I’d been back barely a week and already I was hunched over, cramp burning through my thighs and knees as rounds hammered into the tires at my back and whipped through the sodden grass to my left and right. My breathing was panting and short, and steam had reduced my goggle’s vision to a tiny sphere of uncertainty.
This, needless to say, was not how we’d planned it. We’d had them on the run all day, in fact we’d already whipped them so soundly that it was now impossible for them to claim a victory. But my God had they come back fighting. Literally.
I’d done this before, seven times in fact. More than almost everyone on the field that day. I’d been through engagements twice the size of this one. I’d won commendation, I’d been noted for skill and valour. I’d done this before, and the boy at my side, Matthew, had done it as many times as I. But Matthew wasn’t there any more, hit less than a minute earlier, and suddenly all the past experience in the world felt like it counted for very, very little.
I was hopelessly, helplessly pinned. We’d gone forward at the start, far too far forward, perhaps believing in our own immortality. A weight of fire as hot as any I’d encountered had started to pound us from the enemy emplacements mere yards away – whipping at the tires, spanking off the barrels, zipping through the grass. I even felt one part my hair.
That isn’t so bad, let me tell you, until the firing stops coming from dead ahead. When it starts cutting in from the sides, that’s when the panic sets in.
Matthew was hit. Even as it happened I saw the sight everyone dreads – masked, armed figures, crouched over, moving with a purpose, darting past me to the left. They were headed in the opposite direction. I brought up my weapon, but they were already gone on, leaving me alone and unnoticed as they rolled up our line. Our entire left flank had caved in, and we were being overrun. I was out the front, alone now, the leading edge of an advance which had disintegrated beneath the vengeful fury of our opponents.
I couldn’t go forward. I couldn’t go back. Angles of fire were slicing in with increasing severity from left and right. I only had one purpose remaining – to stay where I was and pray, if anyone rushed past, that I was quicker on the trigger. Our left was gone, but as long as I was still out front our centre and still right existed.
And as I hunched there, listening to the hammering of two dozen fully automatics, and watching the spray from their hits discolour the world around me, I was reminded once again of just how much I love paintballing.