Proving Grounds – Part 17

The young Nathaniel Romero stood in horror and watched the petrifying spectacle of the dying bird. As the engine of the V-280 Valor erupted into flames, molten shards of burning metal mercilessly rained from the wing and onto the once serene forest meadow below. This plane was supposed to be the vehicle to serve as his exodus from a battle he had no chance of surviving. That exodus was now falling, desperately fighting to maintain control. The right propeller stopped spinning after another internal explosion violently hurled chunks of itself off as shrapnel in every direction. Out of control, the dead wing fell. It pulled the plane down as the V-280 sank in the wing’s direction. As it did, the opposing wing, with its still functioning engine roaring at full capacity, continued to lift the opposite side. The result was an aircraft, caught in a death tumble, spiraling side over side to the ground, all the while still loaded down with a full complement of a squad of Marines and its doomed crew.
Trapped in his own spiral of disbelief, Romero watched the condemned flight helplessly. Watching it fall, he had not yet realized that the plane was falling towards him. Seeing the hopeless vehicle crashing down upon him, Nathaniel became aware enough to flee from the out of control aircraft. What once was his salvation was now the bearer of his destruction. In his own flight of desperation, he dove behind a large rock formation. From beyond the granite cover, the plane crashed, filling his helmet with a wretched warrior’s death song – the tumultuous ballad formed from the roar of impact and twisted metal screaming.
When the sound died and it seemed the chaos was over, he gathered the fortitude to open his eyes and observe the gravitas of his position. What Nathaniel bore witness to was his once peaceful meadow with its calm green grass and grey haze, then overcome by the vibrant reds and bloodstained crimson emanating from the ignited fuel of the downed Marine Corps transport.
Nathaniel was trembling. The shaking of his hands had become a full body quake when he saw the mangled wreckage. In a moment of forsaken lamentation, tears began to form in his eyes, blurring the woeful spectacle. The tears, though… he wasn’t sure exactly what the cause of them had been. They may have been falling for the Marines inside the plane, all surely dead; or, more likely for himself, now staring bleakly at the reality of his own imminent demise. Perhaps he had simply endured too much, and there was no deeper reason than that.
Before giving himself over to the call to abandon all hope and sensibilities, he heard a crack and saw a patch of dirt fly beside him. On the verge of hysteria, he looked down at this curiosity amidst the chaos. He looked at the upturned dirt patch, a narrow scar on the surface cutting the grass. It was hard to see with tears still streaming from his eyes and obscuring his vision and the readouts on his view screen. While still at a loss, he stared at the little patch of earth immersed in dancing seas of red. Then another patch flipped up beside him. This one was closer, followed by another and another.
Softly he whimpered to himself, “They’re shooting at me.
He was becoming overwhelmed with the sensation of disbelief. He had endured so much by this point. How could his misery not yet be enough? Why did they long to hurt him so much? Why would any human seek with such a fervent, evil desire to make him suffer such desolation and pain?
Romero was immersed in the supreme human fear.
It is that fear that all humans truly fear most. The greatest human fear is greater than the fear of pain, greater than starvation or discomfort, even for most, greater than death. The supreme human fear is that of being ultimately rejected by one of your own kind. It is the fear that pushes one to hide rather than face the scorn of others, to run from conflict, and to hide from those times when other men may judge you among the lesser. Humanity seeks kinship among their own. They seek acceptance, and they seek love from others. It is the horror of a social species such as man to be unwanted, unloved, hated. The denial of humanity is to hate – to wish pain upon others unmercifully. Hate is to take pleasure from the pain in others; to see men die and take joy from it.
They’re shooting at me.” He whispered solemnly.
Why would they want to shoot at me? How could he be hated so deeply? What had he truly done to invoke such wrath? Why would they work so hard, fight so hard, just to see him die? No, not just to die; why did they want him to suffer before they took from him his very life?
He had completely lost the understanding that he was in a battle, and that in this place, on their land, he was the enemy. He was no longer a person to them, just a faceless, motherless enemy. To be an enemy meant that no amount of suffering could not be imagined, because being an enemy meant being less than human. No greater suffering has man inflicted on others who he believed were less than human, and for this reason the fear of one’s value as a fellow human being rejected, for any reason, is why it is the supreme human fear.
Romero’s hands began to shake again around the pistol grip and the forward grip of the weapon. He hunkered down behind his rock, giving in to the call to die.
It was then that he saw something in the trees. It was a man shaped object darting behind a bush. Piercing the veil with eyes focused through the haze of smoke and tears, he could see a man, a soldier, preparing to fire on him.
A fire began to form in Nathaniel Romero. His time suffering was through. Mentally, he gave in to the morbid curiosity of why anyone would want him to die so much. They hated him. There was nothing else he needed to know. They blamed him for whatever travails they had endured and now he was the proxy for their wrath. They hated him. It didn’t need to make sense anymore. This is the nature of hate. It is the desire to gain catharsis for suffering through vengeance in the realization of the pain of others. This was how young boys became killers – they learn to hate for no other reason than that others have told him, “There, that man is your enemy.” This is how killers were born; absent morality, absent reason, and in the absence of seeing value in other people. Though only instinctively, only on the animal level, Romero understood this, and he understood them, because Nathaniel Romero hated them too.
With rage in his eyes, he leapt from his cover and raised his weapon to his head. He fired with the full graceful violence that had been conditioned in him for many months of warrior training. He fired with accuracy and lethal precision. This was violence of action, an overwhelming ferocity, which forced the young soldier behind a tree to cover of his own. When Romero no longer saw his face, he dashed towards the man. If no other means were available to him, he would simply bash this villain’s skull into the dirt, into a bloody remnant of human mass. This was no longer a person to Romero. That thing was just a means for vengeance, the last available to him.
Still firing viciously, the enemy soldier attempted to lay down return fire to cover him while he frantically attempted to flee his inadequate hovel. He wanted to send Romero to cover of his own, pinning him in so that others might overtake the young Marine while this soldier held him down. Romero recklessly ignored these attempts, unheeded as the sound of rifle rounds cracked past and beyond him. Like a madman, Romero just charged through the sporadic bursts, unloading his own unrelenting barrage. Once the enemy soldier realized that little was going to stop the Marine, he dove to find a better place with which to carry out this duel. As the soldier fell for cover, one of Romero’s rounds clipped the soldier in the arm and he fell back, now stumbling in the open.
In seconds, Romero was on him. Neither of them were still firing. The soldier helplessly looked up at Romero as the Marine looked down on this enemy with a vengeful murderous intent. PFC Nathaniel Romero raised his rifle far above his head, aiming the buttstock at the soldier, ready to give the killing blow. For a moment, Romero relished in the terrified plea emanating from the young soldier’s eyes.
“Please don’t kill me.” they begged. Romero recognized the look of those eyes. They were his own only moments ago. This was what vengeance would feel like, he thought, to see that look on someone else. There was more though, he knew those eyes, those in particular. They belonged to the soldier from the woods hours before. He was the one Romero had stumbled upon and whom he had exchanged fire with. Perhaps it would have been a better world if this man had shot Romero there in the forest. Oh, but what a beautiful world it would have been had the two met in a place where violence did not exist. In that other world, the two may have been friends. That blissful fantasy, however, was not the case. They were warriors and this was a war. One of them had to die.
Romero looked down at the man in his terror and raised his weapon to deliver the final blow. He was now a killer. He was willing to kill, where before he couldn’t know. More so, he wanted to kill. He wanted to end this enemy, his hunter, and the killer of his friends. He no longer wanted to be that timid boy, so terrified of the rejection of other humans that he was afraid of simple girls. He would kill. He wanted to kill this person. This forest, this patch of earth doused in flame, this was his proving grounds.
As the hammer began to fall and the boy named Nathaniel transitioned into something else, something more violent, more cruel and… dangerous, another thing happened. Romero felt a sudden shock in his back; a sharp jolt of pain, that gave him pause. That initial bite was followed by another in his side, and then another in his arm. His arm stopped obeying his commands; he could no longer wield his mighty axe. The weapon just hung in the sky above him as his arms went dead and then fell to the ground. Romero followed behind it, collapsing to his knees. The other soldier grabbed his own rifle and ran away to the forest as Romero fell in shock. Pain surged throughout his body, gripping him tighter, and tighter, and tighter. He was overcome by the pain, as well as confusion, wondering what had happened to him.
Alone again in the forest, the only sound Romero could recognize was the crack, crack, crack of rifle fire and the pinging of errant ricochets on the trees, rocks, and earth around him. The noise faded away into the roar of jet fuel fire and the crackling ammunition cooking off inside the carcass of the downed fuselage. As he looked away from the wreckage, it too faded away into nothing but the sounds of the forest all around. In the silence, he saw the sea of vibrant reds and greens fade, first melding into browns and greys before giving way to a formless nothing.
As his head struck the earth, Nathaniel said to himself in one last lament.
“They killed me… I’m dead.”


Me 3

Look, I’m not going to lie. Some days suck more than others.

This final flight of the V-280 and Romero’s last stand were important for me. I wanted to see if I could deliver on desperation. There isn’t much left to say, but I hope you enjoyed Romero’s journey and his proving grounds.

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Cover Art

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