I’m about halfway through Edit 2. This will be the last full sample chapter, though I might throw a couple more little snippets out before release.
Dan turned and looked behind him, barely able to see five meters even with the NVGs strapped to his head. He couldn’t see Jenny behind him. Again. He turned back forward, waited until Vernon looked back, and then raised his hand to signal a halt. Vernon nodded, and sank to a knee in the muck; they were all soaked and filthy from the last four hours of slogging through the Florida swamp anyway, so it didn’t matter.
Still making an effort not to make too much noise sloshing through the swamp, Dan started to work his way back to where Jenny had lost contact. He found her another ten yards back, stumbling over the roots in front of her. The Asian girl, named Cassy, was trying to hiss encouragement at her, but just from her posture, it looked like she was about all in. She was staggering, and making about as much noise as a baby elephant, her shoulders sagging under the weight of her gear and assault pack.
As he got closer, he could see her face, pale and drawn even in the sickly green tint of the NVGs. Her hair was lank and soaked with sweat, and all of her camouflage paint had been sweated and worn off. She looked about ready to collapse.
He touched her shoulder. “Ten more yards, then we’ll take a halt,” he whispered. She gulped and nodded, then slogged forward. He didn’t even cringe at the amount of noise anymore. They were already screwed.
Cassy looked better as she passed him, though she still looked bushed. It hadn’t been an easy movement for any of them, but the women were hurting. Which he could have predicted from day one, but nobody had asked him.
Lambert was coming up behind them, taking rear security. As soon as Dan saw that he was coming, he turned back to the front and worked his way up to where the rest of the team was waiting. He wound up right behind Cassy and Jenny, and followed them into the small perimeter that Vernon, Dave, and Max had already started. When they reached it, Jenny did a version of the rucksack flop, though her assault pack wasn’t big enough to hold her up, so it was more of a collapse onto her back, with an audible splash. She lay her head back, panting, as Dan moved up next to her and Cassy.
“Are you going to make it?” he whispered. At first Jenny didn’t say anything, but just lay there and gulped air. Cassy nodded as she took a gulp from her Camelbak.
“I think so,” she added. “Jenny’s hurting, though.”
Dan took a deep breath. “We’ll stay here for fifteen minutes, but that’s all we can spare.” It was actually more than they could spare, but at that point he didn’t see that they had much choice. He moved over to Vernon and Dave. Dave was a short, hawk-nosed man with a nasty scar on his jaw that he said had been caused by shrapnel. So far, Dan had little call to disbelieve him; he’d performed well enough. You never knew in this business, though.
“Long halt, fifteen minutes,” he whispered, as he took a knee. Dave muttered something that sounded obscene.
Vernon checked his watch, carefully shielding the green glow with his hand. He shook his head, the movement barely visible in the darkness. “It’s going to start to get light in thirty,” he whispered back, “and we’ve still got eight hundred meters to the assault position.” He glanced back at the women. “This is the fifth halt in two hours.”
“I know,” Dan replied. “What do you want me to do? Leave her out here? We’ve got to make do with the assets we’ve got. She’s a good shot, at least.”
“Not going to make any difference if she can’t even get to the fight,” Vernon answered. He shook his head again.
Dan said no more, but took another thoughtful glance back at the two girls. Cassy was hanging in there better than Jenny was, but she was obviously exhausted, and she had barely passed the shooting quals. He had no idea how she had performed on the ship scenario, but she was hurting when it came to a light infantry mission.
Max was the other unknown quantity. At first glance, Dan had doubted he’d do any better than the women. He was overweight and pale, with a wispy, reddish-blond beard that he probably should just shave off. He looked like he should be sitting in front of a wall of computers and monitors, not out in the bush.
When he’d expressed this concern to Vernon, the other man had laughed. “Don’t worry about Max,” he had chuckled. “I’ve watched that fat fuck reduce lean, mean, greyhound-looking motherfuckers to tears, and laugh while he did it. He might not look like much, and he might not be the fastest man alive, but he simply never stops, never slows down. He’s a fucking tank, and he’s strong as a bull. He’s also smart as shit. If it involves explosives and he doesn’t know it, it’s probably not worth knowing. He’ll hang. And he’ll probably embarrass a few of the hard-dicks in the process.”
Dan had shrugged. “I’ll take your word for it. Even though he looks like a basement-dweller.”
Vernon had laughed again. “I was there the first time he tried to tan. After half an hour he came back inside, red as a lobster. Swore he’d never try it again.”
Right at the moment, Max was on a knee, facing outboard, saying nothing. He’d certainly kept up, never falling behind, and so far, he appeared to be as tactically sound as Vernon had assured him he would be. Time would tell.
Vernon’s concerns were more pressing, though. They were behind schedule. They were way behind schedule. They were supposed to be pulling off the target site by now. Instead, they hadn’t even gotten into position yet, because Jenny, who had managed to make it through the punishing PT session of the first day, couldn’t hang when it came to doing the real heavy, dirty, day-to-day infantry shit. A six-kilometer infiltration after a six hundred meter swim to shore with full kit was apparently more than she was prepared for.
Which, of course, raised the additional question of why counter-piracy contractors were training to do light infantry infiltration and assault in the first place.
Whatever. I’m still getting paid, and this is kind of fun. Or it would be, if it was going somewhat according to plan.
He kept watching the swamp around them, and glancing back at the girls. Jenny wasn’t looking much better. But they didn’t have the time to waste. “All right, halt’s over. We’ve got to get moving. We’ll push hard to the objective; the girls and Dave go on exterior security, the rest of us go in. It’s going to have to be harder and faster than we planned for, because it will be light by the time we can jump off.” Damn, I’m glad we’re not trying to coordinate this with another team. It’s enough of a nightmare as it is. At least we’ve got sim guns this time instead of laser tag bullshit.
Dave, who was on point, stood up without a word, and started forward. Dan stepped up behind him, with Max and Vernon following. He looked back in time to see the girls struggling to their feet, Cassy giving Jenny a hand up. They’d just have to keep up; there would be no more halts to catch their breath.
They forged through the swamp, making enough noise to wake the dead. Muck and water sloshed around their ankles and shins, branches raked against gear and clothes, and the occasional stumble thanks to a root, a dip in the ground that was unseen beneath the foliage and mud all seemed like they gathered together to make about as much noise as a herd of elephants stampeding through the jungle. Dan was sure they had been detected, even before Dave plunged nearly to his crotch in a hole that he hadn’t seen because it was full of water, spitting out a choked-off curse as he did so.
The night was noticeably giving way to gray pre-morning twilight when Dave suddenly put up a hand and sank to the ground. The rest followed suit, with another cringe-worthy splash in the back as Jenny flopped down behind a log.
Dan quickly saw what had prompted Dave’s sudden halt. They were at the objective. Not the assault position, but the objective. The small group of tents and plywood buildings was right in front of them, maybe fifty yards away, and the nearest sentry was even closer than that. They’d gotten so focused on making up for lost time that they’d overshot.
“Fucking dammit,” Dan muttered to himself. This just kept getting better and better. The sentry, an OPFOR role-player in tiger stripe cammies with a simunition mask, was already starting to move toward them. He had to have heard the splash, or maybe he’d just heard the racket they’d been making for the last three quarters of a klick. There was no time to deploy in any sort of formation, no time to make sure everybody was set. They had to go now, or fail. So he rose to a knee, shouldered his rifle, and shot the role-player in the facemask.
Even as the man swore, scraping at the orange splatter on his goggles, Dan bellowed, “Assault right, base of fire left!” Suiting actions to words, he got up and dashed forward toward the nearest plywood shack, hoping against hope that the team would react accordingly, and he wasn’t about to turn himself into Leroy Jenkins.
Gratifyingly, he felt the impact as Vernon and Max hit the wall next to him. The faint snaps of sim rounds indicated that the base of fire had opened up, punctuated by a few noticeable thuds as the plastic rounds smacked into plywood. The role-players were yelling to each other, a few of them using the obnoxious pseudo-Russian accents favored by SERE instructors.
It was at that point that Dan realized the entrance to the shack he and the others had stacked up on was around the corner, exposed to the center of the camp, which was presumably filling up with hostile role-players. Even with the base of fire throwing paint in that direction, that was a no-go.
Can this op get any worse? he wondered. Don’t answer that. He looked toward the opposite corner. “Max, on you!” The pudgy man simply nodded, eased his rifle around the corner, took two shots, and then followed the weapon. Vernon and Dan flowed after him.
A role-player was standing around the corner, his rifle held muzzle-down, a neat pair of orange splashes on his chest, his hand held up to indicate that he was “dead.” Max moved up to the next corner, slowly easing around it while Vernon dashed to the corner of the next plywood shack to cover that direction.
Dan moved up behind Max, and peeked past his shoulder. There were about six role-players in the central part of the camp, mostly returning fire towards the base of fire out in the swamp, but a few were turning toward their position. Oh, well, time to throw caution to the winds. He stepped around Max, his rifle coming up, and opened fire.
The role-players had good cover against the base of fire, but not so good from the flank, and between Dan and Max, four of them were quickly eliminated. Two more ducked out of sight in the door of the third plywood shack.
“Cover that shack,” Dan told Max. “Vernon, on me.” As soon as he was sure that Vernon was behind him, he angled for the door in front of him.
The truth was, now that they were engaged, some of the suckiness of the entire situation was falling away, adrenaline flushing out the exhaustion and frustration. He felt alive, even if it was just sim rounds in a cheap combat town in the middle of a swamp.
He hit the doorway moving, button-hooking through to clear the deeper corners, Vernon half a step behind him. He could hear Max shooting behind them, hopefully taking out one or more of the role-players holed up across the camp.
The room was empty, nothing but a packed, muddy floor and four plywood walls spattered with blue, green, and orange sim impacts. As soon as he registered it, Dan turned back to the door, Vernon already facing him across the opening. He briefly considered the possibility that, due to their lateness, the trainers had already removed the “hostages,” just to fuck with them. He dismissed the thought. They still had to clear the objective, regardless.
With a nod, they burst back out into the clearing. More shots snapped, and Vernon yelled, “Fuck!” He’d been hit in the shoulder, a bright blue splash visible against his muddy cammies. “I’m good, let’s go.”
The two role-players were still trying to engage from the far shack; one of them had shot Vernon. Technically, they should clear the nearer shack, so as not to leave a potential threat at their backs, but Dan pressed toward the known threat, dashing toward the role-players’ shelter, counting on Max’s covering fire to keep their heads down. A few shots whipped by him from behind, reminding him that the base of fire was still back there, and hadn’t necessarily gotten the word to shift fire. Well, this was stupid. But he made it to the wall without getting shot, unless he was now sporting a few new splatters on his back plate.
This was going to get tricky. The two role-players had definitely seen him coming, and there was no way he was getting through that door without getting shot. But the longer he lingered, the longer they’d have to get set. Cursing his own stupidity, he charged through the door, thankful that Vernon had stuck by the crazy white boy running straight at the bad guys.
He button-hooked through the door again, this time running right into the role-player. They got tangled up, both falling to the muddy floor, while Vernon traded shots with the second guy, who had jumped backward to avoid the dogpile in the doorway. The guy under him was fighting him, both rifles out of play. So he got a knee under himself, heaved up off the floor, and then he and Vernon shot the last role-player at the same time.
They were the only ones in the shack. No hostages here, either. They didn’t hear anymore shooting, but Max suddenly called out, “I’ve got the hostages!”
“Where the hell is he?” Dan gasped. Between the dash and the fight, he was a little out of breath. The movement of the night before was starting to take its toll.
“I’m guessing in that other shack,” Vernon replied.
“By himself?” Dan looked out the doorway, to see Max standing in the doorway of the third shack. With another look around the camp to make sure there weren’t any more role-players waiting to shoot them in the back, the two of them moved to join him.
“I know a one-man clear isn’t the best option,” Max said, in his nasal, high-pitched voice, “but when you guys went in there, I thought I’d better make sure there wasn’t anyone in here waiting to shoot you in the back. Found the hostages instead.” Behind him were three more role-players, two men and a woman, in shorts and t-shirts with bags over their heads. They were sitting on a tarp rather than the muddy floor, and appeared quite relaxed. Dan thought for a second, and recalled that there were only supposed to be three hostages. They had what they’d come for.
But there were still two tents out there, and he’d seen enough of Decker’s evil imagination to expect a curveball. “We’ve still got to clear the tents,” he said. “Hold here on the hostages.” Since they didn’t have intra-team comms, he stepped out into the center of the clearing, and circled his hand over his head, calling in the base of fire. They wouldn’t be in a position to support effectively anymore; their fields of fire were shut down by the assault force’s presence. Then he pointed to the nearest tent, waited until Vernon said, “With you,” and dashed to the flap.
There was no stacking up on a tent; sims or not, it made no sense. He bulled through the flap, leading with his rifle muzzle.
Decker was standing in the center of the tent, his arms folded in front of his massive chest, dressed in his customary instructor uniform, glaring at his watch. “You’re running late,” he said.
Dan lowered his rifle. “Had a couple of hangups on the movement,” he explained.
Decker just nodded. Then he reached into his back pocket, pulled out what looked like a firecracker, and yanked the string hanging out of it. It went off with a bang.
“An IED just went off in this tent,” he yelled, so that Max could hear it. “Both Tackett and White are now casualties.”
“Motherfucker,” Vernon muttered.
“Both of you may as well lie down,” Decker said. “You’re not walking out of here.”
They got down on the ground, Dan thinking about how completely fucked this entire exercise was. There goes my team leader spot, I’ll bet, he thought. Decker just stood there, his arms folded again, and watched.
Lambert entered the tent with Dave and the women; Max was just outside the flap on security with the hostages. Lambert looked at the situation, then looked at Decker, who anticipated his question. “They are both alive, but non-ambulatory.” He didn’t ask what they were going to do, didn’t prompt any action, but just went back to his baleful watching statue act.
“Shit,” Lambert said bitterly. He looked around. Jenny was looking pretty peaked, and Cassy, while alert, didn’t look like she was in the greatest of shape, either. “Dave, take Dan,” he said. “Max, get in here and carry Vernon. Girls, sling the weapons.”
Dave grumbled as he handed his rifle off to Jenny, who slung it over her shoulders to hang muzzle-up beside her assault pack. Then he bent down and hauled Dan up into a fireman’s carry. Dan helped as much as he could, without making it obvious enough to elicit a comment from Decker.
Max came in, passed his rifle to Cassy, and easily lifted Vernon to his shoulders, adjusting the weight slightly before crouching down and making his way out of the tent. Dave followed, with rather less grace.
“You might want to hurry up and get off the X,” Decker offered helpfully. “OPFOR reinforcements are en route.”
This just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it? Dan put his hand on Dave’s back plate, trying to adjust his position so that his nuts weren’t getting crushed. It was going to be a long movement. He was finding himself doubting that they were going to make it. Seven kilometers is a long way to carry a body, particularly through a swamp.
Lambert led out, taking point while Dave and Max followed, with the hostages next and the girls in the rear. They weren’t making any better time than they had on the way in.
The slog just kept getting harder, even for the guys being carried. While it may not be as stressful as walking, being carried fireman-style is not comfortable. The longer it goes on, especially as the carrier starts to get tired and stumble, the less comfortable it gets. Max was forging ahead, keeping up with Lambert without too much apparent difficulty, but after about five hundred meters, Dave was definitely falling behind, and starting to sag under Dan’s weight. No surprise; Dan weighed about two hundred five pounds in his socks, never mind in kit and soaked, muddy cammies.
Finally, Dave staggered and dropped to a knee, almost catapulting Dan over his head. Fortunately, Max had turned to look back at that point, and signaled to Lambert that they needed to halt. Dave let Dan down, and stayed down on one knee with his head bowed to his chest, gulping air and looking like he was about to puke.
Under other circumstances, Dan would be tempted to cheat, and just get down and walk the rest of the way, but Decker was pacing them, about ten yards behind Cassy in the rear, so that wasn’t an option. They were going to have to gut this out somehow. He just wasn’t sure how.
Lambert came back to Dave and looked down at him, anger written all over his face. “Not even a klick, Dave? What the fuck?”
Dave looked up at him and snapped, “I don’t see you carrying anybody, asshole.”
“That’s because I’ve got to get us where we need to go,” Lambert retorted.
“I walked point in here, I can walk point on the way out while you take a turn,” Dave pointed out.
“Yeah, and you damned near walked us right onto the objective without knowing it, too,” Lambert said acidly. “Fine. I’ll take a turn. You’d better not get us lost.” He unslung his rifle and handed it to Dave, then bent down to pick Dan up. With a grunt, he swung him up into a fireman’s carry, then, his voice sounding strained, said, “Come on, we’ve got to keep moving.”
Lambert made it farther than Dave, but after about another kilometer and a half, he had to stop, sucking wind. He still shot Dave a venomous look. “Yeah, real hard to go a fucking klick.”
“Will you knock it the fuck off?” Max said, speaking up for the first time. He was sweating profusely and starting to look a bit red in the face, but was still standing tall with Vernon on his shoulders. Vernon hadn’t been kidding about the man’s endurance. “We’ve still got too far to go to start bickering. You two want to go five rounds, you can do it back at the barracks. But we’ve still got five klicks to go, so save your breath and figure this shit out.”
“I’ll carry Dan for a little bit,” Cassy offered suddenly. “I won’t be able to carry him very far, but I’ll try.”
Lambert looked at her skeptically, and Dan couldn’t help but agree. Cassy was not a large woman; she might be a hundred fifty pounds soaking wet. She might make it a couple hundred meters, and that would be slow and painful. Jenny didn’t say anything or look at any of them; she was doing a convincing job of watching rear security.
Dave shook his head. “No, I’ll take him. We’ll just have to switch off.”
“What about you, Max?” Cassy asked. “Are you doing okay?”
Max nodded. “I’m fine. Let’s just get to the boats, shall we?” He turned back toward the beach and waited for Lambert to get back up to the point.
It took another couple of hours, all with Decker shadowing them silently, before they got all the way to the beach. Only to find that the boats weren’t there.
Of course, they should have expected it. They were at least three hours late to extract. In the real world, extract wasn’t going to hang out on a hostile beach for hours, they were going to scram within about thirty minutes. Which left them with a problem.
“Get the comms up,” Lambert snapped. “We’ll have to call for emergency extract.” He glared out at the Gulf. “Which is probably going to give us a new RV point.”
That wasn’t going to go well. Dave was looking pretty strung out, and even Max had started to stagger over the last kilometer. Neither of the girls were looking that great; Jenny was noticeably dragging ass. If her rifle hadn’t been slung around her shoulders, she probably would be dragging it along the ground.
“Delta Two-Zero, this is Gamma One-Four,” Max called over the radio. It was a civilian job, though bigger than a Motorola handheld. Not as capable as a military green-gear radio, but still effective enough, and it could still be encrypted. “We are at the original extract point, requesting emergency extract.”
“You’re late, One-Four,” came the reply. “Beach extraction is not possible at this time. You will need to swim twenty-five hundred meters west. The boats will come in and pick you up there.” They were really being hard-assed about this. Twenty-five hundred meters was a long swim, and Dan had little doubt that Decker would insist that they tow the “casualties.”
“Delta Two-Zero, be advised we have two non-ambulatory casualties and three hostages,” Max sent. The answer was immediate.
“Good copy, One-Four. Rendezvous instructions remain the same.”
“Fuck,” Lambert snarled. “All right, let’s dig up the fins and the UDT vests. Inflate the vests if you have to; this is going to suck.” He glanced at Decker after saying that, but the big man didn’t say anything, just still standing there and watching, looking completely unruffled. He didn’t even look like he’d worked up much of a sweat following them through the swamp, which seemed impossible, given the humidity.
It took a few minutes to get geared up, then it was a dash across the open beach and into the water. Or an attempted dash; it quickly turned into more of a waddle, since Max and Lambert were once again carrying Vernon and Dan. Decker’s hawk-like stare had dispelled any ideas of cheating and “fairy-dusting” the two of them mobile again.
It was a long, hard swim, with numerous stops, floating with the aid of inflated vests. It was made even slower by the fact that they didn’t have fins for the hostages, so they had to breaststroke. It took almost an hour to get far enough out, and that was with the tide going out. Even once they were sure they were far enough from shore, it still took another fifteen minutes before they saw the boats coming in, and were able to signal for pickup. They crawled into the rubber craft and clung to the gunwales like drowned rats, soaked, exhausted, and miserable.
Back at the barracks, they were soon hard at work cleaning and drying their gear and weapons. The ocean had rinsed off most of the mud, but the salt still had to be hosed off, and everything had to be hung up to dry. Batteries needed to be replaced and magazines refilled. All of them were sitting on the benches in the sun, the men in trunks and the women in shorts and t-shirts.
Jenny had been one of the first to have her sodden gear and clothes off, and was sitting on a bench by herself, jamming her magazines. Dan looked across at her, then glanced over at Vernon next to him.
“She seems to have perked up some now that the weight’s off of her shoulders,” he observed quietly. Vernon nodded.
“Watch yourselves around her,” Cassy said, sitting down next to Dan. “She’s evil.”
Dan looked at her. “You know her?”
She shook her head. “No, but I know the type. She’s hot and she knows it, and she’ll manipulate everyone around her to get what she wants. Mark my words. If you stay team leader, she’ll try to get into your pants sooner or later. That way she’ll own you, and she’ll get to do whatever she wants.”
Lambert laughed. It had an ugly edge to it. “I’d fuck her and then slap her down anyway. Two can play at that game.”
Cassy looked at him with distaste, then turned back to Dan. “I’m serious. Watch your back around her.”
He nodded. “Thanks.” He saw Max sit down on the far side of Vernon, and leaned out to address him. “Max, I owe you an apology.”
Max just smiled. “No you don’t. I know what I look like. Vernon can probably tell you that I have long owned the fact that I have been blessed with great strength, agility, and endurance, and cursed to possess them in a body that looks like a bag of mayonnaise and sounds like a squeaky chew toy.”
Any further conversation was stilled as Decker walked in, dressed like he’d spent the entire night and morning after on a jaunt through the Florida swamps. “All right, hot wash time. Tackett. What went right, what went wrong?”
“We eliminated all the hostiles and got the hostages out without losing any of them,” Dan said. “So much for the good news. Bad news, we got slowed down on the infiltration, and didn’t get to the objective until it was already light. We got rushed and overshot the assault position, and just about ran right into the objective without getting set. Then I charged across open ground and past an open door to clear the second shack, instead of clearing methodically. Oh, yeah, then Vernon and I got blown up, but I’m not sure how we might have avoided that, since it was fairy-dusted.”
Decker nodded. “Pretty good summation. Anyone have anything else to add?” When there were no takers, he just said, “All right, finish getting re-cocked and get some rest.” He turned to leave.
Dan got up to follow him. “Decker?” he asked. The human fireplug turned to look at him. “Can I ask a couple of questions?”
Decker just looked at him for a second, then jerked his head and stepped out of the locker room. Dan followed. Out in the hall, Decker turned to face him, once again folding his arms. It seemed to be his default stance.
“Is this an evaluation course or a training course?” Dan asked. “Because it kinda seems like both.”
“It is both,” Decker replied. “While you are being evaluated every minute of every day, we do realize that none of you have worked as a team, so there are going to be things that need to be ironed out. There isn’t a lot of time for a pre-deployment train-up, so that’s why the grading is as harsh as it is.”
Dan tried to keep his expression impassive, but something must have showed. “What?” Decker demanded.
“It’s just that the ‘harsh’ grading seems to be on two different scales,” Dan said carefully.
“You have concerns about the women,” Decker said flatly. It wasn’t a question.
“In a word, yes,” he replied. “They can’t keep up. Even the most hard-core of them.”
“They’re here for a good reason,” Decker said cryptically. “Your concerns are noted.” He looked at his watch. “Now, I suggest you finish getting your gear reset, get some water and chow in you, and get some rest. The Warning Order for your next scenario drops in eighteen hours.” He turned without another word and walked away.