The ground was a splotchy mix of dirt, grass, and thick vegetation due to the uneven amount of light that poured through the canopy. It didn’t take long for sweat to soak Spunkmeyer and Ferro’s uniforms from the heat and humidity, but at least they weren’t out in the direct sunlight. The jungle was alive with songbirds and waterfalls, and Spunkmeyer hoped the constant droning of noise would keep him from getting lost in his head.
It didn’t. Becoming numb to Larkins’s useless noise had granted him the ability to keep thinking. That, and the sound of the birds and the waterfalls was peaceful. For him, it was like listening to the traffic in Manhattan, which he missed greatly. I’ll go back one day. I don’t miss Kendriss, but damn do I miss the city.
“You doing okay?” Ferro asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Spunkmeyer replied. “Can’t see anything with all the trees.”
“All we know is ‘west,’” Ferro said.
Spunkmeyer looked around, seeing nothing but green and blue as far as the eye could see. “One of us could try climbing these to get a better view.”
Ferro shrugged. “I don’t really see a point to that. We know what direction we need to go. As long as we can continue at a fairly steady pace, we should be okay.”
“Yeah, good point,” agreed Spunkmeyer, continuing to push through the undergrowth.
“It was a good idea, though,” Ferro pointed out as she followed him closely. “Maybe we should do it in a few days to see if we can get an idea of how far we have to go to the mountains.”
“Okay. What time is it?”
Ferro looked down at her watch. “Almost 1200. We’ve been walking for about four hours.”
“Think we’ve made it about eight miles yet?”
“Hmm. I don’t know. If we were going in a straight line, I’d say we’d have made it farther, but with having to constantly zig-zag, I’d say more like seven. This damn brush isn’t doing us any favors.”
She was certainly right about that. Although the undergrowth had been fairly light in the area they landed, it had gradually become thicker the farther they went. It was slowing their progress significantly, both from the time it took to push through it and when they reached areas that were so thick they had to go around. On clear ground they could have easily made eight miles in two hours, but the jungle was an entirely different scenario.
“Do you want to stop and take a break?” he asked, looking back at her as he continued walking. They had already taken several five-minute breaks to keep from tiring themselves out too quickly, but he was starting to feel hungry and ready for lunch.
Ferro pulled her canteen off her belt and took a drink, gently shaking her canteen once she put the cap back on. “Not yet. I’m almost out of water. Let’s see if we can find a creek or something and we can take a break then. But remember, no more than half an hour. I don’t want to have to deal with Larkins screaming at us over the radio wanting to know why we aren’t moving.”
“Hopefully Evison will be the one on the radio if anything happens,” Spunkmeyer said optimistically.
Ferro sighed. “Even if not, I would hope he would try to talk some sense into her so she doesn’t freak out if someone stops for one second longer than thirty minutes.”
Spunkmeyer’s expression fell. “I don’t know if there’s anything he can do anymore. There’s really not much sense you can talk into her. It’s like common sense isn’t even a thing with her.”
“Every flight member has said that at least once a day over the entire course of training. That’s nothing new.” Ferro looked around. “Now that we’re alone, I guess I can tell you something I heard from Sydell a few days before we came here.”
“Oh?” Spunkmeyer was surprised. As far as he knew, Ferro and Sydell weren’t on speaking terms since they had been separated.
“You know how Larkins has been on her ever since she and I were split up?”
“It was after our last range session, when we were in the armory putting our gear away. Larkins was on Sydell’s back again, and when she finally shut up and walked off, I heard Sydell mutter that Larkins had better not let any of her trainees catch her alone on a bad day and that sooner or later all of this abuse is going to come back on her.”
Spunkmeyer shrugged. “I can’t say I haven’t thought of hitting her myself. Why bring this up?”
“Because even though I hate Larkins as much as the next trainee, I don’t think we’d be the better people by cornering her and beating the shit out of her.”
“You mentioned you’re looking forward to her being humiliated at watching you graduate.”
“I am. I think that’s the best way to get back at her, not stooping to her level and using violence.”
“For some people, that’s the only thing they understand.”
“Sometimes I forget you’re from Manhattan.”
“New York City isn’t nearly as violent as it used to be. I mean, sure, I wandered around when I was a kid and that probably wasn’t a good idea, but I survived. Anyway, I’ve heard from former mob guys that violence is sometimes the only way to let someone know to back off. No amount of talk will do anything because that’s the only thing they understand. I don’t know if Larkins is at that point, but I would hope not.” Spunkmeyer fell silent as they kept walking. “I just hope she doesn’t hurt Evison.”
“I doubt that. She’d get in a lot of trouble for assaulting another Marine like that.” Ferro raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were trying not to be so attached to Evison.”
“I am, but… it’s not easy, especially knowing I’m not gonna see him again when we graduate. At least then we can be friends. Maybe not having him in authority over me will help.”
“He does seem like he needs friends, or at least, a friend.”
“He told me once he was depressed. That’s what I’m worried about. Larkins trying to exploit that.”
“I don’t think she’d be that cruel.”
“I think she could be. Put yourself in her mindset: only the strong survive, so wouldn’t it be best if the weak just… off themselves?”
Ferro didn’t respond at first. Eventually, she said, “I still don’t think she’d do that.”
“Maybe it doesn’t seem like it, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
“I think you’re thinking a little too hard about this. I don’t think Evison would keep himself in this situation if his mental health got that bad, and I’m sure Graham would step in.”
“I’m gonna miss Graham. I know we didn’t see him that much, but, man, things were better when he was around. Just wish he would give Larkins the boot.”
“Maybe we should talk about something else. We’re alone in the wilderness. Let’s take advantage of that.”
“I am taking advantage of that.” With that, Spunkmeyer looked to the sky and let out a string of New York-accented profanities all aimed at Larkins.
All Ferro could do was sigh and laugh. “I didn’t mean like that.”
Sundown came around 2000 hours that evening. Spunkmeyer and Ferro stopped for the night shortly before then, when they found a decent-sized clearing in the brush that was big enough for them to settle down. They hadn’t had a chance to catch or shoot anything for food, so they had to dig into their meager supply of rations once again. Spunkmeyer eyed the remaining packs in his bag as they finished and cleaned up. “We need to find something else to eat. We should save these for the mountains if we can just in case there’s less wildlife up there to hunt.”
“Yeah. I saw something that looked a bit like a squirrel earlier today, but it had big claws and its head was a different shape. Its tail wasn’t fluffy, either. If we see more tomorrow, we might be able to get one.”
“Cutting that up will be fun,” Spunkmeyer sighed, even though he knew it was inevitable.
“Yep. Can’t wait.” Ferro looked up at the darkening sky. “I’ll take first watch. You get some sleep.”
“Yeah,” Ferro nodded. “You took the lead today, so I bet you’re more tired than I am. I’ll take first watch tonight, and then lead tomorrow and you can take first watch tomorrow night.”
“Fine with me.” Spunkmeyer dug in his pack for one of the MPET blankets, unwrapped and unfolded it, and spread it on the ground to lie on. The ground wasn’t too hard, and after their past field training this wasn’t the first time he had slept on a survival blanket on the ground, but he knew he was still going to be sore in the morning. He just hoped it wouldn’t slow him down too much. As he settled down, Ferro sat down at the base of a nearby tree with her M8, the flashlight from her pack, and a small roll of duct tape. She began to tape the flashlight underneath the barrel of the gun, and Spunkmeyer gradually fell asleep watching her.
Ferro took the lead the next day as promised and they set out after having a quick breakfast. Spunkmeyer was starting to realize that apart from food, staying hydrated was going to be the biggest challenge. They had plenty of water purification tablets and the jungle had a fair share of streams and small waterways running through it, but they could only carry a limited amount in their canteens and the high jungle heat meant they needed to drink frequently, so what they could carry never lasted long and there was no guarantee of finding more water soon after finishing what they had.
Fortunately, things seemed determined to work out well for them that day. They were able to find enough water to stay hydrated, and as evening approached Spunkmeyer shot one of the squirrel-like creatures Ferro had seen the day before. Cutting the little animal up to cook the meat was an unpleasant experience, but the meat itself was good. As he licked his fingers at the end of the meal, Spunkmeyer observed, “So, this took way too long to do. Even if we can kill one of these little guys for every meal, it’ll take too long. We can’t stop for an hour or two for lunch every day. We’ll lose too much time and we’ll have Evison or Larkins calling us every time wanting to know what’s going on.”
“So what do you think?” Ferro asked, leaning back against a tree and watching the flames of the small fire they had built.
“We’ve got two options. One, we eat a light breakfast every day from our ration packs and stretch them out to have breakfast and lunch every day from them and rely on hunting for dinner for our big meals, or two, we eat a decent-sized breakfast from the packs every day, skip lunch completely, and hunt for dinner.”
Ferro looked down at her M8 thoughtfully. “Well, we have nineteen days to go, and minus your shot earlier we’ve got…”
“Twenty-nine rifle rounds, ten shotgun shells, and one hundred ten 9mm rounds between the two of us,” Spunkmeyer finished for her, having already done the math.
“Right, well, I don’t think shooting the squirrels with explosive rounds meshes well with the idea of eating them afterward, so that leaves us with thirty-nine rounds. Divide that by two and there’re our nineteen days. If we can each get one squirrel per day without missing, we can eat more for dinner and afford to skip lunches entirely. And it’s not like we can’t go a few days without food if we absolutely have to.”
“True,” Spunkmeyer nodded, looking in the direction of the mountains even though they still couldn’t be seen through the darkness and the trees. “And I’m still thinking about what it’s going to be like on the mountains. When we dropped in, I saw that parts of them looked pretty rocky and lifeless so I’d rather not count on being able to hunt up there.”
“Then we do what we can to make dinners as big as possible, eat what we need to for breakfast, and save the rest for the mountains.”
“Sounds like the best plan to me,” Spunkmeyer said.
Ferro covered her mouth as she yawned heavily. “I’m ready to sleep.”
“Okay,” Spunkmeyer said, opening his pack and taking out the MPET blanket he had unpacked the night before. Since one of them had to stay awake at all times, they had decided on the first night that it wasn’t worth opening more of the blankets when they could just take turns using one, so in the morning he had folded it up and put it back in his pack to use later. Ferro took the folded material and shook it out to unfold it before spreading it out on the ground and lying down. “Oh, take my M8 tonight. It’s got the flashlight on it.”
Spunkmeyer set his own M8 down next to her where she could easily reach it if she needed to and picked hers up, cradling it in his arms as he sat down across the fire from her. The flames were slowly dying down, and Spunkmeyer didn’t see much point to keeping the fire going through the night, so he let it go. As the flames grew smaller, he watched the light flicker across Ferro’s face as she fell asleep. She looked peaceful and relaxed despite the difficulties of their situation, and he felt a surge of protectiveness run through him. They hadn’t seen any signs of hostile wildlife so far, but that didn’t mean there was none. If something came rushing out of the brush at them while Ferro was sleeping, Spunkmeyer would be her first defense, and when the thought came to him, he knew there was no way in hell he’d let anything happen to her, even if he had to fight a predator off with his bare hands. He settled back against a tree so nothing could sneak up behind him and held the M8 closer to his chest as he looked around the dark jungle, remaining watchful for the sake of his friend as she slept.
The next several days passed slowly, even as they got into a steady routine of balancing meals and rest periods with traveling. Spunkmeyer felt more and more aches and stiffness after every night of sleeping on the ground, and even though neither of them complained about it, he knew Ferro had to feel the same way. Their supply situation was just enough to keep them going; they were hungry most of the time apart from the evenings when they stopped to clean and cook whatever they had managed to kill. Sometimes they were each able to get an animal, but other times they had to share one, and on those nights the hunger didn’t stay away for long.
Their progress through the jungle was slow but steady, and Spunkmeyer was hopeful they were making good time. Sometimes it felt like they were going in circles because of how monotonous their surroundings were, but frequent compass checks guaranteed they kept going in the right direction. On the eighth day Spunkmeyer couldn’t resist the temptation any longer and decided to use his previous plan to climb a tree for a look at what was ahead. The trees had thick trunks and vines dangling from every branch which were perfect for climbing. He left everything but his sidearm and binoculars with Ferro and tugged on a vine to test how much weight it could hold before using it to start climbing up the tree trunk.
When he reached the top a few minutes later, he braced himself against the thickest branches before scanning the horizon. Gentle winds rustled the massive leaves surrounding him. Pulling out his binoculars, he could see low-lying mountain peaks ahead. It was difficult to tell without knowing the exact size of the mountains, but he had been taught enough about estimating distances to guess that they were still over a hundred miles away. That was still about a week’s worth of traveling, but it meant they had made it about halfway to the mountains in the week they had already spent walking. We’re getting there. He grinned to himself.
Before he made his way back down, Spunkmeyer paused to enjoy the view around him. The sky was the same brilliant blue it had been the day they jumped, and the sun was shining brightly, turning the tops of the trees into a lighter green than they seemed to be from below. For once, he felt somewhat peaceful, but at the same time an intense loneliness was surging over him as he realized just how isolated they still were. It wasn’t unlike how he felt in his nightmares, except he wasn’t overwhelmed with panic. He was fully aware his father was gone, even if he didn’t want to accept it.
He wondered how Jesse was doing. He wondered how every flight member who left was doing, and how Evison was doing. Trying to tell himself he couldn’t afford to think too hard about them, even Evison, Spunkmeyer began climbing back down.
“How are we doing?” Ferro asked as he neared the bottom of the tree.
“We’re a little over halfway there.” Spunkmeyer said, dropping to the ground. “I think we’re going to make it.”
“Hey,” Ferro gave him a grin and shrug, “I certainly have no plans of giving up at this point.”
“Damn right,” he agreed, returning her grin as her good spirits made him feel better. They continued walking in silence for a little while until Spunkmeyer decided to break it by asking conversationally, “You looking forward to see what kinda RIFT we get put in?”
“Yeah. Hopefully we can meet some good people and make friends.”
“At least I made a friend for life in training.”
“You certainly did.”
“You’re probably the best friend I’ve ever had,” Spunkmeyer continued. “Well, you’re really the only best friend I’ve ever had, and-” He paused, wondering why the words I love you were at the forefront of his mind. He cared deeply for Ferro, but he didn’t know if she reciprocated that. She certainly cared for him, but how much?
He thought back to the kiss in the simulator. Even though they said they wouldn’t talk about it again, Spunkmeyer found himself thinking about it periodically. He wanted to experience it again, sometimes badly. Ferro was special. She had mentioned before that she never thought of herself as special, but she was special to him. He just didn’t know how to say it other than physically. He wanted to kiss her and hold her tightly to him. He wanted to stay with her at night, snuggle close, and keep her warm in bed. He just couldn’t think of how else to express his affections. Consequences be damned, he thought. I care about her.
“And what?” Ferro asked, pulling Spunkmeyer from his thoughts.
“And… I want to treasure that as best I can.”
“Just graduate with me, okay?”
“That’s a promise.”
As they walked, Spunkmeyer heard the faint sound of running water in the distance. It gradually grew louder and louder until they reached a wide creek. Most of the waterways they had encountered so far had been narrow enough to jump, but this one was too wide, and Spunkmeyer couldn’t see anywhere up or down its length where it seemed to get narrow. He could see fish and eels milling about underwater, but there was no way to know if any of them were venomous or aggressive.
“Great,” Ferro said. “You see any good crossing spots?”
“Negative,” Spunkmeyer replied. “We could just wade, but I’m not taking any risks with the fish, and I’d rather not have to deal with jungle rot if we can’t dry off properly afterward.”
“Well, we might as well stop here and refill our canteens,” Ferro suggested, opening hers to drink what was left. Spunkmeyer did the same and then pulled the strainer and metal cups from his pack. He filled one of the cups with water from the creek and poured it through the strainer into the second cup. Like the previous creeks, the water from this one was relatively clear, especially after going through the strainer. Spunkmeyer knew it would still have a slightly mossy taste, but it would be safe to drink after the purification tablet had done its work. He popped one out of the packaging and dropped it into the cup, sitting down to wait as Ferro did the same next to him. “So what do you think?” he asked, looking up and down the creek. “We’ve got to find a place to cross somewhere. Should we go upstream or down?”
Ferro looked up and down the creek as well. “I guess it doesn’t really make a difference. I don’t think the odds of finding a way across are any higher in one direction than the other. Let’s head south for a little while and see what it’s like farther down.”
Once the water in their cups was purified, they filled their canteens, packed up their equipment, and set out again. After about fifteen minutes of walking, Ferro said, “I’m wading this damn thing if it comes down to it. This isn’t going to be what sets us back so far we fail.”
“No, it’s not.” Spunkmeyer looked over his shoulder at her. “I told you before, don’t let the bitch’s noise get to you. You can’t let her win.”
“This has nothing to do with Larkins.”
“Yes, it does. She’s berated you a lot. Come on, you know we’re gonna pass. Don’t let this get to you. You’re more than capable of doing this.”
Ferro nodded a little. “I know, but I’ve always had this feeling all throughout training that I might not be. And honestly, seeing my grades and hearing Evison say I’m moving on hasn’t done much.”
“It’ll probably feel different once you graduate. Getting out of the training facility will do you good. I know being here has helped me a little.”
“I have noticed you’ve changed a lot over the last several months. You seem more in control of your emotions. You’re more confident.”
“Thanks. I’ve seen it in you too. You’re more in control of yourself and more willing to step up and take the initiative or go beyond the minimum. I think you’ve learned to be calmer and more confident than you give yourself credit for.”
They came to a spot where the creek was slightly narrower, but still not narrow enough for them to simply jump across. There were stones poking up out of the water that looked just big enough to walk on. Spunkmeyer crouched to get a better look. “They’re wet, but I can’t think of a better way for us to get across.”
“I’ll go first,” Ferro volunteered, and took a breath before carefully getting on the first stone. Spunkmeyer followed close behind her.
“That one’s a bit slippery,” Ferro warned as she stepped off of one stone and onto another.
“Thanks.” Spunkmeyer nimbly moved to the stone she had referred to, keeping his footing even though he felt himself slip very slightly. He held his breath, making sure he was steady before saying, “Last thing I want is either of us getting hurt.”
“Yeah. I don’t want either of us to have to travel on a sprained ankle, and if one of us gets injured so badly we can’t walk…”
Spunkmeyer stayed silent for a moment, knowing where Ferro was going with that statement. She had said herself they needed to talk about something other than Larkins and failing, so he didn’t add anything to that. It was difficult to do, though. They weren’t out of the woods yet with the bad-tempered corporal. Sometimes it felt like they never would be. The worst part was the fear that the commander of whatever RIFT he and Ferro were assigned to would be just as bad or worse than Larkins.
If that’s the case, I’m not just gonna stand by and take it again. I’m not letting anyone hurt Ferro again, and I’m done being hurt myself. Spunkmeyer stepped to the next stone. Who am I kidding? I’m still a wreck.
Ferro had gotten to the other side of the creek, and she turned and held out her hand to help Spunkmeyer up onto the bank. When he clasped it, he couldn’t resist the urge to massage it gently with his thumb after she had pulled him up. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Ferro glanced down at him holding her hand. “We should… get going.”
“Yeah. We should,” Spunkmeyer agreed as he reluctantly let go of her hand.
The longer they were in the jungle, the more Spunkmeyer inwardly began to doubt himself. It felt like he and Ferro were the only two humans on the planet, but there were also times where it felt like he was the only one there. It reminded him too much of his nightmares.
Nights were the worst part of the experience for him. As the test dragged on, he found it harder and harder to sleep, partly because of pain and partly because of his dreams. Gradually, his dreams became more painfully raw and disturbing. He saw himself running through the jungle, but instead of getting closer, the mountains were getting farther away. No matter how much he told himself he was getting closer, he wasn’t. Sometimes he was trying to catch up to someone, usually Ferro, his father, or Evison. Like the mountains, they were getting further away. He couldn’t catch up to them, and they didn’t stop walking no matter how many times he called out to them. Sometimes he saw one of them fall of the side of a cliff. Instead of being able to catch them in time, he watched as they fell, completely powerless to do anything. Then he would approach the edge and see a broken body at the bottom. Sometimes it would just be an endless fall, and when that happened, he was tempted to go after them.
In his dreams, he equated feeling powerless with feeling like a child. I really am just a kid. Why should I even bother pretending to be grown up anymore? I’m not ready mentally. I probably never will be.
Sitting up awake at night didn’t do him any favors during the day. He found himself exhausted more quickly, and it didn’t go unnoticed.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Spunkmeyer?” Ferro asked. “You’ve been quiet and looking really tired the last few days.”
“How are you not tired?” Spunkmeyer asked.
“I’ve been managing my energy well.” Ferro raised an eyebrow. “You were doing well up until a couple of days ago. Now you’re… you look like you haven’t slept.”
“Well, no, I haven’t been sleeping alright the last few nights.”
She’s gonna think I’m nuts for still having bad dreams. “Nightmares. That’s all.”
“Would it help if I said I’ve been having dreams about failing, too?”
Spunkmeyer knew he wasn’t fully wrong in saying that, but it wasn’t the entire truth. It wasn’t even half of the truth. He wasn’t going to get anywhere with Ferro if he lied and kept things like this to himself. “It kinda does, but that’s not the only thing bothering me.”
“Tell me. You need your sleep if we’re going to complete this on time.”
Spunkmeyer sighed. “I feel less and less like I’ve actually grown up mentally. Being out here for as long as we have hasn’t helped. I feel like we’re not gonna make it. I doubt I can make it. I’m still dreaming about chasing after my father.”
“You told me you haven’t had those dreams in a while.”
“I know, but now they’re back. I dream about chasing after him, Evison, and-” Spunkmeyer paused, taking a breath, “you.”
Ferro shook her head, squeezing Spunkmeyer’s shoulder. “You’re not gonna lose me.”
“I know that while I’m awake, but when I go to sleep I never know what I’m going to see.”
“Maybe you need help. What happened to you when you were a kid wasn’t alright. When we go back home, you should find someone who can help you.”
Spunkmeyer nodded. “I can talk to Evison. He’s the only one I’d trust with all this.”
“That would be a good start.” Ferro gently patted Spunkmeyer’s shoulder. “Try to get some sleep tonight, okay?”
“Emphasis on ‘try’,” Spunkmeyer muttered.
They didn’t get the gorgeous colorful sunsets that they usually had that night. Instead, dark gray clouds rolled in rapidly as the sun was just starting to set. Before the oranges, pinks, and reds could take hold in the horizon, they were swiftly covered by the clouds. Spunkmeyer and Ferro had just finished eating dinner, and they hurried to construct an improvised shelter. Spunkmeyer unwrapped three more of the MPET blankets and Ferro taped their long edges together to make a single wide sheet. Several yards away was a large fallen tree with a trunk about three feet in diameter. Spunkmeyer climbed on top and taped one end of the sheet to the trunk while Ferro stretched the other end out as far as she could and weighted it down with broken branch pieces to form a low tent with the tree trunk as its back. Ferro spread out their first MPET blanket on the ground underneath as Spunkmeyer grabbed the rest of their supplies. They shoved their equipment into the narrow space and ducked under themselves just as the first raindrops began to fall. In just a few minutes it increased from a light sprinkle to a heavy downpour, so they moved their packs to the outside edges of the tent to block some of the rain from coming in and sat side by side in the middle of the tent, their backs to the tree trunk.
Being so close together made it hard for Spunkmeyer to set aside his feelings for Ferro. The desire to protect her and keep her warm was overwhelming. When the warmth of his caring for her took over, he finally felt needed, important, grown up. Without thinking about it, he put his arm around her. He wanted to rest his head against hers, but he decided to wait and see how she would react to just his arm. After several minutes, he figured he could try, but before he could move Ferro pulled away slightly, shaking off his arm and hugging herself. “It got cold really fast.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry we couldn’t make a better shelter around the fire,” Spunkmeyer replied, awkwardly lowering his arm back to his side.
“It’s not your fault it’s raining.” Ferro was quiet for a moment before adding, “We’ll just have to keep each other warm all night.”
“I have no problems with that.”
“Just don’t get any funny ideas.” She gave him a look that was half-threatening and half-teasing.
“I won’t. I promise. We’re sharing body heat. That’s all.” It was hard for Spunkmeyer not to feel as though he was also trying to express his affections for Ferro. He wasn’t sure if she would ever reciprocate. Struggling to resist the urge to cuddle up to her, he maintained his gaze at the rain outside and hoped this all wasn’t just another sign of his mental immaturity.