|This article, The Onyx Chronicles/Backwoods, was written by Ahalosniper. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.|
Heavy mist rose from the blades of ferns and between the needles of pines as the first light to reach the forest floor warmed dew into vapor. In turn, the morning sunbeams falling at a slant through the canopy far above were outlined in the haze, angled against the perfectly vertical trunks of the coniferous rainforest. Trapped beneath the layer of branches above, the thick mist captured the golden light of Zeta Doradus and green of thriving foliage to fill the temperate jungles of Onyx with their signature greenish glow.
Sensing it was time to wake from the warmth and moisture, strange native insects and tiny, flying amphibians began to emerge and lay in the precious light trickling down to warm themselves for the day to come, far too early yet to think of going anywhere else.
They had second thoughts when the growl of a hydrogen-boosted engine suddenly tore through the understory, and a light-framed ATV barreled across their glade as the inhabitants took flight or scattered for cover. The quad sped on between the dense-packed trees, heedless of the tranquil scene it had left its tire tracks on.
On the back of the vehicle were two undersized riders, jostling around every time the unsteady ATV hit so much as a fallen branch, but they’d managed to keep the quad’s wheels on the ground so far. The passenger was seated backwards over the rear axle, not heavy enough even to make the tail fold down like a passenger was usually supposed to do. His ear-length brown hair rippled in the wind as they swerved between the forest’s ancient pillars without slowing, his tiny hands gripping a handrail tightly. The driver was a little too short for the vehicle, legs barely reaching the pedals and head too short to clear the handlebars, ducking behind its tiny windshield instead. He had brown hair like his comrade’s, cut a little longer, and an excited smile that the jarring ride couldn’t shake off his face.
The passenger glanced over his shoulder as they drove on, shouting over the engine, “Sure you don’t want to double back through that rough spot again? I think you missed a bump!”
“Did not!” The driver replied. “I’m trying everything I can to lose these guys!”
The passenger turned back around as the deeper roar of another engine echoed after them. “Well they’re succeeding at not getting lost, Dyne!”
Dyne fought the urge to look back for himself for the Warthog that’d pursued them from almost the moment he and Kodiak had drove their stolen Mongoose away from Camp Currahee’s motor pool. Instead, he leaned further in against its saddle-like seat, as though it would help to streamline them.
The drill instructors of the SPARTAN-III Program didn’t seem to like the pair of trainees taking out a vehicle without authorization, but then again, that had sort of been the point. After all, if the proudest trouble-makers in Gamma Company weren’t going to teach them not to leave the keys in the ignition, who would? But getting away with their good deed was proving harder than they’d thought.
The pair had long since left the tire-worn dirt roads leading to and from Camp Currahee and taken to the thinner parts of the surrounding woods where the Mongoose could still squeeze by, and Warthogs couldn’t, but the drill instructors after them had been on Onyx for far longer than either trainee. Every turn they chose to make, their pursuers cut them off, and the margin they scraped by every time was getting smaller and smaller. Dyne was just about ready to give up, and save their planned endgame for another time, but Kodiak urged him on, leading him to keep the one step they were ahead by.
“We’re almost there,” Kodiak insisted, pointing alongside Dyne’s head. “Just hang right as soon as we’re out of the brush!”
“It’s all brush, what do you mean out of it?”
True enough, though, they plunged through a line of saplings a moment later and came out into a row in the forest where there was nothing more than moss on the ground to slow them down. The Mongoose made a nimble turn as Dyne turned the handlebar and fishtailed onto the path, kicking loose soil as it swerved.
“Sweet, home free now!” Dyne crowed. Kodiak, however, nudged him with an elbow in the back.
“Uh, not exactly.”
This time Dyne did chance looking back, and saw the wide front end of a Warthog coming around a bend behind them, the jeep’s wide all-terrain tires flying over the loam. Their Mongoose, on the other hand, had thinner tires that sliced into the soft earth, costing them speed. A moment after he turned his attention back to driving, something whizzed by Dyne’s left ear angrily, and a space on a wide banyan tree trunk burst into a splotch of bright yellow. More Tactical Training Rounds filled with paralytic paint followed as the Warthog started gaining ground.
But it looked as if the instructors had been too late. Up ahead, Dyne spotted where the forest trail ended on the brink of a sharp ravine. Over the edge, he could see the top of the opposite wall, made up of marbled black and white onyx, not like the polished rocks he’d seen his fellow trainees collect, but sheared away like broken glass, leaving a jagged cliff face that gave Dyne pause.
Behind him, Kodiak ducked beneath another burst of TTR and turned around to compare how fast the Warthog was catching up to how close they were to the ravine. He took a dislike to the way the odds came out.
“I’m gonna give you a better shot!” He yelled into Dyne’s ear, tapping him on the shoulder. “Good luck, man!”
“You can do this!”
Before Dyne could get more of an answer, Kodiak jumped from the back of the quad, breaking his fall by tucking and rolling into the soft moss. Getting up before he’d even come to a complete stop, he dived back into the thick foliage on the side of the path and was gone by the time the instructors’ Warthog went by.
“Oh, unbelievable.” Dyne groaned before turning his attention back to the ravine ahead. The Mongoose was picking up speed with less weight on its narrow tires, and just in time. A paint pellet burst on the inside of his windshield, spattering Dyne with yellow paint that numbed his skin wherever it touched, but he could already hear the Warthog’s brakes squealing.
Suddenly, the level of the ground dropped out from under the ATV, and Dyne shot through the air over the ravine cut by Twin Forks River far below. He would have let out a whoop in exhilaration, had it not been for the realization locking up his muscles and seizing every nerve from the moment his vehicle’s tires left the ground.
He wasn’t going to make it.
The fear of dropping over a hundred feet kept him paralyzed better than a coating of TTR paint would have done, but its hold on him broke as it occurred that he needed to do something about it. Scrambling frantically as his flight began to arc into a drop, Dyne planted a hand on the Mongoose’s saddle and pulled up his legs. Planting them quickly on the seat, he let go of the handles and kicked . . .
Dyne leaped from the Mongoose as it started plummeting down, inertia still carrying him forward. He just barely met the top of the opposite wall, his stomach colliding with the rim.
Air suddenly whooshed out of his lungs as his upper body folded over the edge, and he choked back tears in the desperate grab for a handhold. He heard the ATV crash into the wall some feet below him and whistle through the air as it fell away.
Dyne’s hand tore away blades of grass until he found their knotted roots and latched on tightly. From there, he was able to pull himself up and scrambled away from the edge as he sucked in air, every part of his body shaking. Somewhere far below, the Mongoose hit the water with a splash.
After a moment, a choked, nervous laugh made its way out of his mouth, and Dyne sighed in content as he regained the ability to breathe.
“Yer lucky that was a good jump.”
The sound of a country-accented voice from behind him caused Dyne to jump, startled. Whipping his head around, he looked up to find a man in his late thirties with the scruffy beginnings of a mustache and goatee wearing full Marine fatigues and body armor standing over him, one eyebrow curiously arched. Dyne immediately got to his feet, stood up straight and snapped a salute with his eyes forward. For once, he was glad to be so much shorter than a grown-up, because looking ahead kept him from meeting the man’s eyes.
“Staff Sergeant Stacker, sir!” Try saying that five times fast, he thought.
Pete Stacker slowly stepped forward, circling the dust-covered boy to inspect him before asking, “Trainee, I hear you took an ATV out early this morning without permission. Is that true?”
“Yessir!” Dyne snapped. He knew better than to lie about it.
“Mmhm. And if I had to guess, I’d say it was just so you could try that jump across Gregor’s Canyon I just saw you do, that right?”
The Staff Sergeant came to a stop in front of him. “Any particular reason you went through all that trouble?”
Dyne swallowed nervously, daring to glance up. “To see if I could, sir?”
Something flickered in Stacker’s green, sunk-in eyes. A hint of a smile made the corner of his mouth twitch upward. “Welp . . . guess you found out, didn’t you?”
Unconscious constriction in Dyne’s chest relaxed, and he returned the smile. Of all the DIs, Stacker was one of his favorites because he had what many others lacked: a sense of humor. “That’s affirmative, Staff Sergeant.”
“Good.” Stacker replied, turning around towards the forest so his back was to Dyne. “Well, enjoy your walk back to the camp. And Dyne? Be sure you don’t forget the bike.”
“The bike?” Dyne blinked, looking back over the ravine’s edge. Far below, the Mongoose was being slowly pulled along by Twin Forks River’s undercurrent, every so often a tire or bit of the bumper breaching the surface.
“That’s right. I want it working again by the end of the week.”
Dyne sighed, watching the ATV drift further downstream. “Yes sir.”
As Stacker walked off, grinning, Dyne started jogging parallel to the river, keeping a safe distance between himself and the edge. Fishing the Mongoose out was going to take some work, but he was resigned to it. Stacker was different from the other instructors because he had a sense of humor. But some days, it made him a lot worse.