Authors: Lee Stephen
Stone Aside Publishing, L.L.C.
AUDIO BOOK–Narrated by Patrick Quance
Available on all Major Audiobook Retailers
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You, reading this.
For your unwavering support.
For your enduring patience.
For supporting me when I needed it most.
It’s good to be back.
Friday, March 16
, 0012 NE
THEY WENT IN as a six-man team. It was a simple operation: neutralize the enemy. The same as always. Or at least the same as the one other time they’d done it.
Mark wiped his sweaty hands on his pants as he waited. With hazel eyes staring ahead from his crouched position behind cover, he waited to hear his signal over the comm. It was certain to come—things were designed that way. It was only a matter of when.
Mark’s eyes widened. He sucked in a breath. He dashed from cover.
“Two down! Two down! Henderson is down!”
Mark slid behind a column, his heart racing. “Veck,” he cursed before lifting his comm. “I’m in Block-2A! I’m only seeing one down on my tracker!”
The voice on the other end was frantic. “4C! 4C! Tyson is in 4C! You should know that.”
“I know, I’m—” He inhaled again. “Just go,” he whispered, wheezing off-comm. Swinging around the column, he raised his M-19 and bolted forward.
The grid was a four-by-four arena—sixteen blocks filled with columns, barricades, and corridors. The blocks themselves were over eight thousand square feet, giving the entire grid a size roughly equivalent to an American football field. It was one of several such complexes on the grounds of
Academy. Each grid block could be arranged in numerous ways with numerous impediments, giving every training class that entered it a completely customized experience. This was Mark’s second time setting foot inside its twisted walls.
Leaping over a fallen column, Mark stumbled, regained his footing, then scurried behind an automobile-sized barricade just in time to avoid a splattering of yellow from the paintball equivalent of an E-35 assault rifle. Tucking his knees in to hide himself, he said, gasping, “I have enemy contact!”
“We all have enemy contact. Get over here!” the voice on the other side answered him.
Dashing around the protected side of the barricade, Mark ran full speed, sliding under a raised column to emerge on the other side. Ahead, one of his teammates appeared from around a wall corner to provide cover fire. Yellow globs of paint burst against the walls as Mark scrambled to safety around the corner. There, leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest in disgust, was his so-called injured teammate, Jason Martinez. Across from Jason, doubled over on the floor in all of its critically-injured glory, was the
wounded party—a life-size mannequin complete with full combat armor and polymer skin. And a lot of blood.
“Holy crap,” Mark said, the words blurting out the moment he saw the dummy.
“Not exactly what I was hoping to hear from my medic,” said Jason stoically.
Kneeling down next to the dummy, Mark opened his medical kit on the floor. His hands were shaking, his heart pounding. Detaching the portion of the dummy’s chest plate that was damaged, he tossed it to the floor. When he ripped open the dummy’s under-armor, the scope of the wound came into view. A scorched hole was bored through the right side of the dummy’s chest. Polymers and faux muscles had melted together in an odorous heap meant to mimic the real thing.
Swallowing, Mark activated the analyzer in his helmet. Several seconds later, the results appeared as an overlay in his visor.
Category-3 Plasma. R. Lung collapse.
A reticle highlighted the damaged area.
A right lung collapse. That would require chest decompression. His training hadn’t gotten that far.
The same voice that’d called for Mark earlier over the comm called again. “Henderson is critting! I repeat, Henderson is critting!” At the same time, an exchange of gunfire erupted from Mark’s comrade by the corner and their assailants farther down.
“You got this, man,” said Jason, arms still folded.
Scooping a handful of burn gel, Mark applied it feverishly to the plasma-cauterized wound. With his other hand, he grabbed a chest dart. “Can Henderson be moved?” he asked through his helmet comm. His voice shook.
Feeling with both hands, Mark positioned the dart above the dummy’s chest. “Three, two, one,” he whispered before jabbing the dart into place. Immediately, his helmet analyzer flashed red.
Pulmonary artery damaged.
Along the wall, Jason crouched to observe.
Mark’s breathing intensified as he stared at the chest dart. His hands red with artificial blood, he wrapped his fingers around it. He pulled it out.
After a burst of paintball fire, the soldier covering Mark knelt down. “Got ’em off our backs. How’s it going?”
“He’s working through it,” said Jason.
A new message flashed across his visor screen, accompanied by the faint sound of a flat-line.
The dummy was a goner.
Shaking his head, Mark stammered, “I can’t do anything. He’s dead. I—I can’t.”
Jason watched motionlessly, his fist propped against his mouth. Finally, he spoke. “All right, move on to Henderson.”
“Yes, sir,” said Mark as he zipped up the med kit. He was on the comm a moment later. “I’m coming! What’s Henderson’s status?” he asked as confidently as possible. He hopped up to begin his run to the second target.
“Nonresponsive,” the voice on the other end answered.
This was Mark’s second live-action exercise since enrolling in EDEN Academy as a combat medic. His entire first semester at
had been spent reading textbooks and listening to lectures—learning the basics of equipment and weapons handling. Semester number two was geared more toward practical application and medic-specific training. Like most teenagers, Mark had zero medical training prior to enrolling. He was a “from the ground up” project in every sense of the word. The basics were coming.
But this was not basic.
Chest needle decompression was an advanced skill, one that no cadet could be realistically expected to perform after essentially reading about it in books. Beyond basic plasma burn treatment and the use of the V-Doc, the visor-integrated medical analyzer, a relatively new device in EDEN’s equipment arsenal, Mark knew as much about human anatomy as the next guy on the street—and probably less, considering his age. That was why the combat medic program lasted two years. And Mark was smack dab in the middle of his first. There was a lot to take in.
Mark had been warned by combat medic cadets before him that there’d be a “system shock” exercise sometime during his second semester, designed to hit home just how seriously a medic-in-training had to take his or her studies. He’d mistakenly thought that his first live-action exercise the week prior had been it. But this exercise left no question. The other players in the exercise were cadets just like him, though from other programs and in later semesters. Even among rookies, Mark was the least experienced.
He was in mid-leap over a barricade leading into the next grid when the complex’s klaxons rang out, accompanied by the flashing of red beacons on the ceiling of each grid block. Slowing to an awkward,
stop, Mark sank to his knees, bent forward, and placed his hands atop his head. The exercise was over in mid-execution.
The comm crackled as Jason spoke. “They didn’t even let us
Exhaling slowly, Mark pulled off his helmet. Running a hand through his sweaty brown hair, he stared ahead, devoid of emotion.
“Mark Remington, report to the green room immediately,” said a voice over the complex’s speaker system.
His eyes widening, Mark looked up then back with an open mouth. Before he could say anything—not that he would have—Jason spoke aloud to the voice.