The sun is finally starting to come up, but I don’t feel any safer. Little rays of sun filter through the mass of vegetation that surround us in a nearly three-hundred-sixty degree radius, but it’s still only barely enough to notice, let alone shed any actual illumination. The green is all around us — wet and dense and, it seems to me, angry at the intrusion of the squad stomping our clumsy way through. We don’t belong here; we know that, but the jungle keeps on reminding us all the same and the dangers it presents aren’t lessened by daylight.
If it’s sunrise, that means we’ve been marching for a good eight hours already. And if that’s true—
A single shot. The report rings for only a split second before the sea of hungry flora swallows up the sound, pulling it in and absorbing it like the ocean does a weak swimmer. In that instant, I stand frozen: a greasy, dirty, green-and-black statue in the overgrown yard of a planet whose seemingly-random alphanumeric designation I can’t even remember right now. It’s not what they trained us to do, but there are some things even rote memorization and screaming drill instructors can’t overcome. I imagine everyone else does the same, bound by a ligature of fear.
I see movement from the corner of my eye and simultaneously hear Sergeant Rickard screaming for everyone to drop, find cover, return fire if you have a shot. Without making a decision, my head turns toward the sight rather than the sound. Not three feet away, the guy everyone calls “Spank” takes an awkward, sideways step toward the nearest tree trunk — trying to find support or trying to obey orders, I’ll never know — and crashes backwards, his hands clutching the growing spot of red sprouting from his belly. His eyes catch mine and silently ask a question, but damned if I know what. A plea for help, perhaps. Maybe it’s, “Why me?”
Maybe it’s, “Why not you?”
The sergeant yells for cover again; one of my squad-mates takes the initiative and pulls me down into the organic detritus coating the jungle floor. He looks as scared as I feel and I want to thank him, but I can’t remember his name, or even his nickname. Everyone gets a nickname within a few days of basic training whether you want one or not. I want to thank him but the fact that I can’t remember what to address him by crowds out all other concerns. In that moment it feels so very, foolishly important.
Instead, I nod and he mirrors the gesture.
We lie on our bellies, waiting, clutching rifles many of us have only fired on training ranges light-years away, trying not to make a sound and instead breathing so heavily I’m sure half the continent knows where we are. It’s been two weeks in this soggy hellhole without so much as a peep from the other side; guess our luck’s run out.
All around us the scene is repeated in various permutations by our squaddies, though I can only make out a couple of other friendlies from my narrow perspective. It doesn’t matter; I know the other guys are out there. So do They.
I wonder if They’re as scared as I am. As we are.
They’re the faceless enemy we’ve never seen outside of holo-stills and tri-vids, wrapped head to toe in environment suits that we’re told They need simply to exist in an Earth-variant environment. I wonder why They want this world so badly if They can’t even breathe the air. I wonder if to Them we’re They: anonymous and endless, an obstacle to whatever plans they have.
Another shot. I’m so amped with adrenaline and pointless thoughts that the sound barely registers before it fades into the verdure. I haven’t learned to accurately gauge distance through the thick foliage yet, and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. The sergeant says you learn quick or you don’t get the chance. I think I’m finally getting the hang of it, though, because I’m sure this shot isn’t as close as the last one. I throw a glance toward my still-living neighbor, but he’s peering intently at the green wall before him, carbine held in a white-knuckled death-grip.
A wet shuffling sound signals movement behind me. I turn, bringing my weapon up without conscious thought; guess I am learning, after all.
My eyes lock with Sergeant Rickard’s as he crawls a last yard through the mud, then springs into a crouching position. He lifts his right hand, separating the five fingers out as far as they’ll go, signaling me and my nameless buddy to spread out, move forward and reconnoiter. It’s an enduringly-useful gesture that any soldier — from centurions in ancient Rome all the way up to United Systems Colonial Forces grunts like me — would recognize. Something about the planet’s magnetic field plays hob with communications, so we rely on the classics more often than not.
The sergeant waves us forward impatiently. He hasn’t even spared a look for Spank, lying crumpled in the mud. He probably figures there’ll be time for that later. Maybe he just doesn’t care.
My friend’s name is Marcus. It pops into my head while we’re regaining our feet, as quietly as possible. I still can’t remember his last name or whatever nickname he goes by, but it’s a start and somehow it makes me more comfortable in his presence. It’s the two of us against however many of Them are hiding out there. Probably a lone scout or sniper, otherwise we’d be full-on engaged by now. Marcus plunges into the green ahead of me and I make a mental note to thank him later. It’s important.
I sneak forward in a duck walk, hot on his heels. The sergeant doesn’t follow, but I catch flashes of movement all around us and what little I see tells me enough to know it’s the rest of our squad spreading out in a circle, hoping to surround the enemy. It’s one of the standard engagement plans we’ve been taught — one of the most basic, but part of me is still proud to remember it.
When I think I’m in position I stop, drop to one knee and listen. I can see Marcus not far off and another guy who calls himself Dozer Dave; stupid nickname, but a nice guy. He catches my eye and gives me the barest nod. I don’t bother reciprocating; he knows, he’ll understand.
Another minute of fearful silence, then the sergeant’s voice rings out a little ways off. “All clear!”
I get to my feet, trying not to think about the miles of marching yet to do, the hours still to go in my greasy, mud-soaked clothes, or how chafed I already am. Dozer Dave walks over, smacks me lightly on the back as he passes and grins without saying a word, before heading off in the direction of the sergeant’s voice. Marcus begins that way, too, but I stop him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Hey,” I say, trying to keep the shaking in my knees and the ice still sitting in the bottom of my belly out of my voice. “Thanks. For back there.”
He sneers. “Save it. Next time someone says ‘cover’, you drop or get shot, dipshit. Your ass ain’t my responsibility.”
I don’t know what I expected him to say, but it wasn’t that. I guess it’s as valid a response as any.
I swallow, avert my eyes and nod but he’s already walking away. I hurry after him to avoid being left alone, feeling stupid and ashamed but trying not to show it. Not that he could see it anyway with his back to me.
In a clearing barely big enough for two men, the eight remaining members of our squad crowd around Sergeant Rickard, who stands with his hands on his hips, staring upwards at the jungle canopy. “We’ll call that a ‘dry run’.” He doesn’t bother looking at any of us as he speaks.
“Wherever that bastard was, he’s long gone now and since he got his ‘prize shot’, I doubt he’ll trouble us again.” He sniffs and wipes a bit of mud away from his cheek, like he’s stalling to think about what he’ll say next. “For a first engagement, most of you did just fine,” he continues, finally turning his head from the branches and vines above us and now looking directly at me. “The rest of you’ll get it or you won’t. Even I can’t make a soldier out of everyone.” He clears his throat, looks around at the rest of the young men standing near him. The sergeant probably isn’t even forty, but most of us are half that.
Rickard turns away from me, points at a pair of guys somehow less muddy than the rest of us, standing on the opposite end of the little clearing. “Davis and Ronstadt, go grab what’s left of Private Spancyzk. No man left behind, useless or not.”
I was right the second time. He doesn’t care.
We resume our march without incident. Six hours later, my belly is cramping from hunger and my legs are so tired I can no longer feel them when we stop at last and make camp on the edge of a rare stretch of open, unforested land, covered in tall, tawny-colored grasses.
As I peel off my boots and the sodden, disgusting rags that used to be socks, the sergeant walks by, watching me as he passes. He doesn’t say a word, but the corner of his mouth twitches and I know what he wants to say: Useless. Only difference between you and Spank is he wasn’t lucky.
I turn back toward the campfire someone else built and I’m only sharing, knowing he’s right. My face is hot, but it’s not from the flames. I couldn’t make it back home: couldn’t cut it at university, couldn’t find a job after dropping out. What made me think I belonged out here where I can’t even run away again? I’m not a soldier — I’m a liability.
Someone taps me from behind; I turn my head and see it’s Dozer Dave. He’s smiling as he claps a hand on my shoulder. Before I can think of something to say he says, in a voice calculated to reach only my ears, “Fuck ’em,” and walks away, leaving me to dry my feet alone.
I stare into the fire for a while then pull an MRE box from my pack, thinking of how bad they taste but glad they’ll at least assuage the pain in my gut. It’s then, thinking of taste, I notice there’s a saltiness already on my lips. I swipe at my face and my fingers come away wet. I look up to see Marcus sitting on the other side of the little fire, shaking his head in disdain. Damn it, am I actually crying? How long has he been there, anyway?
I start to wipe at my eyes with my palms and remember what Dozer Dave said. Fuck ’em.
Maybe he’s right. I can’t be the only one who feels like this; the only one who had no idea what he was signing up for. I know I’m not the only one who misses home and I’d bet I’m not the only who’s shed desperate tears, thinking about how hopeless his situation is. I’m just the one who got caught.
I look over at Marcus again, now wolfing down a meal ration of his own. Marcus who saved my life then called me a dipshit. His gaze flicks up toward me, and I flash a little grin, tears still crawling through the filth coating my cheeks. His brow furrows a little in confusion then he turns his attention back to what passes for food.
I shift away from the tiny strip of grassland we’ve made camp on, back toward the jungle. Though we cut a path as we traveled, it’s already beginning to disappear; the brush is rushing in to fill the gap, unnaturally fast by Earth standards. Within a couple of hours, it’ll be like we were never here. I spent nearly a full day stumbling and sweating through mud, vines and lord knows what else and it’s almost like it never happened. I realize once again that I was wrong: this place isn’t angry at our intrusion — it’s completely indifferent. The jungle has been here forever and maybe it always will be. We’re merely a passing irritation, an inconvenient blip in the cycle of its life and it won’t give us the satisfaction of its attention. The sergeant was right; the verdure does have a lesson to teach, just not the one he thought.
I smile again as I peel open the plastic food container on my lap and dig in. They may never make a soldier out of me, but Dozer Dave, with two little words, has somehow awakened my inner philosopher. Just like that I’m an adherent of what may be the universe’s simplest, but most profound school of thought.
© 2014 by Brandon Barrows
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