2130, July. Continent B.
It was a full moon, the blue light spilling long black shadows behind the medical officers as they approached the front. The sun had set long ago over the deserted urban terrain, leaving the entourage in just enough darkness that the explosions of light in the distance set the sky ablaze. The ground shook beneath their feet, and a deep guttural sound resonated in their eardrums. It was as if the earth itself was groaning, the wounds of endless wars slowly tearing it apart.
Each blast that exposed the dark void around them made Jaax’s heart pound inside her chest. The cool night air felt more like a vice than a relief as it made her skin prickle up, tight against her bones.
“Where is the rendezvous point?” Jaax whispered. Mark held up his finger in response. He was hunched over his Navigation pod, trying to shrink into the scarce, barren trees and rubble.
“This is supposed to be it,” he said, turning around. “Maybe they advanced further and didn’t update their position.”
Jaax looked around with wide eyes. Each explosion in the distance sent a new wave of terror streaking through her body. The ground rumbled beneath her as if threatening to give way and pull her into hell.
It was strange. She could face death on a daily basis, yet the threat of death still sent her body into a panic. No matter how much she tried to calm her mind, her senses were heightened against her will. Each flicker of movement in her peripheral attracted her attention, making her eyes dart from place to place. She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, grounding herself until another blast flashed in her eyelids, starting the cycle anew.
“Ping them,” Sal said.
“If I do that, I could expose our location. And theirs,” Mark scowled. His stubble covered face was creased with lines of grease and ash, giving his tanned skin an almost perfect camouflage against the dark sky.
Sal, for being so intelligent, sometimes needed reminders on how to use his brain.
“If anyone is currently tapping,” Sal said.
“Which, I’m sure they are,” Mark said, irritated. He was often the one to remind Sal how to use common sense, but he didn’t like the job. “I say we walk a little further. I’m sure they just advanced.”
“If that’s the case, we don’t know where the enemy lines are,” Sal said, holding up his palms and speaking in far too calm a manner. Jaax could see the veins in Mark’s head bulge. “We shouldn’t walk any further without knowing where the new rendezvous point is. The last thing we’d want to do is walk into enemy territory without knowing it, yes?”
Mark clenched his jaw.
“Yes, of course.”
“Okay, I think our only real course of action is to wait here. The convoy would be coming here anyway, if they make it. We can catch them for the supplies and maybe they’ll have more intel.”
“Unlikely they’ll make it,” Jaax said, another explosion splattering light across the sky as the ground trembled beneath their feet. They all turned to her. While they knew she was just stating the facts, they couldn’t help but hate her for it. Even if only for a moment.
“Okay, let’s just settle in,” Sal said, throwing his pack on the ground.
Mark didn’t budge, his tall, chiseled figure ominous as he held the M22 LA-R against his chest. He looked around with squinted eyes searching the dark perimeter. Jaax traced his gaze to the distance, and she could see what he saw…or rather, what he didn’t see. There was no sign of life anywhere. No sign that the rebels had even been here. In all her heightened awareness, she hadn’t noticed that before.
Maybe that’s why this felt so wrong.
The absolute nothingness was almost as deafening as the explosions in the distance.
“This can’t be right,” Mark said, taking a few steps forward.
Hearing him say those words made a pit form inside her stomach. She clutched her M17 with sweaty palms as she followed him.
“Hey!” Sal said, “what did I just say?”
Mark turned around but didn’t focus on Sal.
“We’re completely exposed here; completely out in the open. I don’t like this at all…” He rubbed his palm on the back of his neck, looking back and forth with wide eyes as if expecting to see something, or someone, in their surroundings. His apparent nervousness made the pit inside Jaax’s stomach all but swallow her whole.
Sal started to say something, but she cut him off.
“Where are the bodies?” She threw her arms wide and turned slowly. “Where is anything, anyone? All I see is blast holes from mortar fire. Something is wrong here, Sal.”
He looked at her, his icy blue eyes locked onto hers. Often with Sal, his eyes said much more than his lips. Right now, they said he trusted her instincts.
“Okay,” he said. “But we can’t keep advancing and end up in enemy territory, we all know that.”
“Then let’s search the perimeter,” Jaax said. “We know the last 3 positions of the rebels, it’s safe to say they’re advancing to the East. So let’s go North and South; search the outer boundaries.”
They all looked to Sal. He nodded his head.
“Okay, and we have the point transmitters for communication,” Sal said. “We should all meet back here at 0400 unless we hear otherwise.”
“No pinging though. Under any circumstances,” Mark said. “We are too close to enemy lines and they’ll tap us for sure.”
“Jaax, you’re with me going north. You guys, south. Meet back at 0400.”
With that, they groups turned away from each other, and she started walking in step with Sal by her side.
The rumbling of destruction thundered in the background as they walked through the darkness. With the flashes of light, she could see the side of Sal’s face light up. Only then could she see the bags under his eyes and the weariness of his step. None of them had slept in at least 24 hours. They walked in silence, her fear keeping her company as her steps fell heavy on the ground.
She checked her wrist console for the time. They’d been walking the perimeter for about thirty minutes now. The longer they walked the more mortar craters they were stumbling into. Trees that looked like skeletal hands jutting up from the ground speckled the landscape, barren of leaves and life. Splinters littered the ground beneath their feet and cracked beneath their step, the only remains of the trees that had been blown apart. She could hear the occasional blast in the distance, but the further they walked the further away it seemed to be. She feared they were getting further from the front, not closer to it.
“What do you think happened?” She said, her voice startling even herself after the long period of silence.
He paused for a moment before answering.
“I don’t know. I believe it could have been an intel mistake. Given the distance of the blasts from our current location, I’m led to believe we are not at the front.” He paused for a moment. “Nor was this ever the front.”
“So you don’t think they advanced from this position?”
“No, because you’re right. Where’s the carnage?”
She was quiet, the sound of their footsteps deafening as a fresh wave of fear washed over her body.
“We’ve never had an intel mistake like that,” she said. “You don’t think it was intentional do you?”
Sal sighed and shrugged his shoulders, his voice soft and low when he spoke.
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s safe to assume anything.”
She looked down at her feet.
“I don’t think it’s safe to deny our instincts, either,” she said. “What if this entire mission is a setup to get us killed? And if that’s the case the government has infiltrated our point transmitters, our pods. If that’s the case we’re completely and utterly fucked.”
She could hear the panic in her own voice as she spoke, but she couldn’t seem to control it.
“Calm down, Jaax,” he said with a weary sigh. “You’re assuming the worst. If it were a setup, wouldn’t they have planted a bomb or a squadron at our rendezvous point to take us out? I don’t know what’s happening, but I think you’re overreacting.”
“Jesus Sal, don’t you feel anything?” She said, stopping in her tracks. Her entire body was shaking. “I’m not overreacting. We could get fucking killed out here.”
He said nothing, but stopped, his back facing her and his head bowed towards the ground.
“I’m fucking afraid,” she said, her voice cracking under the strain. She felt hot tears boiling behind her eyes, threatening to surface and expose her softness to a hard, cold world. That would be the second time today. “More afraid than I’ve been in a long time. And that scares me more than anything. What if this is it, this is the end? What the fuck was it all for?”
He turned around, his head still bowed as he looked at the ground between them.
“I can’t help you with that, Jaax. Because I’m afraid too.”
There was a long period of silence before he took a step closer, bridging the distance between them.
“I’m not like you guys,” he held out his palms, looking at them as if to examine his own humanity. “I can’t often…just say what I feel. But I am afraid. I wish I could fix it, you know, that’s why I became a doctor. I’m sure that’s why you became a nurse. We wanted to fix things. We had a little bit of that ‘I want to save the world’ in us.”
He paused again, putting his arms down and keeping his eyes to the ground as he spoke.
“But I feel so goddamn hopeless because no matter how hard I work, no matter how hard I studied, no matter how many sleepless nights I slave over dying bodies, and no matter how many sacrifices I’ve made, I just can’t…fix it.”
Sal’s voice cracked with emotion, raw emotion like she’d never heard come from the man before. Jaax could hardly breathe, suddenly she felt such pressure bearing down on her chest that she wondered if she were having a heart attack. The tears in her eyes came forward without permission, flowing down her cheeks in a hot, steamy stream.
“I can’t fix anything; I can barely fix each soldier that comes into my hands screaming bloody murder from the agony they’re in, begging me to fix them as they take their last breath in agony, and yet, that’s the only thing I know how to do.”
She tightened her grip on her M-17 as another blast shook the ground beneath their feet.
“I’d always thought you’re the only person who does know that I feel,” he said, his voice quiet.
Another blast set the sky ablaze, illuminating them in a bright white light and casting their shadow before them for a split second. In that moment, as the sky arched with light and thunderous booming resonated in the distance, he brought his eyes up to meet hers. The whites of his eyes were red, his brow furrowed with pain as tears rolled down his cheeks and off his jaw, spilling onto his jacket. It was the first time she’d ever seen pain in his expression; the only time he’d ever actually told her how he felt.
Jaax dropped her M17 in the ashes, sending a cloud into the sky from the impact as she walked towards him. She stepped up to a few inches away from his face, staring at him for a moment, both of them crying weepy messes in the midst of a battle ground.
She took another step forward and wrapped her arms around his, throwing her head into his shoulder and wetting his jacket with her tears. He threw his arms out, startled by the embrace. The more tears came to her eyes and soaked into his jacket, the tighter she made her grip around him. Her chest heaved with silent sobs that she smothered against him. After a moment, he wrapped his arms around her as well and rested his head on her shoulder, holding her tight against his chest.
And they both wept.
For fear of death and waisted years connected them in ways they didn’t understand.
To be Continued…
-Copyright: Jennifer K Fuka, 2019