Proving Grounds – Part 1

Private First Class Nathaniel Romero’s trigger finger trembled nervously as it rode the edge of the trigger guard of his M-27 rifle. He was cold that morning. Enveloping him was the bitter cold of a pre-dawn chill from the heart of February. He wasn’t trembling from the cold, though. He had been maneuvering for the past three weeks and knew how to deal with cold. He was cold; yes, of course he was cold, but he was also hungry, exhausted, and bruised, as well. He was weary, but that also wouldn’t explain the trembling.

Nor would the fact that he was then alone in those woods, lost deep in a foreign wilderness. He was also alone. He was, at that time, miserably alone, for he was the last one left of his four-man fire team. By then, it was only him slinking and crawling his way through some terrible forest in the hopes of reaching an extraction point that, his only hope of rescue, still a few kilometers away. That, of course, depended on if his sensors were to be believed. They had been wrong before, but they were all he had left.

Perhaps it was the cold, which made his body quiver. Perhaps it was the pain, fatigue, and the terrible pain of going through it all by himself. Perhaps he was just reaching his limit. Probably, though, the trembling he felt had more to do with the others he shared this forest with him that made his body quiver. Alone, truly alone, he wasn’t. Those that killed his team were still in the woods with Romero, a full platoon of them. They were well-trained and well-equipped infantrymen; professional gunman. They were hunters of men. They knew these woods. They knew he was somewhere within the thickets and they were scouring the forest relentlessly, with Nathaniel as their prey. Their mission was simple; to prevent him, through any means possible from escaping these woods with his package, a data packet detailing their recent maneuvers, operations, commanders, and troop strength, a holy grail for counterinsurgency efforts and the very same packet the rest of his team died for in the attempt to keep it protected. Simply, his mission was to escape, and theirs was to prevent him doing so.

Nathaniel had already lasted much longer than most nineteen year olds would have in this situation. He too was a warrior, not yet a seasoned veteran, but a professional warfighter nonetheless. In a way, this forest was his proving ground. The last nine months had been little more than the constant repetition and rhythm of training, preparing for battle and events such as this. Exhausted as he was, his body was moving on its own volition. The countless hours of rote drill and reiterations had made his body a machine with the ability to continue on long after his mind would have otherwise told him to give up. Steadily, he crept his way through the forest, his feet persisting after fatigue had robbed his mind.

It was his mind, though; had he yet acquired the mind of a warrior? Would he kill if he needed to, if the opportunity presented itself? Would he be ready… in that moment of testing?

As Romero continued to creep through the thick brush, he turned a corner behind a tall tree. There, standing in front of him, were the eyes of none other than one of the enemy troops staring directly back at the lonely Marine. They met one another suddenly in equal surprise. Together they paused for a time, each as unprepared to have the other delivered quite so easily as this. The two warriors stared at one another in an eternal second as their training sought to override their instinct to simply turn and pretend the encounter had never happened at all.

This ground was only an unassuming corner of the forest before the two made it fateful. Perhaps, had they both not chosen to be warriors, had they both not saw fit to fight; had they been bakers, or dentists, priests, or businessmen, they would have met under different circumstances. Perhaps they would have had much in common and even lived fondly knowing each other. Maybe they would have just never met, blissfully unaware of the other’s existence, not unlike any of the other eight billion people who would lead entire lives with no need to ever shoot at each other. These two didn’t have such luxuries that day. Unfortunately, they had already given up such pleasant lives of passivity. They had no hate for one another as individuals, but that was irrelevant, because there they stood – together.

They each had missions that morning and both mutually exclusive to the other’s welfare. One was hunter, and the other the cornered prey. Him or me. His mission, or mine. Realizing this finally, the gunman looking at Romero began to raise his rifle to his face.

In that instant, Nathaniel no longer suffered from fatigue. He wasn’t still feeling the strain of hours in tedious motion through the forest muck and the cold was no longer a driving concern. He wasn’t concerned anymore about his status as the last man of the fire team. He was fully alert and reacting on his body’s hard drilled instincts aided greatly by the chemical cocktail of adrenaline, testosterone, and sharpened to a fine edge by a healthy dose of terror when he saw the enemy weapon’s trajectory graze his own.

“Contact Front!” he screamed as he ducked away and attempted to ready his own weapon.

He instinctively gave the call to arms when he saw the enemy rifleman prepare to fire upon him. It did not matter, though. There was no one left in his team to hear it. They were all dead. He alone was left to navigate the woods, with nothing but a few kilometer to his rescue and three infantry squads on the hunt for him between it.

At least, at one point they had been searching for him, until that is, the second when he and this warrior crossed paths. At that point, he was not being hunted anymore. They had found him. What began as a single shooter lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Romero attempting to stalk his way through the woods would quickly became an entire platoon of the world’s most deadly trained warfighters alive, and all with their sites, quite literally set on the lone Private First Class Romero. His only hope then was to slip away, somehow, from under the crushing weight of the small army descending upon.

The enemy trooper let loose a burst of fire on Romero. Both scrambled as his rounds sped past the young Marine. Romero was frantically attempting to return fire, as well as scurrying to some semblance of defensible cover. As the sound of the first round cracked past his head, he collapsed back behind a tree, stringing out a barrage of internal expletives to ease his mind.

He knew the enemy’s capabilities. He knew that the enemy used equipment with the same abilities as his own. Once the on-board sensors were able to lock onto their target, being the young Romero, he would be tagged in their network monitoring system. From there his location would be uploaded and tracked, relayed to the entire formation. They would all be graced with a beautiful map right to him, able to ambush and overwhelm him from every imaginable direction at their leisure. Worse, once their on-board computers had his location, they could just call down for the unmanned observation assets, air strikes, indirect fire, and a whole host of other capabilities specifically designed to bring about his gruesome and instantaneous demise.

He had to get out of there fast before that first one locked on him. In spite of the bullets already flying his way, the enemy soldier didn’t even need to shoot him. So long as he simply looked at him long enough, Romero was surely dead.

Knowing little else to do, PFC Romero sprang out of the tree and lay down a short burst of his own. He didn’t care if his shots made contact. He just needed to create the illusion of a threat by providing his own covering fire. So long as his fire was enough to send the other soldier already perusing him to duck behind some cover and break his optic’s concentration, the young PFC would have a chance to escape into the woods before a flood of enemy troops rained down upon him.

He fired one burst after another as he bolted from behind the tree. He saw the enemy trooper dive behind another tree. Romero glided with his weapon up firing another three round burst, and another, and another. He kept his eyes on his enemy while he simultaneously transitioned from a gracefully smooth combat glide to the full on sprint of a frightened rabbit in flight. Turning around he found himself running full speed through the forest. He heard shots crack to his side, barely missing him. While maintaining his desperate sprint, he glanced behind him for only a moment to fire a haphazard burst in hopes of quieting his enemy once again.

Romero kept running regardless. He dashed another twenty yards before more fire came in from his rear, this time off wider to his right. Was there a second soldier now? Still not stopping, he raised his weapon again and fired off another random burst behind him. Three more rounds and clunk. The bolt locked to rear as he heard the loudest sound on any battlefield. Romero’s weapon was dry, he had fired the last of his ammunition in the magazine.

Cursing violently in his mind at his own stupidity, spraying and praying his way to an early death, he fumbled for the magazine pouches strapped to his chest. He’d never done a magazine exchange at a full speed sprint through a mud soaked forest. He fiddled frantically with the Velcro flap and attempted to pull out his next batch of ammunition. His hands slipped as the rest of his body leapt, bounded, and sprinted through the forest. His instincts kept him from slowing down, but he was failing to secure a second magazine.

Finally, he was able to gain a finger hold that didn’t slip from his gloved hand. He pulled the magazine from its pouch and placed it over the top of the spent magazine seated in his weapon. With his trigger finger, he pressed the magazine release for the spent mag. It released and he grabbed it over top the new rounds. Having both in hand, he pulled the old magazine from its seat and attempted to place the new mag in with one steady motion, just like he had rehearsed a thousand times before with his combat instructors. His hand fumbled over the magazine well, the top of the fresh mag sliding back and forth, clunking across the open port at the bottom of his rifle.

Running as he was when he attempted to seat the new magazine, he found it impossible to find the magazine well. He was furious with himself for letting himself run dry at a time like this. He just couldn’t place the new magazine in while running full stride, an admirable feat for even a seasoned veteran. The only way he would make the connection would be to look down and make sure that it was seated correctly. For only a second, he glanced down and guided the new magazine in. The metal on metal slid past one another with a sharp scraping sound, followed by a clack when it was fully inserted followed immediately by a rejoiceful click when magazine catch took hold of the fresh new magazine. He gave a slight tug to make certain it was in then reached around and slapped the bolt release with his non-firing, sending the bolt of his weapon forward and chambering another round. The bolt hurled through the upper receiver and landed with a clunk. The weapon was deadly again.

Then, he thought to himself about how he hadn’t heard the other shooter fire on him for some time. Perhaps he had lost him and that he was in the clear.
As he looked up from his restored weapon, Nathaniel felt a sharp pain to his head. It was an agonizing suddenness. In an instant, he was dizzy and disoriented. He saw stars as his vision blurred and then faded to white. His knees gave out from under him and he fell to the ground with a violent crash. As he fell the consciousness slipped from him, the last things his waking mind would recall was asking himself meekly,

“What happened?”

“What is this pain in my head?”

With his last fleeting thoughts he groped in the darkness for a grim realization of what had happened to him.

“Did I lose?”

“Did they get me?”

With that final thought, PFC Nathaniel Romero’s head landed hard on the ground beneath him, though he did not notice. His white vision faded to black and then he slipped away.

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Cover Art

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