Crash Course: Chapter 8

September, 2171

Spunkmeyer shoved the bolt and guide rod back into the M39 submachine gun, hooked the lower receiver onto the upper and pivoted it into place before grabbing the receiver pin, popping it into its hole, opening the folding stock, and setting it down on the table in front of himself.

“Nicely done, Spunkmeyer,” Evison praised. “You’ve gotten a lot better at this over the past few months.”

“Thank you, sir,” Spunkmeyer grinned. He had noticed the corporal was being more attentive to him lately. It helped some, but at least it wasn’t obvious because Evison had also started giving more and more praise and attention to the remaining flight members as well. Spunkmeyer wondered if Evison felt more comfortable giving attention to individuals with a smaller team. At the same time, he also noticed it pissed off Larkins, who frequently accused Evison of acting like a preschool teacher.

Evison didn’t seem to care anymore. He still acted like all hope was lost when interacting with Larkins, and there was always a part of Spunkmeyer that worried Larkins was going to win in the battle of breaking each other. She didn’t seem to have any emotions or sense of sympathy.

Spunkmeyer knew this was where he needed to start treating Evison more like a friend and less like a father-figure, but he wasn’t sure this was the right place to stand up for him. It wouldn’t be taken seriously. At times he contemplated just going right to Graham but ended up abandoning that idea once he realized he had no clue how to do so or if the general would even make time for him. As time went on, though, he wondered what was more important.

He was glad to have a distraction in Ferro, and he tried hard to focus more on her than Evison. As everyone else finished putting their M39s back together, Spunkmeyer looked around at the other trainees and saw her smiling at him from her position to his right. It had been eight months since they had been paired up, and they had both come a long way. Out of the seven remaining members of their flight, they were the only training pair who hadn’t been shuffled around to compensate for one of their members failing out. Six of the thirteen trainees in their flight had quit or failed since he and Ferro had been put together.

Falsson had been the first to go, quitting unceremoniously in March. Spunkmeyer wasn’t particularly surprised given how the older man had been affected by his father’s death. Spunkmeyer could sympathize with that, but he hadn’t given up even after receiving the news of his own father’s death. He never had managed to approach Falsson to say he was sorry, and there were times when he couldn’t help feeling a thin thread of guilt over that. Tucker had quit a month later, blaming exhaustion and frustration with Larkins, while Latney, Hershel, and Lukeson had all failed out in early August. Beyer had been the last to quit after getting into a screaming match with Larkins just a few weeks before. Spunkmeyer was surprised she hadn’t tried to stick out the last two months after making it so far, but apparently it had been the last straw for her.

Now besides himself and Ferro, the only remaining trainees were Porter, Snyder, Gravis, Connington, and Sydell. Just like every time before when they had been stuck with an odd number of flight members, one of them had to go without a full-time partner and got rotated among the other training pairs. With Ferro paired up with Spunkmeyer, that left Porter and Snyder together and Gravis and Connington as partners. Sydell had been the odd one out since Beyer left, and it certainly hadn’t improved her temper. Ever since the incident between her and Ferro in January, Spunkmeyer had noticed that Sydell had become a much more frequent target for Larkins’ anger and abuse. Larkins didn’t yell at Ferro as often as she used to, and even when she did Ferro didn’t react the way she had in the past. She simply took the harsh words and curses without showing much emotion and then vented to Spunkmeyer when they were in private. He hadn’t seen Larkins make her cry in a long, long time. On the other hand, Larkins seemed to always been on top of Sydell, and the young woman was almost always the first to get reprimanded or yelled at. Spunkmeyer would have felt sorry for her if he didn’t think that it was an appropriate punishment for how difficult she had made things for Ferro when they were partners.

He and Ferro still spent every free moment they could together, whether it was during a break in training or during free time, although there hadn’t been much of that recently. Most of their time had been taken up by the increasingly strenuous lessons, including seven weeks of parachute training and four weeks of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training. The SERE training had included everything from how to survive in different climates and environments to resisting interrogation following capture and even a five-day trip up to a Canadian base in Alert for Arctic survival drills. It had been the SERE exercises that failed Latney, Hershel, and Lukeson, and Spunkmeyer wasn’t sure he’d ever know how he and Ferro had made it through. He liked to think it was because they had each other to rely on.

They were getting so close to finishing training and graduating that Spunkmeyer was absolutely positive they could make it, even though one of the hardest challenges remained. In less than a week they’d be taken onboard a USCM Susquehanna-class ship and make a week-long trip to LV-542 for their final survival test. They’d be dropped into the wilderness and given three weeks to hike three hundred miles to a Marine outpost in order to pass. If they could make it through that all that was left was several exams on paper and their final flight tests.

It was strange how quiet the barracks had become in the evening after training. As soon as they got back, everyone either went straight to shower or gravitated to their partners to talk or relax. Only having one hour of free time in the evening had been an unpleasant change for Spunkmeyer because it meant he had less time to spend with Ferro, but at least tonight training hadn’t gone until right before lights out as it had many nights in the past few months, and it was certainly better than the times when their training activities involved staying awake for most or all of the night. He stopped in the hall to talk with her before heading to his own room to shower, saying, “Good day today, huh?”

Ferro gave him a genuine smile even though he could see her tiredness and aches mirrored his own. “Yeah. Good day. We’re almost there.”

“How much do you want to bet we’ll be two of the four who graduate at the end?” he asked, not caring if anyone overheard and thought he was getting overconfident.

“I wouldn’t risk money on it,” Sydell said brusquely, walking up to them.

Spunkmeyer gave Sydell a cold look and saw Ferro doing the same out of the corner of his eye.

“All we’ve got to do is pass survival training and final exams. Maybe you should talk,” Ferro said acidly. “You’re the one who doesn’t have a partner for survival training. You’ve got to do it alone.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s better that way. Just make sure you both stay out of my way,” Sydell muttered sourly as she shoved her way between them, heading for her room.

“Hey!” Ferro snapped, grabbing at Sydell’s arm. Spunkmeyer was about to tell her it wasn’t worth it when he was silenced by Larkins storming up to them. “All three of you knock it the fuck off! I’ll fail you all right here and now if you don’t put a lid on the bitching! Sydell, shower and present in my office in three minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sydell said curtly, turning on her heel and marching away. Larkins turned on Spunkmeyer and Ferro, her tone still aggressive. “Against all fucking odds and all logic and common sense, you two have somehow pulled yourselves together enough to make it this far. Do both of yourselves a favor and try not to ruin it now. I’d rather not feel like the last fourteen months I’ve put into the two of you were wasted.”

She turned and stormed off towards her room, doubtlessly to wait for Sydell to get there after her shower.

“Bitch,” Ferro muttered as soon as Larkins was out of hearing range.

“The last fourteen months she’s put into us?” Spunkmeyer repeated disbelievingly, glaring after Larkins. “How about the last fourteen months we’ve had to put up with her constant bullshit? That sounds a bit more like it if you ask me.”

“You know, this might not be the kindest attitude to have,” Ferro admitted quietly as he turned back to her, “But part of what’s kept me going over the last few months is wanting to graduate and look at her one last time on the way out and have the satisfaction of knowing that I won her game and I’m going to be everything she lost.”

“I can just imagine her blood pressure spiking through the roof when that happens,” Spunkmeyer smirked. “I want to do that with you.”

“Yeah,” Ferro gave him a smile. “I just hope we get assigned to the same unit once we’re out of here.”

“There’s a good chance of it since we’re going for dual roles,” Spunkmeyer pointed out. RIFT aircrew training was unique in that it was the only training course that taught two Military Occupational Specialties simultaneously. The 1206 D-4 Pilot and 1224 D-4 Crew Chief MOSs were unique to RIFT pilots and were so similar in responsibilities that the only determining factor was how well a trainee did on their actual flight tests. Graduating RIFT aircrew school at all required a trainee to gain a score of eighty percent or higher across all major topics of training, which would earn them the D-4 Crew Chief MOS. Graduating as a D-4 pilot required the same score except for the actual flight tests, which required a score of ninety percent or higher. Even if Spunkmeyer, Ferro, and two others from their flight graduated, odds were that only two of them at most would earn the more difficult D-4 Pilot MOS, while the other two would receive the D-4 Crew Chief MOS.

However, if he and Ferro both scored high enough to make D-4 Pilot, Spunkmeyer was going to opt for the lower D-4 Crew Chief MOS so they would be a complete pair. That gave them better odds of getting put in the same unit.

“I still feel bad that you might be the one deliberately missing out on a better position just so we can improve our chances of staying together,” Ferro said, giving him a guilty look. “Maybe if we both get high enough final grades I should be the one to step down and take crew chief.”

“No, no, we talked about this,” he reminded her. “I already agreed to take crew chief. I know it means probably graduating as a PFC instead of a Lance Corporal, but I’m okay with that. It’s better than both of us making pilot and having to go to different units. Just promise me you won’t throw your exams to get a grade low enough so that all you can do is take crew chief. I’d rather not risk us both winding up at that level because then there’s nothing we can do.”

“I promise,” Ferro said reluctantly. “But I owe you for this one.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he shrugged. “It’ll be worth it in the end.”

This wasn’t Spunkmeyer’s first time on a Susquehanna-class ship. They were the standard type used by Reconnaissance In Force Teams and the only ships in the fleet that could run fully automated without the presence of a human crew. The only thing they couldn’t do without human control was use their weapon systems for offensive maneuvers. This ship, the Stickland, was reserved for training purposes and Earth orbital patrol and had received several minor modifications to fill the duties better, including an expansion of the large room that served as a combination cryosleep space, locker room, and mess hall. Spunkmeyer and his flight had already been on the Stickland several times in the past few months for training, but this was his first time actually going any great distance from Earth. This would also be his first time going into cryosleep, and he wasn’t sure how to feel about it. He knew he shouldn’t be nervous because countless people had been in and out of cryosleep in the one hundred and twenty years since it had been developed, but he couldn’t help feeling some anxiety over the idea of being artificially put to sleep and held that way while his body’s processes were slowed to a near-halt. You won’t even know it’s happening. You won’t be able to be afraid because the next thing you know you’ll be waking up and it’ll be over.

Once their shuttle had docked with the Stickland and they were on board, Larkins headed up to the bridge to check in with the ship’s commander while Evison led Spunkmeyer and the others to the cryosleep room. They would be supplied all of the gear they needed when they arrived at LV-542, so that meant all they had to do was prep for cryo.

He stripped out of his jacket, pants, boots, and undershirt and put them in the locker that had been assigned to him before half-walking, half-hopping across the cold floor to the closest cryotube. Evison and the ship’s android, a Bishop model, were already prepping the tubes for everyone, and Larkins and the human members of the ship’s crew entered the room and began undressing as Spunkmeyer lay waiting for his tube to be activated. He heard someone hiss softly through their teeth to his right as if trying to get his attention and he turned his head to see Ferro lying in the tube next to him and looking over at him. He forced himself to ignore the temptation to look her up and down and focused on her face as she gave him a smile and a wordless thumbs-up, which he returned.

“All ready, Spunkmeyer?” Evison asked as he came up to the end of the cryotube.

“Yes, sir,” Spunkmeyer replied, turning his head back to look up at the ceiling and closed his eyes as the tube’s hatch slowly lowered over him. There was a loud hissing sound and the tube was rapidly filled with a thick, cold, pale gray gas. He breathed deeply as he had been told to, and in a few seconds began to feel very tired. Even though he was lying flat, every part of him felt heavy, and he couldn’t keep his eyes open. He let them fall shut and drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

The next thing Spunkmeyer was aware of was a choking sensation in his throat. He sat up instinctively, coughing and trying to clear his airway. When he could breathe properly again, he looked around groggily, realizing his cryotube had opened along with everyone else’s. Evison and Larkins were up and getting dressed, and the rest of the ship’s crew seemed to be gone already. There was a loud gagging sound from the opposite end of the row of cryotubes and Spunkmeyer turned to his right to see Gravis hanging over the edge of his tube. Her jacket still unbuttoned, Larkins rushed over to Gravis. “Breathe deeply, moron! If you make a mess on this floor you’re cleaning it up!”

She jerked Gravis upright and clamped her hand over his mouth, forcing him to breathe through his nose. When he had settled down, she turned and walked down the line of trainees as they got out of their tubes. Spunkmeyer was the last in the row and he could swear he heard a heavy, sad sigh from Larkins when she reached the end of the line and stopped to button her jacket up. He ignored her and hopped across the floor to his locker, shifting from foot to foot as he opened it and grabbed his socks. After dressing, he headed to the opposite end of the room, took a tray and plate from the stack, and walked down the short counter, letting Bishop dish out his portions of breakfast. He picked the first open seat he saw at the table and sat down. A moment later, Ferro joined him as everyone else began picking their seats.

Unlike most meals, this time even Evison was rushing them to finish up. As soon as they were all done eating, they were hustled down to the hangar bay for their final briefing before deployment.

“We’ve already gone over this twice before,” Larkins said loudly once she had everyone’s attention, “But we’re going to go over it again to make sure you’ve all got it. The mission here is an ejection simulation. Evison and I will fly the dropship and you’ll be HALO jumping with your training partner at set intervals. Once you’re on the ground, you have three weeks to make it three hundred miles west to the Marine outpost at Point Meadow. Don’t underestimate the difficulty here. The terrain is rough and includes a low mountain range to cross, so rock climbing might be involved depending on the route you choose. You need to make a minimum average of fifteen miles per day to meet the deadline, but it’ll be slow going most of the way so don’t get overconfident. Your survival packs have enough food for five days, so start looking at catching or shooting some of the smaller local wildlife for food as soon as you can. Save your rations for the days you’re not lucky enough to get something. If you haven’t made it to Meadow by 1200 hours on the twenty-first day…” she shrugged. “Too fucking bad for you. Evison and I’ll come and pick up anyone who hasn’t made it back by then.”

“Remember to keep your GPS beacons on,” Evison said. “Once you’ve all made your jumps, Larkins and I will go on to Point Meadow and monitor your progress from there. Make sure you’re up and moving no later than one hour after sunrise every day, and don’t stop for longer than half an hour before sunset. If we see a locator not moving when it should be, we’ll radio you to see if everything’s alright and if we don’t get a response we’re going to assume something happened to you and fly out to pick you up. If you run into serious trouble and are unable to complete the exercise or want to call out early, radio us and we’ll come get you. Other than that, any and all use of radios to contact someone other than your training partner is forbidden, and violation of this rule is an automatic failure both for anyone who attempts to make contact and any trainee who responds. We’re going to be spreading you out over a fair distance so the odds of any of you crossing paths is unlikely, but if it does happen you’re to ignore the other party’s presence and continue on. You’re meant to be alone for this scenario with no one but your partner to rely on.”

“Sir,” Connington raised his hand, “What happens if our GPS beacon or radio get broken somehow?”

“That’s not an automatic disqualification, but they are required safety devices. Just because you won’t have the luxury of having someone at your beck and call to come get you during a real survival situation doesn’t mean we aren’t going to take your safety into account when we can. If anything happens to your beacon or radio, remain in place and we’ll come out to your last known location. As long as we see that equipment damage or a malfunction is the only issue, we’ll provide you with a replacement and let you continue the scenario.”

“Do we get a deadline extension for the time we waste waiting for a replacement?” Snyder asked.

“No,” Evison told him. “That used to be allowed but several years ago one pair of trainees confessed to deliberately dropping their beacon off a cliff to buy themselves extra rest while they waited for their instructors to fly out with a new one. Whatever time you spend waiting for a replacement is time lost.”

“That doesn’t mean keep going if you know your beacon or radio are down,” Larkins growled. “If we come out looking for you and you aren’t exactly where we expect you to be, there had better be a damn good reason or you automatically fail if we have to go looking for you.”

“Are there any other questions?” Evison asked, looking around. When he saw there were none, he continued, “Then in that case, we’re ready to go. Corporal Larkins will help you get strapped in. She’ll also be your jump master for the flight, so follow her instructions to the letter.”

Evison turned and jogged up the open ramp into the dropship and Spunkmeyer and the rest of the trainees followed behind Larkins as she led them up the ramp into the cargo compartment and began passing out their parachutes and survival packs. If this was a real ejection scenario and they were the ones flying the dropship, their survival equipment would be packed under their ejection seat, which they’d remain strapped to until landing, but for the training scenario they’d be making a standard HALO jump, so their survival gear was kept in a separate pack. Larkins handed Spunkmeyer a marker flare, and he strapped it to his boot. The flare was designed to burn bright red and emit a trail of crimson-colored smoke during the jump so each trainee could see their partner easily. As they neared the ground, the flare would burn down, scorch through its own retention strap, and fall away so he didn’t have to burn his hands trying to undo it on the ground.

There was a part of Spunkmeyer that was afraid Larkins would somehow sabotage their parachutes and let them all fall to their deaths, but he dismissed that with a slight shake of his head. She couldn’t be that insane, could she? I don’t think it’s insanity, he thought. You can be emotionally stunted and not insane. Look at me. I’m probably just as stunted as her, but I’m at least capable of learning. Spunkmeyer’s thoughts came to a halt. He started wondering if he really was capable of learning to control his emotions. His attitude toward Evison had certainly changed; he was able to look at his instructor and see a friend rather than someone he impulsively latched onto. At the same time, his dreams said otherwise. This is gonna prove whether or not I’ve really grown. I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t think I ever was.

Once they had all their jump helmets, parachutes, survival packs, and flares attached to Larkins’ satisfaction, Spunkmeyer flipped down one of the folding seats from the wall and sat down in it, with Ferro sitting next to him. Porter and Snyder took the seats to Ferro’s left, while Gravis, Connington, and Sydell sat in the row on the opposite side of the craft. Spunkmeyer found himself sitting directly across from Sydell, and he noticed that she seemed to be trying her hardest to look anywhere but at the other trainees. Once again, he felt a flicker of pity for her having to go through the scenario on her own, but he stomped the feeling out when he remembered how she had treated Ferro in the past.

Larkins made her way to each one of them in turn, making sure they were properly strapped in. She stopped in the doorway to the cockpit and looked back at them as if studying their faces one at a time, but said nothing. After a moment, she turned and went into the cockpit.

Gravis and Connington were talking excitedly to each other as they all waited for Evison and Larkins to run through the final pre-flight procedures, but Spunkmeyer tuned them out and focused his attention on Ferro. She was smiling excitedly, although he thought he saw a hint of nervousness behind the smile. He wanted to say something to reassure her, but he didn’t know what, so he settled for holding his fist towards her, and she lifted her own fist to tap it gently.

“Stand by. Ten seconds,” Evison’s voice came over Spunkmeyer’s helmet headset, and he straightened himself in his seat and grabbed at the straps to brace himself more firmly as Evison began counting down.

Spunkmeyer felt as if everything inside his stomach was being yanked upward through his throat as the dropship fell away from the Stickland, but after so many countless simulated drops and several actual previous training drops, he was able to put up with it without feeling sick. The ship vibrated and shook as it passed through the upper atmosphere of the planet and Spunkmeyer gripped his seat straps tightly, trying to hold himself steady. After a long time, the shaking evened out into level flight and a few minutes later, Larkins appeared from the cockpit.

“We’re coming up on the first drop zone. Gravis, Connington, you’re up.”

The two young men unstrapped themselves from their seats and stood up as the dropship ramp opened to the rear. They walked to the top of the ramp and stood side by side looking out as the “ready” light came on over the cockpit door, its red light filling the cargo compartment.

“Red light. Stand by,” Larkins said coolly, watching them closely. Spunkmeyer held his breath, waiting for the light to change. The two trainees each crouched down to ignite their marker flares before standing up straight again. A few seconds later, the light flashed from red to green and Larkins began yelling, “Go! Go! Go!”

Gravis ran down the ramp first, with Connington several paces behind him for safe spacing. They jumped off the edge of the ramp one at a time and quickly disappeared from sight. Larkins stood watching for a moment before returning to the cockpit as the ramp closed.

They continued flying for several minutes before she returned. “Sydell! You’re next!”

The young woman stood up and moved over to the top of the ramp as it opened. She lifted her heel to reach and ignite the marker flare on her boot and then straightened up, standing silhouetted in the ramp opening with her legs spread slightly for balance. She looked back over her shoulder at the remaining trainees, but her expression was hidden by her silhouette. The moment the light changed to green, she dashed down the ramp and flung herself off the edge, disappearing just as quickly as Gravis and Connington had.

Spunkmeyer gave Ferro a look as the ramp closed. They were up next. He could feel his heart rate increasing and he breathed deeply, trying to stay calm. He clenched his fists, trying to focus the tension there and let the rest of his body relax as he waited for Larkins to return and announce it was time.

Larkins came back in a few minutes later and Spunkmeyer and Ferro were halfway unstrapped before she even called their names. They ignited their marker flares as they stood at the top of the open ramp waiting for the jump light to turn green. When it did, Ferro went first and Spunkmeyer followed behind her. He barely noticed the cold air as he plummeted through space, counting steadily to the time to open his parachute. It was a bright, sunny day, and far below him was a thick, green canopy of trees stretching as far as he could see in every direction, except for to his right, where he could see a low mountain range far in the distance. He knew that was the way they needed to head once they landed. Point Meadow was on the opposite side.

Below him and slightly to his right, he could see Ferro still free-falling, her marker flare leaving a clear trail of dark red smoke as an obvious indicator of her position. The ground was rapidly approaching as he reached a count of sixty and pulled his parachute cord. His fall was slowed with a firm, rapid tug as the parachute opened, and when he was stable and in control of his descent, he looked towards where he had last seen Ferro and saw her parachute had opened properly as well. He felt a slight lightness in his right foot as the marker flare burned through the strap holding it to his boot and dropped free and he looked down just in time to see it falling into the jungle below.

As he approached the ground, Spunkmeyer braced himself, knowing it was far more likely that he would get hung up in the trees than it was that he would actually reach the ground. In another moment, he found himself being scraped and brushed by leaves and branches sliding past him as he broke through the jungle canopy. To his relief, his parachute caught in a tree low enough that he was left dangling less than ten feet off the ground. Before freeing himself, he looked around to see Ferro’s landing was even better, and her parachute snagged just in time to prevent her from touching the ground a few hundred feet away from him. Gritting his teeth for the drop, Spunkmeyer unstrapped himself from the parachute, slipped from the harness, and fell. His feet and ankles stung horribly when he hit the ground, but he was otherwise uninjured. He pushed his way through the light brush and undergrowth to where Ferro was letting herself down from her own parachute.

“Hi!” he said with an awkward grin, not sure what else to say.

She smirked charmingly back at him, returning the greeting. “Hi!”

“You doing okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, still smiling. “That was fun!”

“Yeah, it was. Alright, so first thing is to check our direction, right?” he asked for confirmation.

“Right.” Ferro took off her survival pack and opened it, pulling out the map that was on top. In a real ejection scenario they would have to go off of the last coordinates in their aircraft, but since those weren’t available, they had been provided with a very basic map to give them a rough idea of the right way to go.

“So, we jumped here,” she pointed at the map, “And Point Meadow is here.”

“Okay, so looking at the sun,” Spunkmeyer looked up to see the sun peeking through the leaves and branches above, “and the time of day, we should be heading… this way.” He gestured off to their right, looking back at the map before pulling out his compass and holding it up to let it settle. “Which based on our direction relative to magnetic north means we need to go almost due west.”

Ferro looked up and then around to double-check his calculations. “Yeah. Once we can get eyes on the mountain range all we have to do is head towards it. If we climb high enough on the way through, we’ll be able to see Meadow from the mountains, and the rest will be easy from there.”

“Well, given where we jumped, we should make the foothills by day fifteen. That gives us three to four days to make it through the mountains and another two to three to make it to Meadow.”

“According to the briefing, the terrain on the far side should be much easier to traverse,” Ferro said. “We’ve got jungle up to the mountains and then regular forest on the other side. As long as we’re out of the mountains by the end of day eighteen, we should be good to go and have time to spare.”

“Then let’s take a look through these packs and see what we’ve got before we head out,” Spunkmeyer suggested, kneeling down to check his pack. He pulled out his own map from the top of the pack and began looking through it, finding several MPET film blankets folded into palm-sized squares, ration packs, water bottles, a fine-mesh water strainer, purification tablets, medical kit, a flare gun, two smoke grenades, and everything else he had been trained to expect to find in a kit of its type. Against the edge of the pack on the side that would go against his back, he found the M8 Survival Weapon, a folding combination gun that had a 67-gauge shotgun barrel on top and a 5.7x25mm rifle barrel below. A real ejection seat survival kit would contain both an M39 submachine gun for defense against hostile combatants and the much lighter M8 to use for killing game for food, but since the planet they were on was uninhabited their packs were only equipped with the M8 and they carried M86 sidearms for emergencies. The M8’s unusual design featured a break-open receiver to load the shotgun barrel but fed the rifle rounds from a five-round magazine. Spunkmeyer opened the storage compartment on the top of the synthetic stock, pulled one of the five shotgun shells out of its slot, pushed it into the chamber, and unfolded the stock and rear end of the receiver to close the action. The stock also had room for three magazines for the rifle portion and he removed one and slid it into the magazine well on the gun’s underside, pulling back the charging handle to chamber a round before closing the storage compartment and looking up to see Ferro had just finished doing the same with her M8.

Spunkmeyer leaned the M8 against a tree, pulled the pack onto his back, and adjusted the straps to make them comfortable before picking the M8 up again and gesturing in the direction they needed to go. “Ladies first,” he suggested.

“No, no, after you,” Ferro grinned sweetly at him. “If either one of us is going to walk into a massive spider web or fall into a sinkhole filled with water, it’s going to be you, not me.”

“Fine, fine,” Spunkmeyer grumbled good-naturedly, not really caring as he took the lead and they began to push through the undergrowth. He was more focused on the thought that this was the beginning of the end for them. The rest of training would be easy if they could make it through the next three weeks.

Chapter 7……………………………………………………………………………………………Chapter 9

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