Ryker swore Gunnery Sergeant Nell was trying to kill him. What started off as a normal day of training with a three-mile run, lunges, squats, push-ups, and pull-ups quickly evolved into combat training. Using old rifles, broken sometime in the past, and dull practice knives, Gunnery Sergeant Nell was putting Ryker through hell. As he sized up Nell from across the small sand pit, he gritted his teeth and launched another assault, determined to get at least one good shot on Nell.
Ryker lashed out with the butt of his rifle, trying to catch Nell across the rib cage. Gunnery Sergeant Nell easily avoided Ryker’s jab, stepping smoothly to the side while thrusting the butt of his rifle into Ryker’s shoulder. The shock made his entire left arm go numb, almost making him drop his rifle. Staggering back, he rotated his arm a few times in an attempt to regain feeling and use of the limb. Nell eyed him with a smug smile, daring him to try again.
Ryker tried to analyze the situation, but no matter how he looked at it, he was in bad shape. Although he was taller than Nell by a couple of inches, Gunnery Sergeant Nell was more muscular, compact, and surprisingly quick. He knew Nell had a bad knee, the result of combat before The Collapse, which made it difficult for him to run more than five miles at a time. However, Ryker and Nell weren’t going on any more runs for some time.
“Who’s the lazy, worthless coward now, huh kid? You’re the one standing over there gasping for air and reluctant to attack. We aren’t leaving this pit until you get at least one decent hit on me. I can do this aaaallllll day, boy,” Gunnery Sergeant Nell taunted.
Taking a deep breath to keep his emotions in check, Ryker slowly advanced towards Nell, keeping his rifle ready while staying on the balls of his feet. Instead of waiting for him to make his initial attack, Gunnery Sergeant Nell lashed out with the butt of his rifle, aimed at Ryker’s head. He barely deflected the blow, but not before the tip of the butt caught him across the chin. Slightly dazed, Ryker shook his head and re-focused on Nell.
Feigning a jab towards Nell’s chest again, Ryker struck out with his right leg at the same time. Just as he anticipated, Nell attempted to dodge the rifle thrust, throwing him off-balance for a split second, during which Ryker’s combat boot connected with Nell’s bad knee. Dropping to one knee, Nell attempted to defend himself from Ryker’s next attack, but was too slow. Ryker popped him across the temple with the butt of his rifle, not too hard, but enough for Nell to collapse onto his back. Ryker quickly discarded his rifle and drew his combat knife in one motion, positioning himself over Nell with the knife pressed to Nell’s throat.
Gunnery Sergeant Nell’s eyes flashed with anger, his face flushed red with embarrassment. Ryker held the knife to his throat a little longer than necessary before stepping up and back. As much as he despised it, he extended a hand to Nell to help him up. Nell eyed the hand disdainfully, so Ryker turned away and walked towards the edge of the pit. As he did, an intense burst of pain shot through his head, and the world went black.
He opened his eyes slowly, blinking at the sudden light and Cal’s worried face filling his vision. His head felt like it was stuffed full of cotton, and he felt something warm on his cheek and chin.
Cal whistled softly. “Damn, Ryker. That was one helluva way to take down Nell, but he sure as hell made you pay for it. You’re gonna have a pretty nasty bump on the side of your head for a while. Not to mention that gash on your chin.”
Ryker closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and slowly sat up. Raising his hand to his temple, he could tell Cal was right. He winced as his fingers ran over a good sized bump and came away red with blood. Cal fished a small handkerchief out of his pocket, wetted it with water from his canteen, and offered it to Ryker. He pressed it to the side of his head, and the cool water seemed to lessen the throbbing slightly. His chin wasn’t bleeding profusely, but it still dripped blood slowly. Just another scar to add to his collection, he thought grimly.
Taking in his surroundings, he was surprised to find Nell sitting down only fifteen feet away, flexing his knee and rubbing his neck. Gunnery Sergeant Nell scowled when he saw Ryker eyeing him, and got up to leave. Ryker noticed that Nell still had a slight limp, and let a small smile cross his lips.
“I dunno what the hell you’re smiling about, Ryker. You definitely didn’t kiss and make up from last night. He’ll have your number the rest of your life. You may have gotten him once, but I guarantee you he won’t let you come anywhere near besting him again,” Cal said, worried eyes running over Ryker’s face.
“He’s just a sore loser. I imagine he’s the one who gave me this?” Ryker asked as he motioned to his temple.
Cal nodded. “Yeah, as soon as you got off him and turned away, he jumped up, grabbed his rifle, and popped you. He didn’t hold much back, and I was somewhat surprised you were still breathing. He dismissed everybody after that, saying something about never turning your back on the enemy, even if you think he’s dead. Nell told me to stay behind and make sure you were alive, but the damage was done, both to your skull and his pride. Tess saw everything, too, and she wanted to come over and help. He yelled at her, and she reluctantly walked off towards your shack. You’ve got about three hours before guard duty. We should probably get you back to your shack so you can get some food, water, and lay down a bit. That bump and gash won’t do well if we don’t put something on them.”
Ryker nodded slowly. Guard duty with Gunnery Sergeant Nell would be interesting later, but he wouldn’t give Nell the satisfaction of not showing up because of his wounds. Standing up slowly, Ryker’s head swam, but he thought he played it off well. Cal shook his head, his face full of concern, so Ryker knew his acting was subpar.
Ryker kept his head held high and his breathing deep, trying to clear some of the figurative cotton out of his head. He wiped his chin every now and then to see if it was still bleeding, but made sure to keep constant pressure on his temple, despite his sore shoulder muscles. Maybe his camo hat he wore when on duty would help cover the nasty bump that was sure to develop.
After the five minute walk, he ducked inside his shack, thankful for the dim light and relief from the heat. He saw a tall glass of water on the table, accompanied by smoked slices of ham and bread. Tess came out of his bedroom, holding an old rag in her hands. Her face flushed red with embarrassment for a brief second, but was quickly replaced by worry and concern. Seeing that he kept getting such anxious looks from Cal, and now Tess, Ryker thought he must look pretty bad.
Tess pulled a chair out from the table, and gestured for him to sit. Not wanting to question her authority or act like he didn’t need a seat, he gladly sank into the chair. Subconsciously, he attempted to wipe his chin, but was stopped short by Tess’s firm grip on his wrist. He met her eyes before she released his wrist, and he lowered his arm to his side.
She took a quick glance at the bump under Cal’s handkerchief, grimaced slightly, but worked on his chin first. She wiped away the dried blood before applying a salve. It stung at first, but Ryker maintained his composure and bearing as she slowly worked it into the cut. After the initial sting, the salve had a cooling sensation, which felt good on his warm skin. Tess took a small step back, smiled to herself, and then turned her attention to his temple.
“Looks like you’ll have two more beauty marks to add to those on your chest, back, and hand. I guess you think it makes you more attractive to us girls,” Tess teased.
Cal’s eyebrows rose slightly, but Ryker let the jest pass. No need to get into an argument; Tess would probably say it was his fault for angering Gunnery Sergeant Nell last night, and that he deserved everything he had gotten. Looking at it from her perspective, Ryker had to admit that she was right.
Tess grabbed his left wrist to remove his hand and handkerchief from his temple. She lightly touched various spots around the knot, wiping away the dirt and flecks of blood, before applying the same salve to his temple. The pressure from her hands sent small waves of pain throughout his skull, but Ryker set his jaw, remaining stoic throughout the process.
Stepping back again, Tess admired her work. “You’ve got more luck than sense, Ryker. A little deeper, and that cut on your chin would require stitches; a little more emphasis behind that rifle butt, and you would have a major concussion or be dead. I guess Nell decided to go easy on you…Maybe he didn’t feel like finding somebody to cover for you today in the guard tower.”
Ryker nodded, acknowledging his luck. “Well, the gash was a necessary evil from the scuffle. That hit to the head was uncalled for, in my opinion. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done the same thing, but it was pretty immature of Gunnery Sergeant Nell to do it. I think that damaged his reputation more so than my victory.”
Cal fixed him with a flat gaze before nodding slowly. “Yeah, I think he was just pissed that you exploited his one weakness and actually beat him. Nell let his emotions take over, and he lashed out. But I can promise that you won’t get any sort of apology or slack from him. If you’re late to guard duty or start day-dreaming again, he’ll have your ass.”
Before Ryker could agree, Tess picked up the glass of water and food, thrusting it towards him. “No amount of talking is going to change what happened, and it sure as hell won’t help you recover any faster. Drink all of this, and scarf that food down. Then, you’re going to lay down and sleep until guard duty. I’ll get somebody to come wake you up in time, but you need fluids, calories, and rest if you’re to be in any sort of shape for duty this afternoon,” Tess said, demanding him to challenge her orders.
Cal took advantage of Ryker's shocked silence. “Looks like you’ve got this under control, Tess. I’ll see ya'll later. Like she said, Ryker, get some rest and food. Don’t need you falling out of the guard tower later this evening,” Cal said as he backed out towards the entrance. Ryker nodded to him as Cal made his exit.
Turning to Tess and taking the glass of water, Ryker took a few long swallows, letting the cool water slide down his throat, washing the dust and sand out of his mouth. He set about eating the ham and bread in slow, methodical bites, savoring every bit. He didn’t realize how much the workout and fight had taken out of him.
When he had finished the last of the bread and swallowed the last bit of water, he stood up and walked into his room. He sat down on the edge of his bed to unlace his boots, and saw Tess leaning against the doorframe. Ryker arched an eyebrow at her, questioning her motives.
“I just wanted to make sure you weren’t going to fall into bed without changing out of those bloody, sweaty clothes. Take off your shirt, pants, and socks. Give them to me, and I’ll wash them for you,” Tess offered.
Ryker looked down at his clothes, and found more blood and dirt than he thought. He didn’t see a problem with taking a quick nap in his current attire, seeing as he was going to get sweaty and dirty during guard duty this evening again. Tess must have read his mind.
“Ryker, those clothes are disgusting. If you show up with blood and dirt all over your clothes, Nell will have a fit. If you don’t have any other clean clothes, I’ll let you borrow some of my dad’s while these dry on the clothesline.”
“I can wash my own clothes,” Ryker mumbled. “I’ve got clean clothes, too. I can take care of myself. It’s just a small cut and bump, nothing I haven’t had before.”
Tess rolled her eyes. “Well I’m not leaving until you at least take those clothes off. You won’t be able to rest well with those on.” Ryker swore he saw a slight twinkle enter her eyes.
“Uh, fine. But can you give me some privacy? Unless you're dead set on seeing my beauty marks again…I’ll come out with clean clothes for your approval before letting you tuck me in for a nap,” Ryker finished with a slight smile.
“Glad to see that Nell didn’t knock your pitiful sense of humor out of you with that rifle butt. I’ll be out here at the table. Just call me in once you’re done changing,” Tess said as she flipped her hair over her shoulder and walked out of the doorframe.
Quickly unlacing his shoes, Ryker tugged his boots off. Easing his shirt over his head, careful not to let the fabric touch the salve Tess had applied, he found another shirt and pair of mesh shorts on top of a small wooden shelf on the other side of the room. He exchanged his cargo pants for the mesh shorts, and then stripped off his sweaty socks. He sat down in the middle of the bed, and called Tess back into the room.
“Do I pass inspection?” he said with a grin.
“Good enough for now. I’ll make sure somebody comes to wake you up in time for guard duty. With that kind of knock to the head, most people would sleep for hours and hours before waking up. You’re lucky – you get to spend hours and hours with Nell on guard duty this evening. Anyways, see ya later.” Tess turned on her heel and walked out of his shack.
It wasn’t until Ryker got settled beneath a light blanket that he realized he never thanked Tess for the food and medicine. He thought about walking over to her family’s shack, before realizing that would only piss her off. His eyelids started getting heavy, and he quickly faded into a deep sleep.
Ryker felt like he had just closed his eyes when exterior pressure and movement of his shoulder attempted to pull him from sleep. His training from Gunnery Sergeant Nell quickly took over, and he reached for his rifle before opening his eyes. A cold grip took hold of his stomach when his hand couldn’t locate the cool metal or synthetic stock. He opened his eyes and started to sit up before a firm hand on his chest stopped him. Turning his head, he saw Tess’s face hovering over him, a few blonde strands of hair falling into her face.
Ryker’s attempt to sit up quickly resulted in a surge of blood to his head, renewing the throbbing and pain in his temple. Groaning softly, he slowly eased his head back onto his small pillow. Tess looked at him with compassion. Ryker kept his eyes on the ceiling, breathing deeply and slowly, and addressed Tess.
“How much of it did you see?” he asked softly.
“Enough…” Tess scowled. “That was a pretty good take down of Nell. It was pretty shallow and immature of him to hit you like that at the end. I know you’ve never killed anybody, but I think had you been in a life-or-death situation, you would have taken care of it. Nell just wanted to make sure his promise from last night was fulfilled. Unfortunately, that came at the price of a few more beauty marks for you.”
Ryker smiled slightly. “Yeah, it felt pretty damn good to take down Gunnery Sergeant Nell. I thought he fulfilled his promise long before that last fight sequence, but if it satisfies him, maybe I’ll have a better chance of talking with him about life outside of Grayson’s. Maybe he’ll respect me more and at least give me some information. These two injuries will eventually fade, but that knowledge will be invaluable. Another scar or two is a small price to pay…it’s not like I’m trying to impress anybody.”
He shifted his head to see Tess’s reaction. Her face remained relatively blank, but her eyes flashed briefly. Ryker could tell she was carefully assembling her thoughts. “Only you know the value of that information, Ryker. If those two injuries are a ‘small price’ to pay, I hate to see what something even more valuable would cost you. But as hard-headed as you are and have been lately, I’m surprised you didn’t damage Nell’s rifle,” she ended with a smirk.
“Wouldn’t that be something? Nell would probably blame me for it and make me figure out a way to fix it,” Ryker laughed, trying to steer the conversation away from the sensitive topic he had addressed.
Ryker threw the covers off his body, swung his legs off the side of the bed, and sat up. Again, that sudden movement brought on another onslaught of throbbing in his temple. He let his head hang down to his chest in an attempt to lessen the pain and throbbing.
Tess’s cool hands carefully cradled his head in her hands. She slowly raised his head, first inspecting his chin, then turning his head to survey his temple. Tess grimaced slightly when looking at his temple, making Ryker assume his injury had gotten worse.
Freeing his head from her hands, Tess stood up. “Do you still have that rag I used earlier? I wanna bandage that up before you put your camo cap on top of it. Without a bandage, you’re bound to get an infection.”
“Uh, yeah. I think I put it back on the table after you finished doctoring me up. I can go--”
“I’ll get it. I’m going to rinse it out first, and then put some more ointment on it before putting it back on your temple. I’ll be right back,” Tess called as she slipped out of his room.
Ryker walked across the room to grab a fresh pair of cargo pants, socks, and shirt. He quickly dashed his shorts, pulling on his socks and cargo pants shortly afterwards. He took off his shirt, then sat down on the edge of the bed to put his boots on and lace them up. After finishing with his boots, he scanned the room for his rifle. He found it in the opposite corner, and brought it back to the bed with him. He checked the magazine to ensure it was full, worked the action back and forth to confirm it was well-oiled, and inspected the barrel to check for any dirt or debris. Finding everything to be satisfactory, he looked up to see Tess standing in the doorway of his room, holding his canteen, a small jar of the ointment, and the rag he used earlier.
“You know, if you took care of yourself like you took care of that rifle, maybe you wouldn’t be as banged up all the time.”
Ryker shrugged. “Yeah, but this rifle is just a weapon, a tool. It has no feelings, no emotions, no passion, no beliefs or dreams, no aspirations. Consequently, it doesn’t care how it’s used by other people or what happens in its day-to-day life. Even though I try to keep my emotions buried, I can get passionate, and I’m hard-headed to a fault. I won’t be used by Gunnery Sergeant Nell or anybody else to further their own personal agenda," he finished, with a harder edge to his voice than he expected.
Tess nodded, even smiling slightly at his comments regarding his personality. She walked across the room and crouched in front of him, placing the canteen and salve on the dirt floor. It finally dawned on Ryker that he had neglected to put a shirt on, but Tess didn’t seem to mind. She went about her task in a very methodical way, first inspecting the rag to approve of its cleanliness, and then re-wetting it with water from his canteen. She held it out to him, indicating for him to take hold of it while she applied the salve to his chin and temple again. One hand held his chin in a firm grip, while the other softly massaged the ointment into his skin. The sting wasn’t as bad this time, and he welcomed the cooling sensation that followed. Running a careful gaze over both wounds, Tess nodded to herself and took the rag from Ryker’s hands. She rose from a crouch and knelt behind him on the bed. Without a shirt on, he was very aware of her hips and chest pressed against his back as she gently set the rag in place across his forehead and over his temples. Tying it in place snugly, she grabbed his camo hat from a small table. Frowning slightly, she adjusted the strap to make it fit looser on his head.
Ryker stood up, carefully placing his rifle on his bed. After Tess finished adjusting his cap, he took it from her and gently placed it on his head. The cap’s band applied just enough pressure to send a small twinge of pain through his temple, but he smiled at himself in the mirror, showing his satisfaction to Tess. She smiled back at him in the mirror, and then sat down on his bed.
“Normal people usually put a shirt on before their cap, but you’re not exactly run-of-the-mill, are you?” Tess teased. “But at least that rag will keep your sweaty cap from rubbing against that knot all afternoon and evening. But as soon as you get off shift, you march over to my house so I can re-evaluate it. You don’t need an infection in either wound,” Tess ordered.
“Yes, ma’am. You’ll be the first one I come to as soon as Gunnery Sergeant Nell lets me go,” Ryker promised.
“Good,” Tess said, as she stood back up and grabbed her jar of ointment. “If you’re late, I’ll won’t let you beat me during our next race.”
She started towards the door, brushing past his shoulder. Ryker hesitated, then gently laid a hand on her arm. “Tess,” he began. Tess turned around, eyeing him questioningly. “I uh, well I didn’t get a chance to thank you for this,” he said, motioning to his head. Ryker imagined he looked pretty comical, standing there with his boots and pants on, shirtless, and with a white rag covered by a camo cap, but he kept his attention and eyes focused on Tess. “I really do appreciate it. Gunnery Sergeant Nell will probably roll his eyes at this, but it’s better than getting an infection or taking longer to heal. Thanks again,” he finished, letting his hand slide off her arm.
Tess shrugged slightly, indicating it was no big deal, and she said as much. “I’ve had practice doctoring my little brother when he scraped his knees or banged his elbows. Although I can’t see if you have any brain damage from Nell’s rifle butt, that cut and bump are pretty minor stuff. I’m just glad I didn’t have to stitch you up…I’m still perfecting that skill, so that would be a painful ordeal for the both of us. Just remember your promises, Ryker. I can’t imagine that shot to the head caused any memory loss, but if you forget either of your promises, I may have more practice with stitching people up,” Tess finished with a small, mischievous grin.
Ryker returned her grin with a sly one of his own. “You have my word, Tess.”
She nodded, satisfied with his answer, and walked out of his room. Ryker slowly removed his cap, eased his shirt over his head, and placed the cap gently back on his head. Grabbing his backpack, canteen, and rifle, he quickly inspected himself in the mirror. The cap covered up the majority of the tan rag, but the ends of the rag trailed down the back of his neck. Gunnery Sergeant Nell would definitely roll his eyes, maybe even laugh, at that. Squaring his shoulders and setting his jaw, he slung his rifle over his right shoulder and walked out of the door.
The sudden light and warmer temperatures hit Ryker suddenly, renewing the throbbing sensation in his temples. Squinting his eyes and gently adjusting his cap, he set off towards the guard tower. He still had plenty of time before his shift started, but wanted to be even earlier than normal to show Gunnery Sergeant Nell that little bump wouldn’t slow him down.
Ryker reached the base of the guard tower, re-adjusted his backpack and rifle, and started the climb up the ladder. His left shoulder and legs cried out, still sore from yesterday's workout and bruised from Nell’s rifle butt earlier in the day. Gritting his teeth, he focused on keeping his eyes on only the next rung and letting his legs take the brunt of his weight. By the time he made it to the tower’s platform, he had broken out into a cold sweat and his muscles were begging for a break. Ryker forced his muscles into one last surge, hefting himself onto the platform in a standing position.
Sharply coming to attention, Ryker reported in. “Good afternoon, Gunnery Sergeant Nell. Ryker Lawrence reporting for duty.” His eyes locked onto Nell’s back, assuming the one-thousand-yard stare. He fought the urge to wipe his brow and re-adjust his rifle, standing perfectly still as he awaited Nell’s inspection. Gunnery Sergeant Nell turned around sharply and walked slowly over to Ryker, without a limp to Ryker's disappointment. As he walked, Nell's cool gaze combed over every inch of Ryker, carefully examining his clothing and equipment. His eyebrows rose slightly at the tan rag covering Ryker's temples, but Gunnery Sergeant Nell made no comment. He continued his slow walk around the back of Ryker, and Ryker stiffened slightly, remembering the last time he let Nell out of his sight.
Finished with his inspection, Gunnery Sergeant Nell stopped in front of Ryker, their faces only inches apart. Ryker was tall enough so that his natural gaze fixed his eyes on the top of Nell's head, so he was not forced to make eye contact with him. The straps of his backpack and rifle sling dug into Ryker's shoulders, and he could feel sweat running down his back and face, but he fought the urges to readjust his equipment and wipe the sweat from his face. Ryker had just begun to wonder if he had forgotten something when Nell finally spoke up.
"I imagine that make-shift bandage is covering up the bump I gave you this morning?" Gunnery Sergeant Nell asked softly.
"Yes, Gunnery Sergeant," Ryker replied sharply.
"Small price to pay for not finishing off an enemy. Do that crap elsewhere, and you'll end up dead. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Gunnery Sergeant. I won't make that mistake again," Ryker replied through gritted teeth, fighting the urge to freely speak his mind.
"Damn right, you won't. But I'm glad to see I didn't bang you up too bad. Your buddies wouldn't have appreciated the extra guard duty if you would have been out of commission for a few days. Go ahead and relieve Callaghan over there, and settle in for your shift. Should be another long and uneventful afternoon…" Gunnery Sergeant Nell trailed off as he walked back to his post.
Ryker walked over to Callaghan, placing his backpack on the ground and taking his rifle off his shoulder to carry across his chest. He nudged Cal on the shoulder and nodded towards the field outside The Fence.
"The night shift guys were on alert all night, but didn't see anything. We reduced our alert level, and haven't seen a damn thing all day. Just the same ole trees and grass, man," Cal reported. Cal motioned towards Ryker's head. "How's it feeling?"
Ryker shrugged. "My temples are still throbbing a bit when I move too quickly or the light is too bright. My chin feels fine, though. That ointment that Tess gave me really helped."
"Yeah, and the way she doctored you up and babied you probably helped just as much," Cal said with a smug smile.
Ryker didn't feel like playing along with Cal's joke. "She's a helluva lot better at that medical stuff than you and me both. No point in me refusing help from a friend," he shot back. Cal sensed Ryker's mood, dropping the topic.
"Well, have a good shift, bud. If you're not too tired, swing on by my place. You haven't stopped by in a while and my mom misses you," Cal finished as he gave Ryker a small clap on the back.
Ryker nodded, and then assumed the position Cal had vacated. He established his fields of fire based on his position, marking his boundaries using various landmarks such as the crooked tree on his left and a small brush pile on his right.
The shade from the top of the tower was welcoming, but sweat still slowly trickled down his back and face as the afternoon wore on. Ryker made sure to drink water regularly, remembering Tess's warnings about staying hydrated. His eyes continued their sweep back and forth across his sector, looking for even the slightest movement or change in scenery that would alert him to take action.
As hard as Ryker tried to remain focused on the task at hand, his mind kept drifting to the Grayson's meeting being held in a few days. What he would say, how he would present it, who he would try to convince, who his biggest allies and enemies would be, if and when he should give up trying to convince people at the meeting and just go solo, how…
A small flash of color on the edge of his vision caught his eye, ending his train of thought. Slowly rotating his head to expand his field of view, he focused his attention on the spot he saw the flash of color, hoping to see it again. Ryker let his eyes flash back and forth between the location he saw the flash and its surrounding areas, determined to find out what it was.
"Ryker, whatcha got out there? You see something?" Gunnery Sergeant Nell's asked.
"I'm not sure, Gunnery Sergeant. I thought I saw a flash of color on the edge of my vision, but I haven't been able to relocate it," Ryker admitted.
"That makes two of us…" Nell trailed off. "Maybe we both received brain damage from this morning's struggle that's making us see things."
Ryker risked a quick glance at Gunnery Sergeant Nell, and was surprised to see him with a small smile on his face.
"I apologize about that, Gunnery Sergeant. I know it wasn't necessarily fair to hit you in your bad knee--" Ryker started.
"Don't apologize, kid. I've killed men using even worse techniques, what some people may call 'dirty fighting,' but when it's your life versus theirs, you do whatever you can to make sure you make it home to your family in one piece. If anybody should be apologizing…What in the hell…? Lawrence, get back to monitoring your sector! What's that coming out of the tree line?"
Ryker whipped his head back to his sector, another wave of throbbing and dizziness coming over him. He took a few deep breaths, trying to clear his head and focus on what Gunnery Sergeant Nell had noticed.
After his vision cleared up, Ryker saw three men walking from the tree line towards The Fence. All three men were wearing a unique camouflage pattern Ryker had never seen before. Pixelated shades of green and black covered them from head to toe, long sleeves protecting their skin from the sun's rays. Even from a distance, Ryker could tell their faces were painted, and their way of walking and carrying their rifles in front of them indicated they had received military training in the past. They all shouldered large backpacks with the same camo pattern, indicating they had packed heavy for what they thought must be a long journey ahead. His throat went dry, and a cold ball of fear entered his stomach. He started to raise his rifle to his shoulder before Gunnery Sergeant Nell's hand stopped him. Ryker met Gunnery Sergeant Nell's gaze.
"Let me handle this, kiddo. We don’t' need to get into a firefight before we determine why they're here."
Two of the men in the field stopped about fifty meters from The Fence, while the man in the middle kept approaching at a steady pace. He stopped ten meters in front of The Fence and guard tower, standing with his feet spread shoulder width apart and his rifle held across his chest. Even from a distance, Ryker could tell that this man was tall, broad-shouldered, and muscular. Ryker drew himself up to full height and squared his shoulders, attempting to hide his fear with his confident appearance.
"Is this Firebase Uwharrie?" the man asked.
Gunnery Sergeant Nell's face went white. Clearly, that was not the question he had been anticipating.
"State your name, rank, and where you're from, as well as the men with you," Gunnery Sergeant Nell ordered.
The man shifted his feet, looking down at the ground before answering. "The name's Captain Kyle Tomlinson. The men with me are Corporal Justin Levy and Sergeant Peyton Steel. We're from MCLB Albany in Georgia. We have orders to meet with…" he paused as he fished a small pad of paper out of his front jacket pocket, "First Lieutenant Nathan Andersen. Any chance he's around?"
Gunnery Sergeant Nell's face went whiter with every word, and by the time Captain Tomlinson was finished, Ryker would say that Nell looked nervous. Nell licked his lips and swallowed once before answering.
"What kinda orders are those? Who did you get them from?" Gunnery Sergeant Nell demanded.
"Got 'em from higher up. A colonel, full-bird guy, came through Georgia a few weeks ago with orders to gather up all Marines and head to D.C. Further instructions await us there. Levy, Steel, and I squared our base away before heading up the coast. You're the second base we've hit since leaving. We found one in South Carolina, but it was deserted a long ass time ago. Nothin' there whatsoever. We gotta hit one more base in Virginia before gettin' up to D.C."
Ryker's head was spinning, and not just from Nell's rifle butt earlier this morning. MCLB, Georgia, colonel, D.C., South Carolina, Virginia….Lieutenant Nathan Andersen? What the hell was going on?
Apparently all of this made sense to Gunnery Sergeant Nell. Motioning to Ryker to descend the ladder, Nell followed closely behind. Nell walked over to the gate and fished a key out of the pocket of his cargo pants. Unwinding the rusty chain around the gate, he placed the key in the lock and turned it sharply. The lock popped open with a loud crack, allowing Nell to finish unwrapping the chain from the gate. Ryker helped Nell open the gate wide enough to admit one man at a time, the gate's hinges protesting every inch of the way.
"You and your men are welcome inside. We'll get everything squared away once we get you guys off your feet for a bit," Gunnery Sergeant called to Captain Tomlinson, motioning with his hand for them to follow his orders. Captain Tomlinson nodded, acknowledging Nell's orders, and then proceeded to make a small hand motion. Immediately, the two men in the field rose from their kneeling position and jogged inside the gate.
Up close, Ryker was slightly taken aback by the appearance of the men. Captain Tomlinson was even taller than he had anticipated, easily three or four inches taller than Ryker. Despite the long-sleeved camo fatigues, Ryker could tell his broad shoulders were well-muscled, and he held his rifle as if it weighed next to nothing. His eyes were sunken into his face, and bags under his eyes emphasized the long, tiring journey the men had made. The dark face paint covered up much, but not all, of a few day's growth of stubble, and Tomlinson's sharp jawline emphasized his strong chin. Captain Tomlinson ran his eyes quickly over Gunnery Sergeant Nell and Ryker, probably making similar mental notes about their appearance and the way they carried themselves. Ryker attempted to harden his gaze and square his shoulders, but he wasn't sure if that added or detracted from Tomlinson's initial assessment.
Sergeant Steel and Corporal Levy walked by calmly, but Ryker could tell that they were actively scanning their environment, analyzing the situation. Ryker performed his own assessment of both men, as well.
Sergeant Steel had an air of confidence that bordered on cockiness, almost acting like most of the situation was beneath him, a necessary evil. Despite that, he still carried himself professionally, going about his analysis of the situation very methodically. His eyes ran over Ryker quickly, a small nod of approval following his assessment of Ryker. Of the same height as Ryker, he didn't seem nearly as muscular as Tomlinson, but he handled his rifle with even more skill and ease than Ryker had ever seen. Whereas Tomlinson and Levy seemed slightly uncomfortable under the weight of their packs, Sergeant Steel moved as if he was taking a leisurely walk in the park.
Corporal Levy followed closely on the heels of Sergeant Steel. Ryker could easily tell that he was emulating Steel's every move, following his lead. Levy also gave Ryker a quick nod as he walked by, but Ryker assumed his evaluation of him was heavily based on Steel's opinion. Levy was of a similar build as Ryker, lean and muscular, but slightly shorter. His jaw was set firmly, and like Sergeant Steel, Levy approached his current job with a professional, methodical approach.
The three men stopped shortly inside the gate to give Gunnery Sergeant Nell time to re-wrap the rusted chain around the gate. Snapping the lock back into place, Nell turned around sharply and motioned to Ryker. He walked crisply over to Nell, stopping in front of him to receive further instructions.
"I'm gonna take these guys to Grayson's Hall. I need you to run up to Chief Andersen, Instructor Jode, and Governor Thurman's house and get them to the hall. Tell them we need an emergency meeting, threat-level orange. Bring anybody else you want….this'll be interesting."
"Roger that, Gunnery Sergeant. Anything else?"
"For now, no. God only knows what you and I will be doing after this meeting," Gunnery Sergeant said with a small sigh.
Ryker nodded, turned on his heel, and took off jogging down the path. Every jarring step sent a stab of pain through his temple, but he grit his teeth and settled into a steady rhythm. As he ran, he tried to formulate his argument he had been working on before the three men emerged from the tree line. Tess would probably call him rash and impatient again, and might even get upset, but this was one opportunity he couldn't pass up.