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Ad Usque Fidelis - A Short Story - Part 1
“No promises on how well they're going to aid things, Mac, death toll is high. There are still a ton of civilians on the ground. They don’t know how to fight back.” By they, Corporal Slater meant the special forces. Slater was crouched behind a crumbled mass of concrete that had once been a highway overpass. He was speaking to his only living chain-of-command, Sergeant McNamara, who was crouched next to him, her assault rifle lying across her lap. Their higher up, Gunnery Sergeant Stephenson, took a direct hit and had been dead before he hit the ground. Grim, but not a surprising outcome for the way the day was going.
McNamara frowned, her brow furrowing in frustration. After a moment she nodded in response, tonguing the wad of chewing tobacco she had crammed into her lip.
“He’ll do what he can, I suppose,” the Sergeant answered, taking a moment to spit, “Can be said for the lot of us, really. Do what we can and pray for the best, hey. That’s the closest thing to a strategy I’ve heard in months.”
Slater let out a scoff of agreement.
“Your headset working yet?”
“Nope. She’s dead as a doornail. I tried to tell the techs before we went topside that it was all screwy. ‘Give it a smack’ they said. Load of horseshit if I’ve ever heard it. Didn’t want to fill out the paperwork to give me a new helmet,” McNamara spit again, “You’re my eyes and ears. Anything on the HUD?”
“Distant flickers of red, but they’re on the outer edges of the radar. Not a worry to us, not yet,” Slater gave a casual shrug, and gazed up into the sky, shaking his head, “This is so messed up.”
“You don’t need to tell me twice.”
“Whenever you want to move out, just say the word.”’
“I’m good to sit here for a bit yet, ain’t in any rush.” McNamara moved from crouching to sitting to prove the point. She took a deep breath and exhaled, wiping a bit of sweat from her face with her tunic sleeve. Despite the craziness of the day, she felt oddly calm. Everything had seemed to slow to a dream-like haze after Stephenson died. That’s when any emotion McNamara had been feeling shut off, too. She hadn’t witnessed a death and felt as vapid as she had when she saw Stephenson take that hit. She watched it happen in a split second, and once the fire-fight ended, watch Slater confirm he was dead. The whole time she felt nothing. Just nothing. Desensitized? That’s what the psychs called it, she remembered. Being desensitized to death required a lot of terrible things to occur prior to. It had been close to twenty years of this bullshit, long enough, McNamara figured.
“Can’t believe Gunny’s gone.” It was if Slater was reading her mind.
“A lot of my skeletons died with him,” McNamara said, “That man had more dirt on me than most.” She shook her head, “Christ. Here one second and gone the next. Wonder if they’ll be saying the same for this city.”
“My hopes are with the special forces.”
“Putting all your bets on one group of men… if it were any other day, I’d call you crazy. Today though, I’d say they;re the one I’m counting on too.” McNamara glanced down at her utility belt, “That and my grenades.”
She received a gentle nudge in the ribs from Slater, and glanced to him, he’d frozen on the spot, looking directly ahead. McNamara slowly moved her head in the direction he was looking, and saw a couple of insurgent officers had emerged from an alleyway carrying AK47s, trailed by a handful of grunts. Since she and Slater weren’t moving, concealed in the shadow of the remnants of the highway overpass, the men hadn’t seen them.
“Speaking of grenades,” the Sergeant whispered under her breath. Cautiously, she reached to her utility belt and plucked out a grenade. Gripping it tightly, the spoon pressed between her thumb and forefinger, she exhaled a small breath. It fit in her palm perfectly – never did she feel more comfortable holding anything else. Curling her finger around the pin, she met Slater’s eyes.
“Can you make it to cover in three seconds?”
Slater nodded confidently. Wasn’t the first time Sergeant Mac had given him this ultimatum, and he’d only been fortunate to work with her for several months. It was one of the first things he’d heard about her, she was the Sergeant that loved grenades. That and she’d been charged for punching an officer a few years back.
“As soon as I let fly, go. It’ll distract them from this baby landing in between their legs. I’ll be right behind you.” McNamara slowly rose into a crouching position, moving forward a few steps, before quickly raising to full height. With a satisfying click, she jerked the pin from the grenade and let it fly overhand. She watched it long enough to see the spoon separate and go cartwheeling – and heard Slater clambering over the concrete – before she bolted into a run. One. She heard the yell from the insurgents as they spotted either her or Slater. Two. Slater slid behind a giant slab of concrete and in two long strides, she slid in next to him, kicking up dust. Three. A grin broke out on her face, and the grenade exploded. The concussion jarred the ground and her body, the men screaming was swallowed up by the deafening sound of it going off. Pieces of shrapnel could be heard whizzing past overhead and hitting the other side of their concrete slab.
“I love my job!” McNamara announced.
Slater shook his head, unable to hold back a grin,
“Never one for a subtle approach, are you Mac?”
“Life’s too short to keep things subtle,” was her matter-of-fact reply, as she rose to her feet and left their cover, her weight on the chunks of concrete causing them to crunch loudly. Even from where she was standing, she saw she had successfully killed the lot of them. Their bodies, colours distinct amongst the grey tones of the surroundings, were lying scattered and motionless. She spotted a severed limb or two. The blood had been splattered in a surprisingly large radius.
“Confirmed kills,” Mac heard Slater say as he came to stand beside her.
“That was for Stephenson. Only right.” She met Slater’s eyes, smiling slightly, “He always enjoyed getting me to blow shit up for him.” Glancing down to the slab of concrete that she and Slater had used for cover, she grabbed a piece of shrapnel that had stuck there from the explosion, jerked it free and examined it, before putting it in the breast pocket of her tac vest. If it were possible, she kept a piece of shrapnel from every grenade she threw. The last one, she hadn’t.
“Happy you can get your chunk of grenade this time?”
“Yup,” She spit a glob of tobacco in the direction of the dead bodies. She held up her gloved hand for emphasis, “Ever notice the ring I wear on my middle finger?”
“Made out of shrapnel, yes indeed,” McNamara smirked, “Don’t make enough even on a Sergeant’s wages to blow money on gold or silver. Shrapnel works just fine.”
“Shit.” Slater remarked, an instantaneous change in his tone, which alerted McNamara to the fact he wasn’t remarking on her ring. She tightened her grip on her assault rifle, looking around, waiting for him to say something, to move. She knew he was watching his HUD.
“What’s goin’ on, Slater?” The Sergeant pressed after one too many seconds of silence for her liking.
“Your grenade attracted company,” He answered, “Multiple targets showing on my HUD, coming in the general direction that the others did – same alley-way, if I’m seeing this correctly. Won’t be long ‘til they see the mess you made of their buddies.”
“How many is multiple?”
“Too many for the two of us to deal with.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” McNamara snapped, gesturing, “Down that alleyway. Keep me informed on what you’re seeing.”
They took off on a light jog, clambering their way out of the mounds of collapsed concrete and into a shadowy, narrow alleyway between two partially destroyed buildings. The alleyway seemed to echo their footsteps, but it wasn’t time for a leisurely pace. McNamara was glad that Slater had been assigned as her fire-team partner several months ago, and realized how lucky she was to still have him by her side. She made a mental point to tell him that. He’d been beside Stephenson when he had taken the hit. It could have just as easily been Slater.
They’d been separated from the remainder of their unit, but as fire-team partners it wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as it could have been. Slater was good at navigating and his sense of direction seemed to be spot-on, even areas that he had never been in. Neither of them had set foot in this city prior to this very day, but thanks to Slater he had gotten them out of more than one sticky situation. This would be the third. And Slater, God love him, he never seemed to lose his cool. Didn’t resort to a beer (or few) after battles, didn’t have a relationship with nicotine like she did. The corporal was just twenty-seven and truly seemed like he was born to be a marine.
“I want to shoot whoever designed this city,” Slater remarked as they emerged from the alleyway, made sure the area was clear before dashing into another narrow alley, “Too many things look the same. And the fact that everything is getting destroyed doesn’t help matters.”
“You have a better idea of where we’re going than I do,” McNamara said, “How’s the HUD? Did we lose them? I don’t think they heard us making our exit.”
“Not getting anything,” they came to a stop in the alley, by the cover of a garbage dumpster. Slater wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, “I think we’re safe again for now, Mac.”
“This is a game of cat and mouse, and I don’t like being the mouse,” she stated, “We gotta run into our own guys soon. There’s strength in numbers, and although we are a badass fire-team, Slater, we can’t be running into big groups like that time after time. We’ve only got so much ammo, and I can’t make grenades appear out of thin air.”
Slater nodded in acknowledgment.
“I’ll radio again, see if anyone responds.”
“On the open comm-channel?”
“Don’t have any other choice. If the insurgents pick it up, well, tough for us I guess. I wasn’t given any secure channels to use. Probably didn’t think I’d need to.”
McNamara shrugged in defeat, and listened as Slater began to attempt radio contact with anyone nearby. Her wad of tobacco was starting to lose its taste, so she wedged it out of her lip with her tongue and spit it into the garbage dumpster. Taking out her can of chewing tobacco, she gave it a shake. There wasn’t much left. She’d wait until later to have more, she decided, before shoving it back into her fatigues pocket.
Movement caught her eye, and she looked up, bringing her assault rifle into firing position. Slater, saw her quick movement, and whipped around, but at this point there was no cause for alarm. Standing at the end of the alleyway, were two people, a man and a woman. Both of them appeared to be no older than twenty. Civilians. They looked scared and exhausted, but relief seemed to seep through their expressions for coming upon McNamara and Slater.
McNamara lowered her rifle, and studied the two civilians. They were dishevelled, their clothes were dirty. They looked like they had been through hell and back, but then again, McNamara realized, she and Slater probably looked not much different.
“Don’t look so scared,” McNamara said, relaxing and leaning back against the wall of the alley, “We’re marines.”
She wasn’t quite particularly concerned with the civilians’ story, why they were where they were, or where they were going, so she wasn’t about to ask. She had stopped being able to relate to civvies a long time ago. They struck her almost as a different species. Slater was the more tolerant out of the two of them, so she counted on him to do any further speaking. She knew right then and there that the civilians’ would be wanting their help – but there wasn’t really anything they could do for them but point them in a probable direction of an evac site.
“You’re the first marines we’ve run into.” The man spoke first.
“Take a couple steps towards us,” McNamara didn’t care, waving them in, “Get out of the open, you don’t want to be seen.”
They did as they were told quickly, taking a few steps closer to the two marines, however they still seemed relatively timid. McNamara’s sharp, authoritativeness didn’t exactly help them feel welcome. Slater wasn’t surprised by the Sergeant’s indifference towards the two civilians. They’d come across many of them in one day, most of them being dead. He took over as the main communicator, knowing not much more would be heard from Mac.
“Are you natives of the city?” he questioned the young man and woman.
“Tourists, actually. Picked a bad day for it.” The man answered, “It happened so suddenly, at first we had no idea what was going on.” He looked to the young woman standing next to him, “This is my fiancée, Krista. My name is Steve.”
Slater nodded wordlessly. It took him a couple seconds to realize the civilians were expecting a return introduction.
“Sergeant McNamara,” He gestured with his head to Mac, “I’m Corporal Slater.”
There were a few awkward seconds that ticked by, before Steve continued:
“Aren’t marines supposed to travel in groups?”
“We were separated in a firefight,” Slater told him, “Trying to find our way back as we speak. Are you headed in the direction of an evac site?”
“Attempting to, but we hardly know where we are going. It’s chaotic out there. And there are the insurgents, they seem to be everywhere. We’ve seen so many dead people…”
“Do you know your way around?” Krista spoke up, sounding hopeful.
“I have…” Slater started, but he felt a vicious tap on his tac-vest, and McNamara grabbed him by the arm, jerking him a few feet backwards.
“Excuse us for a minute,” McNamara said to the civilians briskly. Her brows were crumpled in irritation, blue eyes ablaze with it, her mouth pursed tightly. When they were just out of hearing distance of the couple, McNamara let loose in a hushed tone, “Slater, we are not escorting them anywhere. To them, you do not have an HUD, you do not know your way around, got it? We can’t afford to have two unprotected civilians tagging along with us. They will only slow us down, thus putting both of us in more risk of getting killed than we already are.”
“So what do you want me to say?”
“Point them in the direction of the evac site and let ‘em go. This isn’t time to have sympathy for civilians. I get that they’re getting killed left right and center, but it’s not our job to be their personal escort, you know that.”
Slater sighed, knowing she was right.
“Don’t get soft on me, Slater,” Mac told him, “Not now.”
“I’m not, Mac. You know Gunny would’ve…”
“Gunny might have wanted to help them, but in the end he would’ve made the same decision I am. You know I don’t make a decision if I don’t feel if it’s right. This is right, as cold as it may seem.”
“Okay,” Slater sighed, “You know there may be some of our guys at the evac site right?”
“Without a doubt there are, if it hasn’t been overrun with insurgents. And if you can’t get radio contact, that will be our likely destination – but we aren’t going with the civvies.” McNamara answered, “We are helping them by pointing them in the right direction. It’s better than nothing.”
She let go of the fabric of Slater’s sleeve, setting him free. Letting out a sigh, she whirled away, taking a couple of frustrated paces down the alley-way, tapping out a beat on the butt-stock of her assault rifle, allowing Slater to break the news to the civilians.
Slater made his way back to Steve and Krista, his expression faintly apologetic. They both looked curious as to what had been discussed in the hushed conversation.
“What evac site were you told to go to?” he asked them.
“The one near the radio tower on the North end,” Steve replied, “Wherever that might be. They told us you can see it from the ground, we’ve been looking…”
Slater recalled hearing radio traffic earlier that the tower was one of the first things destroyed by the insurgents upon their arrival, and the area was generally overrun. It may have been an initial evac point, but not now.
“The tower was destroyed,” Slater informed them, “It’s gone. The nearest evac site I’ve heard that is supposed to still be active is the one in Beria Plaza.”
“We were there just the other day,” Krista reminded Steve, and looked relieved, “We know where that is.”
“Good. Go there – but stay off the main highways. Travel in alleys like these, if possible. Try to stay out of sight. That’s all the advice I can give you. Good luck.”
“You won’t accompany us?” Steve asked.
“No. I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” Steve nodded, not trying to hide his disappointment. His fiancée Krista even looked confused at hearing this response, “Well, thank you for your help, Corporal.” He extended his hand.
Slater shook it, nodding. The couple exchanged a few words, then not before giving the two marines a little wave, and saying thank-you again, they left the alleyway.
Slater heaved a heavy sigh, and glanced back over his shoulder at McNamara, who had come to lean against the wall again by the dumpster. She met his eyes, chewing on her lip, something she did when she didn’t have a wad of tobacco in her mouth. She gave him a nod, and he returned it.
“I hate being the asshole.” He confessed.
“I’m the asshole if you want to start firing names around,” McNamara told him, “Part of life is delivering news to people that they don’t necessarily want to hear. Guess you’re not as used to it as I am. You’ll live.”
Suddenly they heard a scream, and an eruption of gunfire, and he looked to the exit of the alleyway just in time to see tracers whizz past.
“Shit!” He exclaimed, turning around, taking a couple of steps before stopping himself. McNamara grabbed him roughly by the scruff of the neck and pulled him down behind the dumpster.
“Goddamn it, why did…” Slater started, but McNamara shushed him, peeking up over the dumpster. A laugh could be heard, and they saw two insurgents jog past the alleyway, almost with a joyful gait, to examine the bodies of the two civilians they had no doubt just killed.
“Miserable sons of bitches.” McNamara muttered, venom oozing from her tone and harsh choice of words. Slater looked to her, and saw her expression was clearly frustrated. She hated to see someone die as much as he did – but he could tell it mattered less to her. She was able to shut it out. He wasn’t. He was overwhelmed with it.
“We shouldn’t have sent them out there.” He said to her, keeping his voice low, but he couldn’t hide it in his tone that he was upset.
“Don’t you start blaming anyone,” McNamara snapped, “Slater, pull yourself together. It’s not our fault. It’s terrible they were just killed – but it happens. Look around, this whole city a huge mess of chaos and death.”
Slater nodded. He admired Mac’s ability to think the way she did. He wondered if even a part of her had any sympathy – and figured he’d known her long enough to know that deep down there probably was. But she wouldn’t show it to a soul.
McNamara placed a hand on Slater’s shoulder supportively, giving it a squeeze. That was the extent of her ability to comfort him, he knew, and he appreciated the small gesture for what it was worth. She dropped her hand, and sighed, chewing her lip again, fixing her gaze somewhere on the ground ahead of her. Silence fell between the two of them.
The silence allowed for them to hear a terrifying sound. A slight beeping – that the both of them recognized to be that of a grenade. McNamara peeked up quickly over the dumpster, seeing one pulsing on the ground not two meters away. The dumpster they were sitting behind would not protect them from the explosion.
Adrenaline began to pulse through her, and she scrambled to her feet, pulling Slater up with her, letting out a yell that seemed to echo endlessly in the alleyway:
She gave him a shove, putting her ahead of him. They made it a few steps down the alleyway before the grenade detonated. There was a blast of searing heat that struck McNamara’s back – knocking the air from her lungs. The force from the explosion sent her airborne, and she struck the wall, her vision doubling and her ears ringing. She came to land on her back on the dirt. Her chest was tight and she tried to suck in a deep breath, but it was a suffocating sound. She could feel her heart pounding, mixing with the ringing in her ears. Her body was in pain, incredible pain, but it was starting to already become a background feeling. She could taste blood in her mouth.
She managed to move her head in the direction Slater had been headed. She spotted him, lying not five feet away from her, unconscious, or worse. His eyes were closed, there was a trickle of blood running down his face. His helmet had been knocked off. His right arm looked mangled, the fabric of his sleeve was clearly melted into his skin, the skin itself a bloody, oozy looking mess.
McNamara felt nauseous, and tried to raise her head from the ground. She got a glimpse of her own body, and knew she’d been hit by shrapnel. Her tac-vest appeared to be melted in various spots. Her clothes were tattered. She could see blood, and in one place on her leg, what looked to be bone.
“Shit,” she choked out, “Slater!” her voice was weak, and she knew it, “Slater!”
He wasn’t answering her.
Were the insurgents going to come check on them? Would they see she was still alive and kill her, give both of them finishing shot? Where did Slater’s helmet go? It had the radio – if it even worked now.
Her vision was going foggy. Was she dying? Each breath she took required a ridiculous amount of effort. She needed to get out of here, or get some sort of help, or otherwise she was left for dead, she realized.
The Sergeant was able to keep another minute of consciousness, before the pain and shock of the incident overwhelmed her. Her world went black.