Lying almost conscious in the mud of some creek in a forest far from any home he’d ever known, PFC Romero was broken, battered, exhausted, starving. Somewhere in the forest, he was also surrounded by men of battle and war machines tasked with finding and killing him. In the nether between the mercy of sleep and the burning agony of consciousness, his mind flashed on the year before him and what ultimately brought him to this bleak point in his life. Thinking back to his combat instructor’s enthusiastic prophecy, Romero thought very little of the romantic allure of real combat, at the moment. Fighting and warfare weren’t as glamorous as he had once imagined. There was more to being a warrior than fancy suits, medals, and sword posing for cameras, like the posters in his recruiter’s office.
There was fear in this place. There was fear, and hunger, fatigue, and waiting. There was endless waiting; waiting for the opportunity to move, waiting for word, hurry-up and wait, waiting for orders, waiting for help, and finally, waiting to regain consciousness, or perhaps, waiting to die. He was the living epitome of war – lost and lying in the mud of some river bed, his helmet began filling with the muddy water on a cold morning while be hunted down like a fox or mangy dog. He never imagined himself on the losing side of a conflict like this.
In all, he had only a few minutes of rest. Before he passed out, he was haunted by visions of the last year, a year spent in training for a war that hadn’t even begun when he enlisted. He joined for all the wrong reasons, but thought at least that he enjoyed the life of meaning that military service was supposed to provide. He woke the instant the chilled water from the shallow flow filled his helmet and bit his cheek with its stinging cold.
When he woke up, he remembered where he was. His team was lost to him. He was being hunted like an animal. His body was numb, all except those parts enshrouded in pain.
That feeling quickly melted away, however, when he realized he couldn’t feel his weapon. A Marine in war never goes anywhere without his weapon. He slept with it in arm’s reach always. Now his was gone.
Where had it fallen? Was it far? Where could it be?
He lurched to his knees, seeking to find the wayward rifle. He couldn’t see any sign of it anywhere in the mud around him. Looking to the bank, he could see where he had landed, and the trail his limp body had made sliding down the ravine, but his weapon wasn’t in any of those places.
With his heart quickening, and while searching frantically, Nathaniel took a breath. A sudden pain spiked in his chest. Had he cracked his ribs? How had he done that? Then he remembered the tree. He had been struck by a tree branch, which caught him and threw him against the slope. He looked up at the tree again, still holding his chest underneath his heavy bulletproof jacket. There it was, his weapon, caught hanging in the branches above. He would have to climb to get it back.
Just getting to his feet was a task of agony as his body reprogrammed itself into working as it should. He took one faltering step forward, with just that simple motion pain coursed throughout his entire body. Climbing that tree to get his weapon would be his own personal Kilimanjaro. He slogged through the mud, limping and wincing from the pain in his chest. Finally reaching it, he looked up to see his weapon, just staring at him from maybe fifteen feet up. How was it possible that it could have gotten so high? He hadn’t considered that as it was, it was still a good ten feet lower than the cliff.
With his strong arm, Romero grabbed for the first branch nearest the ground and attempted to find a footing to climb further. With his second thrust he reached high with his left hand and felt the sharp pain in his ribs stab him mercilessly. Something was definitely wrong with his chest. He dropped back down to think of another plan. Perhaps he could jar it down with a stick or a branch?
As he concocted some sort of plan, the placid sound of a still forest and babbling water was disrupted by an ominous buzzing sound. Instinctively, he froze. It was the drone spotters. They were still searching for him.
The buzz was still very distant and it was moving away. They hadn’t found him. That fact alone restored him with a new impetus. Romero now fully understood the need to get on the move as fast as possible. Knowing well what his choices were, he gritted his teeth and went for the tree again.
The climb was excruciating, but there really was no choice in the matter. The injury to his ribcage cried out every time he tried to reach out with his left arm. After twelve feet, he was gasping for air, and shaking violently on the precarious branches. He reached out and grasped desperately to get a finger hold on the weapon. He reached again and failed, then a third time. As he began to consider jumping as a viable alternative, he heard the buzzing, this time, nearer than before. With one last desperate stretch, he reached out his hands and grasped the sling of the weapon. His moment of victory was cut short when his footing gave way and he once again went tumbling down the tree. He hit what he believed to be every branch on his way down, finally snagging one strong enough to slow his momentum. It mercifully righted him just enough to land on his feet with a thud before rolling to the ground.
He laid in the mud, yet again, trembling with frustration and pain. He looked to his left. The weapon he had flailed so desperately trying to secure was perched daintily beside him on the only dry rock amid all the muck and grime everywhere else. He reached toward it with the last outpour of stamina his body would allow itself to muster. In his last moment’s exertion, his outstretched arm fell limp with a splash. He felt he could go no further.
Why was he being cursed with such potent and unmitigated scorn? He contemplated just lying there, giving up and dying. Perhaps it was just simply too hopeless. Perhaps God was telling him, in a manner of absolute certainty that Nathaniel Romero was simply not fit for the warfighter’s life of trial and tribulation. Yes, that was it, he wasn’t meant to be a warrior. As he laid there, cold and in the mud, he faced the urge to curl up into a fetal ball, reject his mission, and resign himself to what seemed his destined fate. He was meant to die as something other than a real warrior. He was just chasing dreams of glory and women, pretending to be something he was not. He was just another stupid kid playing war hero.
He looked at his weapon again. It seemed so peaceful there, sitting quite comfortably on its dry rock. It was like it didn’t even care about what Romero was going through. It seemed unharmed by the entire calamity that had befallen its master. It wasn’t broken and battered as Nathaniel felt at that moment. The rifle wasn’t covered in mud, filth, and now blood. It seemed so impervious. It seemed… smug. As it sat there, undaunted by the tumult around them, it mocked the young PFC with its invulnerability.
“What are you looking at?” Romero said, sneering at the unfettered rifle, punctuated with a string of colorful expletives. The rifle said nothing.
“You think you’re so smart? You get us out of here.”
The rifle just stared silently into the distance.
“What?” Nathaniel exclaimed. “I’ve done everything. You know that?” His speech was slurred, as if drunk with misery or exhaustion. “I got us out when Corporal Williams, Su, and Kaiser bit it. I got us through the woods. I got us away from those guys shooting at us. I kept us from getting caught by the drone. I got you out of that damned tree. What have you done? Nothing! You just sit there, dangling from my shoulder… making me do all the work.”
The rifle was unmoved.
Romero lay there for a moment longer, gritting his teeth in anger.
“I could kill you right now if I wanted to. I could grab you by the muzzle and smash you against that very tree into a million pieces. I could…”
“Then do it.”, said the rifle.
Romero wasn’t prepared for that. Part of him knew he was dreaming, or perhaps… at least hallucinating. He knew that the weapon couldn’t really be looking at him in that manner, but hadn’t honestly expected the thing to reply. Perhaps he was losing his mind.
“Perhaps you are losing your mind, but that doesn’t change anything. You said you could smash me. Can you?”
Romero suddenly lost his sense of confusion to one of anger at the implication.
“I’ll do it.” Romero said. “You know I will.”
“I think you could. That doesn’t mean that you will. Pull yourself up and out of the mud and do it. Otherwise just lay there until you die of being so pathetic.”
Romero couldn’t believe his weapon’s brazen arrogance; it’s pure and utter stupidity, to insult him like it had. Enraged, Romero took a deep inhaling breath. The pain was gone from him in that moment and he threw himself to his feet. He slogged through the mud, stomping furiously toward the belligerent weapon. As he had promised, he grabbed it by the muzzle and marched over to the tree, which already had nearly killed him twice. He raised the weapon up and took the stance of a professional baseball player, up to level a ball out into the nose-bleed section. Perhaps he would get revenge on both of them.
“See? You could do it.” The rifle chirped in the moment before its demise.
Nathaniel paused. He looked at the weapon in his hands. What was he doing? Was he really about to punish his rifle for some ill-conceived plight he had put himself into? Was his rifle really just talking to him? Had he hallucinated the whole thing or had he really just lost his mind?
He heard another voice. No, not just a voice. This was a memory. It was the sound of Gunnery Sergeant Yafante’s voice. “Stay positive.” It was the first class he gave for the unit in preparation for their pre-deployment Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training. “Stay positive” was the mantra they were supposed to repeat when in situations just like this; keep control of your breathing, focus on the task at hand – stay positive.
The buzzing returned. The seeker was going to be close this time. Romero slung his weapon quickly and bolted for the trees at the edge of the ravine. He had to climb up a particularly rocky ledge, one which gave his feet just enough traction to move while using roots dangling from the side of the river’s wall to pull himself up. Once at the top, he dove behind some bushes and waited for the drone’s passing.
Romero could see the copter this time. It was following the river’s path and moving much slower than before. Its masters were searching much more carefully this time. They must have lost him completely and were making methodical sweeps to regain his trail. The drone drifted towards the point where he had fallen from the tree before. It listed purposefully over the tree, then the mud hole he had lain in, and the loosened dirt where he had slid down the small cliff’s face. Perhaps it sensed it was on to something. The drone drifted slowly. Then it stopped. It tilted downward, its camera faced toward the deck and the evidence of his near death experience. It lowered down and investigated the mud below where he was. It panned around, first looking at the mangled tree, then the broken earth along the cliff where Romero had fallen, then at the muddy ground where he had lain, disturbed unnaturally by his crawling and flaying about. Through the optical lens, the pilot of the drone must have seen Romero’s telltale footprints. They led right from the tree to right where he was.
“Dammit!”, Romero thought, crouching low behind the tree near him, just barely able to see the tiny quadcopter through the bushes. He crouched down as low as he could behind the bushes.
The little drone appeared excited with its discovery. As the devil hovered, it tilted and pitched to point its camera along the foot track’s path and leered over until it pointed straight at the PFC. It rose suddenly into the air then screamed into forward action following the direction of the tracks. It was looking down directly on Nathaniel’s position. Romero froze again as the deceptively deadly drone flew at him.
Romero’s focus shifted to the rifle in his hands. In seconds, he would have to shoot down the drone if it found him. They would already know where he was, but at least taking out the seeker would let him move momentarily without its vigilant gaze. Surely, more would be along behind it, but he would buy himself at least a few more minutes. He gripped his weapon, thumbing the safety as the little copter drew piercingly nearer.
His eyes locked on his weapon. In the last second, as Romero’s body tightened instinctively before he would have taken aim and dispatched the flying nemesis, the copter’s flight carried it directly past him. It went right over him and on as if he weren’t even there.
The pilot of the tiny drone must have followed the path of the footprints, ending at the tree line. He must have assumed that the prey had already escaped into the forest and moved on some time before. He was completely unaware that Romero was right beside the riverbank at that very moment. PFC Romero had avoided the drone’s eyes, yet again. It soared with enthusiastic ignorance as to just how close it had come to finding him.
As it flew on, Romero’s jaw hung with shock and amazement.
“Stay positive, huh?” he said through a nervous chuckle, “Well… that’s something good at least.”
He could see the direction the drone was moving in. It was going along a path back towards where he had come from. The young PFC certainly couldn’t go that way. He’d have to find another route to the objective. Also, they had a much more recent grid location on where he had been. They would be gathering soon at the tree beside the creek, and would be on him soon if he stayed. He’d have to start moving again.
Romero again oriented himself to the destination he was directed to find. It was not far away by then, but he couldn’t go directly to it, not anymore. The troops who tried to catch him before would likely be covering everything between where he was then and where he needed to go. He decided it would be best if he took a wide arc, and attempt to come around the side. It would take more time, but so what if it did? All he cared about then was surviving to see the end of this mission.
He began to move at a stiff pace. Invigorated by what appeared to be good luck in another capture evaded, his pain seemed to subside and he was propelled by a strong second wind, or perhaps it was by then his third or fourth. As he ran, Nathaniel thought about the “conversation” he had with his rifle and how he had pushed himself to the brink of insanity to get up. Had he not, that drone would have found him. For a moment, he was very thankful for his brief hallucination. Best, he thought, to keep that story to himself.
As he bounded through the forest, he said with the first smile he worn in hours, “Okay Rifle, that was embarrassing for the both of us. I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”
The rifle quietly smiled to itself, and acknowledged him with its continued silence.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
To give you guys something to do over the holiday, I’ve given out a special long article to say thanks for following and also to celebrate rejoining Romero deep in the mess we left him in three months ago.
This episode was an experiment to me. I wanted to see how far I was willing to push a kid who was just pushed too far. It’s funny what a mind can do after days of experiencing hardship, and not the sort of hardship a writer who needs to work harder on his work, but the kind of a Marine lost in the woods being chased by enemy everywhere with no water and days of exhaustion. That said, one might expect things to get weird for the poor guy.
I doubt that Romero is at the point of suffering a full on psychologic episode, but if things don’t start going his way soon, he might just get there soon.
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