They were supposed to be greeted by bombs and bullets as soon as they hit the shore, but what they found instead was something no one could have predicted. With their ship sunk and no rescue crews forthcoming, the only way off the island is to venture deeper into a mystery from the past, a mystery that might have the power to change the whole war. If they can escape, that is.
“How are the kids doing? Heard from them recently?” I ask Lena as I gingerly lift the torn leg of her pants. She winces when I brush against her wound, but then she smiles and looks up at me.
“Yeah, Dag called right before we crossed into hot waters. Ben’s learning how to run, so that’s got him occupied for the most part. And Val’s being Val, you know, how her absolute favorite thing to do is hide and tell absolutely no one she’s playing hide and seek.”
I laugh and begin dressing her wound. “A runner and a hider. You sure they’re not French?”
She grunts and winces again as I apply the antiseptic gel to the long gash on her leg, spreading it with two of my fingers.
“Anyways, Dag says he’s going to have my parents stay with them for a little bit.”
“Reinforcements. Smart guy.”
“Mmm. I just worry because I know how much my dad loves ice cream, and loves stuffing his grandkids with it, too. I’ll come home to a couple diabetics, I’m sure.”
I start wrapping her leg with gauze, looking up to see her staring at the bandages with a crooked smile. “Yeah, well. At least you’ll be coming home at all, right?”
She sighs and turns to the ocean. The first life boats from the ship have almost reached the shore, and some of the others in the squad are wading out into the water to help bring them in.
“That was a close one,” she says, watching as a few sailors jump out of the boat and begin dragging it up onto the sand.
“The attack,” she replies, as if it were obvious. “We could have been vaporized, just like that,” she says, snapping for effect. “That missile hit some of the berths near the bow. If we hadn’t been getting ready to haul anchor, it could have been any number of us.”
“Yeah.” I finish wrapping her wound and give it a quick tap. “Well, if our lives are perpetually consumed by the beguiling, ethereal what if, we’ll never truly treasure the corporeal now.”
Lena looks at me with an impressed nod. “Monroe Jr. Not bad for a filthy Marine.”
I shrug and stand back up, then help her to her feet. “I sumtimes read good,” I say with a passable American redneck accent.
“Lukas, help me out!” Emma calls over from shore. I leave Lena by the outcrop of rock where we’re sitting and hurry down to help Emma pull in one of the rescue boats. You can hardly call it a boat, really. It’s more like a floating tent with a tiny motor in the back. If not for the somber atmosphere, it would actually be somewhat of a funny sight, the dozens of small, octagonal, orange dinghies slowly drifting their way to the island, like odd little ducks that haven’t figured out how to properly swim yet.
Several of the sailors in the boat flop down into the water and grab a hold of the ropes along the side, helping us drag it in. I actually recognize one of them, but I haven’t really had the chance to learn many of the sailors’ names. The Marines mostly stick to themselves.
“Any wounded in your boat?” Emma questions them. One of the sailors shakes his head in the negative without saying anything, and the other looks close to throwing up. Emma doesn’t press them any further, and instead focuses her energies on bringing the craft ashore. I peer into the raft and see four other sailors huddled up, their faces ravaged by fatigue and distress.
Six sailors in the raft, and it has the capacity to hold at least ten. My heart suddenly feels like it’s being wrung dry. I do quick math in my head, and count the number of rafts floating in. If the other boats are like this, that means we might have lost more than a hundred sailors out of the ship’s complement of two-hundred seventy. That’s a devastating loss. I can’t imagine what these sailors are going through; they’ve probably been together since before the war, the crew more like family than coworkers by this point. Us Marines have only been tagging along since Baja California, just guests hitching a ride along the coast.
Still, it could have been worse. Ours is—was, I suppose—just a light-attack littoral assault ship. Some of the bigger ships have a crew of a thousand or more and can hold nearly two thousand Marines. Who knows how many people would have died if one of those ships sank. Then again, our smaller size also means we may not get as much attention as some of the bigger ships, especially with the assault on the mainland currently underway. It might take a long while before any sort of rescue operation can head our way. Hopefully we don’t run into too much resistance at the base up the hill, or else this might be a very painful uphill battle. No retreat, no escape.
I guess that’s how Marines do it best, though.
It took us the rest of the night to get everyone and everything up to the airbase at the top of the mesa. It’s only a half-hour trek from the beach and another half-hour trek back, but we had to haul our equipment, weapons, emergency rations, and wounded crewmates all the way up, too, so that process took multiple trips. The base ended up being abandoned, so us Marines just waltzed in without anyone putting up a fuss. In fact, we haven’t seen anyone—or anything—living since we landed. It’s kind of creepy, actually. I’m starting to sympathize with Tuttles; Marines don’t like quiet nights. It’s not how we’re built.
Unlike a typical airbase, the landing strip and flight-line here are entirely in the open, no fencing, no towers, no guard stations. It seems strange, but then again, I suppose you wouldn’t really need a fence if the entire island belonged to the military. There aren't even any animals here; the island has been barren for decades now, from what I’m told. In any case, it makes me nervous. There's a lot of perimeter to defend, even with a whole company of restless, trigger-happy Marines.
“Lukas, you done with the shovel?”
I toss my shovel to Noah and continue gathering brush to hide the mound of dirt at the head of my hasty scrape. It’s nothing more than a small, shallow dugout about the length and depth of my body when lying prone and a pile of earth facing outwards, but it’s the best defensive position we’ll get until the others start filling sandbags for us. I look enviously to my right where Emma and Lena are busy digging a gunner’s nest, a cross-shaped pit big enough and deep enough to provide cover for a machine gunner and an assistant, too. It's a much better defensive construction than my janky pile of dirt, but with any hope, we'll be out of here long before we need to use them.
"Ah, I have one. The last t-shirt, but like one that actually had something on it," Emma announces from her hole as she tosses lumps of thick clay out into the darkness.
"Mmm, good one."
The four of us—Emma, Noah, Lena, and I—have been playing this game for about three months now, where one of us will randomly bring up some aspect of pre-war life, and we all have to say something about our last experience with it. It all started when Lena asked us when the last time we had fresh milk was, and it just spiraled out of control from there. We quickly got through most of the common foods, and since then we've gotten pretty creative.
I settle down into my hasty scrape and pull a magazine from my pants pocket. "Shoot, I don't even know. I mostly just wear those Ace shirts, you know, the sports ones with the little swish?"
"I think it was this one I always wore for PJs," Lena says as she drops a box of ammunition into the pit. "It has little paw prints on it and it says 'Life is Pawsome.'"
I chuckle silently to myself and shove the magazine into my rifle.
"I think that should be our new squad slogan," Emma jokes.
"Huh, yeah you bring that up to Wu. I'd love to see what he—"
Noah cuts me off abruptly and points across the plains in front of us. Emma and Lena stop digging and swap their shovels for their rifles.
"What is it?" Emma asks, making an attempt to follow Noah's gesture.
"Look, over there. Just past the bottom of the drop-off."
As hard as I try, I can't seem to make out anything else besides the shrubs and a couple of small outcroppings of rock. It's a new moon tonight, and the only source of light for the whole island is a small lantern in the medical tent set up by the corpsmen way off by the airport's fire station behind us.
“I’m not seeing anything. You getting enough sleep, Boot?” I ask, referencing the nickname our team has bestowed upon Noah as the newest member fresh from basic training.
“Shut up, seriously! Wait for it!”
We all pause, staring silently out past the drop-off at the end of the runway in an effort to humor him. There’s the subtle sound of tiny twigs rustling and the distant chortle of other Marines bunkering down around the airbase’s perimeter, but to be honest, I’m starting to wonder if we’re the only ones on the whole damn island.
Then, I see it. A glint in the distance. At first, I think my mind is making it up, but then I hear Emma scurry into her half-dug pit and grab a belt of ammunition.
“Crap, you guys see that?” I say, putting my eye to the salt-crusted scope of my rifle.
“Boot wasn’t kidding. Lena, take the wheel.”
Lena hobbles into the foremost section of the dugout and grabs the mounted machine gun from Emma, while Emma pulls out a rangefinder and begins scanning the fields below. I move my own scope around, rapidly searching around the patch of shrubs where I think I saw the glint, but to no avail. Whatever it is, it’s hiding well.
Then, as if it can read my impatient thoughts, it makes another fleeting appearance, whatever it is. An involuntary shiver slowly creeps its way up my body, from my toes all the way to my ears, then the glint quickly darts out of sight again. Something deep inside me—something primal and self-preserving—surfaces above my Marine-grit, and I find myself praying that I imagined what I just saw.
It was a pair of eyes.