Proving Grounds — Part 3

Romero instinctively froze like a frightened rabbit, as if he were a stone that had been born to this patch of earth eons ago. The boot, and the hunter it belonged to, landed a few inches from where he lay. The soldier stood looming over Romero as three more troops came running up from behind, as well. It was an entire assault team.

The three other fighters outside of Romero’s view seemed to continue running past. The soldier standing above him didn’t come down on the trapped animal either. They all seemed to be acting as if Romero hadn’t been there at all. They must have been following the drone in hopes that it would find and intercept him. They, however, were no luckier than the tiny copter. They just kept running, never realizing the helplessness of their prey behind them, and for one of them, beneath him. As the others moved deeper into the woods, the hunter scanning the forest above Romero took off, as well. He departed to continue the chase along with the others. When his boot launched inches away from the petrified PFC, it splashed more mud in the Marine’s face. As the splashes of mire speckled across his cheeks, the young Romero expelled the desperate breath he’d held these last few agonizing seconds.

Once they were far enough, Nathaniel slowly and quietly picked up his rifle. He cautiously raised himself above the bush to watch his aggressors leaping and bounding effortlessly through the woods away from him, completely unaware of their oversight. Though he hadn’t prepared for this, he realized that he, for once, had found himself in the position of ambush. Seeing nothing but the backs of his enemy, he nervously shouldered his weapon and brought it up to his face as he steadied himself. While lying prone on the forest floor, he lined up the red dot on the center of his rifle’s optical scope on the closest one, the last of the group to pass him. When his finger began to slowly pull the trigger, he contemplated killing him, but also what it would take to kill the others. He’d have to get off at least one well-aimed shot, right off the bat. If he was successful, that would take care of one, maybe he would have time to get a second.

He thumbed his rifle off safe and engaged the trigger mechanism. “Slow-steady-squeeze,” he recited. His finger tightened as he slowly continued to pull back on the trigger. He exhaled as he adjusted, following his prey. It would seem that he was now the hunter. He continued to pull back on the weapon’s trigger slowly and deliberately, just like his coaches on the range had taught him to. He had to make this first shot or nothing else would matter. A millimeter more with his finger and he could feel a clunk within the weapon. It was the faintest of measurements, only noticeable because he was intimately involved with this instant, but he felt like he could feel the weapon preparing to fire with the last tightening of some last spring before the firing pin released, sending his round to meet his target.

Romero paused as he saw that it was getting harder to aim. His forward hand holding the rifle steady was shaking again. He hesitated and he let go of the trigger. Out of breath, he took in a deep gasp of air. He had lost the target. They were moving quickly away from him and he wouldn’t get as good a chance to get the surprise attack he needed again.

What would that matter though? What was he honestly planning? Was he just going to take down all four, all alone, with no back-up and no covering fire? He might get two, before one laid down suppressive fire, pinning him down while the other flanked around for the kill. Even if by some miraculous feat he killed all four, the firefight wouldn’t be over soon and before long the rest of the platoon would be on him to take their vengeance. It was hopeless to start a fight with them. He would be dead no matter how lucky he might have been following that first shot.

He watched through his weapon sites as the four disappeared into the thick woods. They were obviously in chase of him, but had no idea that they come within a heartbeat of finding him. In truth, this was the best thing that could have happened to their target. They were searching where he wasn’t. Nathaniel gathered himself and decided it would be prudent to allow the four, simply, to continue undisturbed and ignorant of their mistake. Once they were a safe distance away, Romero slung his weapon over his shoulder, placed his hand back on the pistol grip, flipped down his visor, and attempted again to make his way to the recovery point.

Not wanting to meet with these four or their like again, he decided to make a new route instead. He bounded perpendicular to the direction his hunters were heading in hopes to put as much distance as possible between himself and those so eager, it seemed, to do him harm. If he was reckless he’d be lit up, and become just another failed statistic like his friends. He was taking the long way this time, but given his current difficulties, being slow and clever was going to be the only thing that would prevent him from being dead and stupid. As Nathaniel Romero saw the world then, he’d much rather prefer being slow than being dead.

He knew he wouldn’t last long if he didn’t stay on the move, though. He was running through the forest, still desperately in flight, weapon clasped firmly in his hands. Thinking deeper about it, he began to realize that he was barely aware if he was actually still running toward or away from the enemy soldiers, or perhaps even, to others yet undiscovered. In a moment of insecurity, he looked back to see if he could see anyone behind him. To the relief of his constant nagging sense of insecurity, he was still alone. He felt safer being reassured. Safe, though, is a relative term. He had indeed avoided the soldiers for a little while, but the forest has other dangers all its own.

Romero’s feeling of temporary relief, however, was robbed from him in the next instant, as his intended step failed him. Instead of making contact with the solid Earth below, his foot kept going onward into nothing but a void. No longer quite as concerned about the imagined soldiers behind, Nathaniel turned back and, to his horror, witnessed nothing but a pure fall from a ravine he had unwittingly failed to see while his attention was to the rear. He was then falling at the speed of terror toward the nearly dry riverbed, perhaps thirty feet below.

Fortunately for Romero, yet another tree reached out to meet him. This one plucked him from the sheer fall and threw him colliding into the mud cliff in a bone breaking collision. The Marine barely noticed his ribs crack as the air was ripped from his lungs when he was thrown to the Earth. The impact beat from him all but the last shreds of life he had remaining, but narrowly prevented what would otherwise have been his demise in full. His limp body slid down the ravine’s wall to the edge of the stream below. As he lay there with an almost broken body in the muddy water, he thought about how he had found himself in this terrible, terrible place.

He wheezed a final thought before closing his eyes and drifting away.

“That stupid girl.”

Continue on to: The Next Warrior: Proving Grounds — Part 4
Start at the beginning: The Next Warrior — Contents

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