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Chapter 6 of Holding the Fort: The Fatal Error

Chapter 6

The Trek to the Fort


Blackwoods Military Research Facility had been a very busy place over the last few days. Military convoys rolled nearly nonstop down a massive, fifteen-mile-long, government owned highway through the immense Wyoming forest. Of the ten lanes of road, only two were allotted for personal travel. The other eight were for military vehicles only. Everyone in town was abundantly aware of that rule. If a private car were on any lane other than the ones designated for personal travel, it would be immediately detained for suspicious activity. The highway was the only access road in town. It connected Briggs Air Force Base to the town of Blackwoods, and then finally to the research facility in a long, straight line. Briggs Air Force Base was the sole conduit to the outside world; all Blackwoods citizens had to check in and out of Briggs to go anywhere due to stringent security restrictions.

The highway was officially unnamed and uncharted on maps, but everyone in town called it the “Dark Highway” because the road was entirely invisible from all aerial and space methods of reconnaissance. No spy planes, no satellites, nothing above the distance of the treetops could detect the presence of a highway at all. This was achieved through the magic of the research and development labs at Blackwoods. The road was covered with a top-secret composite material especially designed to bend the light reflected from the surrounding landscape back into the sky. From above, the gigantic highway looked just like any patch of forest, totally inconspicuous, and any vehicles driving under the canopy of bent light would be undetectable as well. The material on the road also regulated heat, keeping the air around it at a temperature equal to the natural surroundings, such that no one could identify the structure if infrared imaging were used to get a thermal picture. It was the same technology that was used to keep the buildings of the research facility, and the town of Blackwoods itself, completely invisible from above.

Whatever was being delivered in those mammoth military vehicles motoring down the highway was never seen by anyone except the highest-ranking officers and scientists at Blackwoods. Not even the drivers of the camouflaged trailer trucks had any idea what they were hauling. The operators of the vehicles rarely smiled or acknowledged anything but the road ahead. Their expressions were ones of pure concentration on the task at hand, and they were surrounded by those insisting that that was the way it stayed. Heavily armed guard patrols escorted the vehicles into the research facility. They were given the authority to shoot-to-kill anyone who attempted to attack, hijack, or otherwise interfere with military operations. But no one had been foolish enough to try that yet.

#

Bravo Team walked down Main Street, one of only twenty or so actual streets in the entire town. Austin and Bradley led the way, discussing and fine-tuning their battle plan. Kevin followed behind them with his large laser sniper rifle draped across his back. Ethan and Caleb brought up the rear of the squad. Ethan was glad to be outside walking, putting time and distance between the tense episode that had occurred in Judy’s diner. He was looking forward to the battle ahead, even in his underappreciated role. Once the horn blew and the game started, all of his problems with Austin and Bradley seemed to vanish for a while as he charged toward the enemy. It was that fleeting feeling of freedom that kept him coming back through all the hard times.

The group paused at the guard checkpoint of the Dark Highway. It was over a two-mile hike to the Bravo Team fort in the woods, and, to get there, they had to cross the highway. Usually, they were able to cross quickly. Today they had to wait. Military cargo vehicles rumbled past them one after the other with no end in sight. The camouflaged vehicles appeared to blur together, forming a green, leafy, raging river. The team watched the convoy, totally entranced. They didn’t notice the two young soldiers armed with real rifles approaching them.

“You heading out to play your laser games,” one of the soldiers said, his voice taking on a slightly mocking tone. Austin grimaced, offended by the comment.

“That’s General Turnbull’s boy,” the other soldier pointed out quickly and with respect.

The first soldier shifted uneasily. “Sorry… Always a pleasure to meet the general’s family,” he said, changing his tune on a dime. “We’ll let you know as soon as you can cross.”

“So, you wanna tell us what’s in those trucks?” Caleb asked the soldiers with a playful chuckle that indicated he didn’t expect an answer.

“Sure,” the second soldier played along. “It’s a giant load of toilet paper. It was taco night at the base last night,” he said with a laugh. “Truth is, we have no idea what’s in them. Actually, your guys’ parents probably know a lot more about it than we do.”

“Not his parents,” Austin said as he nodded to Ethan. “School librarian and the research facility’s janitor… His dad better hope it wasn’t taco night,” he said with a snicker.

Ethan stared at Austin with indignant eyes, but he said nothing. The other soldiers watched Ethan with thoughtful faces, but they said nothing either.

#

Once Bravo Team crossed the highway, it was a little over a mile through dense forest and rocky slopes to get to their base. Austin kept an intense pace the entire time, mainly because he wanted to punish the rest of the team for being late for the meeting at Judy’s Diner. Ethan never broke a sweat, even on the most strenuous hikes, but Caleb was nearly tripping over his tongue in exhaustion.

The base soon became visible to Ethan. At a hundred yards away, it was easy to miss for all the camouflage, unless you knew it was there. But Ethan could always locate the mainstay of the fort’s defenses—the laser turret tower—much faster than anyone else. As a scout, it was a necessity to know where that tower was at all times. The laser turret was a firepower beast, capable of shooting over two hundred rounds per minute of highly accurate, computer-guided blue laser beams at the enemy. Spotting that tower quickly, from remote distances and multiple angles, was often the difference between life and death.

The sight of the base always filled Ethan with pride. The construction of their fort had taken up the entire summer before sixth grade. There were no Laser War games at all that summer; it had been decreed by the leaders of all the teams that that time would be used to build their new forts. The structures that most teams built were solid and functional—cinder-block concrete was always popular, and so were planks of lumber hammered onto trees, glorified treehouses, or sandbag bunkers surrounding camouflaged tents. Delta Team’s fort had been made with steel and was one of the best. But the Bravo Team went above and beyond, and then some. Their base reflected Caleb’s genius and the determination of what was once a well-oiled, unified team.

The Bravo Fort spanned a distance of thirty feet across. It was truly a most impressive fortress, looking more like the work of five engineers with PhDs than five kids not yet in high school. Large plates of steel were seamlessly bolted together and welded in all the right spots. The exterior was painted entirely in military-grade camouflage, the kind that covered armored vehicles sent into combat.

The fort had three tactical levels—the main level, the loft, and the basement. The main level was the entry level. It was as airtight as a drum with the exception of one large, heavy metal door that was basically the only way into the fort. The door used no keys but instead relied on a computerized entry system. A keypad to the side of the door on the outside enabled a member of the team to enter a passcode to unlock the door.

Once inside the main level, the real showstopper was the command center. Four computer monitors on the wall kept a video visual of the outside. The computers were connected to cameras mounted on top of the fort that allowed for a panoramic view of up to a hundred yards away. Furthermore, cameras were mounted on each of the players’ headsets that relayed video and sound back to the computers at the base, so whoever was running the command center knew as well as possible what was happening in the field. The main level also contained a war room where battle plans were discussed. It consisted of a small conference table, a large chalkboard, and an elaborate map of the woods posted on the wall.

The loft of the fort included a trenched walkway around the roof where the Bravo Team could utilize the high ground in defending the base. They were protected by a five-foot-tall wall of thick steel plates welded together along the entire length of the structure, with gaps here and there from which to fire their rifles. On the left end of the loft, a pedestal rose six feet higher than the top of the wall. The laser turret was mounted on top there, perched like an angry bird of prey, menacingly staring down all would-be invaders.

The basement of the fort served two main purposes. First, it was a supply depot- flashlights, batteries, bottled water, and other sundries were tucked away there. It also contained a couple of power generators that could be used in the rare event that the solar panels on the roof failed to charge the lithium-ion battery stack responsible for powering the fort. The second purpose of the basement was that it served as sort of a panic room. As a last resort, if there were absolutely no other alternatives, the basement offered the only other way out of the base—a secret passageway. This passageway was hidden behind one of the generators and covered with a locked, metal hatch. A tunnel from it ran sixty feet away from the base and emptied out into the woods behind it. The hole leading out was capped with a manhole cover and was thoroughly camouflaged. This emergency exit was a highly kept secret of the Bravo Team, and they intended to keep it that way.

#

Ethan and the rest of Bravo Team sat around the conference table in the main level of the fort. Except for Austin. He was standing beside the chalkboard and map of the woods, droning on about battle strategy, chest puffed out like an emperor penguin. Austin pointed dramatically at the map with a long wooden pointer, occasionally moving little magnetic icons representing the members of the team to various locations on the map. Ethan had heard the exact same strategy before, five days and two battles earlier, and it wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering plan then.

Caleb and Kevin paid enough attention to get by without incurring the wrath of their captain. But Ethan’s mind soon drifted. He quickly found himself staring alternately at his pompous captain and a framed picture next to the door. The picture had been taken the summer after fifth grade. It showed the members of Bravo Team—Ethan, Austin, Bradley, Caleb, and Kevin—standing side-by-side with their arms draped around each other in celebration, all beaming bright, proud smiles.

Ethan’s dad had snapped the picture just after the team put the finishing touches on the fort. Back then, it didn’t matter to Austin that Ethan’s dad was “only” a maintenance man. In fact, Ethan’s father was the only one willing to spend his weekends hauling in construction supplies for the fort. Back then, Austin appreciated all the help that Ethan’s dad had given the group, realizing the fort would’ve never been built without him. Back then, Ethan’s dad was just another guy with a job at the research facility, and Ethan was just one of Austin’s friends. Ethan could feel the change coming in their relationship, even before General Turnbull abruptly shipped his son off to Schrodinger Military Academy in Texas, two months into sixth grade. That was nearly two years ago. Laughter seemed to die first, as Ethan’s jokes slowly slid from funny to lame, especially when Austin was with his other friends. Lunches together happened less and less frequently until, eventually, Ethan felt like an unwelcome alien at Austin’s table. And except for Laser Wars games, which Austin took on like a job, weekend socializing fizzled out to nothing.

But the bullying didn’t start until Austin returned from his fall semester at Schrodinger Military Academy. Then it kicked off with a bang. Ethan had no idea what happened to Austin over those two short months, or why he’d been sent there in the first place. All he knew was that Austin had been changed forever since. As Ethan looked at the picture of the happy, unified Bravo Team frozen in time on the wall, he couldn’t help but find the irony in it all—that just after they had built the strongest, most sturdy fort in all of Blackwoods, their team began to fall apart.

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