“Leon we need to fall back!” shouted Kale behind me. “They are shredding out squad into pieces!”
Gunfire roared behind. The grass was already stained with red and green ooze. Sound of early summer was already buried under explosions, yells and screams of agony, and helicopters hovering in the air. Dave and Natalie had their heart pierced from the swarming Hunters but I kept on fighting, killing any Hunter in front of me. The others were all some meters behind me, yelling for me to order a retreat. But for over half an hour, I stayed quiet. I already expected some fleeing, ignoring my order to fight I gave hours ago, because the human yells from the back became less frequent. Every battle since Day 1 of the war, I gave late retreat calls. I knew I got many of my members to death. But I just never gave a punctual order to fall back. Turning back against the enemy is giving them more chances to die – at least that was what I thought.
“Scarlet how many do you see?” I said through the earphone.
“It’s not good; more than yesterday. You have to fall back Leon. I know you can fight on but the others can’t,” buzzed Scarlet’s voice back. The missiles already ran out and the roar of the Gatling gun suddenly stopped. “Leon, come on. This is not good.”
“…” I hesitated. Why am I hesitating? Why am I hesitating to save lives? Why… I killed three more Hunters in a single strike. “So this is what Crusaders are…”
My squad arrived at the advanced camp just a kilometer away from our battle zone. The camp itself was heavily fortified. Ammunition storage was still almost full; a room full of spare swords was given to the Crusaders and a self-assembly version of the barricade was supplied to imitate the one at Sector 3.
As always Michelle was waiting for me. She was always angry after the battle. Entirely because I’ve gotten like four to six members die every day. The moment she spotted me, she stomped towards me.
“Again! What do you think you are doing Leon?” said Michelle furiously. Unlike my squad and Michelle’s and the other squad remained over 20 people; mine was down to 17, counting the two deaths from the latest battle.
“Well at least he did retreat when I asked him to,” said Scarlet weakly. She looked exhausted. “Otherwise, the 17 members would’ve been 1.”
“Thank you,” I said innocently.
“You’re welcome,” replied Scarlet impassively. For an instant, Michelle looked like she was going to explode. But soon, she released her anger with a huge sigh.
“It’s not always about you Leon… they are also humans – the squad members. You’re the strongest Crusaders we’ve ever had. That person’s squad having the most KIA is not…” she faltered.
“So how many did you kill?” I asked her.
“Leon… this is exactly what I mean! It’s Day 2 and 8 members died. In this case, you are responsible for your squad’s lifeline. Protecting one of them is much more valuable than killing a dozen of Hunters. As a leader, you’re object is not just eliminating the Hunters, but to lead the squad to eliminating them with the least damage possible,” exclaimed Michelle desperately. Surprised to see her like this, I lost my words.
“I… I’ll work on it next time,” I said. She looked at me grimly and I did not look into her eyes.
“Let’s go, the cafeteria’s open,” said Michelle. We started walking towards the small shack with Scarlet following me.
The food was horrible. Inside the city, professional cooks from the Ark ran the cafeteria and restaurants. Here, the ‘cooks’ seemed to have simply mixed every ingredient they’ve got into a huge boiling pot to make some soup with taste I could not explain. Even so, I must have been very hungry every time after battle because I never threw up.
The gunfire continued outside. Shouts and yells refused to stop. Even though the sound is less frequent than in the midst of a fight, it was always scratching my mind. I sat with Michelle and Scarlet on a bench just outside the shack. I looked around the camp with the slimy material in my mouth.
“Two days has passed and I’m already used to this situation,” I muttered.
“They say we already have over 20 Crusaders dead,” said Michelle. “I never liked this war and…”
“Don’t forget the fact that we only made like one kilometer from the camp,” I spat. It was true, not exaggeration. Only a fool would continue this fight. Although the normal soldiers did not die as much, for they were always behind the lines of Crusaders, only a fool will comment the fight is going on well. But apparently the commanders failed to notice it or are deliberately pushing ahead with the operation. Thanks to them, the frontier ceased to advance forward from Day 1 – we haven’t even touched the main ground of the lair. Anyhow, I at least thought they named the operation very well; Hornet’s Nest was very appropriate because we clutched like ten hornet nest and bashed them against the ground but failed to kill a single hornet from the hives. “But I think this war isn’t going to end any sooner.”
“What makes you say that? I like killing off Hunters but the numbers are making me sick already,” said Scarlet. She despised the ‘soup’ the cafeteria made and again, she poured it on the ground after a few spoons. “I don’t know what you see in the ground, but I see a horde of Hunters every day.”
“I don’t think Jerrod’s going to give up until we kill the Controller,” I shrugged. “Two years in Earth and we’re all about to die.”
The night came fast despite the long day of early summer. The stars lit up the night sky, sparkling like tiny torch bugs. Before I went to bed on my bunk, I sat down on the ground and watched the darkened sky above. Beams of light refused to rest and sentinels were ever busy than daytime. Still, it gave me a little comfort from this turmoil. I wondered how long this war would take. Days? Months? Or even years? I couldn’t tell from that point, it was too early. Too early to have so much casualties.
“Can’t sleep?” said Scarlet suddenly from the back. She hopped beside me and sat down.
“Just… thinking,” I answered. I looked up again at the sky.
“Even though we are at war with the Hunters, the planet itself seems perfectly at peace,” commented Scarlet. “Do you know how I felt on the D-day?”
“I guess it wasn’t just excitement,” I said.
“No, my father was an ecologist. We lost the planet and its environment, but we always had simulation records, holograms, plant samples on the ship. He often showed me how it was like before The Crisis, before the great war and before the Earth was absolutely contaminated and polluted,” she said. Scarlet fidgeted with her fingers and her eyes were fixed down. She paused for a moment. “I was excited of course, didn’t know how I could ready myself to see the wonders I saw from pictures or holograms. I felt an ecstasy of eagerness that day. I…”
Scarlet looked like she was going to cry. I tried to react; to somehow comfort her. I tried to lend a hand when she grabbed it.
“You’ll think it’s trivial. What’s the sadness of not seeing the nature?” she smirked coldly. “I just can’t believe that I’ve come all this way – learning night and day to become a pilot to see the world from the sky – simply to fight off some mutated monsters dictating the food chain. Haven’t you ever thought about it? Why I am in this hellhole which originally was supposed to be a paradise?”
“…” I averted eye contact with her. “Do you remember why I became a Crusader?”
“Last thing I remember is you following Michelle’s footsteps despite your parents’ resistance,” she said.
“Um… did you –“
“No. Nothing; nothing else. There was no particular reason why. Michelle was practically like a family – a sister perhaps – and maybe it somehow inspired me to follow her. She was proud, confident and everything she did seemed… happy,” I said. “But it comes down to me in the end. It’s me who has to fight for myself not Michelle. By being the best of the Crusaders, that responsibility grows ever stronger. I have longings, wills I would like to fulfill as I fight along. Ironically I don’t know why I chose to become a Crusader.”
“But you’re doing a good job so far,” she shrugged. “At least you’ve become the best. Some people might have no motivation and do a horrible job.”
“Exactly. I’m alive, Scarlet. Two deadly years of fighting, raiding, and surviving continued. Yet I’m alive; and I grew stronger,” I said. Then I turned to her. “You’re alive as well. You have a goal and probably some decade of life ahead of you. I don’t know whether I’m in the situation to say this but… I believe the opportunity to achieve it will come. Just hope for it.”
“Thank you, Leon,” her face grew sorrowful. A small droplet of tear glittered in her eyes. “But… in a situation like this… hope is…”
“Faint? But it’s what keeps us going – at least for me.”
The night went on quietly without any sudden invasion. Killing Hunters wasn’t a problem for me but there was something that just wasn’t right about this war. It was only the second night of the operation. That thought made me sick already.
The next morning was busier than the days before. Squad leaders were summoned hours earlier for debriefing. Lazily, I dragged my body to the headquarter with Michelle helping me wake up.
“Our objective is advancement,” said director Han who was assigned as the commander-in-chief for Operation Hornet’s Nest. Even so, everyone did not look as eager as the first day. It’s only the third day… I laughed cynically to myself. “Whatever the cost, the barricades will be relocated as the Crusaders march on towards the lair. The soldiers will support with heavy firearms as always and will help any wounded to retreat to the back. And remember, retreat is not an option for today. The camp relocation will force advancement and you’ll need to either hold the advanced frontier or march further inward. I want every personnel armed within ten minutes. The attack starts on 0600. So get moving.”
Everyone rushed out of the headquarter.
“I guess directors are quite desperate,” I sneered as I exited the headquarter.
“Many more will die today because of it,” said Michelle.
“That’s not important,” I said. “What matters are those who live, not die.”
“Don’t say that,” said Michelle softly.
“And why not? Death is forgotten after time. Life lives on until the end. Whether people like it or not, it’s the truth,” I replied indifferently.
The alarm went off, signaling everyone to get ready. Soon, the small group Crusaders marched out of the barricade with numerous lines of soldiers following their back.
Day 3 of Operation Hornet’s Nest; nothing seemed to change until then. And in a way, the third day was meaningful.
“Just over the hill, there’s a direct entrance to the lair!” shouted Michelle. Somehow our squads met as fighting on forward. The planet Earth was more like planet Hell; just like the two days before. “But Hunters are heavily fortifying the area; we need to hold our position here until the camp is set up!”
It was a miracle my squad stayed intact until here. The Crusaders advanced several kilometers further from the limit and from the small hillside; I caught the glimpse of the entrance. Though it never had gates and doorknobs, it was certainly a way inside the lair zone.
“What do you see from up there Scarlet?” I yelled through the earphone.
“Hunters. Hunters. And more Hunters.”
The enemy was everywhere like she informed me. If I killed two, twice of the number filled up the empty space. But the fight went on, on a basis that we didn’t retreat. In fact, the fight was going quite well. We’ve accomplished what was ordered and so far we were doing excellently.
“Is it me or are these Hunters getting stronger every second?” exclaimed Dean. He was right beside me doing quite well. But the fight was continuing for seven hours. Nobody had enough food for enough energy, let alone rest. I recognized some of my team looking tired as time passed. The horrible thing was that the Hunters were thinking creatures. Gradual but noticeable exhaustion was not good news. It also explained why Dean felt like the enemy was growing stronger.
“Squad 7, group up, form a circle!” I ordered. Thankfully, everyone heard my command and reacted instantly. Just like the black-out invasion, the 17 remainders rounded up into a circle and fought close to each other.
I lost track of time after seven hours. But nobody even had a small time of break. The Hunters gave none. They just kept coming. We were barely holding the frontier and every one of us probably wondered when the camp will complete its setup. Living by every minute seemed a miracle. Yelling and shouting came to a halt at some point. Michelle’s squad was certainly in proximity with ours but neither of us communicated. Squad 7 only followed orders and spoke no words back.
I don’t know whether Michelle or any other squad leader noticed; our line was beginning to retreat. Slowly, but certainly the Crusaders stepped back as they swing their swords. The odds against us were too overbearing: numbers, time, strength… What was the point of individual with immense strength when there is too much enemy to handle all at once?
Green blood was all over my armor and my sword and my hand. The Hunters’ carcass did not smell – at least not as much as the humans’. Human blood lingered in the air and as time passed, the odor was nearly affecting performances. I heard some coughing, and therefore letting a few seconds of window for the enemy. Until that day, I thought black-out invasion was the worst scenario, but no, Operation Hornet Nest was a nightmare. Six hundred hornets simply buzzed out of their nest in anger and there was nothing to do about it.
Sun began sliding down under the horizon. Two more of my squad members died. I saw at least four of Michelle’s die out. The others… I expected much more casualties. And it was time when the retreat order buzzed through the squad leaders’ earphone. Recalling that battle… I could’ve fought more actually. Kill a few dozen of Hunters before I go back. But that meant I will see that desperate expression of Michelle again – and I did not want to see it.
I gave the order; this time without hesitation. My squad slowly receded from their ground, breaking the circle that we have sustained for hours. Michelle’s squad also began to fall back. For the first time, I didn’t wonder what I should talk about or do with Michelle and Scarlet when I return – all I thought about was how to react.
But then, disaster happens.
My earphone buzzed madly.
“… requesting aid! … we’re pinned down! … surrounded by the enemy!”
“Scarlet, who is this?” I asked her through another channel.
“It’s… coming from the soldiers’ line. Are we…?” she faltered.
“Shit, we’re being cut off,” I spat. Then I caught figure of Michelle. “Michelle! We’re being cut off! We need to push through!”
I switched to the soldiers’ channel to hear what was going on.
“What the…! Contact six o’ clock!” I started to run, ordered my squad members to follow, ignoring the Hunter pursuing behind as best as possible. “Call the Crusaders back! The Hunters are everywhere! We need to fall back! Where are they coming from?”
Chaos, as if we haven’t had enough. By the time I began to hear the screams through my ears, I saw what was happening. The soldiers were being ripped apart – literally, torn apart into two. The guns fired randomly and heavy weapons were neutralized. It must have been only a few minutes, but the soldiers, extremely vulnerable of melee combat, was undergoing a massacre.
I noticed many other squads. In fact, all fifteen squads were rallied up to see the carnage of soldiers. They began to act immediately, coming to aid the soldiers in need. Some began to engage in combat at once. Michelle and a few more volunteered to drag the wounded out of the battle field. The base itself should’ve been finished which meant it was not that far from the area so the other able soldiers began to flee.
“We need to fight them off so that they won’t attack more!” shouted Hugo from a distance. Dozens of Crusader followed him to battle. I looked back, before I started to butcher down the enemy. Just as I concerned, Hundreds of Hunters were in pursuit, eager than ever to devour their prey’s flesh. Fighting here was suicidal. I gave words to avoid more combat and run for the camp.
Then suddenly, I felt an icy chill, running through my body.
Very familiar, yet very disturbing to recall… I looked around, almost in panic. There was only Crusaders, soldiers and a lot of black Hunters. No… no this is something else…
There were no signs of any significance that explained the feeling. I ordered my squad to go first. Just in case, told Scarlet to return as well. Then I closed my distance with Michelle who was still helping the wounded.
“Michelle,” I said. I hoped she felt the same as I did.
“What’s the matter?” she said strangely. “You look surprisingly… frustrated. Was the fight hard for you?”
“No… Can’t you feel this? It’s the same as –“
An ear-piercing screeching sound swept the battlefield like a sudden gust of wind. There it is…
Monstrous, was the adjective perfect to describe it. It was strangely familiar – then I remembered.
“Leon, do you see what I’m seeing? That’s the same…” said Scarlet through earphone as if reading my thought. She must have caught sight while returning to camp.
“Yes, I see it… It’s –“
“CHIMERA! RUN, EVERYBODY RUN!” shouted out Hugo. His yell was loud as ever so that everyone could here.
Everyone saw it. Everyone noticed it. But not everyone survived it.