Sunday, January 13, 2008

First Tour

Private Philip Joe Calloway was nervous. Not irrationally nervous, he thought, but nervous enough for a green solder out on his first tour. He'd been with his squad a few days now, and was only a week out of Basic. 

His new teammates seemed like good people. So far they'd just been around barracks, exercising, goofing off, threatening to kill each other. You know, Army stuff. The Corps kept their scouting squads small too, so the others considered themselves a family of sorts. They were all in an armored jeep, bouncing across the countryside. 

Next to him in the back was Jane Sanse, who he went through Basic with. She was just doing her required two years service. She was fit enough for combat, but didn't have the same hardcore mindset as the other solders he knew. Calloway liked that about her. 

Private First Class Smith was a meathead. He knew what he was doing though, and was absolutely fanatical about being a soldier. Honor was everything to this guy. He’d jump on a grenade to save any man or woman in the Corps. 

Corporal Alaniz was driving. He was quiet, aloof, and had those shifty sort of eyes that you just knew saw everything. He was the only one Calloway felt unable to relate to. 

Sergeant Franklin was riding shotgun, consulting maps and schematics on her datapad. She seemed to have the impeccable ability to be able to socialize with her squad and still maintain perfect control of them. 

“We’re heading into possible Lunker territory now,” Sarge said. 

Calloway tensed up ever so slightly and tightened his grip on his gun. Jane’s hand touched his knee for a moment. At first he assumed it was just because of the bounce of the jeep on the rolling hills and rocks, but she shot him a quick smile, just out of the corner of her mouth. 

Calloway relaxed his muscles immediately. It reminded him of the first time he met Jane. They were running the obstacle course back in Basic. He was trudging through the mud, crawling in prone position, barbed wire centimeters above his head. He hadn’t slept the night before. He got a little insomnia like that sometimes. So when the Drill Sergeant unexpectedly started firing live rounds from a massive three-barreled stationary machine-gun directly over their heads, Calloway froze up. He shoved his head to the ground in fear and caught Jane’s eye off to his left. She gave him that same encouraging smile, and it was suddenly much easier to keep moving. 

He made a point to strike up a conversation with her that night at mess. He never thanked her for the gesture though. It seemed like the kind of thing one didn’t do in the Corps. 

“I want everyone to be on full alert,” Sarge went on. “I don’t expect any trouble here, but if trouble finds us we shoot first and ask questions later. Calloway, Sanse, I want a very close watch on our rear.” 

They turned around, guns ready, watching the prairie speed past behind them. The tall yellow grass shone under the afternoon sun. The hills rolled like waves. The blue sky above was cloudless. It all seemed so innocent. But it wasn’t. The aliens had a presence here. They had dropped thousands of the mindless behemoths that most soldiers just called Lunkers a few weeks ago. It forced the Corps to shift troops to this planet to protect the people. Most of the monsters had been destroyed, but plenty were still loose around the planet, wreaking havoc.

Lunkers were no joke either. Four meters tall and always angry. They reminded Calloway of ogres. He’d been shown training videos of troops firing entire clips into them that only barely pierced their hide. So he was, you know, rationally nervous. 

The Corps didn’t expect there to be a hostile presence this far out, but those fuckers had to be somewhere, so the scouting parties were released. They’d gotten a pretty backwater area though. Never properly terraformed even. The tall yellow grass looked pretty, but nothing humans could eat would grow here. 

Hours passed. The sun set. Jane fell asleep. Calloway knew he should wake her up, but nothing seemed to be happening, and he could see well enough couldn’t he? He glanced back at the midseats. Smith was staring out the side of the jeep. Alaniz and Sarge were talking quietly, consulting charts as they rolled on. 

The team acted so differently out here than they they had back at Camp Lincoln, where they were stationed. More the way Calloway expected, really. They were calm, somber, and efficient. 

At Lincoln, Smith, rather than wearing the emotionless mask he wore now, was more often competing with one of the others at something, laughing, and tossing around good natured insults. Who could do the most push-ups, who could dismantle and reassemble their rifle fastest, that sort of thing. Smith once made a point of showing Calloway that he was trying to twist the muzzle of the gun off at the wrong angle. If he moved his fingers over a few centimeters he had a much surer grip. 

Sarge was the same way. She told joking “in my day” stories constantly, portraying the Army she joined almost twenty years ago as being a place where they’d hang you for blinking when a commanding officer was talking to you. There never seemed to be enough boots or vehicles for anyone to get around without trudging barefoot through the snow. 

Alaniz was the only one who seemed not to change. Always stoic, always watching, he treated everyone with respect, and commanded it himself without ever making an effort. He was skinny, but could always keep up with ease while exercising. Calloway only ever saw him talking to the Sarge, and that always seemed to be about Army stuff. 

Calloway sighed and turned back around in the jeep. Just as he did he thought he saw something just over the hills. Something large. 

No. Just one of the planet’s moons. It had so many! 

He glanced back at his teammates again, debating whether to share what now seemed humorous to him as he’d given himself quite a scare. His heart beat fast. No. They were working. They were vigilant. He should be more so. Now was not a time for jokes. 

“Contact!” Jane shrieked. “Five-oh-clock! Lunkers!” 

Calloway spun back around to see three of them racing over the hills, on all fours, like giant, lumbering dogs. 

The jeep spun about to give them more distance before he was even steady again. Smith was already loading a rocket into its launcher. Calloway and Jane fired. In the moonlight they couldn’t even tell if their rounds were hitting their mark. The Lunkers certainly weren’t slowing down. They kept firing. 

Sarge was shouting over the radio. 

Calloway heard an explosion off to one side and saw a Lunker fall only ten meters from them. He hadn’t even realized it was there. Smith moved to load another rocket.

More were bounding after them now. The three from behind and another two from their left. They swerved further right, but ran into to a small ravine. It was the first thing other than hills Calloway had seen all day. Alaniz turned sharply and they sped alongside it. 

The Lunkers were catching up. Calloway fired the last round in his clip and fumbled for another one. They hit a bump and the whole jeep jumped. The clip went flying to the ground with the shredded grass flying out behind them like a lawnmower. 

He slapped a fresh clip into his weapon and looked up to see the nearest one only five meters from the jeep. He and Jane fired full auto, but it barely seemed to scratch his skin. 

“Fire that fucking rocket, Smith!” screamed Sarge.

“Too close!” he hollered back. 

“Do it now!” 

He grunted. “Steady!”

Everyone ducked into the jeep and held on for dear life.

The beast was almost on top of them when the rocket hit it square in its center. 

The falling behemoth scraped the bumper and Alaniz lost control of the vehicle for just a second and one of the wheels skidded into the ravine. They tumbled down three meters with a sickening crunch, and the jeep fell on its side. 

“Give me another round!” screamed Smith. His nose was twisted to the side sickeningly and he had lost most of his teeth. He seemed not to notice, or care. 

Sarge had given up on the radio and was climbing out, her assault rifle in hand. “Everybody out! Now!” 

Calloway and Jane crawled out the back. Alaniz followed Sarge out the front. 

There was an explosion above them as another rocket found its mark and a Lunker about to dive into the ravine simply fell into it dead, crushing the jeep. There was no sign of Smith. 

“Move!” Sarge screamed, just as two more Lunkers leapt into the trench behind them. 

Jane and Alaniz both tossed grenades and one of the Lunkers went down in the twin explosions. The other one kept coming, and was on top of them in no time. Calloway tossed another grenade, and the force sent everyone to the ground. 

Sarge was up first, and in a second she charged the couple meters between her and the Lunker that was trying to get back up. She shoved her rifle into an orifice on its head and fired steadily. After a full ten seconds, it finally died. 

Another jumped into the ravine from the other direction, flattening Alaniz in the process. Calloway, Jane, and Sarge jumped behind the corpse of the Lunker Sarge had just emptied her clip into. 

Sarge was breathing heavily, covered in mud and sweat and blood, but slapped a fresh clip into her rifle. She was in complete control of herself. Jane was another story. She was crying, trying just to keep her eyes open, and hyperventilating. 

“Sanse! Breathe, woman!” Sarge said, and punched her in the arm. Jane took a big breath and then seemed to steady a bit, but there was no less fear in her eyes. 

Calloway could only think about the last look on Alaniz’s face. It was the first time Calloway had gotten a good look at him since they were attacked. His face was completely different than he had ever seen it before: contorted with both fear and absolute resolve. His eyes had stopped moving as he just barely got a look at the beast falling on top of him, but Calloway had no doubt that they had continued their manic surveillance until just before his death.  

“Turn and fire on my mark,” Sarge ordered. “Mark!” The three of them stood and fired everything they had and directly into the center of the Lunker’s chest. It charged them. Some indeterminable part of Alaniz’s corpse still clung to its foot. 

The rounds punctured its skin and it developed a gaping hole in its chest just as it got to them. 

“Run,” said Sarge, grimly. 

Calloway and Jane turned and ran back towards the flattened jeep, expecting to find Sarge right behind them.

A dampened explosion sounded from behind them. Sarge had shoved a grenade inside the wound they had made in its chest. It fell and only her boot could be seen under the two Lunker corpses now laying on one another. Calloway suddenly remembered that “in her day” solders had to run around barefoot because there weren’t enough boots to go around. This no longer seemed funny. 

The very back of the jeep, where Calloway and Jane had been riding only minutes earlier was the only part of the vehicle not completely destroyed. They crawled back under it as the stomping of more racing Lunkers grow louder. 

Three or four more jumped into the ravine around them, searching wildly for their prey. 

Calloway looked over at Jane. She’d lost her helmet at some point. She had a gash across her cheek. She seemed to be trying desperately not to cry out. 

They lay in prone position, jagged metal just above their heads. Just like the obstacle course. She didn’t smile this time. 

“Thank you,” he whispered. Her eyes stared back at his, wide, sobbing, not understanding. 

“I——,” she whispered back. 

There was a crunch. Everything went black. 

Calloway came to. There was a large section of metal from the jeep through his hip and stomach. His intestines were spilling out of him. Shards of his hip bone covered in gore were everywhere. He could feel it, but it wasn’t painful. Just itchy. He glanced to his side. Another piece of metal was clear through Jane’s face. Her skull had been decimated and brain matter was everywhere. It seemed impossible that all of it could have once been Jane’s pretty face. 

Near his hand was a metal saucer that had fallen from somewhere in the jeep. He could still hear the beasts around him, in every direction. Half a dozen now, maybe more. He grabbed the saucer. It was heavy. A mine. Without hesitation, he set it to its maximum payload, armed it, and pressed it against his chest. 

Seconds later the field was the sort of calm only a large explosion can provide. 


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