The Silent Dead
Camp Madison UEMC Recruit Training Depot
Week 4, Training Day 30
Minerva finished brushing her teeth, and spat into the sink.
After rinsing, she looked at herself in the mirror, scarcely recognizing her reflection. Her body had grown firm, and muscled over the past month---almost to the point of appearing unfeminine. She had quite a tan from all of the hours spent outside doing P.T. every day. P.T., marching drill, miles-long hikes. Her arms, legs, torso, even her neck were bastions of strength. The only things that even resembled the girl she remembered were her breasts, and her hair that was ever so gradually making its way back to her shoulders.
This new look did not necessarily bother her, though. She was now able to power through the P.T. with only nominal effort, where in the beginning, it had tried its best to destroy her.
Behind, Ecu stepped from beneath a shower head, closing the valve, and reaching for a towel. The Attayan began the arduous task of drying her fur, which covered her from top to bottom. She, too, rippled with toned muscle.
“You know we’re going to play heck trying to ever get a date again,” Minerva told her, only half-joking. “We look like body-builders. Look at these veins!” She flexed her forearm, making them pop out.
Ecu snorted, striking a pose, “Fur hides veins. At least I’m still sexy.”
Both were considered to be racial slurs, but the rough bantering had become the norm among the recruits of Company 19. Hardship, and relentless training brought the kids together in a bond that allowed for such play. Comments like that from an outsider would bring violence in a heartbeat.
Sergeant Bri stepped into the shower room, as nonplussed at seeing the recruits unclothed as they had become to seeing one another. Privacy was a luxury long forgotten.
“Okay, boys and girls!” Bri greeted cheerfully. “No P.T. this morning! Uniform of the day is fatigues, with no belts! Formation in four minutes!”
He spun on a heel, and left the kids looking at one another in mild wonder. No belts?
Minerva shrugged it off, tapping her toothbrush dry, and heading for the squad bay to get dressed. She had learned to stop second-guessing things, and simply go with the flow.
Ecu harrumphed. “Well, at least we’ve progressed from ‘turds’ to ‘boys and girls’.’”
Company 19 had earned their boots the previous week, and so took great pleasure in stomping every left step with the cadence that Bri was so adept at belting out. New companies coming in gave admiring looks, which felt pretty darned good. The things that they had endured to get to Week 4 would remain burned into memory for years to come. There had been no more training fatalities as yet, which was testament to their progress in mastering their fears. The confidence course had become playtime.
Their progression in adapting to their surroundings, and the demanding expectations of their D.I’s was also producing another pleasant achievement. The open hostility and screaming from the instructors had faded, becoming something more like a stern relationship between teacher and student. The kids had learned to pay attention to the little details, respond quickly to demands, and operate as a cohesive unit. Gone were the frightened kittens, to be replaced by recruits thirsty for the next challenge.
Sergeant Bri led them out of the company area, and across the asphalt parking lot where their induction had begun a month before. The flag-bearers in front held their heads high, feeling proud. Master Sergeant Ford had handed out assignments earlier, officially making them counted among the senior companies in the division.
Past the induction center, and beyond the apartment-like barracks already filled with staffers and those stationed on the base for support tasks. Past the mansion where the base commandant resided, with its immaculate grounds, and guards posted in front. On toward a concrete block structure that was labeled as the Armory.
Bri called them to a halt just outside, and the flag-bearers deposited their poles into the holders next to the foundation.
“First Platoon! Enter!”
In 2nd Platoon, Minerva waited outside, curious as to what was coming next. She had a good idea that the armory had something to do with weapons. Perhaps they were about to be issued their rifles, and begin training with them. She could guess all day, and never know, so she did what the recruits had learned to do best.
Standing at parade-rest, with her eyes wide open, she allowed herself to partly doze, catching a power nap while birds chirped mindlessly in the tall oaks above. Ford had gone in with Bri, and 1st Platoon, leaving 2nd unsupervised. There was no longer a need to babysit them. The kids were disciplined enough to know better than to screw around in the absence of their D.I’s. They waited patiently, in total silence.
Perhaps an hour had passed, Minerva was not sure. Definitely, it felt like a long time. She returned to instant wakefulness when Bri came back out, feeling refreshed, and ready to find out what the new deal was inside.
“Second Platoon! Atten-Hut!”
They snapped to attention with the resounding slap of leather boots coming together. Bri led them in.
There were rows of work stations, with a technician in a white lab coat seated at each one. As the kids moved forward, each tech would attach, and strap together a different piece of black armor to them, beginning with their boots. Minerva was pleasantly surprised at how light, and flexible the plates seemed to be. Each piece meshed together as if made specifically to fit her legs. She experimentally rapped her knuckles against the upper leg plates. They were as hard as iron. The pieces looked bulky as hell, yet they hugged light as a feather against her pants.
At the next station down, a pair of techs worked together to fasten the hip piece.
The upper body armor was in two halves. Minerva slipped her arms through the vest openings while the techs snapped the clamshell closed. To her astonishment, the material actually shrank in, snugging itself against her torso to fit with near-perfection. It had even expanded in front to allow for the bulge of her breasts, and followed the contour of her hips.
“That’s always a shocker,” the tech commented as she slipped the shoulder plates into place, fastening yet more buckles.
“That’s an understatement,” Minerva told her. “How…?”
“Nano-bot integrated cerami-steel. Your instructor will explain it all.”
A final tech stepped over, carrying a full-face helmet that resembled something out of the middle-ages.
“Bend down slightly, please,” he asked.
Minerva did so, again amazed at how flexible her body suit was. There was little resistance to her movement. The man slid the helmet down over her head with the face visor open. It was loose at first, but as the upper body armor had done, it seemed to squeeze gently inward, hugging her head comfortably.
“This is going to feel weird,” the tech warned her. “It’s important that you hold still, and refrain from saying anything until it’s done.”
She wanted to ask until what was done, but he slapped the visor down before she could utter a word. The instant the helmet was closed, amazing things began to take place. They occurred with such rapidity, that it was difficult for her to keep up with them all. There seemed to be fresh air circulating from somewhere within the suit. The visor lit up, and began to zip through hundreds of different screens, too fast to comprehend. It was literally a computer before her eyes. There was also, most noticeably, a strange, mental tugging from within her mind. It felt as if invisible fingers were probing her brain, tickling as they went.
As quickly as it had begun, the display was finished. The tech opened her visor with an approving look.
“Initial boot, and spectral merger successful.” He stated to the tech next to him, who entered data into a laptop. Her suit had changed from jet-black to a dull green camo.
“Excuse me,” Minerva said, “what just happened?”
The man answered her with a disinterested tone, already preparing the next helmet, “The nanos in your suit just made a neural connection with your mind. It’s self-aware, and is now married to you in mental sort of way.”
“It can read your thoughts,” he explained. “That’s how a battle suit works. As I said, your instructor will orient you the rest of the way.”
Minerva was so astounded, that she merely stood there, not knowing what to say or do.
“You’re done here,” the tech told her with growing impatience.
She nodded, and moved over to where the rest of her company was congregating in the center of the large gymnasium-like space. The kids were admiring themselves, and one another. Touching parts of the plates.
“I can feel that!” Someone exclaimed, running gloved fingers gently along the edge of an arm plate. “It feels like my own skin!”
There was also an opposite effect. Someone challenged Lunk to punch them in the stomach plate. He did so. The kid took the blow stoutly. Both looked at each other with wonder.
“I hardly felt that!”
Lunk was examining his gloved fist, “Same here. It was like punching a pillow.”
Other kids had their visors closed, marveling at what they could do. There were variations in visual scans, such as infrared. Zooming in and out like binoculars.
Sergeants Bri and Ford joined them as the last recruit arrived.
“Fall in!” Ford ordered. “Visors up!”
The company assumed formation, and stood ready for instruction at parade-rest. Minerva’s eyes played over Ford and Bri’s suits. If those men looked large before, they were immense now. Their arm plates displayed their chevrons in dull grey, with their names across one breast plate, and the UEMC emblem on the other. In her opinion, the suits did indeed look like the knights of old, only in a drab camouflage. That, and the clear visors.
“Allow me to introduce all of you to the Attayan M-5 Battle Suit,” Ford announced. “A weapon that the Attayan Elite Command has chosen to share exclusively with our Corps.”
The master sergeant paced slowly before the company, speaking loud enough for all to hear.
“A feat of nano-technology, the M-5 is a blend of nanobots, cermi-steel, and a neuro-net super processor that is all actually alive in its own way. Your suits have been calibrated to your bodies, the electrical field that your bodies produce, even your thought waves.”
Ford moved his arms in exaggerated motions, “You’ve probably already noticed that the material is light-weight, and flexible. What you don’t know is that the suit is already assessing your surroundings, and your body. It is programmed to maintain your body temperature at a comfortable level no matter where you are, including underwater, or in the vacuum of space.”
He tapped his chest plate, “In the event you are wounded, it will determine the severity of the wound, and report it to Command. If you lose a limb, the armor at the effected site will constrict on the artery to stanch bleeding. If you are killed, it informs Command.”
Ford touched the side of his helmet.
“Your helmets, as I said, read your thoughts. You can call up tactical data, map grids, a homing beacon if you become lost. You will be able to communicate with one another on multiple frequencies. Individual, squad, platoon, company, or divisional command. You can call for medevac. All by making a direct-thought to your suit. It filters out random thought, and conversation. Don’t ask me how, or I’ll slap the nose from your face, because I don’t know.”
Sergeant Bri stepped forward to join in on the briefing.
“The M-5 is something that no other branch of our armed services has privy to, not to mention the fact that the Storians do not either. This will be an immense tactical advantage for us in the event of war.”
Bri turned, facing Ford.
Without warning, the master sergeant drew an antique model .45 pistol from a side holster, and shot Bri in the center of the chest, practically point-blank. The kids lurched in surprise as Bri staggered back a step, the sharp retort of the weapon still resounding through the building.
Sergeant Bri turned to face the company. His chest plate had a minute indentation, with the bullet flattened within it. He casually flicked it away with a gloved finger.
“Your armor is designed to absorb the impact of projectile weapons, up to a sixty caliber round,” Ford told them. “The impact is evenly distributed along the section of the suit that has been hit. It will still hurt like hell, and will likely leave a bruise, but in the end, you’ll be alive. The same can be said for fragmentation grenades, even a mortar round, if it doesn’t land right on top of you. Only a plasma round can penetrate the plating, but even that has to be a direct hit. Glancing blows of plasma fire will be shed like water.”
Ford then re-holstered the pistol, and drew his combat knife. He plunged straight down onto Bri’s right shoulder plate with all of his might. Bri was driven downward by the force of it, but the blade snapped cleanly from the handle, clanging across the floor. The plate suffered only a shallow gouge.
“Your suit is your guardian angel, recruits,” the master sergeant stated, tossing the useless handle aside. “Questions?”
A hand rose from the ranks.
“Sir, how do we go to the bathroom in these things, Sir?”
Ford ignored the giggles, answering quite seriously.
“Just think it.”
“I said to think it, dipshit! Think directly to your suit that you need to take a piss, or a dump.”
The kids did so, and there were quite a few who had front or rear plates plop open unexpectedly. Without having belts on, they would have been easily able to undo their trousers beneath to take care of business.
“Your suits know you better than you know yourselves,” Ford went on. “The longer you wear them, the better acquainted they will become with how you think, and express yourself. For the remainder of basic, you will all wear them day and night to further accomplish this phase of bonding.”
He removed his helmet, and glanced at the clock mounted on the wall.
“It’s time for lunch. After chow, assemble out by the confidence course. It’s time to teach you how to defend yourselves with hand-to-hand. Dismissed.”
Close-quarters combat training lasted the better part of the week, grilling practice for ten hours each day until the moves and counter-moves had been so drilled into them that the kids in Company 19 were literally dreaming about it. In many ways, it was more tiring than the P.T. had been, mostly in the fact that this was showing them ways to effectively take someone’s life with their bare hands. Or boots, for that matter. At their tender ages, the reality of that knowledge was rather shaking.
One evening toward the end of the week, shortly before taps, Minerva felt all of it overwhelm her. It was not unlike smothering beneath a heavy blanket. It was hard to pull in air, and a sweat broke out all over her. She had been sitting on the edge of her rack, reading a letter from her mother. Suddenly, the words were blurring behind hot tears. She needed badly to get out of the squad bay, away from everyone.
Minerva grabbed her helmet, and slipped outside, not understanding why she was experiencing the wash of emotions. During the past weeks, things had seemed to be coming together pretty well, and her homesickness had been conquered.
She wandered in no particular direction, just following where her feet took her. Up Division Lane, past the commissary, skirting the fence that marked the limits of where they were allowed to traverse. Before long, she found herself standing in the base cemetery. It was dark, save for a single lamp in the center, casting long shadows that vanished into the darkness beyond. The tombstones stood in perfect rows, their marble surfaces polished to a high sheen. Crickets and tree frogs peeped from the trees.
Being solitary felt somehow right. The quiet of the night comforted her. Minerva drew in a long breath, and let it out slowly while looking at the inscriptions. She followed the rows, until finally arriving at where she realized she must have intended to go all along. It was the headstone for the young kid that had fallen from the tower weeks before. She saw by the numbers engraved in it that he had been her own age. She remembered the fear that she herself had been frozen by up on that obstacle, and so was able to empathize with what he must have been going through. Especially on that fall to the ground.
Minerva closed her eyes, and sighed deeply.
The striking of a match startled her. It was bright in the darkness, not so very far from where she stood. She wondered how she had not known anyone had been there.
The match lit the business end of a cigar, and clouds of smoke puffed from it. Minerva caught a whiff. The sweet aroma reminded her of her father, who occasionally fired one of those things up after a meal.
A towering figure emerged from shadows within shadows, one that she had come to know well. The heavy boot-falls crunching on the grass and gravel beneath him. Master Sergeant Ford looked down at the same headstone, smoke slowly drifting from his nostrils.
“It’s important that you don’t forget them.” His voice was low, rumbling, but contained none of its usual menace. He held his helmet in one hand, while smoking with the other. Minerva noticed that he still wore that antique .45 on his hip, despite it being such an obsolete weapon when compared to the plasma firearms being manufactured nowadays. Ford noticed her studying it.
“It belonged to my grandfather,” he said. “On his deathbed, he gave the damned thing to my dad.”
Minerva could understand that. A family heirloom of sorts.
“Then your dad gave it to you.”
Ford took a long drag, “Not necessarily. My father committed suicide with it, the same day my mother was killed in a car accident.”
She jerked involuntarily, not having expected to hear something so raw, and tragic.
“I was sixteen,” he went on, now gazing up at the stars. “No close family. Straight to an orphanage. I ran away, and found a Marine Corps recruiting office by chance. Lied about my age, and enlisted. The Corps gave me a home, and a new family.” Another puff. “That was a long, long time ago.” He added dreamily.
Minerva did not know what to say. She was astounded that he would share something that intimate with her, so personally painful.
“Just by chance, the pistol found its way back to me,” Ford added. “It’s my personal headstone, so that I don’t forget.”
The quiet of the night stretched around them, between them. They shared one another’s company in silence for a while. Something came to Minerva’s mind, a seed of doubt that had been festering from the first day, and it could be contained no longer.
“Why are you doing this?” She asked, being as straight-forward as possible while trying to keep a respectful tone.
Ford looked at her, nonplussed, still smoking.
“You know what I mean, Sir. People have been treating me differently than the rest of the recruits, in very subtle ways. No one would know if they didn’t know what to look for. Small, fast kindnesses. Quick smiles. Sideways looks. Not to mention that big, red ‘A’ stamped on my file. I want to know why.”
Ford tapped his ashes, watching them fall. He shrugged.
“On occasion, a recruiter spots someone that seems to possess a certain quality,” he told her. “Someone that just might amount to something special. We nurture those recruits, hoping to make leaders out them.”
Minerva blinked. It was as simple as that?
“Why not offer to send us to Officer’s Candidate School, then?”
Ford nearly laughed, “OCS. Carreno, there’s no time to wait while you wade through another four months of training to be an officer. No matter that we’re so short on lieutenants and junior officers. There just isn’t time.”
She regarded him with a mix of surprise, and misunderstanding. He could tell that she wasn’t following. Ford rolled his cigar around in his mouth, tasting the tobacco, wondering if he’d said too much already. Then figured to hell with it. It was hardly a secret anymore.
“War is looming on the horizon, Carreno. It’s traditionally the NCO’s that lead the troops through. On the battlefield, in the dirt, sometimes dying right beside them. It’s sergeants that we’re going to need, and very quickly.”
He studied her face while she absorbed that, watching for signs of weakness. She seemed appropriately shocked, frightened. There was no indication of panic. That was good.
“You’re among those that have been tapped,” the master sergeant concluded. “Think you can handle it?”
Minerva made a sound of disbelief, “Just like that? You tell me that we’re going to war, and that you want me to be a leader when I hardly know what I’m doing? I’m seventeen, Sir!”
Ford nodded, “Yup. Seventeen. Do you think the Storians are going to care how young you are? They’re erasing entire cultures within their own race for the sake of a pure bloodline.”
He cast a thumb toward the company area behind them, “Those companies are full of kids eager to do what they believe is the right thing. Kids that are going to die without capable leadership.” He reached forward, and the hand that held the cigar tapped a finger hard against her chest plate.
“You, Carreno, have it within you. I can see it, and I think behind your own self-doubts, you see it, too.”
Ford straightened, taking a last drag from his stogie before tossing it aside, and began walking back toward the barracks.
Minerva remained behind, trying to wrap her head around the things that Ford had said to her. She was still there when taps sounded over the loudspeakers, and many of the exterior lights dimmed.
Standing alone among the silent dead.