Proving Grounds — Part 2
In his fear and frustration to reload his empty M-27 rifle, Romero made a cardinal error in the art of the escape — watch where you are going. While he was successful in reloading the weapon, in his flash of distraction, and while moving at full stride, he crashed directly into a low hanging branch of a tree that hung uncompromisingly in his path. The force of the collision knocked the breath from his lungs and sent him reeling dizzily. For an instant, he lost consciousness and fell to the ground.
A few seconds later, he awoke. Panicked, confused, and stricken with a throbbing pain from deep within his skull, he wondered how long he had been out and what had happened to him. He fought desperately to regain his composure with the complete desire to keep moving at any cost. By then, Nathaniel’s brief duel had surely alerted the comrades of his enemy to his location. They were no doubt all coordinating there and would envelop him in minutes. If he didn’t steady himself quickly and flee with an equal sense of immediacy, he’d either be captured or worse, become just another statistical variable on some intelligence officer’s case study analysis of the encounter weeks from now.
He clumsily stumbled back to a disoriented run, not unlike the town drunk in a futilely attempted escape from arrest. Still unsteady, he was unable to differentiate his frantic thoughts of navigating the forest, with his preoccupation of the enemy to his rear, and perhaps by then, he thought, all round surrounding him. Unable to negotiate his conflicting focus, he caught a root with his toe of his boot and fell again, with a hard impact behind a patch of bushes.
There he laid for what seemed like several minutes. He was gasping for air as his heart raced. While his view of the trees and the sunlight above spun, the sensor indicators on the visor he wore danced chaotically in his vision. It was a nauseating spiral of blue tinted sun with green flashes of light, lettering, and data streams. It was like a demon in the machine was working against him, too. As thoughts of his pursuers slowly slipped from the forefront of his thoughts, he felt an almost uncontrollable sensation to vomit.
It wasn’t his physical conditioning that had failed him. Under normal conditions, he could outrun almost any of the other Marines in his platoon, especially the other non-NCO’s. His last year had made him physically fit near Olympic standards. Even exhausted as he was, it wasn’t his strength giving out that had him reeling under that bush; it was more. It was as if his body had simply given completely up on him taking even one single step more under these conditions. It revolted against the intolerable maltreatment he had forced onto it.
In spite of his body’s insurrection against itself, Nathaniel had just enough intestinal fortitude remaining to prevent himself from coating the enclosed helmet with the little remaining contents of his stomach. He rolled over and raised his visor with just enough time. As the contents of the meal-ready-to-eat he had consumed sometime around three that morning violently left his body, he felt the sense of uncontrollable vertigo leave him as well. A great deal of the mental anguish and momentary trauma he was feeling seemed to slip away in the seconds after he raised his visor. The demon in the machine no longer taunted him. He could no longer see the spinning, flashing, and blinking highlights and indicators of this informative, but nauseating heads-up display.
The spinning around him slowed. Soon he could see again at a distance. The world around him was unclouded by the virtual projections of his heads up display. In his time of absolute desolation, Romero was embraced by the natural presence of the forest itself; the ashy greens of the fir trees, grass dried to a winter pigment between hues of goldenrod and olive, and the brilliant golds and fiery reds of the last autumn leaves, unwavering in their unwillingness to fall to the onslaught of winter. Winter was here though, whether he or the leaves wanted it or not.
He could see the cloud of breath drift from his mouth as he heaved heavily for air. He was breathing in the biting chill and refreshingly crisp morning air through his helmet. It was a stark contrast to the dank, sweat soaked musk within his kevlar. The winter cold, which he once counted among his numerable enemies, had then taken pity on him to wake him with the tender kiss of frigid respite. The winter’s chill embraced him so that he might recover and carry on.
He had been sweating heavily, despite the cold. It had coated the padding in his helmet as well as drenched his olive drab skivvy shirt beneath his battle dress uniform and flak jacket. Though his core was warm enough, he began to shiver again. As his head stopped reeling and he attuned with the environment and gained control of his senses, he noticed that his fingers were again trembling. This time though, he was sure that the cold had little to do with it.
Having regained himself, he remembered fully where he was. He was still being pursued. Having been knocked nearly unconscious, twice, and overcome by technology-induced nausea he had lost his situational awareness. He had no clue how long he had been stumbling around dazed and confused. It could have been a few seconds, maybe even a few minutes. In truth, he was only absent from the waking world for around twenty seconds; a forgivable lapse, if he hadn’t been so deeply entwined in the furor his own personal series of unfortunate calamities. Awake again at last, he realized that he needed to be moving again quickly.
As he reached to close his visor, his restored senses noticed something in the woods that was strange. Off, very far in the distance, there was a low buzzing. It was moving to his location quickly. The steady buzz became louder as he began to recognize it. His heart sank as he realized what the buzzing. His enemy had deployed a low fly recon drone to find him. This one must have been one of the quad-copters with the cameras mounted. They would use this to hunt him in the thick of the forest. It would fly beneath the thick canopy, unable to be pierced by all but the best of the aerial observation equipment. They were perfect for soaring through the trees, high above the enemy, cutting through everything in the forest and seeing every moving thing in their sights.
This tracker knew where to look. It was coming straight for him and must have been directed by the trooper who saw him last, or at least one his comrades crawling from somewhere in this godforsaken forest. He knew that if the drone spotted him, the controller would mark the location just as surely as if he had seen Romero with his own eyes.
Should he try to outrun it? Nathaniel considered the idea briefly. He was fast, but he couldn’t fly, and he we wasn’t stupid. That thing would be on him in less than a minute. It didn’t have to worry about roots grabbing its feet, the slippery footing that moss provided, or the unexpected changes in elevation. It could weave through the trees automatically, not even burdened by the thought. The only concern of the tiny camera’s pilot was hunting in the hunt for PFC Romero.
Besides, making some heroic attempt at an escape would only provide a nice show for the camera. If he tried to outrun the drone, he would just be the only human that happened to be running around in that particular part of the forest. Such a thing isn’t something that is easy to overlook through a view screen and is exactly the sort of thing the controller behind that monstrosity would have wanted to see, PFC Romero running like a terrified chicken through the forest.
He would just have to stay still and pray that it didn’t see him anyway. The camera onboard a squad level drone was little more than a simple camera on a flying toy. Those he had trained with weren’t equipped with infrared or anything that could pierce the bush he was hiding behind. He prayed his adversaries didn’t have anything better. If he wasn’t able to be caught by the human eye watching the screen, he wouldn’t be able to be caught at all.
He ducked into the bush and cowered behind his patch of shrubbery. His face was inches from his breakfast and he was huddled into as small of a ball as he could manage. He attempted to completely merge into oneness with that tiny patch of treelings. Perhaps if he willed it hard enough, he would simply disappear into the forest.
He laid still and listened, with nothing moving but his pounding heart and his treacherously trembling hands. The low buzzing sound grew into a high-pitched roar, growing louder and louder until it was on him. In a second, the whine was over him like a swarm of wasps or a deadly beast descending on its prey. He could sense it right about him. It lurched back and forth ominously, knowingly, dreadfully. Romero knew it was all over. He knew he was caught already. He fought the desire to run as desperately as he could, holding on to the last shreds of hope he had by just staying still beneath that bush. Then, just as quickly, the drone was passed him. The roar subsided as it soared on. The buzzing of propeller blades softened lower and lower, until it was little more than a distant hum echoing in the woods.
For Nathaniel though, the pursuit still wasn’t over. It seemed the drone didn’t see him. It didn’t stick around to investigate, so perhaps he was in the clear. As he lay there listening intently for the tiny reconnaissance ship to pass, he began to breathe easier, at least until he heard another sound coming from his rear. Rhythmic, beating, pounding against the dirt. It was the sound of footsteps, the sound of boots impacting the ground layered with the leaves of Fall.
His heart dropped. Had he been discovered, after all? Were they coming for him? Surely they could be after nothing else. “God. God why? Why can’t you just cut me one break today?”
The footsteps drew nearer. They were running. There were at least two of them. Perhaps there were more. Yes, there were definitely more. It sounded like so many. Three? Five? Maybe a dozen? He couldn’t tell, but he could hear that they were getting closer. He thought for a few long seconds that he was going to have to fight. Would he have any chance against them, some unknown number of the killers at his back?
Timidly, he reached his hand out slowly to retrieve his weapon, lying on a patch of grass just to his side beneath the bush. As his fingers extended for the latent rifle, terror struck him as he felt the splashing of mud on his fingertips. He froze in horror when his eyes saw the source of the dirty water, the boot of the enemy trooper then towering above him.
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