria and I will try to distract them with these,” Kurt grabbed a simulation grenade from his belt lock and bounced it in his hand. “We’ll throw them at random points in the opening until they spot us. Once we work our way through the trenches, we’ll take out the Marines in the bunker,” He scratched the back of his head. “If they try to rough us, we’ll use knifes. Don’t go for the necks or torsos. Just scratch their legs and let them know we mean business. You’ve heard what happened to Blue Team yesterday, right?”
There was a murmur of approval and headshakes. They all remembered how John and the others had almost become boxing sacks for Tango Company.
“Okay. Spread out.” Kurt ordered, and they slammed each other’s fists.
The four kids broke away from their gathering, ran past strewn logs and animals bathing in small mud puddles, and struggled up the steep hill separating the forest from the clearing. They landed on their bellies and waited for Kurt to signal them forward.
But the signal didn’t come. Kurt squinted over the grass and looked at the Marines’ movements on the hill and in the trenches. They were carrying gear through the tunnels; heavy devices since it took two or three of them to lift one off the ground.
His team couldn’t wait. They had twenty minutes to clear the hill. Whatever the Marines were carrying, they’d just have to ignore it.
Kurt waved his hand, two fingers stretched outward. Vinh and Jai came to their feet, lowered their heads and sprinted along the edge of the forest toward the right-hand side of the hill. Vinh crashed into a tree as she turned and glanced at the bunker, shook her head and continued running. The little accident amused Kurt for a moment.
The two kids stopped after a few minutes, signaled from the far side of the forest’s edge, and knelt behind a larger tree.
Maria and Kurt reached into their belt locks, untied two grenades. They propped their arms against the elevation.
“Throw it on my mark.” Kurt said, turning to face Maria. He clutched his grenade tighter in his hands, forehead soaking with tiny drops of sweat as anxiousness grew inside him.
They looked at each other again. It’d be the last time they saw one another in good health; no bruises, no blood, no torn clothes.
“Now!” Kurt yelled.
The grenades flew in the air for a few seconds, slowly tumbled to the ground, and exploded fifty meters from the bunker. Grass splintered upward along with chunks of wet dirt.
Vinh and Jai made for the side of the hill as the Marines twitched in the forest’s direction. They slid to a halt on the slippery grass after a few seconds of running.
“What’re they doing? They’re stopping,” Maria muttered incredulously and waved her hand at the two. “Run, you idiots, they’ll see you!”
Kurt tapped the sniper rifle on Maria’s back, pointed two fingers to his eyes and then towards the bunker. She nodded, swung her rifle across her shoulder and leveled it against its holsters. The grenades might have distracted the Marines for a while, but Vinh and Jai could blow their plan if they stood out in the open for too long.
The trenches swarmed with men exchanging positions. They all looked at the meter-wide craters the grenades had dug into the ground. Other Marines approached their comrades, and began planting stationary machineguns next to the bunker and in the firing holes.
Mendez had something up his sleeve. The Marines never used machineguns on exercises against the trainees—narq-darts weren’t compatible with heavy weaponry. Maybe they’d developed some other kind of stun ammunition to fit in those barrels.
Kurt watched the men on the hill prep their weapons and scan the field. They spotted Vinh and Jai running back into the woods. The kids zigzagged and slipped on the grass, fell, jerked their feet back up, and ran faster.
Trails of bullets and machinegun fire crossed the air, closed in on the boy and the girl and trapped them within a small firing semicircle. The kids screamed for a split second, collapsed and grabbed their legs.
Narq-darts didn’t do that. Vinh and Jai’s legs had been penetrated by live ammunition. Blood spilled out of their wounds and stained their trousers.
“No!” Maria shouted bitterly, gripping her sniper rifle and jumping off the elevation.
“Don’t move,” Kurt snapped, pulling on her arm and forcing her back down. She fell and dropped her rifle as she hit the ground. “They’ve got cameras planted all around the place. One wrong run and we’ll be picking our legs off the ground, too.” he remarked, tone calm, as if nothing had happened to his teammates.
“So they can see everything?” Maria asked, voice shifting to disbelief. Kurt nodded calmly back at her.
They both looked at each other. It was the first time they dealt with real combat. Real ammunition. Real wounds. Real casualties. And they walked into it unknowingly.
Kurt watched the settlement again. After that untimely show of arms, the Marines would surely send their scouts into the woods to clear out any signs of spying owls. Kurt felt powerless for a few seconds as he stared at the growing number of machineguns filling the holes in the trenches. Their narq-dart ammunition wouldn’t help them dodge those multi-barreled monster guns.
They had to get out of the forest, find a way to rescue Vinh and Jai before the time limit elapsed, and avoid being spotted by the surveillance cameras.
But the game could still be won. There were two of them—one agile team leader, and a deadly sniper, both trained to be trapped by overwhelming odds. If there was anything they could do to walk out of this with their heads up, it would mean tranquilizing those Marines to an hour of unexpected sleep.
Kurt patted Maria’s shoulder and pointed to the hill. A young Marine crawled out of the network of trenches and started toward the forest at a confident march. The man scanned the surroundings as he came closer to Kurt and Maria’s position behind the elevation. He swung his assault rifle around his thigh and slowed, stepping lightly on the carpet of dried, crunching leafs.
No doubt, it was the scout sent to check for ears and eyes in the forest.
“I’ll take this guy,” Kurt whispered to Maria. “You go hide behind that trunk. As soon as I give the signal, run to the other edge of the forest and wait for me to get in the trenches. When the fighting starts, grab Vinh and Jai and get them back into the woods. You still have that medkit Mendez handed us?”
She nodded and motioned to the hand-sized medical bag on her belt pouch, tapped it twice in satisfaction.
“Good,” Kurt replied. “I think this guy’s clothes will match my size just fine.”
“How can you tell?” Maria objected.
Kurt cleared his shirt from his belly. He hit his bare abdomen, revealing the lack of fat that had covered most of his torso in the last few months.
Maria chuckled at the sight for a second, touched Kurt’s arm, and hid behind the tree trunk a few meters away.
The Marine stopped in front of the elevation—a few feet away from Kurt. He rubbed his eyes carefully, stretched his arms and yawned, then ruffled his long, puffy hair.
Kurt clutched his narq-dart pistol tighter in his hand and hunched behind the small ridge as the young man stepped forward. He waited for the Marine to pass him by, steadying his breath, gulping nervously down his dry throat.
The man jumped over the elevation and proceeded farther into the forest, turning his head from side to side. Kurt waited a little longer, snapped to his feet and shot a dart at the Marine’s neck. The man reached for the object stabbing the back of his head, screamed in pain, fired his assault rifle around the woods frantically until the weapon exhausted its magazine, and fell in the mud.
Kurt walked to the Marine, undressed and threw his training clothes in the air. He freed the jacket and pants off the downed man one by one, settled and moved in the green fatigues. The new clothes scratched and scraped his body. A tight fit, but it would blend him in with the Marine platoon just fine.
Finally, he adjusted the plastic cap around his head, covering half of his face. He signaled Maria to move to the other side of the forest. She nodded behind her trunk and sprinted out of sight.
Kurt ran his hand over the jacket’s thick, leather surface and memorized where the most accessible pockets were placed. He slid some of the dart magazines down the numerous belt pouches sheltered beneath the waist of his pants and gripped his pistol. He checked the woods one more time, shook his head convinced that no one was watching him from the depth of the brush.
He sprinted along the edge of the forest, ducking and crouching past man-sized anthills and holes in the ground. Mud splattered up his legs as he raced into water-filled craters. He looked around the field; his angle of approach was good. The cameras on the perimeter couldn’t scan this side of the forest.
The Marines would expect the same man to come back, not the same uniform. So, Kurt cleaned his face with his sleeve, pulled his hair backward, and strained his facial muscles to resemble the grim features grown-ups always wore.
He started toward the hill at a constant trot, controlling his arms and legs so that their movement wouldn’t appear to be faked. In a moment, the spotlights from the perimeter blinded him as they turned to his position. The lights followed him for a few seconds, and then turned away.
Kurt’s heart raced, his eardrums pumping in his head stronger than before. He stopped a few meters away from the trenches, found a small entrance in the wooden walls, and crawled inside the camp. He stood and watched Marines running up and down the hill, arranging barrels of ammunition and sandbags against the narrow tunnel walls, a thick cloud of dust coating the area as construction equipment moved from one side of the entrenchment to the other.
He wondered what the Marines were doing with so much ammunition here. It didn’t seem like they were still defending themselves and playing the game by the rules—with this amount of armament, they could have easily hunted Kurt and his team in the forest.
The young men carrying ammunition barrels fixed their gazes on Kurt, whispering to each other and gesturing their heads in derision. They dropped their work tools and grouped around him, paint-stained fists clutched.
“Hey!” one of them, a short, freckled man called. “Haven’t seen you around here before. You some kind of exchange recruit?”
Kurt looked away. “No, I’m …” he grabbed one of the barrels near the wall by its side and dragged it in front of him. “Moving these canisters away from here, Lieutenant told me to … they could blow if those guns fire in the wrong direction.”
The man nodded absently, his jaw muscles slowly contracting. He looked at the others and back to Kurt. This time, his arm stretched and caught Kurt’s shoulder in a tight grasp. “Careful when you handle those barrels, kid. They have a way of crushing your leg when you least expect it.” He said in a patronizing tone.
Kurt understood what he meant. Funny, I was thinking the same thing.
The group of Marines stepped back, eyed Kurt for a few more seconds as they turned. The short man still watched him afterwards, frowning and trying to scare Kurt into leaving.
Kurt examined the barrels aligned next to him. Some of them were full of magazines and sidearm cartridges; others had been half emptied and fed into the machineguns. All of them contained enough gunpowder to blow a sizable section of the base and distract the Marines for a consistent amount of time, though.
A bottle of oil lay beside the barrels—just the right liquid to guide a flame to the ammunition.
Kurt took the bottle and poured the sticky, slimy liquid in a straight line leading up to the canisters. He fingered through his jacket’s pockets and grabbed a small cigarette lighter from his chest pouch. He hid behind an overthrown chair, pressed on the ignition, and threw the flaming lighter towards the slippery line of oil.
Smoke lifted into the air as the fire burned through the liquid, sliding steadily up to the canisters. The flame touched the metal surface of the canisters, burned through the shield and caused the deposit to burst in consecutive, blossoming mushrooms of fire rushing towards the network of trenches. Kurt could see burning figures emerging from the fiery tunnels, moving their arms desperately, turning and screaming, some of them rolling on the ground and beckoning for their comrades to hit them with their clothes.
A strange sensation grew in his stomach as he watched the men’s skin gradually redden and darken. He didn’t want this to happen—he only wanted to scare them as he proceeded toward the bunker on top of the hill. These men were on his side in the long run. They weren’t his enemies, at least not in the formal sense. But he didn’t know what else to do.
He wished Mendez hadn’t ordered this exercise. What would he do to him when he’d see the corpses of those Marines?
Kurt ran away from the fire. Maybe the men wouldn’t know who caused the explosions.
His enthusiasm didn’t last too long. Behind him, as the smoke settled and the injured Marines were brought water and bandages, the group of men Kurt had faced when he entered the compound slowly followed him up the hill. They grabbed their sidearms and fired at him … but missed. Kurt crawled and clawed at the dirt, searching for any holes that might help him holster his legs.
Bullets peppered the dirt a few inches away from him. He looked down—another group of Marines joined the chase. Together they cheered and barked orders and shot their weapons at Kurt. If he’d lose his grip, they could break his bones before he could rub his eyes and make sense of what had happened.
He took advantage of his elevated position and looked at the field surrounding the compound. Vinh and Jai were no longer lying on the ground. Maria had done her job. She’d come back and help him out of this mess.
A few centimeters upward the inclination ended, and a concrete pavement supported the small bunker Kurt’s team had been ordered to enter. Only, it wasn’t his team now; it was just him.
This went against everything the Chief had taught the trainees. The utmost important rule in surviving: sticking together as a team. Where the squad leader went, everyone followed. If someone got hurt, they’d carry them throughout the mission and bring the wounded back home alive.
Kurt shrugged and climbed the last meter of the hill, the thought of hiding from the Chief as soon the exercise ended floating in the corner of his mind. Surely the others would tell him what happened; that Marines were killed on a training mission.
The bunker looked short and stocky, its walls thickened by layers of bricks and a smooth, encompassing coat of dried cement, patches of still-wet paint coloring the dull grey background.
Kurt looked for the entrance; a door almost the same size as him. He touched the cold, iron handle, twisted it cautiously, and slowly shoved the door inward. Light flooded the small room, revealing a table and a puddle of water forming around an opened flask, two chairs strewn on the floor, and a pair of boots stacked against a wall.
He walked inside, stretched his eyes to absorb the darkness and held his hands out to touch anything he might bump into. A silver-haired man sat on a chair in a corner of the room, tapping one of his legs against the floor in a rhythmic motion, holding a book in his lap.
The man looked up from his book. “Had a nice trip?” he asked, folding the book closed and placing it on the table.
“Chief Mendez?” Kurt managed, still glancing hastily around the room. There was no bell inside. No flag. Nothing to confirm his team’s victory.
“Looking for something, son?” Mendez said, the wooden chair under him screeching as he rose. “There’s no bell here, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
Kurt backed away, as if he was afraid of the man that had trained him for so many years. “Then, where is it? What’s happening, sir?”
Mendez chuckled and shook his head. “Where’s your team, smarty?”
Kurt’s mind raced—from Vinh and Jai’s injuries as they reconnoitered the compound, the young Marine he’d neutralized in the woods … to the men he’d burned a few minutes ago. He’d done it all without his team; without his friends and without the very thing that had to keep him alive.
“See, you can’t expect me to just hand you the bell and ring it … because you’re the only one here. Where’s the competitive spirit in that? You’re the only one who gets to go home and have dinner and a good night’s sleep in a warm bunk, while the rest of your team is probably dying somewhere, cold and hungry.”
Kurt started to shiver, his skin pocking as he dug deeper into his memories and pictured Mendez’s words. All he’d done was follow the rules. He won, after all that happened, with or without his team. He didn’t deserve this. “But we still won, sir. I’ve made it this far … I’ve completed the mission, I’ve followed orders.”
Mendez pulled and lit a cigarette from his chest pocket, puffed on the sweet, sugar-flavored smoke, and motioned to the opened door behind Kurt. “Tell that to your dead teammates, son.”
Kurt turned to the door in surprise, three large men shadowing over him, heavy batons raised in each one’s hands. Blackness rushed over him as the weapons impacted his head. His eyes closed, and a dull thump sounded in his ears as he fell on the floor.
Vinh and Jai’s shattered, bleeding legs materialized in his mind before the pain swallowed him.
I’m sorry, guys. Can you forgive me?