Nathaniel found a small overhang of rocks and scrub to hide in until help arrived. Minutes passed as he waited. In the calm and quiet, and with nothing to do but wait, Romero could not resist the sensation of peace about him. It was perhaps the first he’d experienced since this operation began. In the lull, he began to feel the weight of the night and the morning bear down upon him. He felt his head grow heavy. His eyes began to close as he drifted from conscience thought, to another place beyond the battlefield’s meadow.
Nathaniel was caught in a waking dream; his training and instincts fought desperately to keep him half-awake, while his body drove him to hallucinations of his subconscious mind. He saw the girl from before he joined standing on the far side of the distant meadow. Her hair and her pleated skirt flowed in a warm and gentle summer wind. The meadow was peaceful then.
Then a noise suddenly pulled him from her. He looked to his right and there were the cheering boys with the recruiter, urging him to come over. He took a step towards them and a hand grabbed his shoulder whipping him around. A screaming, angry Drill Instructor roared at him incoherently, speaking in nightmare gibberish. Frantically, he panicked, not knowing what to do to appease the tyrant. Attempting everything he knew, he dove to the sandy dirt beneath him, and to his feet, and to the dirt again; crunches, flutter kicks, side straddle hops, before the Drill Instructor shouted something else and ordered him to march.
He marched until he found himself in the back of a plane. Tts back end was open and all his team was there, ready to jump, Corporal Williams, and Lance Corporals Kaiser and Fannon, who they called Suicide. Williams grabbed him and threw him out the back of the plane, still in flight, with Suicide throwing out Romero’s weapon, and Kaiser laughing manically. He flew backwards, with the sensation of freefall. It was terrible, until he embraced the feeling of floating through the air.
From behind him, he heard a buzzing sound. He turned around to see a drone spotter flying towards him. He dodged as the tiny copter flew past, turning for a moment to inspect him, then turning again to fly back to the plane. He watched the robot as it began darting at the plane, buzzing it and clipping at it with its propellers. Romero reached out his arm to help when he heard yet more buzzing. From all around him, a swarm of thousands of tiny flyers rose out from the trees and to the plane. They threw themselves at the plane, tearing it apart with their millions of tiny attacks. The monstrous horde disintegrated the plane and his team vanished with a gust of wind. As the dust of the plane and his team members evaporated away, the swarm’s attention shifted. They had all turned towards the helpless boy suspended in air.
He was terrified until he heard a loud crack next to him. His rifle began firing, engaging the targets he was too afraid to on his own. It was trying desperately to save Romero. One by one, the drones fell from the swarm, but there was no hope. As one fell, a thousand more rose up to descend upon them. As he floated on in a transcendental fall, he thought to himself, “Wait. This isn’t how they died.”
When he thought these words, Nathaniel turned in midair to see the meadow, now very far beneath him. He was still falling. Seconds drew by as treetop canopy branches rose up around him. He continued to fall as the leaves and needles of the pine scratched his face. Watching the ground reach up to devour him, he whispered aloud, “I’m going to die.” And again, “I’m going to die, again.”
Then the falling stopped as he hit the ground. He felt soreness throughout his body, from his twisted ankles, his battered knees, bruised back and damaged ribs, to a headache like he’d never known before.
“I’m not dead, yet.” He thought. “How?”
Romero rose to examine himself. Was he still truly alive?
He lifted himself up and looked around. Through the fog, he saw that he had landed in the muddy creek, just below the lonely tree. He peered into the woods and saw something move. What was this? His gaze focused closer and in the forested darkness he saw the glint of blackened gunmetal. There was a man in the woods staring back at him. The man was holding a weapon, raised it to his eyes and readied it to fire. There was a sudden muzzle flash. Nathaniel saw the round impact the dirt at his feet. It was odd, he thought, that he couldn’t hear any sound.
Romero looked around confused. He could see the movement of others in the trees. They were firing on him now, as well. He looked around to fire back. His weapon was missing. With that, he felt panic. Frantically, Nathaniel looked around for his wayward weapon, only to see it high above, a strange piece of fruit dangling from the lonely tree.
As bullets flew passed him, impacting the muddy earth and the tree, and cutting the air all around, he reached for his weapon. When the Marine reached for it, the weapon moved away. The farther he reached, the more distant the weapon became. Looking up, Romero realized that it was hopeless. The hunters, vicious, snarling and in relentless pursuit after him beyond the tree shadows would be here to devour him soon. Terror took him over.
It was then, that he heard the sound of chopper blades. A helicopter hummed in the distance growing closer and closer. The leaves above the lonely tree danced as a powerful wind brewed in the forest.
“It’s a helicopter…” said Romero, still lost in his slumber. “It really made it…”
Then Romero suddenly became cognizant of the sound. It wasn’t part of any dream. His eyes burst open as he was jolted awake with the realization that he was dreaming up to this point, but that the sound of helicopter blades… they were real. His rescue had arrived.
“It’s the helicopter!” He said. “It’s finally here. It’s finally here. I’m getting out of here!”
In my research on warriors in combat for the book, I wondered across Lt. Dave Grossman’s books On Killing and On Combat. Grossman is one of the leading experts on what happens physiologically to a person’s body during combat levels of stress.
Among them that I found most interesting was the way that a person’s deep brain can drive the rest of body to perform at much higher rate than it was ever intended to under normal conditions, and all the side effects that come with that. It’s like stress making your body and mind are overclocked. The body is a wonderous machine, but that doesn’t come without side effects.
One of those side effects is what Grossman calls the parasympathetic backlash. After intense stress, a soldier backslides, passing even normal state to a point of complete exhaustion where all the strain the body hasn’t been allowed to deal with, suddenly takes over. This can be a deadly situation when the battle isn’t yet over, but only a temporary lull has been reached. Napoleon stated that the moment of greatest danger was the instant immediately after victory, and in the case of Romero, falling victim to it could just cost him his life.
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