I Chapter Seven: Exercise
February 9, 2525
(Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
The sun was out, today, cranked up to its highest temperature setting.
Meteorologists called for thunderstorms in this area tomorrow, which meant today was especially humid and sticky.
I slapped at the gnats trying to dive-bomb my eyes. Thin rivulets of sweat seeped down my neck and into the back of my uniform, which I’m sure sported a giant sweat stain.
Oh, what I would give for a puff of wind…or a spray bottle full of water…
We were in the middle of our second live-fire exercise.
This exercise was taking place in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides with wheat fields as far as the eye could see.
We had been deployed to defend Harvest’s reactor complex.
The complex comprised of a single tower surrounded by concrete walls. The tower had two tiers, giving it the appearance of a giant wedding cake.
The entire compound was boxed in by a sturdy metal fence.
This exercise was very different from our experience in the forest. It was not First Platoon versus Second Platoon. All of us were on the same side, this time around.
We were defending the reactor complex from Johnson and Byrne.
To win the exercise, one force had to wipe out fifty-percent of the other.
The Staff Sergeants would need to tag thirty-six of us, while we’d only need to hit one of them. Just one.
This made me incredibly nervous.
Having the odds tipped so profoundly in our favor could not mean anything good for us.
I was stationed with the rest of my squad on the west fence. We had been sitting here for hours.
Everyone expected Byrne and Johnson to attack early, before we could get settled and organized.
At 0900 hours we downed breakfast and roared over here in our warthogs, dividing into squads and taking up our assigned posts.
Adrenaline had been running high, then. We were ready for the sergeants; we wanted to start shooting at anything we saw.
The Staff Sergeants never showed.
Now, it was close to 1700 hours, not too much longer until sunset, and still no sign of them.
We were all hot, sweaty, tired of sitting in the same place all afternoon…our mojo was gone.
Even though we were now well organized and entrenched, the Staff Sergeants would not be facing the fresh, eager, bloodthirsty militia from eight hours ago. They would be fighting cramped, grumpy, fatigued recruits.
The only break in the monotonous day had been a trio of JOTUN cropduster planes lazily making their way across the fields to the west, dusting the crops with fungicide.
"How much do you all wanna bet the Sarges are probably lyin' back in some Utgard bar, havin' a cold one right now while we sweat our balls off?" Rosen posed the question, mercifully breaking the oppressive silence.
"They're probably waiting for dumb fucks like you to start saying that kind of shit," Billings grumbled. "Right when you start thinking they're just dicking around, they'll show up and give you a TTR enema because you weren't paying attention."
"Jesus...no need to be an asshole about it…" Rosen rolled his eyes turning back towards the fence.
"Assholes survive,” Billings shot back. “Dumb fucks die."
"That's enough," Carrol interrupted them both, restoring the peace. "Johnson and Byrne are observing from a distance. They will strike when they see fit."
"And God help us all when they do…" Omar murmured.
"Oh, come on…" Dempsey snorted. "You really think those two assholes are going to be able to take on all of us? All we have to do is get one of them. One."
"Now you're underestimating them," Kaczynski pointed out. "It's always the dude who underestimates the other dude who gets-"
"I'm not underestimating; it's seventy versus freakin' two!"" Dempsey nearly exploded. "How the hell are they gonna-"
"I said enough!" Carrol barked. That shut everyone up; Carrol seldom raised his voice. "I don't want to hear another word on what the sergeants are doing.”
The afternoon drew on and on.
Nothing ever happened.
Occasionally a recruit would make a comment or two over the open COM channel, but the squad leaders were always quick to put a stop to that.
Doc Healy reminded us over the COM to keep hydrated.
The clock approached 1800 hours.
A JOTUN heavy combine approached from the north.
It was gigantic – fifty meters tall.
Dempsey, Rosen, and Kaczynski got into a mini-argument over whether the JOTUN was a Series Four or a Series Five.
They decided it was a Series Five.
The JOTUN rumbled past us, tilling the fields east of the reactor complex.
"All squads! Got a vehicle coming in!"
I recognized the voice as Forsell's.
He was holed up with Jenkins, Critchley, and Werner at the very top of the reactor tower.
"This a joke, Forsell?" asked Stisen. “It’s too hot for any of your bullshit.”
Ever since his defeat in the pugil-stick exercise, Stisen had been more abrasive than usual, if that was even possible.
"See for yourself," Forsell responded.
I looked to the south and was just barely able to see a taxi sedan approaching via the access road, heading for entrance gate.
"Look sharp!" Stisen bellowed from 2/A’s position behind the sandbags piled on both sides of the entrance gate. "Dass, give me some cover!"
“Keep eyes on that taxi, Alpha,” Dass, the squad leader of 1/A, ordered his recruits. They were stationed on the lower tier of the reactor tower. “Be ready to lay down suppressing fire.”
"Just make sure they watch what they shoot," Stisen growled over the COM. “You’ll be firing over our heads.”
“We’re the Alpha Squad who never misses, Stisen.”
"Look alive, boys," Carrol whispered to us. "Garris, Lowell; I want eyes on that vehicle until it leaves."
I shouldered my M6J and zeroed in on the approaching taxi.
At this range, it would be difficult to land a good shot without a scope, but that didn't mean I wasn't going to try if the need arose.
I wish I had one of those new BR55 rifles.
We only had six BR55s. The Staff Sergeants got two. Jenkins, Forsell, Critchley, and Werner got the remaining four.
None for me.
Stisen broke cover and marched out to the center of the gate, raised his hand in a halt gesture.
The sedan came to a stop ten meters in front of Stisen.
For a few moments, there was silence. The car did not move, and neither did we.
Stisen leveled his MA5 at the sedan’s windshield and ordered the driver to exit the vehicle.
The car did not move. No one got out.
“Burdick!” Stisen called to one of his recruits. “Take three men and secure that car.”
Burdick led three of his squadmates through the entrance gate.
They fanned out as they approached the sedan, weapons at the ready.
Burdick edged warily up to the driver door.
The moment his hand made contact with the handle, all four car doors sprang open.
White light exploded from inside the sedan, shattering the car’s windows.
Burdick and two others were lying motionless on the road, splattered with red TTR paint.
The fourth recruit barely managed to evade getting neutralized. He limped away from the sedan, shouting, “CLAYMORES!”
Stisen sprinted onto the access road, throwing the recruit’s arm around his shoulders, helping him back to the sandbags.
"Car's empty," I reported to Carrol. "Nothing for me to shoot at."
Before I’d even finished my sentence, a loud commotion broke out along the east fence. We heard panicked cries from the recruits of 1/B, but the reactor tower prevented us from seeing what was happening.
"Andersen, what's going on over there?" Carrol shouted into the COM.
"The combine! It isn't turning!" Andersen, the leader of First Platoon's Bravo Squad, cried.
"Garris, check the east side!" Carrol motioned for me to move.
"Yes, sir!" I sprang to my feet and sprinted past my squadmates to Habel’s position along the northern fence.
Habel’s recruits did not even notice me; everyone was transfixed by what was happening at the eastern fence.
The Series Five JOTUN heavy combine tore through the chain link fence like paper, scattering Andersen’s Bravo Squad.
The JOTUN was completely covered in red TTR paint, evidence of 1/B's failed attempt to bring it to a stop.
I raised my M6J and aimed at the JOTUN, searching for any sign of the Staff Sergeants.
Someone had to be around that combine.
Dozens of recruits continued to shoot at the JOTUN even though no one spotted the Staff Sergeants yet.
I saw a flash of a dark, round object flying through the air towards the reactor tower.
In the second it took me to guess what I’d just seen, the grenade exploded.
Most of Dass’s squad was now gone, according to COM chatter.
We outnumbered the Staff Sergeants by seventy, and they’d just wiped out a sixth of our force.
“Movement!” Jenkins wailed over the COM. “I’ve got movement on the JOTUN!”
Within five seconds I spotted Byrne. He’d positioned himself between the first and second body segments of the JOTUN combine.
I squeezed off several rounds but they all went wide, spattering against the JOTUN's enormous wheels.
Byrne was forced to abandon his already-risky position by the sheer volume of TTR that was coming his way. He swung himself over the ladder and started descending.
The COM squawked again. "I got him,” Jenkins was shouting.“I got him!"
Byrne reached the bottom of the ladder and dropped to the ground, rolling between the JOTUN’s wheels.
"Like hell you do!" Stisen retorted over the COM. "Critchley! Come to front!"
Though Byrne was effectively pinned down, he still managed to return fire without getting hit.
The recruit in front of me had time only to cry out in surprise before he crumpled unconscious to the ground, TTR splattered across his helmet.
I dove away from the downed recruit, desperate to get out of Byrne's sights.
"I said I got him!" Jenkins started to say, but Stisen cut him off again.
"Shut it, Jenkins!" the constable snapped. "Critchley, respond!"
Silence over the COM.
I swung around and looked up at the northern edge of the reactor tower’s lower tier, where Critchley and Werner were originally stationed. Both of them lay unconscious, TTR on their helmets.
"Critchley and Werner are down!" I shouted into my own COM. "I repeat: Critchley is gone!"
"So is all of 1/C!" Forsell reported.
"What?!" Stisen exclaimed.
"We've lost everyone on the western fence! 1/C is all gone and 2/B has been driven back!"
With all of these new losses, we must have racked up twenty-five to thirty casualties, already.
The Staff Sergeants were still untouched.
It occurred to me that we probably had only a minute or so left before the Staff Sergeants crushed us.
"Stisen, I'm moving to the back!" Jenkins reported over the COM.
"No, goddamnit!" Stisen swore, countermanding the 1st Platoon sharpshooter. "Habel! Shift west! It's gotta be Johnson!"
I ignored the rest of the COM transmissions and shouldered my M6J.
Habel's 2/C was on their feet, now, moving west along the northern fence. I accompanied them; we were going to find out what the hell was going on at the western fence.
The moment we rounded the corner, a hail of TTR came speeding our way. Two of Habel's men were hit, falling where they stood.
Staff Sergeant Johnson kept up his suppressing fire as he slipped through a gap in the chain-link fence.
I broke off while Habel organized his recruits for a counterattack, heading back around the north side of the tower. I wanted to get to Critchley and Werner’s position and see if I could snag one of their BR55s.
I found the nearest ladder and pulled myself up to the tower’s lower tier.
TTR spattered the walls to my right. Byrne was firing at me. I dropped to the floor, crawling away from the splatter.
That was one of the drawbacks of TTR; the splatter of the paint could neutralize you even if the round didn't actually hit you. Had to be extra careful.
Forsell and Jenkins might still be up here, if they weren’t already tagged. Maybe I could link up with them.
I found Critchley and Werner at the northern ledge of the lower tier. Their BR55s lay next to them on the floor.
I reached for Critchley's BR55, but a TTR round hit me in the arm before I could grab it.
My left arm instantly went limp.
“Fuck!” I swore, throwing myself back.
Johnson appeared around the curve of the tower wall, aiming his M6 pistol right at me. The Staff Sergeant’s finger tightened around the trigger and squeezed.
However, just as he fired, he stumbled. His shots went wide, striking me in the legs rather than in the chest.
The only limb I could now move was my right arm.
Staff Sergeant Johnson had been hit from behind by three rounds of TTR. His right leg was paralyzed, which caused him to stumble just as he fired at me.
I raised my carbine with my one good arm and squeezed off several shots towards Johnson, but he was already gone.
I started pulling myself around the curvature of the tower with my good arm, hoping to surprise Johnson.
By the time I caught sight of him about to shoot Jenkins, the exercise was over.
"Cease fire, cease fire!" Captain Ponder's voice was booming over the loudspeakers. "Staff Sergeant Byrne, you have been neutralized. Final score: thirty-four to one. Congratulations, recruits.”
From what I could hear of the COM chatter, Osmo from 1/A was the one who fired the lucky shot. Apparently he hadn’t even been aiming. Sometimes luck carries the day.
The initial euphoria of victory now passed, I pulled myself to the edge of the lower tier’s western ledge.
Carrol, Worthington, and Ricketts were all standing down there, giving each other congratulatory claps on the back.
The rest of Bravo was scattered across the ground, unconscious.
"Uh…hello?" I cleared my throat, getting their attention.
"Garris?" Carrol looked up, utterly surprised. "Where the hell have you been?"
"How about you help me down from here and I'll tell you?"