Aaaand we're back. My apologies for the delay, I had intended for this to be posted over a month ago and to be well onto part seven by now but as technology is wont to do, my laptop went belly up. I now have a new (to me) desktop and after a couple days of whipping it into shape, housebreaking it and getting back into the swing of things, I'm back.

When Sergeant Huygens came to, he looked around at his surroundings and discovered that no one had found him yet. He then listened carefully and heard nothing but the sounds of nature returning to the forest after having been shocked into silence by the horror that took place in the sky. Looking down, he saw his rucksack on the ground and that he was still suspended some ten meters up. A look up revealed that his parachute was firmly entangled in the top of the tree.

'OK,' he thought. 'I'm alive, at least.'

He tested his fingers and toes to learn that he still had mobility in them… not paralyzed he thought. Next, he started to flex various parts of his body, revealing that he didn't seem to have any immediate serious injuries either.

He noted that since he was still swaying slightly, he must not have been out for long. He realized that the adrenaline was also wearing off as he started to get the shakes. He clenched his eyes shut and his hands into fists while taking a deep breath.

'No, I can't do this now, I need to get down and get to… well, get down. That's the first thing,' he thought to himself as he fought of the shakes and the panic that would surely follow.

He gingerly reached behind him and found the emergency descent rope. After tying it off on his riser links, he put on his gloves. Carefully releasing his harness, he lowered himself to the forest floor.

Once down, he scanned around and found his rifle. Bringing it to his shoulder he saw that the scope seemed to be undamaged but found that the barrel was bent and the receiver was cracked. After removing the scope, he tossed the broken rifle to the side and kicked some leaves onto it.

'Might be good for parts… if I had the tools.'

He dropped the scope on his ruck and pulled out his sidearm. After checking a magazine, he loaded the pistol. Returning to the ruck he opened it and checked his reserve water bladder inside. Still solid and his field rations hadn't popped open either. The silencer for the rifle was intact too he remarked.

'What else do I have?'

He pulled out his combat computer and found that the screen was smashed. He removed his helmet to inspect the radio and found that it was gone, loose wires dangled near where it should have been. A scuff of paint on the helmet cover suggested that he might have had a close call with a piece of the fuselage and not known it at the time. His GPS was no better, the screen was displaying gibberish. Checking inside his vest, he found his map.

'OK, now I'm getting somewhere,' he thought to himself as he sighed in relief.

Checking his vest again, he also discovered that his compass was miraculously also intact. Checking the map's legend, he found the declination. He packed the ruck back up and put the scope inside, along with the broken combat computer.

"Ok, now I just need higher ground," he said aloud. Hoisting his ruck to his shoulders, he set off uphill.

It was easy going, still feeling the tail end of an adrenaline rush. Every few dozen meters he paused and listened for voices, vehicles and aircraft… anything that might signal Consort forces looking for survivors. After hearing nothing the first few stops, he lengthened the duration between his pauses. After what felt like 30 minutes, he saw that the valley floor was starting to slope upward rapidly, indicating that he was near the edge. The sloping terrain was now broken away in places, revealing the rock strata beneath. Changing direction, he started to hike semi parallel to the rising ridge line, putting it to his left.

Nearing an hour on the ground, he felt that his rough pace counting had put him at least a kilometer from his landing site and he felt that his short term survival was assured. Up ahead, he saw precisely what he was looking for. A large cliff face jutted out of the valley wall, the top treeless. Cutting perpendicular to the valley, he headed directly uphill and circled around to the back of the cliff top, still behind the tree line. After dropping his ruck at the tree line, he pulled out his map case, compass, scope and a grease pencil. Not wanting to present a target on top of the cliff, he low crawled out onto the tree bare outcropping. Turning himself to the west, he propped himself up and scanned the horizon with the scope.

As he scanned, a sinking feeling started to overcome him as he realized that he might be a lot further out than he though… further out than he had a map for. He chose two landmarks, circled them on the map and shot azimuths out to them, writing the bearing down next to the positions on the map.

Once complete, he low crawled back to the tree line, gathered his ruck and headed deeper into the tree line. Satisfied he was deep enough, he got his map back out and converted the bearings to back-azimuths and started to plot them. 'Time to see how screwed I am,' he thought to himself as he plotted out the lines with his protractor and a piece of string. First one azimuth, then the next… as he drew the second one he saw that while he was still in a bit of trouble, it wasn't as bad as he feared. The intersection point just barely fell off the edge of the map. He scanned the map and saw that the distance to the city from his current apparent position was about 75 kilometers.

'Well, two days, maybe,' he thought to himself, 'but this is cross country, uneven terrain and avoiding the Consort forces that are surely looking for survivors. This could take a week even if I go directly there…"

He put the protractor away and returned to the cliff face with the scope to continue his scan of the valley. As he scanned, he marked the estimated positions of what looked like crash sites. Some were more obvious than others, one of them had flames that were still reaching past the treetops. This one he marked with a circle and drew an x through it. He suspected that there wouldn't be anything of use there anymore and what he would probably find he didn't want to see. He counted six. Six potential crash sites that he might be able to salvage for equipment to aid his journey to the city and the final rally point. Sites he hoped might also harbor survivors… He further hoped that he would find more as he proceeded down the valley.

Once again, he returned to the tree line. This time he sat against a tree to think over his next course of action. While thinking, he ate one of his ration packs after realizing that it was now mid afternoon and he had missed 'lunch.' While chewing on something that he wasn’t even sure what it was, he continued to study the map. He needed to throw away all of the pre-mission map review, or at least shelf it, he was no longer in the same area of the map. 'Hell,' he thought with a snort, 'I'm not even on the right map.'

While eating, he made notes on the map. Probabilities and likelihoods… safe paths, potential ambush sites, possible DZ/LZ's and bridges… all places he thought that he would need to steer clear of. The roads that crisscrossed the valley might be of use he thought, if he stuck to the lightly traveled ones at the periphery of the valley.

After finishing his meal, he gathered his gear back up and returned to the valley floor. Once there, he set out at a light jog hoping that he would be able to cover significant ground before night fall when he felt that he would need to stop for the night. He also though that when he did stop for the night, if he was exhausted from the march, he might actually be able to sleep, rather than replay the day's events over and over in his mind. As he traveled, he continued his march, pause and listen routine. Throughout the afternoon he heard nothing, just the startled sounds of the forest animals as he passed. He did find that there was the occasional bit of debris. A bit of insulation here, an odd bit of twisted metal there. Nothing of substantial size or of any use. He did once spot what looked like another rucksack tangled high up in the branches of a tree, but it was far higher than he felt comfortable stopping and climbing for.

Late in the afternoon while he paused for a water break, he heard the sound of tromping feet in the forest, he froze. As it neared, he slowly reached for his holster and unclipped it, slowly withdrawing the pistol as he stepped into the shadow of a tree. Leveling the pistol in the direction of the sound, he waited. A giant horned deer-like creature emerged into the small break in the trees. Seeing him it startled, froze and stared him down. After a moment, it snorted and trotted back into the forest. He reengaged the safety and returned the pistol to the holster.

'Well, I won't go hungry if I get stuck here for good,' he thought as he recapped his canteen.

Continuing on his march, he stumbled upon what looked like a tiny abandoned mine claim. Old bits of trash and refuse littered the site around an old disused fire pit. Set into the hill to his left, was a bit of a dug out cave. There's a few more hours of daylight left he thought , but if this is safe, this just might be my best bet for a place to stop for the night. After setting down his ruck, he pulled out his flashlight and his pistol and went in.

It was old, he thought. Probably from within a few years of the first settlement. Inside he saw it was indeed a small cave that was littered with trash, much like outside. He found it to be dry and vacant, none of the local wildlife seemed to have had a recent residency. He also found some old crates inside as well but still nothing of use. Old basic tools that were rusted beyond usability. Loose nails, empty cans, fishing line and a rusted wad of something that might have been hooks. He returned outside to retrieve his rucksack and stowed it in the cave. Looking to the west, he saw the sinking sun and estimated that he might have a couple hours of light left.

'Better secure this area,' he thought.

He fanned out and checked the area around the old camp, ranging out to about fifty meters from the cave mouth, taking care to not lose his way back. Satisfied that there were to be no immediate surprises, he looked up at the ridge above the cave. Thinking that he probably covered enough ground to be on the map now, he decided to try triangulating his position again. Retrieving the gear from his ruck he set off uphill.

He did not find another outcropping like he had earlier in the day and it proved to make taking azimuths more difficult. When he returned to the camp below and set to plotting them on the map, he learned that he was indeed on the map now. By some ten kilometers in fact. As near as he could tell anyway. The two landmarks that he could locate were of such close proximity that he was not confident in the accuracy, but he figured it was good enough to at least know he was on the sheet now. ‘When I’m further down the valley, I'll be able to tell with greater accuracy when I can pick landmarks that are further apart,’ he thought to himself as he put the map away.

'Well,' he thought, 'dinner, watch the sunset, then sleep I guess."

He re-secured his gear once more and pulled out another ration pack and sat on one of the crates. Opening it, he pulled out all the packets within and sorted through them; entrée, side, a desert and some miscellaneous bits. It was another seemingly unidentifiable food item. They weren't bad tasting or anything they all said, but they were mysterious to the troops that ate them. They were supposed to be the height of combat ration food technology. Perfectly balanced nutrition in a nearly incomprehensible compact size. Sure, the packets said Beef or Chicken this, that or the other flavor… but the guys all joked that meat doesn't or shouldn't come in bricks. Or sticks, bars, or popsicles for that matter. Due to their compressed size, the food did lose water and were notoriously dehydrating if you had none. Forgoing the optional preparation step, he ate what he decided he would call an Au Jus Beef Popsicle right out of the package. Tearing into the tough, jerky like meat, he thought that the Marsala Chicken Ingot in the bottom of his ruck might have been a better idea.

'This isn't so bad,' he thought, as he gnawed on his ration and looked around the old site, 'too bad that…'

His thoughts halted immediately, as the day's events suddenly returned to him, assaulting his memory. The weight and the gravity of his situation started to settle on him now that he had stopped for the day. Pausing mid chew, he realized that he wasn't just running away from where he landed and hiding from the Consort that were patrolling the valley… he was trying to hide from what had happened. Trying to focus his attention elsewhere. Get down, survive, locate myself, move out… there was nothing left to do today and now it was all creeping back up on him.

He refocused his attention on the empty fire pit, faintly disappointed that he couldn't light one. Lost in thought, he had picked up a stick and was poking the trash in the otherwise empty pit as though he was stoking a fire. With the sight of the pit and the memory of the action, in his mind he was taken back to Earth. Camping trips with friends from school. He thought that he was lucky that despite being an orphan, the other children he met there were open and friendly, not like stories he had heard or media depictions he had seen. The other kids were good and friendly people and invited him along during their summer time trips. Roaring campfires, songs, marshmallows… sneaking off into the woods to kiss a pretty girl…

His thoughts circulated back around and reminded him why he was there on Earth in the first place. War orphan from the Fourth Territorial War with the Consortium some twenty years ago, from this very planet he just got shot down over. He didn't believe in fate, but he couldn’t escape the thought that he was brought back here for the Consorts to finish the job.

"Well, they're not going to god damn it," he said aloud without realizing it as he threw the stick.

He finished his meal and cleaned up his mess and stowed all his gear in the cave, taking special care with the trash from his ration pack by jamming it into a crevice in the roof of the cave to keep it out of reach from and scavengers that might come along.

Checking the horizon again, he saw he had probably an hour or so of usable daylight left and pulled out the map to study the area around his new position and the direction of travel he would be taking in the morning. As the light started to fade and he was preparing to go to the cave for the night, he was struck with inspiration. Using bits of trash from the site, he fashioned a booby trap with a grenade.

'Won't actually help much,' he thought, 'but it will at least wake me and I'll be able to get a few shots off before they get me. I just hope an animal doesn't set it off.'

With the trap set, he retreated to the back of the cave where he had a clear line of site on the mouth and cleared a spot to lean against the wall. He pulled his pistol from the holster and with it in his hand he laid it in his lap and took a deep breath.

'Now to sleep,' he thought, 'I'm pretty tired, but I don't really think I can.'

Once more, the day's events started to return to him. He couldn't help it now, there was nothing left to distract him anymore. Their faces and voices started to come to mind, almost as though they were now haunting him. The way Sergeant Nava's booming voice echoed in the drop bay. The resonance of Sergeant Wood's raucous laughter in the corridors on the Collins. The eager bright eyes of Private Henthorn and the gung-ho, but not quite yet fully competent leader that Specialist Sullivan was becoming. The pungent smell of gun oil that was once surprisingly punctuated by perfume… that Sergeant Peterson was wearing. The guessing game that she let Woods play, trying to figure out the name of the scent. The wry smirk of that cute Corporal in Third Squad that liked flirting with him. The usually 'chiseled from stone' stoic LT that would occasionally drop in a humorous wry comment here and there… a joke made all the funnier by punctuating his usual stoicism.

He started to feel a tightness in his chest. When he leaned back and took a deep breath, it came in bursts and realized that he was nearly crying, surprised that sadness had snuck up on him while he was reminiscing. Touching his face with his free hand, he realized that there were tears freely flowing down his cheeks. He didn't realize that they would affect him this much… We're soldiers, he thought, risk and death is part and parcel of a soldier in combat. His Unit had suffered the occasional loss in the past couple months. Today was different and the magnitude of it was now starting to settle upon him heavily. He had been so focused on his immediate survival for the past few hours that he had been able to largely ignore it. Now, in the darkness of the cave, it couldn't be escaped. Now, the reckoning of the ordeal he had survived could no longer be avoided.

It seemed that he lost them all.

No, no, no… he pleaded in his mind. Surely some survived… they had to. I saw the parachutes. I think that I can eventually accept that some died, but not all of them.

"Please not all of them," he begged aloud.

He then broke down and began to quietly but openly weep, burying his face in his rucksack. He realized that while he didn't take them for granted, the closeness he had with them had not been evident to him until now, something that he had overlooked before. With a crushing sadness, he realized that they were a family, the closest thing to a family he had yet known in his life.

Sure, they were loud, at times annoying and they occasionally squabbled… but they were a family. A family that looked out for each other. Hell, it was Private Henthorn that wanted to go pick a fight with one of the other Platoons in the company when he thought they were checking out the ladies in their own Platoon. Brothers sticking up for their sisters, just like a family did. Almost involuntarily, in his mind he started assigning them to familial positions. Sergeant Woods, the trouble maker brother, Private Henthorn the kid brother that needed looking out for and Sergeant Peterson, the disapproving older sister. Sergeant Nava, a grumpy uncle with a heart of gold and the Lieutenant, the eldest brother that kept the family together.

He didn't know what to make of his own tears, he rarely saw other men cry… or soldiers of either gender for that matter. He knew that it was normal and natural, he just didn't recall having cause to before. He thought back to when and where he has seen others get upset and realized it was at the 'Bragging Wall.' A bulletin board that was set up on the Collins for the crew to post pictures of families, boyfriends, girlfriends, pets, clippings from hometown newspapers, art from their children… It hurt to think about that. He couldn't finish the thought about their families before he started crying harder.

As his crying eased and waned, he rubbed his eyes and tried to wipe his face. He pulled out the tissue paper from the leftovers of his ration pack and tried to clean himself up. Steeling himself, he took a deep breath to shake off the residual sobs.

"No," he said quietly to himself, "I will not give up, I will carry on. I will remember them. I will fight for them."

Composed, though still wracked by residual sobs and the occasional stray tear that traced its way down his cheeks, his fatigue began to settle in. The combined exhaustion of the day's ordeal and his grief had begun to take their toll on him, his breathing began to slow and his eyes got heavy. Eventually, he fell asleep.