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The sky rained down with screaming hellfire. The building tensions between the nations of the world finding a cataclysmic end. The world burned as the bombs fell like hail from above. The impact of man’s ingenuity and cruelty shook the foundation of the earth. With each set of impacts echoing like a drumline, it felt as though the ground would crack to let loose the molten world below. Buildings shook and fell. Families and friends held each other close. And the nations of the world waited to see who would be left standing when the barrage ended. For no one could claim a victory in this. It was a war in which every party lost. A war that was hundreds of years in the making.

Three days of bombing fell onto many of the “leading” countries, with big cities targeted most. Some ran to the wilderness. They risked the wildlife over the bombs. Most governments stayed in place, even if barely, thanks to key members hidden in bunkers. Those bunkers could not keep those leaders safe from men on foot. When the bombs stopped, the gunfire began. Within a week, most active political heads who voted for that first bomb to be dropped on China were killed. The U.N. was dissolved after over half the representatives had been assassinated.

It was a month when the world stood still.

Main military bases were wiped out. Many earthquake- heavy regions fell victims to the earth’s tremors as a result of so much unnatural seismic tensions. Nations were weak, leaderless, and more than half the world’s population had been eliminated in just 72 hours. While everyone tried to rebuild the world around them, the remaining leaders of the world looked for something to do. A way to fix it all.

A treaty. An agreement to pacify what hostility remained. A way to ensure people no one could possess that amount of control. A way to stop this from happening again. A global nation of one, ruled by many. Peace in the face of fire. For a world so stricken with shock and grief, it was a promise they longed for.

Years of work went into perfecting those laws and treaties. Pacts. Research. Pulling every country onto the same playing field. Fair treatment no matter race, origin, age, gender, status, religion, sexuality, or identity. It was the Utopia hoped and promised for since the end of the War to End All Wars. And for a century after the induction, this was how the global society works. For decades, the world struggled to get back to where it had been before the first bomb fell. By the 30th Anniversary, of that fateful morning, everything was back on track. The Day of Reckoning was a symbol of too much power gone wrong. And why people needed to work harder and together for peace.

But no matter how people try, a plan would never be truly fool-proof. Not everyone was equal. Not everyone was as smart or strong as another. Some were sickly, and others were immune. Before the Global Alliance turned 100, the labelling began. For their health. For their breeding. Their schools. Their birth. Now, man has spread among three planets, two space colonies, and four moons. Everyone was chipped at birth. Everyone was tested thoroughly through their youth. And by 16, everyone knew how far they could go in the civilian world.

Some born on the colonies. They were the lucky ones. They were well bred. Specially educated and primed to be future leaders, as was their title. Many of the highest caste lived there or on the moons. They became political heads of the world. And while many were not bad, the imbalance caused most to think more of themselves than needed. While it was mandatory for all other citizens, Leaders are excused from the two-year mandatory service in the military.

The Educators lived mostly on the moons, but they are found throughout the solar system. They have the potential to be Leaders, but few get through the qualifications to make the jump into the new caste. Some from failure, and some due to the need for their caste level. The Educators are the doctors, the scientists, and all academics. While not the ones who make the calls that weigh on the lifestyles of civilians, they are highly respected. Commonly enter the military as officers. Not only can an Educator raise their status, but also loose it and fall to a lower caste.

Off-Worlders were the common, formerly known as lower white-collar and higher blue-collar families. The doers of the GA. The businessmen and entrepreneurs of the people who originally kept a collapsed world from crumbling. Off-Worlder was a title given after most world travel and moving became harder. While they mostly live on planets and moons, higher-level Off-Worlders are set up in businesses on Hope and Justice, the two space colonies.

Terrarians are the “originals.” People who never moved from earth. While it is the oldest of places man has inhabited, it is also the only place where all humans are truly natural. Enhancers do not make it to the home planet. It is now the land of natural factories and industry. Terrarians are workers and often looked at as simple and backwater. They are the ones with no hope of moving up in life or joining a new cast. Most take their military service from mandatory to their career and hope for the government job that could follow.

But it is Earth that is quiet now. No more battles or wars on the soil. No more bombs screaming from overhead. The fight moved on. The “uncivilized” Terrarians live in peace with each other. The moons are the new battlegrounds. And The Moon (Earth’s moon) is host to the Global Alliance’s headquarters and all the basic military training grounds. The members of the GA are constantly looking out for hints of terrorism that has popped up more commonly on IO and Europa over the past six years. It was during that time an outbreak took on the façade of a threat from a bygone day.

In the image of a reporter being beheaded on ever public Hologram around the solar system. A threat for the world to see.

Chapter Text

“Ray get over here,” a stern voice called from across the ship’s staging area. “Need my RTO.”

The voice belonged to one Bradley Colbert. A man of intimidating stature and control over his emotions. That, and perhaps his features that harken to an ancient people from Earth’s frigid North earned him the nickname of Iceman. In older units, the name was more utilized. The drop into Castillo’s Ice Spires two years ago to quell an uprising started on Io had been the origin. Brad’s first mission out as Recon and first chance to show what he could do for the Global Alliance meant not holding back. Fresh from BRC and ready to prove himself, he had made three jumps with his sergeant. A year ago, the young corporal was part of a scouting mission on one of Mars’ little jokes of a moon for possible terrorism activity. While they did not find much on the barren wasteland than the two fueling stations and a communication checkpoint, he find himself an insufferable hetero life partner.

Brad grew up on Europa after being adopted by a loving family. His father had been there when he and his family were found on an illegal transport from Mars. While his parents were sent back, the innocent infant was taken into custody and adopted by the Colberts. He was raised in their warm, open family. From the start, they began ensuring he got all his inoculations and enhancements. As a child not born from Educator backgrounds, he was not guaranteed the same abilities to excel as his parents and sister had. He went through twice the amount of testing before finally being allowed to enter one of the military academies at 15. From that day on, he pushed himself hard to prove he was better than born educators. Once in the military, his eyes were set on Recon. An ancient tradition, but the only field where all castes were treated the same. Where a Terrarian could be smarter than a Leader.

And such was the case of Ray. They were opposite as they came. Brad was standing just shy of six and a half feet with white-blond hair, lightly tanned skin, and piercing blue eyes. He had strong arms and wide shoulders that made the man seem as though he loomed over everyone else. His face was usually schooled into one of practiced indifference. He was also intelligent enough to know he was very attractive. The man was never without affection when grounded. Not to say Ray was not attractive, but he was definitely an acquired taste. The man who swaggered over stood nearly a foot shorter than Brad with a lithe frame that was dwarfed by most the men in their unit. He was all hard, wiry muscles under his tattooed skin with almost black hair and large and expressive brown eyes. Unlike Brad, Ray was rarely not laughing, smiling, joking, or talking.

But where Brad was raised an Educator, “saved” from a lower Off-Worlder lifestyle, Ray was a Terrarian. His family had never had the choice or chance to leave Earth. For longer than that, they resided in a shithole town (Ray’s words) in the States. While Brad had grown up with tutors and school pushing him harder and harder to succeed, Ray admitted to having perfected the art of drawing dicks on bathroom stalls with holo-pens. Yet Ray was easily the smartest person Brad had ever met, and he was not one to over exaggerate.

That fateful trip to Phobos had taught him that quickly. Brad had been in a heated and vaguely one-sided discussion with a sergeant from another company over the breakdown in communication. The radio issue had almost caused the drop zone for his squad to fall under-boot of a few Mechs. The RCT Sergeant was ready to pull rank on the mouthy corporal when this tiny Marine skittered by with what looked like a broken-down radio in one hand, what turned out to be a makeshift soldering iron in the other, and a mouth full of other items in his mouth and held precariously between his fingers. And was still somehow cursing out the military, Ion storms, and every deity under the sun as he went. It had been enough to shut the sergeant up, as he went to chase after the kid, who was supposed to be helping him. It was also enough to make Brad investigate who he was.

After the mission and a jump into Mars’ desert, one Ray Person showed up to First Recon, freshly promoted to corporal. While Brad had gone into Recon for a chance to see what things were like with everyone only being there to be the best, Ray had gone to prove he could. Dropping next to Brad after 15 months of time in Recon was more than enough Proof. Though the real shock was now had he survived this long without being killed by one of his own men. Out of the corner of his eyes, Brad saw the smile growing across Ray’s face.

“What can I do you for, there, buddy,” he asked too happily.

“Do you have any intel on the new LT,” Brad asked in an annoyed and hushed tone.

Brad was not happy to say he had not found much on who they were getting. With so many drop missions happening on the moon, and the work being done on a new colony, silence and secrecy was at an all-time high. Even his vast connects were not willing to talk with the chance of their conversation being tracked. And Recon was one of those teams someone joined knowing no one would know where they were until they came back. It was part of the job, as was finding everything out second hand and way to late. The first to go; the last to know.

But. If anyone could make a stone bleed, it would be Ray. Brad did not have the way with people Ray did. He was aloof and mostly on purpose. The guys in Recon, save maybe a very select few he would not give the time of day outside of the military. They were friends of circumstance, because being stressed and constantly at war without someone to turn to and lean on would even break him. Ray, on the other hand, was the only guy of the unit aside from Hasser to get mail almost daily on the Holos. He also was the only one who would be able to encrypt his messages well enough that someone would not be able to get into it. He was one of the few living examples that showed why the Caste idea that “Terrarians were not as smart as Leaders” was total bullshit.

Ray’s eyes glowed with enjoyment at the way Brad’s face strained. He was the only man who could somehow purse his lips and still have his deep wrinkles show. It was one of Brad’s favorite looks he had. The private one that was more of a friend excited to give information than a corporal reporting to his superior. Before Ray spoke, Brad knew the answer, and the glint of teeth peaked through his sharp smirk.

“You know your dear pal Ray wouldn’t let you down. How about we go check out the Mech, make sure they actually packed the right ones for this drop,” he suggested, bounding to his feet.

Brad stood slowly and stretched. They both wore their uniformed trousers, but while Bray wore his standard-issued undershirt tucked in, Ray had his unit hoodie on and both the sweatshirt and his undershirt were untucked. Brad loved rules and regulations. He knew they had a point and purpose. But, as much as he hated to think it and would not say it under pain of torture, he liked Ray more. Which is why he ignored his duty as Ray’s direct charge and he did not correct this. Instead he made eye contact with his other best friend in the unit, Espera and waited for the other man to snap-to. When Poke shifted his weight and tilted his head slightly, clearly asking what Brad wanted, he just replied with, “Watch the kids.”

Garcia laughed at that and went back to cleaning his rifle while Trombley pouted. Ray followed brad out of the staging area and into the cold interior of the ship. All around them was exposed piping and metal grates. The lights shone a soft blue and fake portholes along the wall showed the starscape of their general area of the solar system. Time from Moon was a week, which put them not far from Mars, where they would pick up this new LT and maybe get some information on where they were going. All they knew was what the news told them. Io was in rebellion again. And now it was hostile. Their last LT was amazing, but he had been injured on Venus and pushed to a rear echelon position. The new captain who took over the sister platoon was new to Recon and had never deployed to a hostile region. He had worked Embassy Guard in Justice for two years, which he thought was impressive. It was not.

They turned, and Brad placed his hand on the scanning pad. He did not even wince as the laser pricked into his skin for blood. The door opened into the Hanger where 11 Mechs were staged. The mobility of Recon. While not the individual drops they’d use if deploying straight from space, they were fast enough and once landed became trucks fit for the wide variety of landscapes they would face. They were beautiful, however no one in Recon was fully trained for them except Liley. That was a job for Motor T, and a license that took almost a year to gain. Yet, somehow Ray had mastered using one in a week. They canvased the area silently their boots not even clicking on the metal grates of the floors. Brad’s eyes looked over everything in the room and listened. He held his breath as though his suit gave out. His record was four minutes, so this was nothing. A moment later, both men were face to face at Hitman 1A, declaring their sector clear. Ray smirked and climbed up the machinery and sat on the currently empty booster.

“Apparently, we missed out new LT in Mars by a few weeks when we met on Phobos,” Ray started. His voice was low. Even if no one would punish them now for having the information, he was not about to paint the target on himself. “He was part of Third for his first big drop.”

Brad looked two inches down from Ray’s eyes as his brain filtered through what happened with Third Recon 10 months ago. In that time, First had been stations mostly planet-side. They had a lot of work cut out for them in Venus and on Justice. Third was finished a tour on Earth and was being sent out to Castillo. He had to have been part of the team who jumped into the raiding encampment. Brad nodded but had not blinked as he continued to mentally flick through his Rolodex of categorized information.

“Not a butter bars, then,” he gathered in his even and deep tone. To have dropped with a recon unit already, he had to go through the six months of training and qualifications. OCS was already three months, and to get accepted into recon, even as an officer was not easy. He had to have been an infantry officer or intelligence officer to begin with. A full tour would put the kid at three years in service, meaning he picked up first lieutenant by now.

“And combat experience,” Ray added.

Brad’s eyes flicked up and away again. He knew what that comment meant. Most of their officers had no experience. And for the first time in centuries, recon was not going solo into the mission. Instead of a lot of ass to back them up, First Recon had a lot of assholes to slow them down. The only two people with combat experience in their entire direct chain of command outside of their gunnery sergeant was Sixta and Griego. And one was as bad as the other.

“That all,” he asked and looked up in time to see Ray’s unimpressed face. Brad’s lip twitched upward, and his eyes shone with amusement. Of course, it wasn’t. His dear pal Ray would never let him down.

“He’s from Colony Justice,” Ray added lightly. “Graduated from whatever that main, snobby university they have there is. With a double major, so he didn’t even have to join.”

“Jesus Christ,” Brad groaned. They had a golden boy on their hands. “How’d he do on Castillo?”

“Apparently, he was damn good out there. Got a meritorious promotion on the battlefield and everything. My buddy was just about jerking off to this kid like he was some angel of war.”

“Well, luckily for your friend, we as a species have grown past our prejudices against what hole people prefer to stick their dick into, however fucking an officer is still fraternization.”

Brad looked up through his lashed at Ray, who rolled his eyes and jumped down from his perch on the Mech. The man’s blue eyes watched the graceful drop and marveled at the man’s grace. His level were given enhancements for their strength and flexibility. They were bred to be stronger and better, yet somehow most of First Recon were like Ray. Nothing but natural-born humans, developed entirely by life on the land and working hard. Between him and Gunny Wynn, Brad was fully convinced a force of Terrarian Recons would destroy most any other unit made up of advanced sapiens.

“Stop looking all gay at me, Homes. I already told you I require three dates at a fancy restaurant before you can fuck me,” Ray quipped as he strode passed. But not before getting Brad’s wide hand to the back of his head.

 

Nate Fick stared at the landing port as First Expedition landed. On board was his new unit. He had been in the military long enough to no longer feel the pain of leaving a group of men behind. And with the line of work he decided to get into, it made it easier. While he grew immeasurably attached to Third Recon, he had always known this day would come. That they would move on, and he would go to a new group of men. First Suicide, however, was not where he had expected to be sent. The old nickname harkened to ancient times with their archaic missions on Earth. The name stuck out of endearment and the company’s innate need to be cocky. This obsession with lineage made researching their track record easier. With a Full Clearance thanks to his Leader upbringing and graduation from Vindication, the unit’s history was at his fingertips. And it was how he passed the time as he waited for his new group to arrive.

He had been on leave before coming to Mars. It was a two-day journey from Justice to the base this time of the rotation. It was not so much year, as they still worked from the Gregorian Calendar. He had had a week to himself and his family. A rare luxury recently. But it also meant he was home when the reporter had been executed. And he had his leave cut short with his unit getting activated immediately. He was being picked up on base and taking the two-day drive to the Martian Wastes for training. It was the closest thing to Io they had for landscape outside of Ganymede, but the moon was too close to the target. Spying would be too easy from that distance. The asteroid belt and electric storms that pulsed through the area would be more than enough cover to mask what they were drilling on.

A voice crackled through the radio overhead, calling him to the landing bay to meet with his new commanding officers and staff NCOs. The young man sucked in his lip and exhaled. He looked far greener than he was, and Nate knew that. From his first few days with his original infantry unit, through his time at Third, the man had been reminded of his youthful exterior. He had wide eyes that shone clear and green with soft features and thick lips. The fact that he kept his hair closely cropped so his ears stuck out slightly did not help any. But he was also a tall man, standing well over six feet and built of long muscles. Yet, no matter how much he brought to the table, he was teased about being the boy wonder.

With the rush of the situation, his commanding officer and executive officer decided to forego the military formality of reporting wearing his service uniform. His last two days were spent checking into the unit through Holos and medical. What normally was a week-long process had been crammed into two days, and the man had his Check-In sheet in the breast pocket of his uniform. The elevator to the Landing Pad ticked lightly as each floor passed before bobbing to a stop. The doors opened, and Nate looked round at a sea of young men. All looking glad to have more than the cramped spaceship to move through. His eyes surveyed the scene before him and landed on three of the oldest-looking men of the unit. They were also the only ones with their appearance fully in regulation. Nate figured if anyone was a Lieutenant Colonel, it would be the gray-haired man there.

He crossed the open landing area and stopped in front of the three men. They stopped chatting long enough to acknowledge the young man before them. Nate clicked his heels together and reported in with a professional ease. He did not move while Lt. Col. Ferrando looked him over carefully. The man’s cold gaze studied what seemed to be every part of Nate before falling back to his eyes and nodding softly.

“I’m glad you were able to make it on such short notice,” He rasped like a man who smoked twenty cigarettes a day. “You can meet your men tomorrow, but first let’s get the other officers and staff together. Chaos himself dropped our orders an hour ago.”

Nate nodded and fell instead with three captains and two gunnies. One captain had a boyish face with either unbridled enthusiasm or uncontrolled fear. Neither were comforting considering they were about to begin drills in a few says. Beside him was a confused-looking captain with his eyes slowly blinking at the world around him. Had Nate known everyone had at least seen space travel once on programs, he would have assumed this was all new to the guy. Next was a short, grouchy looking gunny, who kept looking him over with a sneer. Nate let his steps slow, so he fell in line with the other two. A tall and lean captain with a checkered scarf peaking out from under his space flak and Kevlar held loosely in his hand like a biker would hold his helmet. Beside him was his gunny, a striking-looking fellow who looked to be pure muscle. Both looked at Nate with humored faces.

“How disappointed are you going to be when we tell you they’re your company,” the Gunny asked with a laugh in his voice. His eyes watched carefully as Nate licked his lips quickly, pulled them in and swallowed. His comment stowed away, and reaction policed, he looked back up with a blank and inquisitive expression replacing the annoyance he actually felt.

“I’m not sure why I’d be disappointed, Gunny,” he replied evenly. It earned a snort from the captain. The older man shoved his Gunny with his shoulder and a head shake.

“Captain Patterson,” the man offered. “And this is Barrett.” The Gunny nodded with a teasing smirk. “Ahead you have Captain McGraw, Captain Schetje, and Gunnery Sergeant Griego.”

Nate narrowed his eyes at the way Griego’s full rank was used rather than the more endearing Gunny or Guns. That both made Nate feel worried and understand why he would be nervous. Barrett must have assumed he heard something about the man. But, being fresh to the planet and not one for gossip, it all missed his ears. And he hoped it was nothing more than the older man making a sport of the new kid.

“And this charming devil dog,” Barrett cut into his thoughts as another man sauntered up with his lip packed with tobacco and a bottle to catch his spit in, “Is your Gunny. Mike Wynn.”

“You must be Lt. Fick,” the man’s drawl was easy and almost lazy if not for how his amber eyes pinned him. “Boys will be glad to meet you tomorrow.”

He reached out his hand, which Nate took. It was nice to have a handshake with someone in this field where it did not turn into a pissing contest. Too many times before, men of Wynn’s rank tried to show up the younger man by squeezing his hand and rolling his knuckles. This one was firm and friendly, as was the way the Gunny’s eyes shone with his smile.

“How are the men after the trip,” Nate asked when their hands dropped. He looked around with hope that things were as good as they seemed. His head tilted slightly with curiosity as grins spread over the three other men’s faces. They all looked like the very definition of mischief. His gaze flashed from one pair of eyes to the other as Patterson broke from the moment and patted Nate on the shoulder warmly.

“Absolute Hellions. You’ll love them,” the older man promised. The hand on his should guide Nate past the elevator he took down to the briefing rooms in the back of the landing bay. Before they left, he heard a few voices booming above the others, ordering the men to the squad bays for the docs to look them over before chow. A smirk ticked on his lips. That was the sound of good team leaders.

Chapter Text

The conference room was small. This part of the base was mainly used for transient troops as First Recon were. They would be staged and refueled here for two days before leaving on a new transport ship. The clunky ships that took troops from Mars to Venus were not made for long and fast travel through occupied space. Though the asteroid belt was more not the Drake Passage early travelers expected it to be. Still, unexpected shifts and movements of planets in the solar system made it difficult to control the larger ships. The team would also be dropping ahead of the regiment, which meant they needed less supplies. The men going were self-sufficient. That was why they were tasked to be the shock troops of the attack.

Just because he understood that did not mean Gunny Wynn had to like it. Mike was raised on Earth, reading about the battles and the heroics of men and women in space. Earth was quiet. It had been a long time since the old planet caused much of a problem. His relaxed town in the south of the American landmass was not known for much aside the ore in the ground and the oil fields a few hundred kilometers away. There was nothing Mike had to look forward to outside of the same work his family had done for years. So, he looked to the sky instead. He put a lot of work into training for this. Their mandatory service was just long enough to build a reputation and put in for being Recon. It took him two tries to pass, only failing the crash simulation over water. But when many of his year went back to earth, Mike went back to the Moon for BRC, and then back home for the intense training.

He had put a lot of it to use. The survival, the quick thinking, his marksmanship. He had put a solid 13 years in the service leading up to this moment. But never before did he think SERE training would be used for anything other than torture resistance and being a prisoner of war. But the skills he learned on how to school his expression was vital as he listened to their leader drag on about the mission. He understood that their commanding officer was not a recon-based Marine. He was at least infantry, so Godfather should have known the theory behind what he was saying. Yet, every word that came out of his mouth was unsure and Mike was sure his focus was not inline with the mission.

From what they had been told in the initial briefing, the plan was to route out the hotbeds of terrorists and eliminate the threat upon the civilian populace. They were to use as minimal force as possible, go in as quietly as possible and prevent this from being an all-out conflict. That meant silence and efficiency. That meant solo missions with squads and no heavy brass weighing the enlisted men down. What Godfather was suggesting was the exact opposite of how recon worked. The whole battalion would be on the ground with them rather than in orbit. Supply would be on surface, as well, rather than sent through drop pods at night. Each squad would be weighed down not only by the weight of each other in the periphery, but by non-infantry types who are meant to act in support of the mission, not directly hand-in-hand.

Gunny cast a subtle glance over to his new platoon leader to find him with an unreadable expression. The blank earnest set about his features made the man seem enraptured by the description of the mission and the methods in which they’d achieve their goal. The bulge in his cheek, however, told Mike the young man was clenching his jaws. That he was not happy about what was being proposed. His hands were clenched behind his back in a relaxed parade rest, though the older man was sure if the young LT had any excess nails, they would be digging into the opposite had with how tightly they were grasped. With a spit of his chewing tobacco into his empty bottle, Mike cast a glance over at Patterson, who was watching Bravos’ CO. Patterson was a smart CO and in charge of Alpha. While never with a recon unit before, the man helped with the guerilla insurrection on Io when the first scuffle broke out. He was calm and analytical. But, most of all, he knew he was superfluous. And he was hardly offended with that. He had told his own Gunny a number of times his men only needed him to sign leave papers and set up watch schedules on point.

It was second nature for recon to be cautious with officers. They rarely had good ones who both appreciated the independence their men and woman had achieved and encourage their initiative. Alpha was lucky Patterson did both with traditional gallows humor. Mike could only hope Fick would be the same. As of right now, Bravo was stuck with two officers his men dubbed Encino Man and Captain America, and not out of affection. Nate’s fellow platoon leader, Capt. David McGraw, was a fresh-faced captain to infantry. He had worked at as an embassy guard, with little to know actual tactical training. He had one terrifying night where the footie match got out of control, and a riot broke out in front of the embassy suites. While devastating in terms of a civilian riot, it was hardly noteworthy for the servicemen and women who had been sent just three weeks later to assist in riot control over the police brutality that occurred that night. McGraw was safely behind the walls of the embassy and watched through the screens of the security office.

Encino Man was one of the many cases that only aided to the argument that preferred breeding and enhancements did not a leader make. Craig looked the part of a warrior. He was built and tough-looking, but his aptitude was lacking. He had come over from H&S with a different battalion before getting the appointment as company commander. On paper, he was a stellar Marine. High rifle and PT scores, his CFT with Supply had been a battalion record. With recon, he was run of the mill, and all but the new junior enlisted who were pulled before their BRC package could get submitted had more experience than him. But where Encino Man’s ignorance was infuriating, it was Griego who was the real issue. Griego had been a recon Marine for years. There was no way to be senior enlisted without that job field for a company commander, but it seemed the desk life had Gunny looking to get his promotion off his new company commander’s back. Just as Godfather was looking to get his full bird on the back of recon as a whole. He had served with Griego before, but where he was conceited years ago, he was now dangerously cocky.

His mind snapped to with the mention of their mechs no longer being SOP. The room froze, but Godfather continued on as if the air around him had not metaphorically froze. All he had said was, “Our Mechs will be tasked over to RCT, and we will be utilizing LATVs for the initial push,” and carried on as if that was not a huge change to the entire mission. They had worked hard to get their drivers proficient at using the mechs, as only Liley was Motor Transport by original trade. Shifting to a new vehicle only a week before the actual push to Io was dangerous. And stupid. His eyes snapped to Patterson and Barrett who nodded. Beside him, Fick rolled his lips between his teeth and strained to keep the face neutral.

When the natural break for questions happened, it was Patterson who spoke first, asking about the vehicles they were tasked with and how they were to get non-drop ATVs to the surface without alerting the entire hemisphere. Their mechs were specifically designed to drop down like a small shuttle quickly. Godfather looked over the men and nodded.

“The vehicles will be staged for us by H&S as a standard supply run to the outer dunes. Alpha and Bravo will be Stratos Dropping. Exo suits will arrive tomorrow, giving us a step-off window of 48 to train in the wastes on ATVs similar to the ones we will be using on Io.”

More silence hung in the air. Mike could see Fick’s throat bob as he swallowed.

“If that is all, company commanders on me. Platoon leaders brief the men in the bays before pulling your manifests.”

Mike and Nate stood still as the captains walked to their battalion CO. Mike exhaled and spit into his bottle again. Fick’s head dropped and shook slightly. The man seemed more in awe of what just transpired rather than stressed or worried. He turned his green eyes onto Mike, who just offered a shrug. There was nothing they could do other than prepare the men and hope for the best. He could tell a hundred arguments were racing through the bright eyes before him, but there was no time to go through them all. They had a mission as a unit, and as a pair. While everyone had to accomplish the goal and end the insurrection. He and Fick needed to get their men out safely and in one piece.

The young lieutenant turned on his heel and looked Mike in the eye. His face looked as though he was desperately searching for some hint in the otherwise passive features. Maybe something akin to agreement. Mike allowed that much with his eyes closing and a slow, pained head shake. He spit again into the bottle and rolled his shoulders.

“It ain’t worth it, sir,” Mike responded. “Our boys will be dealing with a lot worse if we let it get to us.”

Fick dropped his head slightly. It bobbed a few times as he nodded to himself before the man looked up and heaved out a pained sigh.

“Well, Gunny. Guess I should go meet the boys then,” he conceded. “And it’s Nate.”

“Mike,” he offered as well with a small grin breaking through his neutral expression. It was not uncommon for him to be close and casual with the platoon leaders. He once had a master gunnery sergeant who said he would not trust a man to fight with him if they wouldn’t grab a beer with him. It was the same man who taught mike to impose mandatory fun when the unit was at base. Forcing the men all out together for a few hours to hang around, even for a cook out, was a way to get them bonded. For the most part, it worked. It let the walls drop in combat when they needed someone to turn to. As a staff NCO, Mike knew he would need Nate to be his rock if the stupidity he envisioned got worse. And Nate would need the same.

They headed to the elevator in silence, apart from the grates shifting under their movements. Nate looked at his watch casually and began to undo his blouse. Mike watched him curiously as he folded the blouse over the same arm that kept his cover in hand. He was a fit kid, though compared to some of the men in the platoon he would still be considered small. For what little it was worth, the lieutenant did not have a gray belt on, meaning he actually took part in more than one martial arts course. From what little he could see beyond the tan camouflage and olive drab t-shirt, he lacked any of the tattoos a few of his men had as well, though for all he knew Nate could be like Brad, with a hideous piece across his back. Nate looked over at Mike, most likely feeling the eyes on him.

“I don’t feel like having them staring at my collar, trying to see what else they’ll have to shoulder along with the others,” he explained and turned his gaze forward. “I can be their new LT tomorrow at 0600.”

“They’re going to love you,” Mike snorted and undid his own blouse. Mike was the old dog of the platoon. In some cases, he was more than 10 years older than the men below him. He had served as a sniper for Recon until picking up staff and heading to instruct at Basic Reconnaissance Course. He was a divorce and estranged daughter into the service but stayed because he loved what he did. He knew being part of this job was difficult and he missed out on a lot in life. But he would give it all up again for days like this. Seeing a new, fresh-faced lieutenant meet a bunch of Marines who wanted nothing more than to metaphorically eat him alive.

 

Before the pair made it to the doors, they could see the mildly contained chaos inside the squad bay. It was rare that the men were kept in rooms like this unless in transition to another location. Tents were usually platoon-specific. The squad bay was an open room dedicated to all 74 men and women of Bravo. Inside was a muffled cacophony of noise coming from the ambient chatter between friends and messing around. When Mike opened the door, it was a wave of energy and sound that hit them, and Nate could only blink and force the smirk to stay off his face.

The room was large. To the back was the head and a door that lead to the stairs leading up to Charlie and H&S Companies and down to Alpha Company. Between them and that wall were three rows of 12 bunk beds. To their right and behind a glass window was where their company commander and company gunnery sergeant would sleep. The theory of the three rows would have been each platoon slept in a specific row, with the platoon leaders in the first bunk facing the CO’s room. Nate was confident that was not what had happened. Mostly because his whole platoon had been males, and he saw females camped out sporadically throughout the beds. The Marines were wrestling, reading, cleaning weapons, fiddling with their tech, and a wide variety of other activities. Not one of them seemed at all ready to sleep with the excitement of movement in the air.

“Bravo Two on me,” Mike called out in a booming tone.

While the room hardly fell silent, the volume lowered considerably as men pealed off from where they were to meet with their gunnery sergeant and the strange young kid he dragged along with him. Nate stood with his hands on his waist, cover looped in a finger and blouse draped over his wrist. Twenty-two men looked back at him in varying levels of curiosity. And it seemed they aligned themselves in their teams, as they were broken into groups of four to five.

“Gentleman,” Nate began with a nod. “My name is Lieutenant Fick. I’ve just come in from Third Recon. As of right now, there will be no status changes to team rosters, with the exception of Trombley and Christenson staying rather than shipping off in two weeks for BRC. Call time is 0600 for PT in green-on-green. It will be a light day because anyone who has any out of date certifications will have tomorrow only to get them filled, including range firing and Stratos drops.” His eyes looked around at the sets staring back at him. He heard a cough from Mike, meaning the gunny caught his subtle hint to the men what they needed to prepare for. “We will be at the hanger at 0745 to report in with a clean haircut and shave.” He shook his head almost imperceptibly. “Orders from Sergeant Major Sixta himself. Team Leaders, I’d like a word, the rest of you are dismissed.”

A few half-hearted, “Rahs,” were muttered as the group melted back into the rest of Bravo. Nate waited a moment to be sure the others were not lingering to get extra word to pass out. He was aware the grapevine did not stop after the Lance Corporal Underground was promoted. Before him stood five men. One was tall with light blond hair and cold, even blue eyes who had barely flinched throughout the whole briefing. Beside him was a shorter, stockier man with tanned skin, a shaved head, and piercing brown eyes, next was a taller man with sandy brown hair and the bristles of a field-stache on his face. Next was a man the same height as the one beside him, but twice as built with close-cropped back hair and light eyes. The final man stood out wrong with the math of four team leaders. He had sharp features and eyes that seemed to only glare through Nate, but a glance to his shirt showed a Navy insignia.

“Sir, this is Sergeant Colbert, Sergeant Espera, Sergeant Patrick, Sergeant Lovell, and HM2 Bryan. We keep Doc in on our meetings, considering he is high on the need-to-know list.”

“Very well,” Nate replied easily. He did not mind the man being there, if anything, it was good to have someone competent in his platoon taking care of them. “We have 24 hours to get anyone who has not done their three Stratos jumps, Water Crash-Landing, and suit control within the last 12 months. Forget about the mechs, we’re losing all Ass for the first leg of the invasion.”

“No Ass, sir, exactly why are he dropping with no Mechs if we’re strong-pointing a held-up force,” Colbert asked in a tone that bordered on annoyance.

“Speed. RCT is getting the Mechs and will be meeting us 72 hours after we take our first objective. We have 24 hours from our jump to get to our vehicles staged for us.”

“Sir am I to understand we will be training without the actual vehicles we are going this with,” Patrick asked in his slow twanging voice.

“We will have identical models to the LATVs we will use on Io waiting for us in the Wastes,” Nate could feel the temperature rise in the small pocket of the room they stood in. He was not happy about it either, but there was nothing he could do. He was trapped just as they were. The difference was, Nate had to find a way to take most of the weight from the men, so they could do their jobs while doing his own. “We will only get two chances to simulate our drop to ATV run, so get those out of date certs to me as fast as possible.”

He looked around the group again. While none of them spoke, he could see the thousands of withheld comments in their eyes. He kept his expression earnest and open, waiting for anything else they needed to say. It was a few second of isolated silence as the Marines behind them continued to interact with each other. Finally, it was Colbert who spoke again.

“Sir. What the fuck.”

A smirk tweaked the corners of Nate’s lips and he looked to the side slightly as he regained his composure. When his gaze returned to the men before him, it was as if a veil had dropped and their closed off expression was slightly less hostile. If anything, Colbert looked entertained at the sudden drop of professionalism.

“Sergeant, all I can offer is intel changed from when the orders were released for us to move and the plan coming to Godfather. The Global Alliance has offered an armistice to the resistance in hopes of getting this fixed, but as of right now it’s looking like we are trying to shock them into a quick surrender. And I won’t be surprised if they change the orders on us again before we ship out.”

They all stared at each other for a second. The team leads had their eyes on Colbert while Mike watched Nate. Finally, Colbert nodded and dropped his gaze.

“Semper Gumby, sir,” he replied. He glanced down at his watch and swiped through a few settings before looking back up. “SitRep on out of date or missing Certs are, Trombley and Christenson three Stratos jumps, Trombley and Christenson, Water Crash-Landing…”

“Tomorrow’s going to be a rough day for them,” Espera commented and shook his head.

“Suit training, Trombley, Christenson, Jacks, and Holsey.” Brad looked up with what looked like mirth is his eyes. “And you, sir, are due for a Tetanus shot.”

Nate’s expression warmed in his eyes. He licked his lips and opened his mouth up slight before huffing a small laugh. “Thank you for that timely response, Sergeant Colbert, I think that will be all for tonight. You are dismissed.”

There was a pause and the towering man stuck out his hand for a handshake, which Nate took. The other four men followed suit before heading back to their platoon. Nate followed Doc, who climbed into his bunk against the wall and watched the men from over his book. Patrick found his way to two built men, one with a head of black hair and no shirt and the other with close-cropped reddish hair. Lovell walked over to Doc’s bed and leaned against it to chat with a darker-skinned Marine, who nodded. And Espera followed Colbert to a gaggle of men, including one who had been the main source of noise for the extent of time the Team Lead meeting happened.

“Colbert likes you, that’s good,” Mike told him. Nate arched his eyebrow in question and his lips parted. “He’s the senior man outside of myself and Kocher in Third Platoon here. He’s Two-One-Actual.”

Nate just nodded and looked at the bunk.

“Top or bottom,” Nate asked.

“I am not answering that in this room,” Mike replied dryly as he climbed into the bottom bunk. Nate laughed. A real laugh with his head tossed back and eyes closed. He had not thought of his question when he asked it, but now it was a bit of an oversight in his opinion. He shook his head and climbed to the top bunk.

 

There was no real morning on Mars. Not in the way people who lived in Earth’s orbit thought it. Even with the altered atmosphere, the sun did not beat down the same as it did on earth. In the sky were artificial flares that produced the heat for all vegetation that grew outside the domes and made life comfortable for those who lived there. The gravity was altered as well, so life on the colonies felt the same as it did on the moons and planets. But the sun did not rise as it did for some others. At six in the morning, it was dark and inky out, just as it had been when they landed. The base was silent aside from the feet of Bravo Two in the hanger. Nate was taking them across the entirety of the inner done and base for a short five-mile run with weighted packs and their weapon. He did not want them in boots in case someone rolled an ankle this close to the jump, but he figured it would be enough to get the blood flowing for the men who did not have to jump or crash today. And for those who had to so it all, maybe it would be enough to distract them.

It came as little to no surprise when the team leaders who had men requiring training volunteered to be part of it. Nate and Mike themselves were going with Christenson to the Stratos and Crash testing. Colbert would be on the trips, as well as Reyes, who was in Patrick’s team. The man did not need to jump, but he claimed he wanted to support Trombley and Christenson, as it was not always the easiest thing to do. There was no singing as they ran or call for cadence. Each man set their own pace, with Reyes far ahead of the pack with Garcia, Leon, and Chaffin trailing behind him. The rest were in mixed clusters with Nate bringing the rear to make sure everyone made it. Not out of worry that someone would slack off, but they did not have medical vehicles to follow behind, so it was better safe than sorry.

They wrapped up the run with the rest of the platoons returning from their own runs, which called for the quickest and coldest of showers. The men dressed quickly into their camies, grabbed show as a unit and showed up perfectly on time for the battalion meeting in the hanger with the Mechs that were no longer theirs. Bravo Two stood before Godfather and listened as he gave the rundown on the plan. Each platoon leader was given two and three dimensional holographic of their drop zones, load points, and first objectives. Each platoon was given a different objective throughout the first 96 hours of the invasion. They would meet up 150 kilometers away from the Io town of Merest. All Marines not required to complete mandatory training were to stay after gear hand-out to memorize their missions.

Brad said nothing as he took his chip and placed it into his watch’s open slot. All team leaders had theirs, but as Two-One, he had more information on his than the others, just as Fick and Wynn had. He had reads on everyone’s internal chips that told him location and status. The only one with a more detailed access to the chips was Doc, who had a full-arm unit strapped opposite his steady arm. The second chip he passed off to Ray, his RTO, as it held all the radio codes he would need for communicating in and out of personal channels.

“Brad stop trying to give me your number,” he staged whispered, earning a smack to the head from Poke.

Brad hid his smirk and looked forward as Godfather dismissed the men from their school circle. He turned to Poke, who was holding his rifle easily in front of him.

“Alright, Team Leads,” when the other three looked over, Brad continued. “Have your Marines who need excess training follow Gunny and the LT to the loading dock after we drop our gear in the squad bay. I will be going on the flights and am on channel niner-alpha-three. Let’s go get our shit.”

Bravo Two headed toward their labeled crates, where their Exo Suits and drop packs were ready. According to the brief, their LATVs would have an extra set of armor, water and food for ten days, and the extra ammunition they needed before their next supply drop. In their pack was everything they would need for 24 hours moving fast through open terrain. All around him, the men peeled off their camouflage and put on their pressure suits followed by the armor. The suit was a heavy, enhanced Kevlar able to off-set pulse rifles. On the right wrist was a socket their watches fit into that fed into a screen. Inside their helmets, they had a full 180-degree vision with night vision, thermals, and infrared registers. While not the newest suit to the military, it was not trained with in basic recruit training, as it was only used by special forces.

Brad unlatched and removed his helmet. When the rest of Two-One followed, he made sure everyone fit into their suits properly before reporting to Lt. Fick. It was humorous looking at the lieutenant in his gear. According to Ray, he was older than everyone in his team aside from Brad himself, yet still looked baby-faced. He stood there, checking the armor latches on Christenson’s suit, who had never worn one before. He tucked the helmet under his arm and stood by as the young officer helped properly latch a thigh Sapi.

“Sir, Two-One is set. Are we to stay in gear,” he asked.

Nate stood up and looked the suit over, making sure Brad had his proper markings for their call-sign. His eyes traced each of the armor pieces before he nodded.

“We have a secondary suit on standby. The third is being sent with the vehicles. You can tell the men who won’t be joining us for the jumps to dress down. We have Exo training in 30 mikes. Step-off for Stratos training in 60.”

“Roger that sir,” Brad turned and left the lieutenant to adjust Christenson’s gear.

When he got back to the team, he found Doc had joined them, and was fussing over Trombley’s breastplate. Ray had already repacked his and Brad’s gear into their jump bag to make the pod more stream-line. His eyes watched as Garcia finished the same and stood up.

“We’re cleared for the day to wear jump bottoms only. If you’re leaving the squad bay or hanger, be in full suit. Trombley, we’re off to learn how to play with your new toy if Doc’s done with you.”

Doc grumbled and clicked the breast plate in place. He pulled the compartment open to check for the tourniquet and closed it again. With a nod, he shoved Trombley toward Brad lightly and made off toward Two-Two. Trombley was the youngest in the platoon, not even old enough to drink. He had finished most of the non-recon based training before being assigned to the team for a short mission. It was his trial run on the ground. With it in place, he had a slot ready for him in BRC until the mission broke out. He and Christenson, who had only arrived in time for the actual boot-on-ground mission, were paper recon, but with them in the hands of the platoon leader and main team leader, battalion let it slide for the sake of the mission. They’d rather have two extra bodies without the full training than be down two men from the start.

They walked to the small circle surrounding Major Eckoff, who was to give the lesson. The old major talked the Marines through the steps of dress, undress, wound care, aid kits, pressurizing, temperature control, vision modes, and the other features of the suit. It was not a long class, as only 15 people in the battalion were out of date or new enough to need the training, and soon, those who needed their Stratos Jump were joined by a few others who were tagging along for support or for the fun of it headed into the drop ship.

It was a silent ride for Brad, who sat in the back and watched everyone. He did not interact much. Right now, however, his eyes were trained on the fresh-faced lieutenant, who was sitting with his helmet off and talking to the two junior Marines about the jump ahead. He was not listening directly, but he watched as the man gesticulated to emphasize his points. The man’s face stayed calm and trained and those eyes still earnest and innocent. It was an enigma to see someone like that in recon. Rudy, who was seated beside him and also watching in silence, was a bit of an outlier of the group. He was into the Zen-hippie shit. He wanted to do good things and acted on the righteousness. But he was also level and neutral. His face was always warm and welcoming, but he lacked the expression of innocence that was on Fick’s. Yet, he could tell with every sharp word that was punched from his mouth, the kid was good at keeping that front up. He had seen it crack last night and wanted to see it crack again.

After a 30-minute climb, the men in the ship were called to stand. They stood at the door and got ready for All-Call. One by one, they check each other’s gear, packs, and armor. With everyone in place and their suits pressurized, the stick called off, confirming they were cleared. Major Eckoff at the front sounded off, as well, and the door opened. The room went to an icy cold for a split second before the suit neutralized the temperature. It was like jumping into a hot tub in after the frigid winter air. Soon, the heated prickles gave way to a comfortable setting and their helmets were cleared. Their radios counted off for them, and when the lights shifted to green, each Marine stepped into the open abyss to plummet into the vast unknown. He watched as his gunny and lieutenant followed after Christenson, then Trombley stepped out. And finally, Brad’s right foot fell into nothingness.

Before him was nothing and everything. An endless expanse of black dotted and sprayed with luminescence of all tints. Stars flickered, and meteors burned into the atmosphere below. The peace and emptiness of the void was beautiful. It was a mix of relaxation and thrill that surged through his body each time he stepped from the safety of the ship into the openness around him. There were no safety nets or wires here. No one to rely on but himself. And it was where he was most comfortable. The rush of adrenaline pulsing through his body as the heat of his descent was matched by the suit’s thermal balancing cores. The sound and pressure of the air hitting him at 122 miles an hour. A free fall into nothing, no direct target in sight aside from a small dot in the viewfinder of his helmet. Around him was space. The solar system. Particles that had shifted and moved through the gravitational pull long before he was even a thought. That would exist long after his short time was snuffed out. As he fell, he watched the dim, pink glow of the gases forming the atmosphere over the planet. The clouds and storms that shifted just below. He could see the man-made oceans and natural terrain of Mars’ surface. That infamous orangey hue coming closer at an alarming rate.

After a minute of free fall, one by one, the Marines tucked their limbs in and tilted down into a direct plummet. They made a point to stay close together. Everyone within arms’ reach of the other in case of a malfunction. He caught up to Trombley and the rest of his platoon quickly. Reyes falling beside him. He could picture the smile on his face. It was the same as his own, pulling hard at his cheeks with the unbridled glee and enjoyment of the fear coursing through the body hidden behind the helmet’s tempered front. This was the rush he loved. The free fall. Being so close to danger that he danced with death to a tempo no mortal should have been allowed to maintain. Yet, as the beeping in their helmet started it’s soft ring, the men once more flattened out to slow down and in order of drop, they each pulled their parachute.

Below them was a vague drop zone of one kilometer, designed to take wind or late drops into account. For the last few seconds of the drop, he enjoyed the gentle sway of the wind pushing past his body. Brad’s feet touched down and his body crumpled with control to an even landing. He hit the release button on the strap of his drop pack, and the chute released. He stood, collected it and turned to see Fick and Trombley with their helmets removed. Trombley’s face was somehow paler with his freckles standing out more and blue eyes wide with shock. The LT, gunny, and Reyes were glowing as Christenson removed his helmet and chuckled nervously.

“Only two more,” Fick chirped. His hand landed on Christenson’s shoulder and gave a good-natured shake. The young Marine smiled nervously and nodded. Brad smirked and removed his own helmet now, knowing the real trauma would not be from the fall he just experienced, but the crash simulator they were on the way to. His men joked that Brad feared nothing, but he feared one thing. Drowning. A fear he embraced when he specialized in Scuba. Perhaps he was a masochist.

“Colbert,” Fick asked with a knowing smirk. “You good?”

“Living the dream, sir,” he replied lightly and headed off toward the next drop ship.

Chapter Text

The men were loaded into their sticks now, and the ship soared higher through the Martian eve. Doc Bryan had his eyes trained on the men, flicking from member to member of Hitman-Two. His charges. His merry band of idiots destined to greatly shorten his lifespan through stress and overconsumption of toxins to deal with said stress in an unhealthy manner. He had been attached to Hitman-Two longer than most combat medics were in field these days. While green-side corpsmen stayed with a battalion for their full term, it was rare they stayed in one platoon for an extended time. The ability to stay detached from the men on an emotional level and simply watching professionally waned after a few missions. There was no official doctrine stating a corpsman could stay attached to a certain group for a specific allotment of time, but it was an unspoken rule. He had been in Alpha for three months before transferring to Bravo. His time up with the platoon would have happened within the month if not for Lt. Fick’s orders to keep the same teams as the last mission set up.

Inadvertently, Fick had made himself Doc’s favorite person in the company. Doc was not one to allow himself to latch onto the men for comfort and support. He was a brash man with a cold aura that radiated a practiced “fuck off” to anyone who got close. He did not mind moving around on principle. Hell, he could even feel his hidden, suppressed roots trying to spread through their sledge of idiocy to find that tangible relationship. It was the first hint of a medic to request team transfer. However, his only other option was far worse than any attachment to a unit or person could be. And that was Captain America. Doc was not a man to fall victim to suicidal ideations of self-hate. But he would shoot himself before he had to take orders from that cheap beer backwash. It was a matter of dignity in his mind. Leadership was supposed to go to those who deserved it. Maybe he had at one point, but the last few months showed Doc that age was over.

His icy gaze continued to look at each member of the platoon. He was watching for stress hidden beneath the veneer of excitement. They were like untrained puppies for the most part, being told it was time to go for a ride. Whenever the chance to train or actually conduct a mission, the Marines perked up and the energy they emitted crackled in the air. If he were a holistic man like Rudy, he would call it a positive thing with their energies mingling and creating a sense of comfort. But he was not. He was a man of measurable and tangible facts. What he saw was the chance for a ship of alpha males to stretch their legs and show that they were the best and stop pissing on or humping everything to mark territory.

In front of him, the new lieutenant watched the scene with an amused gaze as he and Gunny Wynn discussed the mission once more. The team leads had been plucked along with Doc himself to go over the rush. The drop. The exact time in the air before pulling chutes, the plummet, how far each person should be from the other if a drop was timed right. Everything was down to the second after the math was laid out. He let the Team Leads focus on collecting the boys. He was in charge of making sure no one broke their neck on the way down. He could fix a lot of things. That was not one of them.

The fact that this was training did not stop the nerves from showing in the shoulders of a few younger Marines. Notably Steiny and Hasser. Christenson was distracted by Stafford and Doc was not sure Trombley felt anything but excitement at the idea of such a risk. In that respect he was similar to his team leader, Colbert. Maybe the only way they were similar. Steiny was part of his squad in Lovell’s victor. They were in front of the command vehicle for the platoon and behind Rudy and Pappy. It was a good place for him, close enough to command’s radio if he needed to make a call back to regiment, but close enough to the action. He would hate to be locked in the command vehicle. While he had every faith in Gunny, the prospects of this trip with Stafford was bordering on as fun as a trip with Person.

His eyes skated over to the front of the ship where Colbert stood looming over his team. His head was cast at a slight angle. This was the third time Doc had been with Colbert. It was hard to miss each other in such a small field, and he was hardly complaining. They both kept a comfortable distance from each other. A bond made of the understanding that it was life and death that brought them together. That it should stay just that. He was one of the few Marines Doc sought out for conversation for that very reason. Next to brad stood Espera. While Colbert was cold and silent with Doc, he seemed to encourage and even prod for Poke’s monologues about the state of being for lowly and forgotten people and places. The state of the Earth, the health of plants, the viability of enhancements. Anything, really, to point out the power imbalance so much of the society closed their eyes to. Doc rarely said much to Poke. He rarely had to. They agreed on a lot of points, and Poke was more than happy to voice all of it so long as he had an appreciative audience. He was full of shit. But he was not wrong either.

The lights brightened slightly, and it was like time stopped. Every man in the ship was trained to stay still for unreasonable amounts of time. In that moment, nothing moved, and the ship leveled out. They had reached drop height. As quickly as the moment froze, life exploded into the ship’s hull. Doc jumped to his feet, as well, hoisting his pack onto his bag and pressing the compressor before latching his leg and chest straps. Every man had a small pack for a quick drop. He was not so lucky. But given the chance to drop with a third his supplies and risk someone needing the rest of the materials was not worth it. Fick and Gunny made their way to the front of the ship as they clipped their kevlars in place. The men filled in the space they made for the ranking pair, lining up in order of team. The lights began to grow dark slowly until all that illuminated the ship were the dim lights along the benches and inside their lenses. The rustling and clicking of guns and gear clipping into place was overpowered by Fick’s even and calming tone.

“Drop in 30. See you all ground side.”

And the door opened to Fick’s side. One by one the men dropped from the ship’s interior into the cold stratosphere. Gravity immediately took hold as Doc watched the men around him angle their bodies and tuck their limbs in for speed. He, too, plummeted toward the ground with his eye watching the altitude meter carefully along with the release timer. Men shot through the clouds like a bullet through cotton, leaving a trail behind them as they sped. The long figure to his left was Lovell with Baptista beside him.

“Output read on Hitman-two,” Doc commanded his internal AI. The feed blinked in his right peripheral. Everyone was up. Heart and oxygen levels normal considering stress on the body. No one was reading unconscious. “Close feed,” he muttered, and it blinked away. Below him, he was starting to make out the topography of the ground. The rise and fall of the Martian wastes. The ground was no longer a generic dirt, but the reddish coral tone that would stain their cloth uniforms in days on constant contact. The counter ticked lower until he balanced out. The rest of the platoon was doing the same. Seconds later, he hit the release on his wrist and the chute jolted his body. He enjoyed the slow decent for the two minutes they had before releasing the cords and dropping to the ground, letting the suit absorb the shock as he rolled through the fall.

Doc’s momentum brought him upright and gun immediately held at the ready. His mind counted to thirty before taking canvas of the surroundings, finding Southeast and heading in that direction. He met up with Holsey first, followed by Steiny as they ran for the first set of berms. Holsey clicked the button on his left temple, releasing a Blue Tracker for the IR lenses to pick up. Just over the berm, two more blue lasers flashed skyward, catching sight of Holsey’s. Lovell and Baptista waited long enough for them to catch their breath before heading toward their objective. They ran from berm to hut. Using what sparse cover the desert offered. They soon caught silhouettes on the horizon.

“Hitman Two, interrogative,” Lovell’s voice echoed through the headset. “Two-Four has eyes on five foot mobiles at out ten, pushing 200 meters out. Requesting Blue Trackers, over.”

The team dropped down and waited. Within a second, their vision was hit with five Blue Trackers. Two-Four popped back to their feet and made their way to what would be Pappy and Two-Three. The team held up for Two-Four to approach when the smallest body, Chaffin dropped to the berm with his SAW at the ready. The nine others dropped as well, catching sight of four more bodies in the distance. Blue Trackers illuminated the night and they stood.

“Two-Three and Two-Four carry on and meet up with the rest of the squad. Two-Actual is on your six, over.”

“Copy, sir,” Pappy’s drawl crackled over the headset. The men took off with the light on the top of their visor flickering in the direction of the objective. Twenty minutes of running in the scorching heat found Espera’s team and Two-Actual catching up. Another five minutes and Colbert’s towering figure stepped from inside a hut with his IR flashing. The platoon moved into the building, giving everyone a chance to breathe. Shoulders moved up and down and a few men slipped their water tubes through the vacuum slit to hydrate. They had ten minutes to rest before heading back to hook with their sister platoon and Hitman Actual.

“Any men need to get looked over by Doc, now’s the time. We won’t be stopping until we are at the victors. Once we’re there, we will be Oscar Mike to hook up with the rest of battalion,” Gunny’s soothing tone vibrated through their kelvars. The sea of lenses shook in the negative. Everyone was fine. Doc’s feed stated all heartbeats still normal and everyone was breathing just fine. Chaffin seemed to have landed hard enough for his suit to register excess impact force, but nothing Doc had to be worried about now. It was a Stratos Drop equivalent to lightly stubbing a toe.

 

Ten minutes went by and the men lined themselves for deployment out of the small building they holed up in. Person’s view was completely disrupted by the Nordic wall of force in front of him. In the moments before they exited, it was silent. A room filed with over twenty men and not a sound echoed through the walls. He had been informed he would be on all radio calls. His frequencies and a monitor of ambient radio frequencies in case a transmission jumped frequencies. In the left top corner of his visor, the read of air frequencies danced in his peripheral, along with the list of codes and call signs for the entire unit and paired units. His watch was programmed with all this, but he knew better than most how unreliable long-distance transmission can be. With the wind and an electrical feed buzzing and alerting his helmet of a storm in the atmosphere brewing, Ray was more focused on catching the jumped comments than actual assignments.

A hand tapped his shoulder and Fick’s sweet words muttered in his ears. Rather than something slightly provocative or dirty, it was simply to move out. Unfortunate. But Ray peeled out anyway, stepping through the doorway with his rifle angled down and to the left at the alert as he moved forward. While he knew there was no actual danger out here, the feeling of the rifle pressed into his shoulder and feeling the magazine loaded with live ammo. This is what he lived for. The way his heart raced with the adrenaline pumping through his body. In his unit resided everything from boy king Leader to Pappy the sweet Terrarian boy with weird sayings. But right now, they were all the same. Trained masters of their trade running across the wastes toward unmanned vehicles to, for training purposes only, attack terrorists. He barely heard the two dozen sets of feet pattering along with him as they moved as one entity, like a flock of birds through the air. Their squads had split off slightly, giving dispersion between people. But everyone was within eyeline. Everyone out of their line of fire.

His frequencies remained silent and ambient as they moved. They had been shuffling through the desert for almost an hour. It was another twenty minutes before they got read on another unit. The jumps in the wavelength. He held up his hand with a closed fist and dropped to his knee. Brad sidled beside him and placed his rifle over Ray’s shoulder, covering him as he brought up the scanner on his arm screen. Bless the delicate glove as he was able to manipulate the wave slowly until it matched that of Alpha’s command frequency. Ray locked into the frequency and nodded to Brad, who dropped his rifle to the right.

 

“Hitman-Two, this is Two-Two Alpha, how copy,” Ray called over the radio. Both he and Brad tilted their head at the same slight angle as they waited for reply.

“This is Two-Two Actual, over,” Nate replied.

“LT, I have ears on Assassin actual. Sending comm to your visor. Incoming.”

“Copy that. Received. Over and out.”

The static told Ray his leader had switched over to the new frequency. Ray looked up at Brad.

“Do you find it a little annoying we ran into Alpha before Captain America’s platoon,” he asked.

“Ray,” Brad sighed. His head dipped down enough for the helmet to actually glint in the moon. “This is the least shocking thing that could have come of this.”

Footsteps and dirt kicked up as Fick came up to them and dropped to his knee, as well. His tannish armor matte against the reddish dirt.

“Brad, Ray, Alpha is holding up for us to meet up. We will wait for the Captains before heading out to the rally point. Good job catching their radios, they had not picked us up yet.”

“Yes, sir,” Brad replied. As the lieutenant headed back to his position the taller man stood up and called his squad. “Everyone turn on Blue Trackers.”

They moved out again toward the direction Captain Patterson gave Fick. Within fifteen minutes, they saw a blip on their visors of a few dozen bodies huddled around a set of huts. As they got closer, Ray saw five Alpha Marines standing watch. They would have been invisible if he had not known what to look for. He could tell one was Scott and another Burris. They flashed their trackers, showing they had noticed them and cleared their approach. Ray slowed his walk and dropped his rifle to a tactile carry. The natural movement of his steps took over the practiced shuffle all grunts took when moving to an objective. It hurt his ass after a while. A tall figure with a small captain insignia on the breastplate steeped out, followed by a stockier suit with the gunny chevrons. Patterson and Barrett. Bravo Two peeled off so Fick and Wynn could meet with the other two. Ray took this time to kick dirt on Burris. The Marine grumbled and tossed a handful back.

“Ray, play nice,” Brad chided as he stepped inside. The two Alpha platoons were servicing their suits or weapons on the inside. The one sniper was seen in the back with his 50 slung over his back and standard rifle in hand. They had little relation with the Marines in this unit, though it was hard to not know everyone in such a small unit by sight and stance. He was not particularly fond or attached to these Marines. A few of them he actually found annoying and surprisingly inept for recon. Still, he was not in charge of them and they did not directly hold any power of his life and comfort. There was little fear that sparked from their incompetence. However, there were a few he did not mind as much as others. Cpl. Scott being one of them. Burris’ team leader, Scott was a bit of an idiot, but endearingly so. Not quite as endearing as Ray, of course, but no one was.

Ray stood next to Brad and Garza as Fick and Patterson continued to talk in the corner. Barrett and Wynn circled like a strange mix between sharks under a potential meal and a worried mother hen. His eyes flicked up to the corner of his helmet a few times, hoping to catch a blip on wavelength. It did not bode well for them that there was this amount of time between drop and hearing from their own platoon leader, but caught up with a different company. He knew that Encino Man was a bit of an idiot from the start, but this was just highlighting it. Captain America? Well, Ray would be amazed if the man made it to this point at all, never mind to the rendezvous point. He couldn’t find sand in the desert.

His radio chirped and his eyes glanced upward. The monitor was picking something up, so he dropped to his knee and began manipulating the readout until he picked up an unfortunately familiar tone. A panicked one, reaching out for anyone from the unit. Ray groaned and flicked through his channel designantions. It was not the encrypted channel Captain America was assigned to. Papa.4.0.3.3.Quebec.Delta.2. was an open channel. He was broadcasting on an open channel in an attempt to find someone. His groan must have been pronounced enough because Gunny Wynn looked in his direction and cocked his head to the side. Ray stood back up and walked over to the officer pow wow with a vague attempt at looking professional even though the visor hid his face. He cleared his throat and both officers paused and looked at him.

“Uh, sirs, I have some good news and bad news,” he announced in a too-chipper voice.

“Please tell me the good news, first,” Fick replied with an easy tone. He was too skilled at handling Ray and it had only been a few days. “I would hate to not be an angry Marine after this.”

A staticy snort came from Patterson.

“Well, sir, I have located Captain McGraw on the radio and he is about half a klick away,” Ray answered.

There was a long pause and now Ray had an audience of four higher-ups waiting to hear what he had to say. There was something arousing about that power. He needed to really get his head checked. Maybe Poke was right, he did ride down the stairs on his head as a baby.

“The bad news is he is playing Marco Polo on an open channel,” Ray added before flicking the designation to both officers. “Captain, I would try to reach him quickly, he was sounding a bit downtrodden about this whole thing.”

“Any sign of the CO,” Wynn asked, trampling over the possible monologue Ray was preparing for.

“No, Gunny, but I am keeping an eye out for him. I’m hoping his radio was damaged in the fall or shorted out, and he is relying on the other captain for comms.”

Actually he was not hoping that. He would hope Encino Man would know how to fix a jammed radio or at least drop without messing up a very sturdy bit of technology. And that he would be aware that McGraw was barely smart enough to open a door. He was honestly amazed most day that the higher leadership in the company had the mental capacity to handle involuntary reflexes like breathing. He nodded when he was dismissed and went back over to the huddle of Bravo Marines in the corner. They had pushed away the Alpha Marines and now stood a bit more intimidating over the rest of the company. By size, he was looking at Brad, Fruity Rudy, Poke, Pappy, and either Lovell or Bud. he sauntered over and leaned against the wall beside Brad, who looked at him immediately. He could not see those harsh eyes, but Ray knew exactly what the face was saying.

“Fucking Captain America is crying out on an open channel like a lost kitten,” Ray explained without preamble. He sent the five of them the sound loop he had caught. The snort told him it was Lovell that was standing there. “Shit like that will get us lit up immediately on Io. Io has a clear lead in the moons on technology. They’ll yank his ass up and then we’re all fucked. How did he pass SERE training? It’s fucking horseshit.”

“Ray,” Brad warned. His head was angled just enough over Ray’s shoulder to know they were being watched by one of the higher-ups. Ray bit the inside of his cheek and let it drop.

But he was not happy about it. This was going to kill them in the field. And he knew Brad was not happy about it because his other hetero life-partner Kocher was in that unit as well. And as their main Team Lead, he was the mostly likely to get fucked by Captain America harder than anyone. Which was probably the other reason why Brad was so pissy about everything. Fuck. Ray looked over his shoulder at the door to watch a squad from Alpha head out to locate the lost platoon. Now he just had to find the other one and they were all accounted for, because he was not about to say they were good. They were far from good.

Ten minutes later, another blip popped up. This one was actually Encino Man’s assigned channel, and he alerted the lieutenant to the update. Two-Four was sent out to get him, much to Doc’s grumbling. He looked over at the forms retreating before Poke’s musing caught his attention.

“You may not like it, but Person had a point. It’s fucked, dawg,” Espera groaned. At Brad’s silence, he continued. “Man is supposed to be in charge of 22 fuckers just like boy wonder is and he ended up south of the designated path. That is imputed in his fucking bit. He’s not asked to clear the whole AO, he was asked for fucking walk in a straight goddamn line and be quiet.”

“I’ve brought up my concerns with our former lieutenant. He’s well connected, Poke. You know how that is.”

“Why the fuck are we holding their hands, anyway. When I signed up for recon, it’s because your white ass made it seem like we got to leave all this command bullshit behind and do our own thing. Now we have no ass rolling into hostile territory and officers too busy sucking the green weenie to realize they have no business on this mission.”

“Patterson, aside,” Pappy added in his soft tone. “We could just swap him out for Encino man. Maybe clone Fick and we would be fine.”

“Altar boy? I hate that I want to like him,” Poke groaned. “Rich elitist Leaders with their money and props. And homeboy rolls in asking us how to run shit and consulting like we all want it to be like. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

 

Another two hours before they were able to head off. After Capt. Patterson got back with the rest of Bravo, Ray had picked up a call from Godfather and sent it to Gunny Barrett. He wanted to keep Fick from dealing with the stupidity as much as possible. When he started to care about their new LT was beyond Brad, but there it was. Perhaps it had been how earnestly he spoke when telling his Marines he was fine assisting them in their training, or the boyish joy radiating off him when he smiled after every training jump. Or the vulnerability he allowed himself to show when Christenson had a hard time breathing after the crash training. The amount he cared for his men, though only a few days under his command, was obvious. He took his job seriously. He was an idealist, from what Brad had caught. He wanted to make a difference, and that included his men. But he was not safe from the idiocy that command could instill in him. It was lucky he had Gunny Wynn there to keep him on track. Not that he entirely thought the kid would lose his head. He was just sure this kid would not burn out quickly, sinking the platoon’s hope for having someone competent in charge for once.

He looked over to where his platoon leader was set up on watch while the gunny pair talked around him and with Patterson about how they would move out. A chirp on his headset told him Lovell was back with his team and they would be ready to roll out quickly. Brad hoisted himself standing and walked over to Fick, who was standing with his rifle tucked lightly into his shoulder. He looked so natural like that. With the gear covering his innocence, Fick actually stood like a combat veteran and not like a kid playing dress up in daddy’s uniform. Brad walked heavier than he normally would, which effectively got Fick’s attention.

“Sergeant Colbert,” he greeted in his usual clipped tone. “Status report?”

“Lovell and the CO are inbound. No more than five mikes out. We can be oscar mike in 10 if we want to update Godfather on our ETA.”

“Copy that. I’ll pass it on,” Nate said. “Thanks.”

Brad wavered a moment, but nodded shortly and turned on his heels. Officers rarely thanked him for doing his job. Gunny did, but Gunny was a few baker’s dozen of cookies shy from being the team’s sweet grandmother. He remembered the time Gunny thanked him for holding a door open without sarcasm. It was alarming and hard made Brad tilt his head curiously as the man walked through with such cat’s grace for a bulky man. Now, the mild-mannered senior NCO seemed to have met his match in charm and manners. Brad fleetingly wondered if Fick was the type to hold doors open for a few minutes, too polite to let a door shut on someone after being nice to his friend or parent.

The man strolled back to Bravo. A few heads turned when he approached, but for the most part it was ambient chatter. They had all checked their equipment and weapons. Those who had their spare gear tucked into their jump bag had pulled it out already. If anything, they were bored. And a bored Marine was far more dangerous than an angry one.

“Ten mikes,” he called out. “Shit if you need to, we will not be stopping until we meet back up with H&S.”

The men from his platoon and a few from Third got to their feet and began reattaching whatever loosened plates they had. Kocher, who was sitting next to Pappy in the corner hoisted himself up before dragging the lankier sergeant to his feet as well. Kocher had been with Brad since the start. They had deployed together five times and trained in both recruit training and at the school of infantry. Brad had been two weeks behind in BRC due to administrative issues, but they were sent to Fourth out of Venus within weeks of each other in the same platoon. They worked together in Fourth Recon, in joint service while tasked to Second Recon, and now at First Recon. He wished they were in the same platoon like they used to be, but Kocher and he both got promoted and given their own team. He would not have it any other way if they needed to be seperated. And he could hardly say he hated the new driver he had, as Ray was an endearing parasite. But he would trade Trombley for a Klondike Bar some days.

“Let’s hope this works better when we are live,” Kocher commented with his forearm raised slightly.

“I won’t hold my breath,” Brad replied, bumping his arm against Kocher’s as they headed toward their respective teams.

He knew it was stupid to be jealous of Redman and the others in Bravo Three. He knew it was not their fault, exactly. But he was also not used to actually liking people. There were very few people he would associate outside of the Marine Corps willingly when not dragged out for mandatory fun. Kocher was one of them, as was Poke. Ray had tried his best to drag the man out to socialize and smother him with love like a needy lap dog. But he did not have the desire to reach out. He liked watching from afar. He was comfortable back there. It made it easier to leave when the military shipped him to a new unit. No one to say bye to at the end of the day.

Lovell crossed the threshold. It was amazing how a helmet could look wildly unimpressed with his situation. It was Doc-level of anger radiating from the normally even man. Lovell was never hot or cold. He ran on a steady temperament, much like Wynn but without the henning. Now, he seemed to radiate an anger that would be off-putting if he actually felt intimidated by people. Instead, he watched carefully as the team trudged away from their leaders and let Encino Man and Casey Kasem walk over to Fick and McGraw like command getting lost was their fault. He wanted to inch closer, but that was not smart. He decided to watch and observe, wishing he would see their mouths and read their lips. Eyes and the way a jaw set told so much about a way someone felt. Once they were at the victors, he could go back to his usual mode of eavesdropping.

Five minutes, they were heading out. Alpha took the left flank and Bravo took the right. Rather than the usual stop and go movement, they walked as a unit in columns as if this were a basic hump to a new location. They were not far from their vehicles, and it was just faster to get there at an even pace than slow down to play invisible. They had lost too much time with parts of the company getting lost. The red sand was disorienting with the clear sky above them. It was dark. Much darker than it ever was on Venus or Earth. The moons were artificially lit to make up for the lack of proper sun. it gave the a facsimile of the weather on Earth, only a lot more constant. It rained on cue and the temperature always seemed to be perfect. Except on Io, which was designed to grow more of the arid plants for medicine. Europa was paradise planet to some. It looked like so many of the biodomes on Venus and Mars. The plants were vibrant and green against the man-made blue skies. Unlike here. The reds and browns were like a flat desert. It was more pink than the deserts of the States and the dark sky more speckled by the stars above. Early pictures before the false atmosphere was placed showed how clear the view was from the bases. Now, it was a bit hazy and washed out. Like a lense over an image. Still, there was enough ambient light for him to appreciate the way everyone moved as one.

Brad was sure this was going to be an easy trip. Maybe three weeks of quick fighting or just hard talk and flexing muscles. Then they would be home at their main base on Justice. He could go back home and enjoy the comforts of his own apartment. He could take the post-deployment time and go to one of the oceans and surf. He could sit home and not see people for days on end. Anything would be better than walking behind his company commander, who somehow walked like he was lugging around gear strapped to his shoulders. Standing next to Wynn, who was almost the same size, he was amazed at how cantankerous Encino Man seemed. There was no flow to his step. No cautious moment or care to his strides. Just utilitarian. The lines of men behind him, however, seemed to float over the dust and sand. Barely a cloud kicked up at their steps as they crossed the Martian Wastes and closed in on the Blue Trackers off in the distance.
Brad did not know what he was expecting when he made it to the horizon. But the victors supplied were anything but what he thought they’d be supplied with. Brad swallowed heavily and took them in. land vehicles with basic aquatic abilities. All-terrain. Mostly open with possible force shield on the outside, but all the gunner turrets lacked the two output blocks for a one. He watched as Fick drew level with him. He could not see the man’s face, but the subtle drop of his head said it all.

“Sir, when they said identical, did they mean identical or similar models but not this run-down,” Brad asked with more bite and annoyance than he intended.

“Hate to say it, Brad,” Fick replied with defeat. It was almost enough to make him skip over how Fick used his first name. “But I think they meant identical.”

Chapter Text

It was almost embarrassing how long it took to get the the objective. Now that they were loaded up, Poke wished they were still in the desert. The vehicles were ridiculous. They were thin and the gear hung off like a mockery of what the unit was supposed to be. He had joined from basic grunts for the chance to move as the slogan said: swift, silent, and deadly. Now, they were rolling into their next mission with these hoopties hoping to not get shot up. These were less reliable than the victors Motor T provided when they rolled through Earth on a mission to secure lower Peru from an attempted coup three years ago. He had been a lance corporal at the time. There was not a lot of protection on those, and these looked flimsier somehow. It made him worried that they would be moving in actual enemy territory in these soon. Not even these.

If they were, he would have the chance to take care of them. To work on the casing and coating. Purchase upgrades and do what he needed to so they were safer. So his men were safer. Poke may act like a hard ass. He may throw his weight around with the recon-given swagger each man in the MOS gained when they passed SERE training. But he was also the father of one beautiful little girl, and husband to a woman who was far better than anything he deserved. He had someone to go home to when the team finally made it back to their home station. They were already delayed a month. With this, he could not even guess when he would be with Gina again. When he would hold his little girl and listen to her ramble on about nothing he imagined caring about only a few years ago. And he knew his men had people to go home to, as well. Lilley had a new wife. Granted, she was also in the service and was currently working as an instructor on the Moon. That did not mean he was any less in need of making it back. Leon had a girlfriend, and he was convinced Christopher was saving himself for the right person. He wanted to give that Christ lover a chance to finally get action.

They were still only training, but he could not help but feel the tension in his gut. It was something unique to live fire sessions like this. Just enough danger by handling ammunition to make it feel real. His body tensed up as he looked around. Above him, Walt’s voice flowed easily in some song from back home. One he probably sang on the farm he was raised on. He talked about it a lot. Unlike Brad, who secretly enjoyed singing in the car, no matter what he said, Poke normally kept it to simple conversations or silence. But when Hasser wanted to sing, not even Doc with a beehive in his bonnet would tell the man to stop. Everyone just closed their eyes and listened with relaxed looks on their faces. Or, at least Jason next to him had a small smirk playing on his lips. He wished his brain would stop to enjoy this moment. The man was happy with his squad. His platoon. Under normal situations, that was all they rolled in with. Reporting to some far-away command who were safely tucked in some camp making use of the intel they provided. Their platoon commanders were there to organize the ideas command sent to them and task out teams accordingly. But as a team leader, he was supposed to have full say in what happened on their missions. He would call in requests and interpret the ROE on his own. Not have someone spoon-feed him their masticated logic like a baby bird unable to fly.

Under the general chatter of the radio, he could sense Iceman’s annoyance. Brad was someone he had a basic read on. He was not quite a Colbert whisperer like Person was. He also did not go out of the way to get him to express whatever he was feeling, but he could tell when the man was sick of the continued idiocy Encino Man had brought to their company. Having him in orbit during their last mission was too close. Now, with him only a few vehicles behind and able to make his uneducated calls, Poke was wondering if his friend was going to get tossed in the brig for murder or assault. A mix of the man’s incompetence and him seemingly preventing the one intelligent officer in the company from actually leading was what Poke saw in his future. The man was no psychic, but he would lay money that of all the ways they would run into trouble, most of them would be at the hands of that ill-fit officer who got his position through his privileged life and not his actual skills.

The rarely professional and even tone of Ray’s voice announced they had spotted H&S on the horizon and was requesting to line their victors up along the company’s lead vehicle. Silence echoed over the radio for a moment before Encino Man agreed and told the platoon leaders he would step off to find Godfather. Lilley drove toward Two-Two-Alpha and stopped the engine. No one moved for a moment, simply craned their neck to catch how many victors were lined up. From Hasser’s post at the turret, he announced it looked like all of Charlie was there, as well as H&S with the command victor in the middle. More importantly, it seemed the rest of the battalion was ordered to condition two for their suits. Poke reminded him to keep his kevlar on and reading until the LT announced otherwise and climbed out of the LAV to chat up Brad. He was not surprised to see the man out of his own victor, having legs longer than his patience cramped for ten hours. The man was leaning forward through the open window of his vehicle and reaching toward the blue-force tracker they had been shocked to see installed.

“Hey dawg, planning on stepping off for a shit when we get the condition update,” he asked, resting against the doorframe of the backseat. Brad stood up and looked over at him.

“Probably, need me to watch the kids,” he asked in the usual bored tone. When Poke shrugged a shoulder in response, he continued. “I’m sure if you need to go that bad, Pappy will send Rudy over to watch them.”

“Dawg, Rudy watches my boys and I’ll come back to Christopher and Hasser with face masks and painted nails,” he replied with a smirk on his lips.

“Homes, don’t hate on the face masks, they do wonders,” he heard Ray crow from the inside of the LAV.

“Not everyone has the face of a dirty teenager going through puberty,” Brad shot back.

“I still think faggots are worse than letting females in the military,” Trombley grumbled from the back seat. Poke felt the blood in his ears pound, but Ray got to it first.

“Trombley, Rudy could throw you into orbit with a full pack like you weighed nothing, watch who you’re calling a faggot.”

Silence was the reply and Poke shook his head. He got it, really. Some people were idiots and narrow-minded. That was why they were all stuck in this bullshit situation. Worse was somehow Trombley was a rich man’s kid who joined to play war with real toys. And he had treated the idea of it like a game since the beginning, acting like the lack of an all-out war meant death was not really a possible outcome. He also found himself at the wrong end of a fight against a few Charlie and Alpha Marines who showed him exactly how much women “did not belong in the military.” Yet, here he was still running his mouth. He tilted his head toward Brad, who shook his almost imperceptibly. His shoulder shrugged again and he pushed off the victor.

As he did, Wynn and Fick strolled up with their helmets tucked under their arms. Gunny’s drawl called out condition two as they went, but Fick was heading for his two team leads with intent. Poke removed his kevlar and raised his eyebrow at Brad, who was now watching him with those cold, blue eyes.

“Gentlemen,” he purred with that hint of playfulness reserved for Wynn.

“Brad, Tony,” Fick greeted with a head nod to each. “We will be camped out here for the next 12 hours while we get briefed on the next stage of the plan. Rotate watches at 50 percent and send one Marine each up to H&S to grab whatever provisions you need a refill on. Team Lead meeting in 10 mikes in case you need to handle anything.”

“Copy that, sir,” Brad replied.

Fick nodded at them and walked back toward the rest of the platoon with the even sway in his step, followed closely by his gunny. Brad looked over at Poke with his usual shark-like smirk.

“Well sergeant. I need to take a shit. If you’ll excuse me. Ray, you’re in charge. Garza, make sure Trombley doesn’t kill Ray.”

“Your victor is going to be on fire when you’re back,” Poke called after him laughing.

He walked in the direction of Pappy’s team, where he could see Chafin already being attended to by Doc. He had watched the smaller Marine land heavy on the drop. Like the mother hen he was, Rudy was at his side, practically looking over Doc’s shoulder. Two-Three was probably the strangest of the teams. They had two severely messed up and bordering sociopathic men Poke constantly wondered how they had made it to their rank without being busted down for harassment, assault, or some other grand display of their staggeringly inhuman habits. They were cool dudes, but half the stuff that came from their mouths were twice the potency of why Terrarians were hated that the entire rest of the team said put together. Then there was Pappy, the old dog he was with mild manners and a soft voice. He was the one with his backwoods wisdom and old sayings. The exact opposite of his sniper partner and driver, Rudy, who was all about balance, self-awareness, and self-care. He was the most effeminate of all the Marines he had ever met, including some women, yet was the toughest guy he had met physically. And then there was Bud, who was a simply a blockhead. He was strong and damn good at his job, but Poke had never held a conversation with him that contained full sentences. It was impressive.

“Hey Espera,” Pappy greeted, looking up from his current task of dropping the cammie nets. “What can we do for you.”

“Was wondering if one of you could watch my boys in case the LT needs something while I take a shit. Asked the Iceman but we all know he doesn’t wait for no one. How’s the leg, Doc. Have to cut it off.”

“Yeah and fucking beat him with it,” Doc replied in his usual soft and distracted tone while working on someone. It lacked the sharp edge his usual stabs had, which meant he knew Chafin was actually in pain.

“I’d pay to watch that,” Jacks commented from the back of the victor, but Chafin stayed quiet as Doc continued to roll the foot in his grasp.

“I got you,” Pappy finally replied as the stakes were placed in the clay-like earth below. “Rudy, you got things here?”

Rudy only nodded as Pappy headed toward Two-Bravo’s victor and Poke headed off. His eyes were on the slight redness of Chafin’s ankle. It was nothing career ending, but he could tell the guy was in pain. His normal smirk was replaced by a tight-lipped grimace and his hands were two fists. Doc was running his hands along the bones carefully now that the casing and boots were off. He knew it was not broken, but exactly what Doc’s sensors were looking for was beyond Ruby.

“Good news is it’s just twisted,” Doc finally told him. “Keep it elevated now and then and try to stretch it out to stop the muscles from locking on you.”

“Anything he should keep an eye on,” Ruby asked with relief flushing over his face.

“The fucking ground,” Doc asked back with his lip quirking before walking away with his pack swinging onto his shoulder.

“I swear that man hates every damn one of us,” Chafin muttered as he replaced his boot and casing.

“He doesn’t,” Rudy replied. “Just how those warrior healers are.”

“They’re all assholes?”

“No, that’s just Doc himself. The standoffishness isn’t.”

 

Gunny watched over him as he waited for the team leads to arrive. The ride over had been almost silent, which was uncomfortable and unusual. He and his gunnery sergeants usually got along well. Nate relied heavily on their knowledge and insight when making plans and dealing with the mean. Now, he was starting to feel as if there was nothing he could do to really counterbalance whatever unease the men felt. Part of him was not sure what Wynn wanted him to do. Did he want Nate to go against orders that they both knew were wrong but did not have enough proof to act on? They were taught two very conflicting rules when it came to carrying out a mission. The first was the mission came first, and disobeying a direct order was punishable. The second was, if a Marine were to issue or carry out an unlawful or dangerous action without a proper risk assessment, it was not wrong to stop the mission to protect the unit as a whole. Mission completion was never more important than keeping mission readiness. And with this command, Nate could see he would be straddling the line constantly. Wondering what exactly would happen if he followed his gut rather than the bad leadership he had to suffer.

Mike was a good man. He had been in this game a lot longer than most men. Most had their bodies give out. They became too old for recon. Yet, Gunny was five years from retiring and had shown no signs of stopping. He was as fit as the young men he watched over, and his mind just as sharp. It was a rare privilege for him to work with someone with so much experience. But it also meant Nate felt very young in comparison. He felt. He hoped. He wanted to have the good outweigh the rest. The man was an idealist, and he knew it. The youthful belief that he could be something more and do something more. To give back and be part of the Alliance rather than above it all. But his passion showed in a different way than Wynn’s steady assurance. He burned brightly with flashes of heat radiating. Wynn glowed constant and true. Even as he talked of the stupidity Nate needed to prepare for when taking part in this platoon leadership, the man’s tone never changed. In fact, the only time he had heard anything other than that even and gentle voice was when he was laughing for feeling particularly playful. It was rare, as he had found, but it was different.

“I can see the smoke coming from your ears,” Mike chided lightly. The weird lilt to his voice told Nate he had a lip full of dip as he spoke. He hated seeing the flecks of tobacco stuck in Mike’s teeth while he did it. All the health issues and the weird smell the flavor gave off made his stomach twist.

“Get used to it,” Nate replied. The man tossed a look over his shoulders and offered a grin. “I didn’t graduate from university by doing anything but thinking.”

“Won’t do you no good right now, Nate. Just focus on what our job is with these boys.”

“Get them home safe, I know.” Nate sighed and walked over to the hood of the vehicle and rested against it with his back. “Anyone ever tell you you’re a nag?”

“My ex-wife mostly,” Mike replied with a hint of humor before his spit into his bottle.

“That’s gross to watch,” Nate told him with a clipped tone.

“So don’t want.”

Nate snorted and looked forward. Five figures were making their way to his LAV from the main group for Bravo Two. He had gotten good at telling the men apart by their gaits and sizes. Some were easy to tell apart from the others, such as Person, Reyes, and Colbert because of their sizes. Others like Doc or Holey had a very specific stride and sway to their step. Two people constantly walking together who were the same height were Stafford and Christenson. Two people always together but different heights were Garza and Hasser. And if it was five men walking like they owned the place, it was the team leaders and their medic heading over to either take over or for a meeting. Luckily, it was just for the meeting now. He heard Mike tell Stafford and Christenson to head over to Two-Four for a bit, and by the time the two young Marines scattered, the team leaders were stepping into the general shaded slope of the cammie netting.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Espera replied with a smirk. Nate felt one of his own trying desperately try to free itself.

“My major was interior design,” Nate replied easily before carrying on. “I did not get to say it when we landed, but great job with the objective, men. You rolled out easily and met with each other with no problem. Mike and I held back because anywhere else, you would not have us there. I don’t want you guys losing your aggressiveness because you think we’re going to hold you back.”

The men nodded. Nate licked his lips and looked them over for a moment. He felt the thoughts swimming again. These men were not here to do their actual job field now. The most they got to do was drop down because it was the fasted means of deployment. They would not be doing much reconnaissance once they were on the ground. These carefully crafted and honed weapons were being forced into playing the part of a water pistol. Priceless artifacts tossed into a black hole with the promises that foam would catch them at the bottom.

“The captain wanted me to pass on that he found our inability to find Third Platoon first unacceptable. When we land on Io, he has informed me our new objective will be to reform the company first before finding Alpha,” Nate continued. It was less of an accountability issue and more than he felt Schwetje was intimidated by Patterson. “He also informed me that comm-surfing was not going to be accepted on the surface.”

Nate made pointed eye contact with Colbert, who had his eyes trained almost murderously on his. His eyebrows furrowed, demanding an explanation for this. Nate was not an idiot. That was how Ray kept finding everyone so quickly at such a distance. It was also how he found McGraw. Nate pulled his lower lip under his canine and raised his own eyebrows. His eyes never left Brad’s intense stare, but he shook his head a fraction of an inch in that moment. He watched, hoping his message was received. Not to pass that word onto Ray. He was an invaluable resource. He saw the way Brad’s upper lip twitched in the right corner and his eyes flickered from Nate’s own to Nate’s mouth, then finally to Mike over his shoulder. Message received.

“The captain also informed me all men will have to uphold the grooming standard. All suits will be properly worn and cared for when conditions are called. All other grooming is also expected to the best of our abilities. Be assured, I have put in an order for wipes to get delivered upon our return, as we will be for the visors, as it seems the previous request was not pushed through to the G4 before step-off. Do we have any questions.”

“Sir,” Lovell offered. “Is there anything you can tell us about the plan that explains why we are carrying two extra companies and an entire supply unit with us.”

“At this time, there is not. This assault was planned from Moon itself, so we can assume the tag-along will be needed and supply drops will be limited considering the high number of raids in the area we will be working out of.”

The man nodded, but clearly did not like the answer. None of them would. This was not normal for them. Having command riding along like a normal unit. They were proud. They were honed to be individual killing machines who replied on themselves alone. This was not help the command offered. It was more baggage to drag along. He hated that he understood why his men were acting the way they were, because it made telling them to stay in line more difficult. It made facing Gunny after meetings with the higher-ups torture.

“Alright. Remember, 50 percent watch, so rotate everyone through sleep. We step off in 12 hours exactly. 0700, we will have another team leader meeting about the mission. Dismissed, gentlemen.”

 

 

“I don’t like it, Pap,” Rudy commented when Pappy returned and explained the situation. “This sounds like it will be more bad than good. This is dangerous.”

Pappy nodded quietly. He did not know what else to say, as complaining was not going to help the situation. All he could do, really, was follow orders and watch Colbert for any other direction. The man was the only one who seemed capable of not insulting higher-ups with his suggestions. Maybe it was the indifference he gave toward all members of the unit, or the base respect he had for leadership. The man would follow orders just fine, but if something seemed off, he was not afraid to ask permission to shift. His goal was always mission success with the most people returning home he could have. He wanted one hundred percent success on all his missions. Following his lead seemed to work out for the rest of the team leaders. And with the way their commanding officer acting, along with Greigo, it was also safer to let someone else stand in the direct blast zone. Deferring to the senior was the safest bet. It was something they all learned at lance corporals. Once someone was given the title of lead lance corporal? They were the one to follow after. They were the one who showed enough leadership to get trusted, but they were also the one who would get punished.

“I just don’t think it’s needed, having everyone here with us. A lot of people are in the way, and too many people are having a say in this.”

“Too many chiefs,” Pappy replied with a small nod.

He was right. Their job was to be swift, silent, and deadly. They were to move in, watch, and report back. Or, if they were on the attack, they moved in unnoticed, cleared out the threats, and exited before the alarm was raised. They were new-aged assassins. Their job was not to go in like a parade. That was what regiments did or expeditionary forces. They were the large forces who moved around together and set up bases of operation. Recon was a group of lone wolves who moved in with groups of five. Having too many people with their say in what happened? It made him worried for the less experienced boys they had with them.

“What do you think this is really about, Pap,” Rudy asked. His warm, chocolate eyes watched intensely.

His eyes always gave away how he felt, and it was something that was so strange for recon. Most men were varying levels of masculine pride or stoic anger. Rudy was gentle and soothing. His voice was soft and sweet. He always reached out to people and tried to support them. He was the den mother of the unit. He was strong, unreasonably so, and dominated in hand-to-hand combat. His kindness was by no means a sign of weakness. The man, after all, was a trained killer with confidence few men could claim to have. He was also Pappy’s spotter. They had long developed a sense for each other. He knew how Rudy would move before the man even telegraphed it. Probably one of the main reasons Rudy and he never grappled. That, and Pappy had a feeling if Rudy actually hurt him while play-fighting, it would genuinely ruin the other man. But they were the sniper team for Bravo, and as such, his keen eyes were trained to watch and observe. He could see the way Rudy’s eyes flicked slightly as he tried to keep eye contact. He didn’t want to. He was forcing it. This mission was really weighing down on the man.

“I think it’s what they tell us. For the most part,” Pappy finally told him. But his voice was lower this time. “I think they want to weed out whoever is causing these issues, and they want to keep the peace. Don’t mean everything will work out well.”

Rudy nodded and began to pull off his kevlar plates of his suit to clear into condition three. Pappy sighed and pushed off the LAV to step closer. He was already stripped down with his plates tucked away in the passenger seat of the victor. Over his exo-skin was the black unit sweatshirt to keep him warm against the slight chill of the Martian night. Pappy removed the wad of chewing tobacco and washed his mouth out before drawing level with Rudy. The man watched him for a moment before sighing out of his nose. The man was taller and easily had a good twenty pounds on Pappy, yet the man willingly dropped his arms and let his head hang slightly in resignation. Pappy looked around to make sure the more judgemental men, Chafin and Trombley mostly, were not watching before he started to unlatch the gear for his partner. It was a strange habit most sniper teams and other close recon Marines did with their battle buddies. It was a sign of respect and a subtle way of reminding them they took care of each other. Brad likened it to monkeys grooming each other but mostly when swatting Ray’s hand away as the smaller man tried. For all of his complaining, Pappy had seen Brad unlatch Ray’s gear much in the same way a few times.

“We will get the boys out and hopefully they will go quietly,” Pappy drawled softly to Rudy as his fingers deftly undid the hooks and latches of his shoulder and arm plates. “We don’t shoot unless we are fired on, that’s the R.O.E. If they don’t shoot, we won’t have to either.”

They both knew that was wishful thinking, but it was nice to say it and to hear it. It was the security blanket for the men. Some people in the unit did enjoy the violence of action and aggression. Some wanted nothing more then to get their first shot and hit someone. Pappy and Rudy were not those people. They stayed enlisted after their mandatory time for two very different reasons. Pappy had nothing back home but the mountains and his parent’s trailer in the woods. He stayed in to make something of himself. Maybe move off world and take them with him. He was accepted for recon because of his test scores and his dedication. Rudy was an educator and stayed in the Marines to be someone body of worth. He did not feel connected to the educator world, but the connection he had felt with his fellow Marines had meant more to him. The man found himself in the dirt, grime, and isolation. They were both snipers for the same reason. They were alert, steady, and observant. They had been paired together four years ago. Most teams were picked out of BRC now and they stayed together as a unit. However, Pappy had two years of service on Rudy. He received the bright-eyed lance corporal a year into being a sniper after his partner broke his back during a bad drop. He did not know what to do with the man who seemed to always think broadly. His constant discussions about universal truths, right and wrong, and living life in the hopes of being a good person threw younger Pappy for a loop. He did not know what to say or do with anything young Rudy said.

Now, he had no idea what he would do without it. The way he spoke and wondered out loud was just another reminder that he was alive. He had learned a lot about himself through Rudy’s endless musing. And he found they were so much alike for two people who should never have met to begin with. His fingers moved to the breast plate, and Pappy looked up at Rudy, who just watched with his jaw clenched and eyes trying hard to not display the discomfort he was still feeling. Pappy sighed and pulled off the breast plate. It was placed on the other kevlar slabs with a heavy clink and the older man started working on the back plate.

“We have to remember this is for the best,” Pappy told him in a gentle tone. He looked up at Rudy and gave a soft glance. “This ain’t an omelet and egg situation.”

“I just want this to be good energy. Good karma.”

Pappy gave a small sound that sounded like a, “yeah,” as the back plate was removed. His long fingers dug into the knots of Rudy’s shoulder. He knew were they all were, he had been pressing them loose for years now. As he did so, the taller man let out a grunt and smirked. They knew the men joked about how they were too close, but neither Pappy nor Rudy let themselves think too hard on it. They spent most of their time alone, isolated, and out of contact with their family. Without someone to be close to, they would not be able to process and deal with the lives they took. Neither man enjoyed that part of the job, no matter how much of an honor it was to be held as a high-ranking sniper. A chance to cling to humanity, even if it was working the tense muscles of a best friend loose, was important.

 

“Sir,” A clipped tone cut through the night. Bryan looked over to see the build of the young lieutenant of Bravo Company. “Can I speak with you for a moment?”

“Sure thing, Nate.” His eyes watched the young man as he approached. Nate was in condition two, with his helmet tucked dutifully under his arm and rifle held steady with the other. “Mind if Gunny’s here?”

“Not at all, sir,” Nate replied with a nod to the older man, who nodded back.

Nate moved forward and placed his helmet on the hood of the LAV. His face seemed to war with his thoughts, trying hard to keep that trained indifference in place. His bright green eyes were clear and disarming. They were something Bryan had found shocking about the young man. There was an intensity that he expressed when he needed to. Right now, they held a look of annoyance, it betrayed his otherwise perfectly schooled expression as he looked between the older men. It was then he realized Nate was looking to them as his own commanding officers, as he had no faith in his own. It was a careful like they needed to walk, as he had a feeling the other captain would not take too kindly to another man in his territory. Yet, he also knew the young lieutenant needed someone he could turn to and rely on. His eyes flicked over to Rich, who had an even face on as well, passively observing the situation.

“What’s on your mind, Fick,” he asked with his usual blunt tone. It caused Bryan’s lip to quirk. Fortunately, Nate’s did as well.

“It’s about the movement planned,” Nate offered. He swallowed heavily and licked his lips. “My men are concerned about how H&S and command will slow us down when we actually reach Io.”

The silence and sharp gaze gave an unspoken look of agreement. Bryan was starting to realize the young man spoke as much through his expressions as he did vocally. And it was possibly why they were starting to have such an issue between him and the other members of his company.

“I’m guessing it will, Nate. This is my first time with a recon company,” Bryan admitted. “You have more experience with this than even I do. And hell, my men sure don’t need me. I could get dropped on a different moon and they’d do just fine.”

“I think that’s my biggest concern,” Nate admitted. His green eyes flashed with pain. Maybe disappointment. “I have the most experience with this. I see everything that could go wrong, and I know I can’t do anything about it.”

“What does Mike have to say about this,” Rich asked.

“Told me to shut up and keep the boys away from their stupidity,” Nate replied and rain his hand over his buzz cut. “I know he’s right, but I can’t not overthink this all.”

“Well, someone has to think in Bravo,” Rich muttered. Bryan glared at his gunny, who did not even attempt to look sorry for what he said. “Look, Nate. All I can tell you is the most important thing is keeping the men safe. And respect your gunny. Mike is a smart man.”

“I know he is,” Nate clipped back. Almost like he was insulted for the man.

“So take his advice. And focus on keeping shit from rolling down hill and you’ll do fine.”

Nate’s nostrils flared and his fingers tapped the visor of his helmet anxiously. He was thinking again, judging by the way his teeth worried his bottom lip. Bryan watched as the young man looked over his shoulder to the lumps in the distance of the LAVs of his own platoon. His profile made him look more like a boy than ever with the light illuminating his eyes and lips. It was hard to believe he was old enough to run a platoon; harder to believe at one time, Bryan was just as young.

“I should get back before Mike thinks I’ve gone AWOL,” he sighed.

“Hey Nate. You know where to find us.”

They both watched as the young man picked up his helmet and headed back to the platoon. It worried Bryan more that he was unable to rely on his own leaders for advice. Young officers were as much in need of guidance as enlisted men. It was a often something Rich complained about lightly, how Officers always needed a senior-enlisted Marines to keep them in line. They would not know how to survive without them. Fick had Mike, but he was not in charge. He was the one who knew more about how to run a recon unit, yet he was not able to make the important choices. And it was bound to cause issues down the line.

“No, Bryan, we can’t keep him,” Rich teased. He got a scoff in return. “You have your own to worry about. You can’t try to keep other units in line, as well.”

“It’s not just Bravo I’m worried about,” Bryan replied dryly. “He’s right. This is not what we should be doing. I’m worried what will happen when Godfather is making calls.”

Rich looked over with his gray eyes. He was the definition of a Marine. Stern expression, perfectly policed looks, calculating gazes, thick and broad build with his shoulders back and head held high. He was hardly the average smart man. He was no going to pass any extreme exams or become worthy of a position on the Moon after this tour was over. But he knew how to run a company and how to take care of his men. He could fix a victor with little more than bubble gum, and navigate in the darkness of a Martian night. He was also patient enough to wait out a conversation. Staying silent often pressured others to talk, especially under his gaze. Normally, it was a sign of dominance. Right now, with the soft head tilt, it was one of encouragement. He knew Bryan had a lot on his mind, and was not sure what to say. He was given a soap box.

“He is a base commander,” Bryan continued. “They don’t make good combat commanders. He’s focused on the wrong things, and we both know that. I’m not afraid for our men. They can handle far more than this stupidity. I’m worried about the people living on Io who did not ask us to come in and attack.”

“You’re worried this will be insurgency.”

“Isn’t it already?”

It was now Bryan’s turn to stare and watch. His eyes searched for something. He was not even sure what he wanted to find. Maybe proof that his worried were for nothing. That he, just like Nate, was overthinking. The laughable trait that enlisted men blamed on their education. The constant quest for answers and need to know everything meant they could not accept information at face value. Maybe he was looking for an argument. That his observation of Godfather was incorrect. That he had misjudged the man, and he was being unfair. He wanted to be wrong for once. And have Rich look at him with both humor and annoyance.

“Bryan, I don’t know what you want me to tell you,” he finally conceded. “We are told to weed out these terrorists. We have our mission, sir.”

Bryan felt his mind wince at that. Rich only called him sir now when he was being corrected. A reminder that something, they could not be the friends they pretended not to be. It was him detaching from his officer. Though he did not show it in his face, Bryan looked down at the hood of the LAV before stripping out of his plates. Both men were getting rest and their sergeant was keeping watch tonight. There was a slight pang of guilt at having put Rich in that position, so silence was his best bet. He enjoyed his job. He had been excited a year ago when he had assumed command of Alpha Company. First Recon was something of legend in the Allied Marines. Their men were always praised and sent on tough missions. They, much like Second, Third, and Fourth, were elite forces. They were the top choice for infantry officers. The dream placement for those who actually wanted to run a team who were the best. It was also a challenge, as these men did not need leaders. It was a test of ego as much as leadership skills. And, often, it was humorous for their senior enlisted assistants for the first few weeks.

For Bryan, he had spent more time sighing at the people he was working with than anything. They were base-side on Justice for his first few months. That meant the men had far too much time to get into trouble when not training. It was a fine like they always walked. While the men needed their chance to relax and enjoy themselves, a bored Marine was dangerous. He had learned that the rash decision making was doubled in their units. Rich had laughed himself hoarse after Bryan had his first breakdown.

“That we do. Get to condition three, gunny. You’ll have to sleep in condition two soon enough,” Bryan muttered and peeled off more of his plates.

“Bryan, you could ask me to strip for you nicely,” Rich replied with a smirk. The man chuckled as his arm was hit heavily with the shoulder plate.

 

Morning came far too soon for Brad’s liking. It felt like he had only been resting for a few minutes when Ray shook him awake. His RTO had not taken a watch, but he had a feeling Trombley waited to wake Brad up out of either an attempt to suck up or fear that he was not a morning person. Brad was not. He was often bleary-eyed in the morning. Ray often called him a zombie when they were back on Justice. The few times (more than a few, but he did not want to admit that) Ray had stayed over after drinking, he had watched the way Brad banged around his apartment trying to make coffee. It was only under promised pain and death that kept the smaller Marine from telling everyone about the way the Iceman was like a cranky toddler in the morning. His blue eyes blinked slowly as the sleep cleared from his mind. He heard the heavy foot falls of Garza, meaning he was already suited up. Looking over at the smaller Marine who had shaken him and was now crouched over his Ranger Grave, he could tell Ray was almost fully suited up as well. He was always comically small in his suit. More so than when he was in his base BDUs. While Brad knew he was all long limbs, he was also broad shouldered. Ray, however, was a twig even compared to the younger Marines such as Trombley.

“Homes, time to get up. Our baby thought you should sleep in,” Ray shook him again. Brad grunted.

“The fuck for,” he grumbled and pressed the heel of his hand into his eyes. “Where the fuck is my suit.”

“Sold it on the black market,” Ray supplied with his brows furrowed and lips pursed playfully. “I dropped it there, need me to help you in.”

“No. Get our water cans filled. How long do we have?”

“You have the TL meeting in five Mikes.”

Brad smacked his head back onto the packed earth he had been sleeping on. He had forgotten about the meeting and had no desire to find out what else the geniuses up top would spew upon them. He had little confidence in Godfather and Sixta when they took over on Justice. They had focused less on actual training missions and important military education for lessons on grooming, the code of military justice, and courses such as finance. The normally monthly periods of military instruction each unit relied heavily on to keep a flow of information and practice even when not training in the field fell to the wayside. It was why any of the men were without their proper certifications aside from the two Marines sent to their unit without passing all the courses. It was probably why two men were sent on this trip with them when they were not properly trained. It was dangerous to keep recon out of practice. They were the best, of course. But that did not mean they were not without maintenance requirements. Like any machine, they needed to be kept up to date. And they were killing machines.

“Get the children together, Ray. We best be ready to go by the time I get back from the meeting.”

“Yeah, no shit, homes. But as much we we joke about you being a perfect stripper, let’s get you dressed.”

“Ray, you are not touching me with your filthy, sister fucking fingers,” Brad grumbled as he stood up and stretched out his long body. He felt a few pops along his spine.

“I love it when you talk dirty to me, Brad,” Ray replied with his usual impish smirk. He ignored, or rather was immune to the harsh glare he shot at the younger man.

Brad knew there was no real point in trying to play sergeant to Ray. Brad was very much his senior. He was also a very well-respected Marine who the rest of the unit both feared and revered. He had a lot of pull because of the name he had made himself since the beginning. But with a unit such as this, rank was usually only used when in formal settings or from junior Marine to noncommissioned officers, or when talking to senior enlisted, staff, or officers. For NCOs, which Bravo was largely made up of, they went by first name, last name, or nicknames. It was not a sign of disrespect to be called something other than names in the unit, whereas other places it was. The only time that happened was between new members of the unit who had not integrated themselves in. Or Ray, who used Brad’s rank when being especially petty. Pettier than usual, which was a feat some days. Ray resided somewhere between the best friend he did not want and the nagging girlfriend he could not get away from. Despite swearing off relationships and marriage long ago, he often felt like he had been trapped in a marriage with Ray since the first time he let the smaller man sass him.

Getting into their suits was always faster than getting out It was mission-critical. The ability to get ready and be off on the attack in minutes was why the suits were so easy to click into place. The weight of the plates was dispersed through the exo-skin below. Clever weaving of kevlar and other fibers that spread the weight evenly across the body. The skin itself was reinforced, so in condition three, they were still protected. The gear was cooling and reflected the temperature of the area around it. Laying prone, they matched the ground temperature. The skin was also mostly knife-proof. Not that many people would sneak up on sleeping recon Marines with a pocket knife, but it was the thought that counted. He rolled his shoulders before placing the two plates there and locked the last of the suit in place. With a minute or so left to spare, Brad headed toward the platoon commander and the rest of the team leaders.

He could see the other four heading that way. He was not about to be late so he jogged forward and nodded at Poke. He got a smirk and a head nod back. There was something in the man’s cold eyes that told him he was being teased. And he knew about Trombley not wanting to wake him up. He wanted to smack the smirk off of his friend’s face, but instead gave the usual harsh glare. Now that he was actually awake, it was more effective. However, much like Ray, he had learned Poke was immune as well. He was either losing his touch or, like Ray was saying, getting friends. Which, to Brad, was losing his touch.

“Dog, you look like shit,” Poke commented.

“Well, Tony, I am sleeping in the dirt on an alien planet in reinforced threads. Forgive me for not looking like Princess Aurora as my prince charming wakes me from my long slumber,” he replied dryly and adjusted his rifle.

“Don’t let Ray hear you say that. Last thing we need is for your boy to start a sing along with these miscretens.”

Brad actually flinched at that thought. He could actually imagine the way Ray’s off-key singing would dig right into his brain and make his ears bleed. The problem was Ray did not actually sing poorly. He was not half bad when he was not exhausted and doing it to get a rise out of people. He cared more for the laughs he got than his own dignity. Though, Brad was not sure Ray had any dignity.

“Point taken, Poke. Let’s not keep the boy wonder waiting.”

They drew level with the command vehicle to find Wynn standing close to Fick with their heads inclined at each other. Brad stared heavily at the way their officer’s jaw clenched hard enough to make his muscle fully. His eyes were trained at the ground with an intense hatred for whatever dirt he was looking at. Wynn’s face was passive, but the way his light eyebrows were pinched showed he was not happy about what they were talking about. Fick’s head nodded slightly and he adjusted his jaw. Brad watched the muscle clench and shift under his skin and his throat bob with a dry swallow. He was not happy. The team leaders and Doc stopped far enough away to keep their conversation private. All the same, Wynn looked up and nodded in their direction. He stood at Fick’s shoulder. Though smaller than his young officer, Wynn carried himself with more of the recon dominance than the bright-eyed altar boy they were to follow. The one who seemed more reliable than the college athlete in charge of him.

“Boys,” Wynn drawled lightly. His usual ease and calmness was forced this morning. “I trust we all got some good sleep last night.”

“My boys slept like babies. Lilley even drooled all over his weapon,” Poke replied with a smirk. Though his predatory teeth were gleaming, Brad knew it was an attempt at gaging where their leaders were at this morning.

The lack of huff told the Marines everything. This was not looking to be a good mission. Nate looked over at them with a careful gaze. His green eyes swept over them, their suits, their faces, and then over each shoulder to the men meandering behind them at the other vehicles. His nose flared outward and his tongue licked his lips quickly before he opened his mouth to speak. Brad was starting to see that was a tell for when he was stressed, annoyed, or trying to chose his words carefully. With the way his eyes lacked the normal lightness they held when meeting with the team leaders, even after a few days with them, Brad knew it was all three. He stared hard at the officer trying to force as much of a demand to look at him as he could. It did not take long for Fick to finally give in and look up at Brad. When he did, the taller man arched his eyebrows and softened his gaze. A request to know what was going on in his head.

“Men, I have some news about how this will be going on the surface,” he finally said. His easy tone that would normally carry this type of conversation had turned sharp and short. “Also, we will have a reporter embedded with us.”

His eyes looked at Brad’s the whole time. The intensity was shifting to curiosity. How would he handle this? Would he be as annoyed as Fick and Wynn obviously were?

“Sir,” Brad asked. “What the fuck.”

Chapter Text

“A fucking reporter, Brad,” Ray repeated with a huff as he drove through the Martian dust. “What the fuck do we need a fucking reporter for?”

“Probably to report, Ray,” Brad replied with a heavy sigh. Even with the current mission being one for training, Brad diligently kept his helmet on and secured. Right now, he swore it was actually making his head hurt worse. “Fick said he’d try to move the guy to Alpha or Charlie.”

“Or stick him with Delta. Get his ass shot up,” Ray muttered and spit out the window. Unlike Brad, his helmet was lifted so the chin cup was pressing into Ray’s exposed forehead.

“How do you know it’s a guy,” Trombley asked from the back seat. As always, the younger Marine was quiet. This seemed to get his attention, though.

“Because, my dear James,” Ray chirped with a hint of anger lacing his tone. “No one in their right mind would hop into a ball-sweat soaked LAV with a bunch of undersexed males if they were not a make already.”

“Or a porn star,” Garza added with a laugh in his voice,

“Garza, shut up,” Brad replied heavily. He got a giggle in return, as was custom for the man. “As much as it physically pains me to agree with Person, he’s right-”

“-Ha!” Ray’s cackle was like a railroad spike through the eye socket.

“Imbedding in a mostly-male unit is best done for males. As they requested Bravo, it is probably a male. If they wanted any other company, I would not assume what they are packing between their legs.”

“Why would a guy want to imbed with all dudes, though,” Trombley asked. The implied question at the end was just another railroad spike. Brad sighed heavily.

“Trombley, no one wants to do that. Just means the chances of shit going down in an all-male platoon is higher. We have no females to actually make sound choices for us to stop anyone from going on a testosterone-fueled charge with dicks out wagging,” Ray replied. It was helpful, if not wildly distasteful. And tame for Person.

“Or because we have geniuses in command who didn’t think before agreeing,” Garza pointed out from his perch in the turret. “Probably thought it’d look good if their boys got a stupid civilian through undamaged.”

“Nothing gets through undamaged. That’s why they test new technology through us,” Ray pointed out. “Like any time they want to see if something is ‘unbreakable’ for the Army, they let us play with it first. Only, when we finish, they take it away.”

“Hopefully Encino Man will send him over to Delta and the reporter won’t be our issue,” Brad cut in over Ray’s voice. “It’s the best we can hope for.”

 

Driving over the Martian landscape was hauntingly beautiful. It reminded Brad of what Ray claimed his hometown looked like. It had once been lush woodland, but after the bombs from generations ago, the atmosphere shifted it to a desert of reddish earth and hunking carcuses of the trees that used to thrive. Out here, it was nothing but an endless wasteland of sparse shifts in terrain and the black sky speckled with the blinking stars and distant reflective moons, planets and other bodies in space. The sky illuminated now and then with the rare meteor coming too close and being pulled in. Most were destroyed long before making contact, but it happened here more than other planets. According to Ray, it used to be a big deal for Terrarian science when a meteor fell. Part of him wondered what it was like to have education based on the past more than the future and present. To focus on classical information and the birth of humanity rather than where they were headed. Something he only thought about in the blessed silence of these drives.

They were thirty klicks from their target. A hamlet to take over, clear, and track. It would be filled with both civilian contractors trained to give a realistic atmosphere and actual military members who are there to cause issues. Whether or not today was a day where they would improvise an ambush was unknown, as was the point, but they were given their simulation rounds instead of their actual ammunition. Not that the simulation rounds were easy to take. They stung, even through the kevlar padding, and left welts the size of grapes from a single round. Well-placed shots could blast off the kevlar Sappi plates or shatter a visor. He prefered this over the lock-down rounds that were in development. As a testing ground, much like Ray mentioned in one of his many rants, two full companies of Marines were given the lock-down rounds and told to either defend or take a MOUT Town while he was with Second. He was on the defensive and found himself locked for twenty minutes after a round shocked through the suit, overriding the internal networks that fed information to the helmet. When that happened, it was a safety procedure for the suit to lock up, in the event of the Marine getting hit mid-jump and sent outside of the Stratos. It made the fight realistic, as that person was absolutely out of the battle until the suit reset. It also meant the suit risked an oxygen shutdown if the wrong plate was knocked loose. It was why they stayed with the high-powered simulation rounds that acted more like frozen paintballs at gunpowder-propelled speed than anything.

Training was something Brad loved and hated. It was the adrenaline he craved. Brad was addicted to being scared. The way the fear coarsed through this body and heated his systems up. How it was a test of his focus and thinking more than anything else. The cocky enjoyment of knowing how he was very much a better warrior than many he served with. That he had elevated test scores and his enhancements had been, even if accidentally, designed to make him a fighting machine. It was also the ultimate test of faith. Could he trust the men he was stuck with in his team. While he normally would fear nothing, in their current situation. Brad saw all the problems with the LAVs and with having such young Marines overpopulating an offensive. He knew he could rely on Ray, who was far more skilled than people believed. But he had Trombley, who was barely trained, and Garza, who had seen minimal action on Venus. He was not rolling with Kocher as he wished he was, and it made him nervous.

His eyes flicked to the side and watched as Ray continued to drive as if he was on a freeway. His hands were diligently on the wheel, but his grip was lax and his head bobbing to some song he was probably mouthing beneath the visor. He was a natural behind the wheel. Something not everyone could say. Brad had not grown up driving. There was no need on the colonies, as all transport could be done through the various escalators or walkways. He had only started driving when he joined the Marines. It went from some useless and archaic skull the man had no desire to learn to something Brad enjoyed. He had a speeder bike and an all-wheel. Both were sitting unloved at base in a capsule. Once more, there was no need for them on the colonies. But he had thought of getting them dropped to Earth on his next leave and seeing exactly what there was about the planet that had so many people content to stay.

“Getting close to the AO,” Fick’s voice rang through the comms and cutting into Brad’s daydreams. “Hamlet will be to the east of our current route. We will stop two kilometers out and approach on foot.”

“Two-Alpha. Copy that, sir,” Brad replied and looked back to the others. “We will progress the final two kilos out and enter foot-mobile.”

“Didn’t Godfather say we wouldn’t leave the vehicles when we assault the towns,” Trombley asked in a voice that bordered on petulant.

“Orders change, Trombley.”

Attacking a hamlet on foot was not the issue. If anything, being able to disperse and move freely made their path safer now than they would have been otherwise, trapped in barely skinned vehicles. It was the last of long-ranged, high-powered weapons that gave Brad and the other senior recon NCOs pause. There was a comfort with the MK-19 and the 50 CAL that regular rifles did not offer. They had no cover here, and they were all rolling in on open, flat ground. There was no cover. All they could do was rush forward until they reached the outer walls of the MOUT Town. It was a battle plan designed with casualties in mind, which was not comforting for anyone. And it would have failed any actual risk management assessment if they filled one out. Though, Brad had to give his commanders one thing. This would pass operation security filing without an issue as no one in their right mind, with actual military training, would have thought this out. This was something from the old days. The real old days before body armor was even considered. But back then, it was entire regiments being thrown against the walls like waves of terrified boys. Not sending a select few high-end sports vehicles against a solid wall to see what happens.

Before they headed off, Ray had given a lopsided smirk. He did not see it, but he had heard the expression through the man’s voice as he informed Brad, “If this wasn’t a training mission, I’d probably say something really gay like ‘It was nice to serve with you’ or ‘I wish I had gotten a chance to suck your dick.’” He had also felt his own smirk pull fully, hidden from the snooping eyes of the other Marines as he replied, “Shut the fuck up, Ray.” It was stupid things like those comments that made Ray so important to Brad’s mental stability. Which was mind-boggling as he doubted there was even a shred of sanity in the Terrarian most days. Certainly a lack of self-preservation, as Trombley had been on line next to him and his helmet clearly jerked in their direction in shock. Whether he believed that Ray actually wanted to go through with his comment, Brad had no idea, but it would not stop him from complaining about it later.

Now, it was like seeing his platoon mates in a new light. It was always a shift he enjoyed. The way the team went from loose and bickering like married couples to a streamline force. This was even more exciting to witness than the way everyone snapped to when it came time for a jump. Each person crowded the butt of their rifle or LMG with hands gripping the stock or custom grips. How even the best posture was abandoned for the hunched and solid stance. It was all about giving stability to their shot now and moving as fast as possible without flagging another person on their line. With so many second and third story windows facing them, there was no point in going prone. It was all about getting to the wall as fast as possible. Once his feet hit the dirt, he had zoned out and moved on autopilot. Before he knew it, Brad was pressed against the wall with Ray sliding into his spot behind Brad, back to back. Brad watched over the wall as Ray called into their LT with the location and requested permission to move forward. Garza and Trombley were hunched beside Brad in similar overwatch positions.

With a tap to the thigh, Ray told Brad it was time to move out. They would go up and over the wall then move to clear the first building. To their Nine, Poke and Jason were getting ready to do the same but for a shed with battered-down windows. A nod between the team leaders and their smallest members were sent over. For Two-Bravo, that was Walt and for Two-Alpha, that was Ray. Once their feet hit, both men called they were ready. Next to go over was Trombley and Leon, who was followed immediately by Christopher. Garza and Lilley went over as one and finally it was Poke and Brad’s turn. As they cleared the wall, the call over the radio for the second wave to head into town was sent in, meaning it was now Two-One and Two-Two’s turn further west. As for the first two teams, they were splitting off and heading into the building. As soon as Brad’s feet caused a plume of red dust to kick up, the distinct whizz of ammunition flew past. One or two spattered by Brad’s shoulders and by the angle, it was from the building behind where Poke’s team were clearing. He motioned for Poke to keep an eye on that building and to cover Two-One’s entry before he followed Ray into the building. He kicked down the door and immediately turned left while Ray turned right. With the room cleared, Garza and Trombley moved to the room to the left and cleared it while Ray checked the mock-up bathroom. It would be the quietest house of their simulation.

After the first building, Brad’s team found themselves with Fick, Wynn, Stafford, and Christenson. He watched as the LT darted toward them, sidestepping every round that shattered against the packed dirt before skidding to a halt and covering the rest of his team’s approach. The way Fick tucked his rifle into his shoulder and shot three sharp rounds into an open window was a great contrast to the way McGraw was handling the training three blocks over with Kocher and Three-Alpha. If not for the small insignia and the elegant stride of the lieutenant, he was impossible to tell apart from a trained recon enlisted Marine. Gunny Wynn seemed to notice it too, as Brad could feel the man’s honey eyes boring through the visor at him.

“Brad,” Nate’s clipped tone sounded sharper now that it was not over radio. “Captain McGraw is pinned down to our Eleven. I need you to clear the building holding them down. Seven up, three to the left with the sheets for porch doors on the second story.”

“Sir, it’s not nice to shame a fellow officer for what he may or may not be into,” Brad chirped back as he leaned forward to get eyes on which building Fick was referring to through his scope. “Glassed it, sir. Looks like everyone is on the top floor raining down easy shots.”

“We will cover your movement from behind and have Two-Two cover you front the front,” Fick replied, ignoring Brad’s earlier comment. “But we need you back here after. We need to take out the main building to the south.”

Brad nodded, though he was sure that building had been assigned to Encino Man’s team. Now that he thought about it, he had not seen either commanding officer or his trust gunnery sergeant this entire push. Brad knew everyone by their body size, height, posture, gait, and even the way they cradled their weapon. That was how he knew it was Manimal five minutes ago who had shot one of their mock insurgents in the face mask from two streets down. He would bring it up later. Right now, he wanted to complete the mission at hand and free Kocher from the insufferable stupidity of his own CO. Pleasing his altar boy LT was just icing on the cake after that. So he told the other three the plan and they headed off. Ray went in first this time, and quietly. He was the slippery one of the group and while Trombley and Garza made their way through the bottom floor, Brad watched as his battle buddy side-stepped up the stairs in silence. He squatted down a few steps from the front and signaled Brad to follow, as there was no visual from the landing. Once on the landing together, both men rested their back against the wall on either side of the door frame. Behind the door was the clicking of rifles going off. Brad counted down before kicking in the door. And Ray was in immediately using a voice that seemed other wordly in comparison to the almost nasally one he used when being a pain in the ass. This was loud, deeper, and harsh as he commanded everyone to put down their weapons and put their hands where they could see them. Only one of the, attempted to shoot at the pair, but Brad shot his face mask and the man was “dropped.”

The weapons stayed with the teams that were acting as insurgents, but on their way out, they were written down as what team cleared the house and given the extra ammunition. Outside, Kocher and his team already began to push through town. Two-Alpha met back up with Fick, who seemed somehow smug through his helmet as they headed to the main building. It was smooth sailing. With three teams hitting at once, all three floors were cleared in no time, cache discovered and “destroyed,” and the mission effectively over. Next door, Bravo Three cleared out their objective. And over the radio, they heard the call that the other companies had managed to do the same. Each platoon commander read off their “casualties,” Bravo Two and Alpha One both being the only platoons to not lose a Marine.

The platoons moved back to the outside of the hamlets as their officers and senior enlisted spoke with the training instructors. It was a chance for the men to change out the barrel of their rifles to actual live ammunition barrels and clean out what residue the simulation rounds left. Brad was sat with his legs sprawled out. Ray lay stretched out like a cat next to him with Poke, Rudy, Pappy, and Walt with them in a lazy circle. They were called to condition two, so helmets were off and they were all able to breathe easily. Ray was using his as a pillow as he spoke with his hands waving out animatedly. Brad was mostly listening, but his eyes were locked on the way Encino Man and Kasem seemed to angle away from Fick and cut him out of the conversation with their body language. It was enough for Brad to see that this was the beginning of a problem. They did not like the boy wonder, unlike the platoon who was stuck between beating off to his name at this point or politely singing his praises. If anything, they probably looked back because some of the original plan had been thrown to the side when it didn’t work out. Fick had been required to improvise. And it worked out perfectly. Though it seemed the leaders were not impressed.

His jaw was clenched as he watched the officers peel off. Fick and Wynn had their heads bent toward each other as they walked. As always, they were chatting softly until they got just out of earshot. Wynn’s face looked pained, like when someone tried to smile through a stubbed toe. Fick, however, looked like he was unbothered. Up until his eyes fell on Brad, and the older man could see all the pent-up rage they held.

“Team Leaders, gather ‘round for an after-action,” he called out in the same, easy voice he always used. That did not stop Brad from watching intently as he stood.

 

It would prove to be the only full training mission the unit would be on together. Short runs and basic drills, but it was the only practice at infiltrating and subduing a village. The teams drove through the Martian wastes and fired at a few static targets to get the gunmen in the turrets some practice with their mounted positions. A few times four members were sent to an overwatch position against AI detectors. Three times it was a failure as younger members moved too much, but the mission run by Redman and Kocher was a success, as not even the AI programs picked up their movements on the berms. They spent three days driving back to the main base on Mars, passing by New Dresden and Gresfield along the way. The whole time, it was silence among the troops. Some of the time was spent in condition one to get used to the air compression. While the filter system was far more advanced than it was even twenty years before, it was still not easy to breath with when running or carrying out prolonged activities. It was much like an old gas mask mixed with a rebreather. It did the job, but it was not comfortable.

Mike got used to the way Nate seemed to fluctuate from hot and cold in his moods. He was good at keeping his face neutral, but the older man had learned his tells. The way he licked his lips and swallowed before relaying information he did not like. Almost as if he hated the way the words tasted as he spoke them. How his eyes widened as his brows furrowed when he was getting angry or annoyed at something. He rubbed the pads of his thumbs along his forefinger as he thought to himself. Or, more accurately, he worried himself over something. He looked out the window when he was running through plans or tactics. Which was what the young man was most likely doing now.

Out of the corner of his eyes, Mike could see the way Nate was worrying his bottom lip as his green eyes looked out the scenery. Behind them, Q-Tip and Christenson were chatting softly. Stafford’s distinct accent and tone carried over Christenson’s more subdued and relaxed voice. An hour ago, they had been singing or rapping some song they both knew and liked. For two men who barely met a few months ago, they were getting along well. When he had pulled Christenson from Team Four to put Steiny with Holsey, their old platoon commander was skeptical. He wanted Christenson, who was showing high ability at overwatch and scouting, to learn from Q-Tip, who was next in line to get trained as an actual sniper. Much like the older Marine, the private first class was good at watching, had above average spatial reasoning, and a decent ability at drawing. While he was not quite as good as Q-Tip, who could sketch a hamlet with sharpie in under twenty minutes and have it to scale, it was something that would come with practice. As would discipline and the ability to think outside of his own childish habits and more like a warrior. He was young, they all were. The wisdom the older Marines had would come with time. And he was sure this mission would be enough.

There were times he wondered when he would finally be too old for this job. Marines became too old for recon. It was a demanding job on the body. They were required to have the highest level of physical fitness, which wore on the body. Most of the men were in their mid to late twenties. Mike was a few years shy of being able to retire. He was not sure he wanted to yet. He was hoping to get a chance to finish his package for Gunner. His options were go base-side with first sergeant and end up like a better Sixta or get out. Gunner was an unofficial warrant officer position in charge of weapons and training for deployment. He would be able to stay in his field and help young recon Marines without having to be in charge of battalions in such an overwatch position. He had talked about it a few years back when he was promoted to gunnery sergeant with his then wife. She had not liked that the process would keep him in longer than twenty, as Mike wanted to stay in. He was required to be in for 16 years first. It had been one of the main reasons he and his wife got a divorce. That, and she was not pleased that he wanted to return home to Earth with his small farm. She wanted him to move to one of the colonies with her and their daughters. Even with the large plot of land and documentation to ensure the girls could attention higher boarding schools than Terrarian, it was not enough. He figured it was better to cut his losses. He fought for a few months, but he knew it was over when he came home to gather his stuff and move into staff housing to find all their pictures together had been taken down and his stuff had been neatly packed for him. She made the choice for him.

But when he was out like this, watching the open expanse go by, monitoring everyone on visor, and watching updates feed through from H&S, Mike wished someone would understand why he loved it as much as he did. The joy that came from being in the Marines. The bond that came with being part of this fraternity of mildly unstable fools. He thought she would get it, but it was not so. Yet, the emptiness he felt after moving into his staff housing left when they were forced into mandatory fun that same week, it had felt better. He felt like he had purpose, and that he fit somewhere. Even if it was not with his wife. Sure, now he had the permission to see his daughters, but it was not the same. They were to live on the colonies with his wife. And he was waiting for a trip back to base long enough to fill out the paperwork.

His eyes flicked over to find Nate was now looking at him. His visor was looking directly at him with a slight cock to the left. He wished he could see the look on his face or that the visors were clear. He wished he could see what his lieutenant was thinking. He missed the eye contact he had grown so accustomed to by now.

“Do you think they know any other songs,” Nate finally asked in an amused voice.

“It could be worse,” Mike drawled lightly. He turned and looked back out the windshield. The sky looked no different than it had a few hours ago. The inky black impossibly illuminated through the barriers that held the atmosphere in place. “At least they are not out of tune.”

“Is there a tune,” Nate asked lightly. He shifted in his seat with a grunt. He was uncomfortable, which was no surprise. Nate was tall and leggy. His legs had been pinned by the dash in front of him.

“Someone is a music snob.”

He heard the scoff from Nate and watched the way the young man’s helmet shook. Mike allowed himself to smirk as the sight of buildings and launch pads broke over the horizon. The white-gray buildings sharply offset the red landscape his eyes had grown so accustomed to, and the lighting around became more artificial and brighter. Nate’s voice carried over the radio to the platoon that they were ten mikes from base. Mike smirked at how his voice sounded so authorative compared to the face he possessed. And the constant wondering if his men respected him at all. If he would do well enough to keep them safe, as Nate had understandably grown attached to his platoon. Mike just wondered how the kid couldn’t tell his men would die for him in an instant, even after only a week under his command. Nothing made it more obvious to the gunny than the way the team leads replied back, each with their own playful twist on their affirmations.

 

Being at the base was a tease of what the unit was supposed to have. Yet, some days Walt really wondered if the men he was stationed with prefered to be in the field than civilization. It seemed their true colors came out in full force when they were left to their own, messed up devices. Not that he could get mad entirely. He was friends with them all. It was just some were more uncouthe than others. And somehow it was not the “uncivil” men who were acting that way entirely. He had come into the Marines perhaps a bit sweeter and more proper than most. He was called Sunshine and Puppy more than his name when it came to conversations. He was often deferred to when a question was more sentimental than most of the men got, or when the more sensitive nature was requested. In boot camp and SERE training, there was more comments about his assumed sexuality and femininity than the others. Walt rarely let it get to him, though. He had spent long enough hours on farms and dealing with the small town lads growing up to really get offended. The sergeants in charge of training him were looking to get a rise out of him, and nothing more. And so long as he never let it get to him, he would be fine.

What did get to him was the way the guys talked about other people. Whenever groups were sitting or standing in huddles talking about their conquests, he usually stayed to the back. Away and preferably as far from ear shot as possible. It did not always work, but he tried. Today was no different than those other times. He sat in the corner, reading a book in the pleasant and silent company of Doc Bryan. A few feet away some of the men were huddled around a holopad reading through messages sent to the unit. Some were from their family, and they had no issue showing with each other. They laughed at some of the statements, crowed loudly at some of the sexual comments that was sent and jeered at the pictures sent along with some of the other, lesser personal messages. A few were sexual comments thrown at very young women and men. Though Walt knew they were nothing more than jokes and comments, he could not help the sneer and roll his eyes, The young man looked over at Doc instead, who had a face a bit more pointed and annoyed than usual.

For all his complaining and keeping people at arm’s reach, Doc was a bit of a softie for young children and anyone he was healing. More than once, Walt found himself under Doc’s careful and almost endearing gaze. He had a gentle touch when he moved any injured wound. Walt had been victim to an explosion, and while it was just shrapnel that clipped him, it was enough to worry the doc. He had actually felt a bit shy as the normally harsh and cold gaze was warm as he kept his eyes locked on Walt’s as he healed the wound with the his salve after digging out the shrapnel. The first time, Doc had seemed genuinely worried about Walt, as a few of the chunks cut through by his neck. The second incident was after a bar fight and Doc had pulled the young man away from and back to his barracks room. He spent the next two hours clearing out the bloodied cuts and bruises with his first aid kit. That time, there was a bit of disappointment in his gaze, yet it was still laced with that same warmth. The one Doc always had when dealing with a patient. The same one Walt watched him get when dealing with children who were caught in a storm while they were on Venus. He was a hard-ass. Until he wasn’t. Right now, he wasn’t, just severely annoyed and disgusted with the men he was forced to be around.

His eyes snapped over to Walt’s and studied him for a moment. He was not hiding his disgust now, though it was more unsettling that his face almost seemed dead or cold when his eyes screamed murder. Yet, Walt knew better than to actually be worried. Doc was not directing it at him. Still, Walt shifted under his gaze and he offered a small arch of the brow. His bright gaze watched as the cold, gray gaze bored into him and then flicked down to his weapons where he had been focusing. They were both cleaning their gear while trying to ignore their platoon mates. His eyes watched the other man aggressively. He smirked a bit and shook his head.

“I swear, they wouldn’t last a day in town,” Walt commented with his gentle accent. “They’ve gone feral.”

“They’re damn idiots. We have a fucking reporter coming who could get all their asses locked up for the shit they say.”

Walt’s eyes narrowed in confusion and his head cocked to the side with his mouth open a bit. His mouth formed around silent words and Doc looked back up from his weapon to eye up and down the young Marine. A quick quirk of the lips showed the humor he found in Walt’s confusion. He looked up again and leaned over his weapon, with his rag in one hand and the firing pin housing in the other. His long arms braced on Doc’s knees and he looked up through his lashes into Walt’s confused face.

“You didn’t fucking here we have a damn war scribe coming in to report on this,” Doc asked. When Walt shook his head honestly, the man scoffed and he sat back. “Apparently it’s to show how we are fighting the good fight. Sounds more like Godfather trying to get his full bird on our fucking backs.”

Walt chewed his lower lip and sighed heavily. He wanted to believe it was an honest desire to show what was happening that caused this plan to imbed a reporter. But the Doc had a point, this was a bit too much like a half-baked plan to show how wonderful the unit was doing. It was a publicity stunt, like the times they sent someone down to Earth to show how wonderful and simple such a quant life was. How pleased everyone on Earth was in their situation. How they did not need to change anything. This felt a little too much like that. Walt’s gaze fell to his own, stripped down weapon and his CLP-covered hands. The pads of his fingers fidgeted and rubbed over the nearest filthy skin, smearing the cleaning agent.

“They can’t honestly think that is a good idea,” Walt finally commented while focusing on his hands.

“They don’t care if it’s a good thing, Hasser. Godfather will do whatever the fuck he wants if he thinks it will get Mattis to let him suck him off.”

Walt cringed at that description as the unfortunate mental image came with it. He shook his head with a crooked grin and went back to taking breaking down his own weapon’s pin housing. His fingers put each of the parts with care onto the rag at his feet next to the brushes. His eyes looked back up through blond lashes to see Doc was putting his weapon back together. For a moment, Walt assumed that was it. That the social moment was over, and he would be walking to another part of the squadbay. It was not like Hasser minded, really. He had known a few combat medics in his time, and the corpsmen were always distant from the men. That was probably how they survived. Who knew who he would be holding together with his determination and megere medical supplies. But when the clicks of the rifle were followed by the shuffle of his sock-covered feet shifting to a more comfortable position, Walt looked back up. Doc had removed his bandana and his hair that was both sandy brown and dark laid at strange angles from being trapped under the fabric for hours on end. His hair was longer than Walt imagined it, barely shorter than his and Rudy’s.

“Afraid they’ll drag you into the idiocy, Doc,” Walt asked lightly. It did not stop the obvious confusion from crossing his features. While Walt could keep his mouth shut, the boy had an expressive face and bright eyes. He had yet to master a fraction of his team leader’s bearing.

“May kill one of them if they try, just to make a point,” Doc replied dryly, but Hasser did not hear any heat, so he smirked.

“I’m sure you could find someone there you won’t miss,” Walt replied, looking over his shoulder at the cluster. Only to roll his eyes as Ray and Chafin started talking louder. “But take one down and the rest will jump you.”

“I’ll finish one off another way. I know everyone’s allergies, peanut butter cup.”

Walt looked up, startled by the comment and the teasing tone that came with it. He had never once heard something so light come from the Doc’s mouth when not dealing with a patient. Though his thin lips were still tightly pressed, his eyes were dancing with mirth. Walt grinned wide enough that his dimples showed and his teeth caught his tongue between them. He shook his head and went back to cleaning his rifle.

“Remind me to never piss you off, Doc. If I go, I want it to be at least dignified.”

 

“Pappy,” Fick’s voice cut into the room from the door.

Pappy turned around from where he was standing with Chafin and Doc to find his lieutenant standing with a man about his age with a bewildered expression. He looked more out of place than the boy-faced officer who led him to the room. Unlike Fick, the other man had longer hair that curled about his ears, wide and confused eyes, and his wide mouth slightly agape. The sergeant walked forward with his own eyes narrowed with curiosity. Luckily, it seemed the unit functioned well on no actual verbalization. He watched Fick’s lip quirk with a hint of annoyed humor.

“This is our reporter that is with us for the Io mission. I have to be at battalion in five, so can you keep an eye on him. Make sure he doesn’t get lost?”

Pappy just sighed as Fick turned on his heel and walked off with his hand casually holding his slung rifle. The reporter in front of him looked him in the eye before flicking his gaze to the other Marines in the squadbay. They were eighteen hours from stepping off for the trip to Io, so most of the men were repacking their gear and washing what under clothes they thought they would need or use. Pappy himself was standing in his silkies and OD green pt sweatshirt. Most of the men were happy to be back in their BDUs now that they were on base. If anything, the chance to let their skin and regions breathe. Their suits were restrictive and heavy. Even with a basic cooling unit built into the suit, it was hot and uncomfortable. The sergeant wondered how this civilian with his loose fitting clothing and almost lazy look would do in the Io landscape, cramped into an LAV and compressed into a suit. Instead of commenting, the lanky man put his hands on his hips and licked his teeth.

“Yo, reporter,” Chafin asked from behind Pappy. Pap had a heavy accent compared to most. Chafin’s was as bad, if not worse. “Gonna tell everyone how we’re killers and rapists.”

Pappy glanced over his shoulder. For centuries now, the common depiction of the Marines, even before they were an Alliance force and were, rather, a dedicated and mostly elite force for the various countries of the world, was that of troublemakers and miscretens. Their forefathers did little shoot down the first accounts from Germans who claimed Marines fought like devils and from the Japanese, who claimed Marines were the mentally ill and criminally insane set loose from asylums and prisons to fight. Years and countless tales of Marne stupidity, disregard for others, and overall foolish mistakes made it impossible to shake the reputation. And Marines like Chafin, though he loved the man, did nothing to help it.

“Gonna tell all the people why us going into Io is a good thing for the GA,” Doc asked in a bored tone.

“Christenson,” a sharp tone cut above the others. Both Pappy and the reporter looked over to where Brad was laying with his long body sprawled out on his cot, but looking up with those sharp eyes. “Show the reporter to his rack.”

Pappy stepped aside and let the young Marine guide the man away. Pappy kept his eyes on Brads, who just shook his head slightly. Pappy sighed and made his way back to his own cot. He watched from across the way as Brad went back to reading and Christenson helped the reporter get settled. It was probably for the best, as the Private first class was rather tame and almost timid compared to the others. If anything, keeping with Holsey and Q-Tip could prove to be the best there was for the young man. The two men he spent the most time around with had actually grown up together in one of the more urbanized and overpopulated cities on the main continent of Earth. They had enlisted together on the buddy program, that ensured they would be in the same training platoon throughout boot camp. It was by chance they both were in the same SOI and BRC platoons, though this was the first time the pair had been in the same regiment since they passed BRC. They were not on the same team and were both given a younger Marine to watch over, but they both had the same easy mentality and coasting pace when not in battle. Holsey was the closest to zen as anyone in the unit, even putting Rudy’s overly worried mind to shame.

Speaking of, Pappy looked over to his rack and the one next to it, finding Rudy’s gear missing. He figured the man was at the gym with Manimal and Bud at the moment. He took a moment to catalogue everyone who was missing, in case they needed to recall the platoon for when Fick returned. His count put seven Marines out of the squadbay and unaccounted for. He knew another three were trying to shake down the post exchange before they headed out. Unfortunately, no one thought to take Hasser with them, as the man was usually the secret weapon against the sweet older ladies who were in charge of limiting what a Marine could purchase for themselves. They used his sweet voice and easy on the eyes appearance to coax more out of their trips. It was maybe a bit shameful to whore the boy out, but he seemed to understand it.

He heard the nasally tone of Chafin cut through the silence. He looked up to see the smaller Marine pestering the reporter, who looked confused and unsure about how to handle the current situation. For his sharp eye, battle discipline, and skills with the radio, Chafin was also a prejudice and crude person. He had language that would make a mafia boss feel uncomfortable. And, apparently, liberal reporters. Whatever he said had rubbed Q-Tip the wrong way, as the man snapped at him for a comment. Considering the reacting, it had been racist. Poke’s harsh and tone interrupted whatever Chafin was saying to start on one of the impressively eloquent insults the older man came out with. Pappy smirked as the two began to hiss at each other until Chafin finally backed down and moved away with Garza. Poke was one of the most alpha out of the whole company, maybe second to Brad’s imposing personality and Mike’s calm confidence. He would have heard the way Poke sarcastically welcomed the reporter if there had not been commotion outside the door.

He and Brad’s heads snapped upward, then looked across the room at each other. Doc had already been out the door, slinging his medic bag over his shoulder. He left with just his shower shoes and Navy blue silkies on, with Hasser and Stieney in various forms of undress following behind. Brad strolled over with a forced annoyance on his face, Pappy at his shoulder with one of disappointment. They left the squadbay into the hall and out the door to find the burnt and gutted remains of an old, outdated solar converter on the ground, two holopads laid with severed cords on the ground, and Ray laying with his back against Rudy’s chest as the larger man held him steady and the Doc was cleaning the shards of silicon out of his face. Brad’s face hardened and his jaw clenched as he watched Ray, who was silently letting Doc touch the tender and ripped skin while Ruby’s fingers pet through the man’s black hair. His large, brown eye looked up with a bit of guilt and shame. Two things not common on his face.

“What the fuck happened here,” Brad asked. Pappy heard the concern tinting the harshness of his voice. His eyes were locked on Ray, who shrank against Rudy’s body.

“Looks like this old power cell blew like a 40 Mike-Mike,” Hasser offered.

Pappy looked over at the power cell again and saw Hasser looking through the remains. While the blond poked around the power source he did not really know how to work, Pappy looked at Jeff, who was their other handyman, and was standing next Rudy looking like a dog who had been caught shitting on the rug. Brad felt the silence, perhaps, because out of the corner of his eye, Pap saw the taller man’s head snap from Ray to the other corporal.

“We were trying to fix the power cell to charge our suit sources when they run low,” Jeff admitted. “Lovell told us to try and pack up on ways to fix this cell to work again and run through the LAVs.”

“Dog, we haven’t had these issued to us in three cycles,” Poke told Brad as he took the burned shell from Hasser and turned it over. “They had a habit of exploding if the housing was dislodged wrong and clipped the wrong wires.”

Ray just kept looking at Brad with the same guilt in the expressive irises. Pappy realized the seven missing Marines were looting the discard and old gear storages for anything that would help now that Fick had passed on their lack of supplies and limited resupply during the mission. Their initiative led to an injury. And if there was any silicon in Ray’s eyes, a bad one.

“So, my RTO just more or less took a solar frag to the face from a stolen piece of military equipment in an attempt to doctor the idiocy of our higher command,” Brad said in an exasperated tone. “Unbelievable.”

Ray shrunk and looked back down as the door opened again. This time from the side opposite of the squadbay. There stood Fick with his brows furrowed and lips parted in confusion. His eyes darted from person to person, lingering heavily on Doc, Rudy, and Ray. Finally, he stepped forward and allowed Mike in the room. The gunny leaned against the door, as if to stop anyone from following. Fick nodded to Poke, who did the same against the squadbay door, ensuring no one else joined them from that direction either. With the small corridor now secured, Fick licked his lips, swallowed, and pinned Brad with a sharp gaze.

“What the fuck happened here.”

 

“I did the right thing,” Nate remind himself. He looked over at Mike, who was keeping his mouth shut but those honey eyes watched him. “The guys were just trying to help. If they did not need to do it, they wouldn’t have.”

Mike said nothing, which was part of why Nate was talking to him. He was not looking for reassurance or an actual conversation. It was an attempt to let himself think through what was happening. What had happened. He knew, logically, that it was not technically lawful to protect his men. He did understand he was breaking the code of military justice by lying in his write up about why Ray had been more or less fragged by a power cell. Or disposing of the chunk that had the remaining identification chip built in. To claim it had been part of what the doc pulled from Ray’s face. But that was the only thing he could think of. Again, the boys did not do anything he could not find justifiable in this situation. He knew recon Marines. He knew they were trained to make do and acquire what they need to survive on their own. They were not used to command giving them what they were to work with in full without their input. And they were not used to the need for themselves, filling out their own slips, and procuring anything else. That was all they had been doing. They would not survive this if they did not have the optics the mission required. And Nate was not about to punish them for their forethought if it meant the chance of returning with all of his men was possible. His green eyes darted all over the floor between where he and his gunny stood before settling on Mike’s feet. He breathed a heavy sigh and felt the way his shoulders rose and fell with the breath. Then he looked up.

“Nate,” Mike chided softly. The smirk played on his lips and said exactly how much he thought Nate was overreacting. The younger man huffed a small laugh and looked at his feet. “You protected the kids. Did they break some rules, yes. But They were not running and underground meth lab.”

Nate gave a laugh. It felt nice to have his lips spread enough to hurt. He tossed his head back. Not out of the absurdity of what was said, but he was not sure he could entirely deny that some of the boys in the platoon would no give that idea a thought. They were smart enough to know how to get away with it, after all. While the joke was “Muscles Are Required, Intelligence Not Expected,” it was not entirely true. Many of the infantrymen held some of the highest scores in their entrance exams. They wanted something that was more challenging. Many of them have their eyes set on recon.

“I just don’t need them thinking I’m a pushover because I got their six when I think it’s important,” Nate finally admitted. His tone had dropped and his smile faded. It was an honest and realistic fear. Being too strict meant the men would not actually respect him. Being too lenient risked them doing the same but for different reasons. Machiavelli said it was better to be feared than loved. Nate was not sure he believed it. He was also not sure he could play that role. He was an authoritarian at times, yes, and was always accused of being bossy by people ranging from childhood friends to exes. But he was not about to demand respect without being able to do everything he requested his men do.

“Do you really think they’ll walk all over you,” Mike asked. The teasing was gone, and his voice came out sounding similar to when he asked for clarification during a briefing. Nate expected his expression to be laughing or judging. It was open and curious.

All Nate could do in response was shrug with one shoulder and chew his lip.

“Nate, you have deference to your team leads who know the men better than you probably ever will, and have accepted their criticism and ideas. You adjusted the attack on the MOUT town when you realized the Captain had a poorly planned assault. And just now stuck your neck out for them knowing you could get fucked for it. I think some of the men would be on their knees for you f it were not for rules on fraternization.

“Well,” Nate snorted with his ears and cheeks coloring at the comment. “Thank God for rules on fraternization.”

Nate sighed heavily again and ran his hand over the short hairs on his head. As they were on base, Sixta had been on everyone to get back into regulations. It was something the man could not comprehend. They were about to be in the field for who knows how long, where it would be impossible to have access to the mandatory weekly haircuts. Yet, he was still told the men must have their shaving kits with them at all times, and packed as a mandatory item on the already large and encumbersome gear list. It was pointless and infuriating. The focus on what was not important grated his nerves a week ago. Now, it was just another unnecessary stress on his mind and quite literally the least of his concerns. Yet, here he was, simply glad he was one of the few men who could go days without needing to shave.

“You’ll believe me eventually, Nate,” Mike sighed. The older man’s hand fell on his shoulder and he gave a soft shake of the body. Nate’s lip quirked slightly and he sighed again with a nod. “Until then, we need to rack out. The trip to Io is not going to be a pleasure cruise, and we both know it.”

“You’re a nag,” Nate muttered with endearment lacing his words.

 

Garza watched the reporter with his narrowed brown eyes locked on the way he shifted in his suit. He was not sure how he felt about this. Well, he knew how he felt about this, but he was not sure he was comfortable with the idea of this fool being in his victor. He clearly never wore one before, which meant he also never did a drop. Even a civilian drop used similar suits, even if not as fully re-enforced. Theirs were designed to take the impact pressure from a low drop without chutes. It made them a bit heavier and harder to move in. According to the Iceman, he was not making the drop at all. He would be sent down with the supply POGs of H&S and meeting them at the rally point. But, with the way this had been going? Gabe would not be surprised to find out that was not exactly true. He was convinced his command was actually stupid enough to send an untrained civilian down with them to do the full invasion. They already had two Marines without all the training they needed to properly function in their unit. Not that they were actually doing any reconnaissance there. The only top secret missions they were actually on was the constant attempt to dodge their superiors for a moment of well-earned and much-desired quiet.

From what little interaction they had with the man, Wright did not seem all that terrible. He was clueless, of course. And a bit out of touch with what it meant to live in a warzone or at least in the field. But, aside from that, he was cool. He was an improvement over some of the POGs from other units they dealt with, after all. He listened, did as he was told, did think he was helpful. It was like having a toddler sibling following them around, but actually old enough to maybe partake in drinking and strip clubs when they all got back to Justice. He lived on Hope, however, which was unfortunate. Second was the home of the Third Marine Division.

He was mostly harmless, so the men of the platoon followed Colbert’s lead and simply let him be. Perhaps if his team lead had not been so quick to breeze over the fact that they were hosting a sleepover, the rest of the men would have been more inclined to be assholes. No one, whoever, was dumb enough to go against the iceman himself. And they were more than willing to follow when he nodded. Garza knew he was one of the more naive of the corporals. Or, at least the one who seemed the most excited by life. He had grown up in the middle of nowhere. Enough of no where that even Ray seemed civilized. His family, in fact, lived by a bunch of old missile silos from the old world. Even beyond the normal segregation that came from the tiers of humanity, Garza had known that the GA’s claims of one human race was a lie. He was not as stupid as some people claimed they were. The original war was sparked by hatred among people from different places. Just because man conquered space, it did not mean man also conquered themself. It was something Poke talked about a lot. Where Gabe was from nowhere, Poke was an inner-city kid. He ran between the towering buildings and breathed in the smog of industry. But the man was a survivor. And for all the Hell Brad gave the other sergeant about the stuff he proclaimed, everyone knew it was partially true.

But like Holsey, Garza wanted to try and stay above the racism. Above the caste system they were told they did not live with. It was why when Chafin made comments, he let them roll off. Or when Manimal called him a Filthy Earth Bitch, he just shot back how he washed behind his ears. And why, when he saw the awkward-looking man as he sat to the rear of the ship with his hands clenched in fists over his knees, he decided to step away from Leon and Lilley to sit with Evan Wright. When he approached, Wright looked up at him with his bright eyes wide with confusion. The man had a wide mouth, something Steiny mentioned to Jeff, wondering how much he could fit in there. Which led to Trombley wondering why Steiny wanted to shove things in the reporter’s mouth. And, then Walt saving Trombley from Doc’s rage as his favorite Marine was insulted. Not that Doc would admit he liked Steiny more than anyone else. Gabe just smiled down at him with his boyish excitement and dropped down unceremoniously. He watched how Evan tried to work out why Gabe was there.

“Ray told me you helped us get all that extra shit from the exchange,” Gabe offered. Evan’s mouth shut and his lips quirked slightly. “Bet you never thought you’d be helpful to us.”

“Uh, no,” Evan croaked. He blinked slowly and looked around at the chaos around them. “I’m still not sure why I had to go.”

“I thought Ray told you,” Gabe pointed out as he rested his helmet on the ground.

“He explained something, but I am not sure it was… helpful.”

Garza laughed at that. He always had a bit of a raspy chuckle, but his teeth gleamed. He and Ray were always teased for their bad teeth. His were large and a bit crowded. Unlike Ray, who had gapped and uneven teeth, he was not embarrassed by it. He was also a lot bigger than the other man, who less people tried to mock him for that. It took a lot to shake Garza now. He had heard it all and then some. Either from people who meant is or from people in recon here and his former units who were just being Marines. Some were not so the type to let make jokes like that. But it seemed the men he had been sent out with all understood the importance of pushing at the others’ limits.

“I’m serious,” Reporter squaked and huffed. “All I’ve learned is you guys are seriously ill-equipped and too entertained by it.”

“That sounds about right,” Garza admitted. “We were on Earth with my first unit. Out in Australia for training in extreme weather training. Half of the guys got burnt up something terrible because out there, the radiation from the bombs years ago. Something about the heat, but it made the sun worse and the white boys were blistering. I was under Gunny Barrett at the time, and he sent us to hunt down some aloe and shit. Apparently our Ops Chief forgot to get the actual ointment for our doc. We spent the two weeks smelling like a soap store and half of us were covered in blisters. So not having asswipe or batteries? It blows, but it’s not as bad as it could be.”

“You were in the Australian Desert without proper healing cream?” It was amazing how stupefied Reporter looked. It only made Garza laugh more.

“You’ll figure it out real soon, dude.” Garza promised with and he stretched his legs out. “So how did you get your ass stuck with us, anyway? You getting punished or some shit.”

“Actually,” Reporter started slowly. “I wanted to go with the the Allied Forces and this is was the first.open mission in a while.”

Open mission? Considering he had to be a war scribe to get clearance with them. Garza narrowed his eyes and flicked over to see if anyone was standing close enough to have heard that. He was sure some of the guys saw he had stepped off to talk with the reporter and would have noticed he was missing. No doubt someone was watching. His eyes found Pappy’s. The way his moustache twitched told Garza the older man was worrying his lip. His soft blue eyes bored into his for a moment before turning back to Lovell. He did hear, which meant they would be investigating it later.

“Well, ain’t you just lucky.”

“Maybe.”

“What else did you get from the exchange,” Garza asked and popped his neck. “Anything good.”

“Snacks and dip mostly,” Wright admitted with a slight shrug. “And adult diapers., though I can’t imagine those are useful in these.”

“Well, they don’t have s way of filtering out human waste, so they are a bit more useful that you think,” Garza muttered. “I have never shit myself, but if there is a place it could happen, It will probably be Io or Europa.”

“Why?”

Garza looked at him like he was an idiot. Then again. Maybe he had ever left the main towns of the moon. A lot of people missed out on some of the cooler parts of the terraformed surfaces of the moons while safely tucked in the metropolis. Most of the metropolises are given a false skies and false weather. But from the outer lands and desert wastes of the moons also, the view of Jupiter and the rest of the solar system. It was dark with an eerie glow when the false sun filters in the moon’s artificial atmosphere are turned off. It also caused a beautiful glow from the planet’s gases reflecting the light from the stars. He loved the wastes. It was a lot like the home he grew up in. Vast with what looks like endless. Like the world went on forever, and it was no one but them around it. The wild west was apparently a thing, what his home territory was called a long time ago. It was something he and his cousins and siblings read about excitedly. They flipped the script, so the cowboys were the bad guys. So many days and nights on their speeders and homemade racers, chasing each other laughing. He smiled remembering it.

“There is nothing like being out in the wild, man,” Garza explained. “You’ll see. Hope you brought enough memory for the pictures you’ll be taking. And not of what you are here to cover.”

“I’ll hold you to it,” Reporter smirked. “Where are you from, anyway? One of the moons?”

Garza laughed and shook his head. His near-black eyes glowed with his laughter.

“No. I’m from earth by the Mojave. Not the most hospitable place, but,” he gave a shrug with a smirk. “I turned out good enough I guess.”

“Garza, You are about as normal as the goat fucker humping Hasser,” he heard Lilley call over the crowd.

“He likes it,” Ray protested while Walt gave no hint one way or the other.”

“How long have you been off world,” Wright asked. His mouth had fought to form words, as if wanting to know what they were talking about. He would learn.

“Five years. I re-enlisted last year. My Grandma passed, so I had no one to go home to.”

“And all of your family members?”

“We all joined up. Some of us stayed. But,” once more Garza shrugged. “Neighborhood is a bit different, you know?”

He knew Reporter had no idea. He knew the man was Leader, as he had not done any mandatory service. Or he was one and not a fuck-up like Trombley who was in the military as time of service for punishment. It was one of the great ironies of the different levels of civilization. Trombley was punished by what was normal for everyone else. Everyone else was punished with everything from community service to life in prison or exile. Though, exile was a bit of a myth and pulled from historical documents when the GA was trying to remove all inhabitants from Earth.

“So you like it. With all the mess ups and… lack of gear. You’re here willingly now?”

“Man,” Garza smirked. “Just about everyone of these fuckers is here willingly. It’s why we trust each other so much.”

“Even though Chafin calls you a Wetback and… Colbert calls Ray… everything under the sun?”

Garza just smiled warmly. He’ll learn.

Chapter Text

The drop into Io was different. There was the tension in the air. The worry felt among the men. Lovell was standing at the rear of the stick with his team and Baptista at his side. Doc was fussing over the Reporter as they fought to get his suit to be the proper reflective tone for the inky blackness of space. It had been stuck on the brown setting they used in Venus, not even Mars’ neutral red-brown. How was a real question, as he was issued it as black. Still, it was not surprising what happened when a civilian was trusted with his own wrist connection. He was probably looking through the suit to see what else it had. There were rumors that the suits were more tricked out than they actually were. Sure, the camouflage cells in the Kevlar plates and the almost-black of the under suit to break up their form were better than the civilian models, but they were a far cry from what the movies claimed they were. He wished they had some of the tricks the movies claimed they did. Were he a lowly, average grunt, he would assume Recon and the other special forces had access to such technology. Maybe the Rangers did, but Lovell was sure at least the Seals and Recon were far behind them regardless.

Marines make do.

He crossed his arm over his chest and tilted his head. The weight of the helmet made the cocked look more dramatic. Doc had given up, exasperated, as Fick took up the lead and started messing with the suit. It flashed a few colors first (Woodland pattern, desert pattern, safety training orange, the strange mossy gray-green) before the almost glistening black showed up on the right forearm before spreading through the rest of the suit like a ripple. Their lieutenant patted the reporter’s shoulder as if he had done something as simple as helped him clip one plate on. Lovell could practically see the anger rolling off the Doc in waves. A comedic example of how different the two men were. So much so, Lovell wondered if he would have just let the guy become a target if it was not such a risk and against the oath, they were not sure he actually took. He had known medics before and spent a lot of time with green-side corpsman. Doc was the prickliest he’d seen. He liked being on his team, especially when he was in a mood. He may not go on rants or poetic expositions, but he had a mouth on him that was befitting of the term “mouth like a sailor.”

“Fucker doesn’t even know he’s headed to a warzone,” Doc grumbled as he tossed his back against the ship. Lovell only snorted in response. Doc wasn’t looking for a conversation, after all.

A loud beep echoed in the hull, and the Marines and Doc looked up from where they were. There was a pause before the room moved as one. Marines and the few corpsmen moved to their assigned teams in order. Lovell looked over the crowd as Fick guided the reporter to the front where H&S were getting on ships to drop with their supplies. He was amazed Godfather had enough sense to actually not get their civilian killed by dropping him. Or the rest of them for that matter. He looked over at his own team. Holsey and Steiny were getting their gear looked over by Baptista. Just behind them was Gunny with Q-Tip and Christensen. In front, he watched as Rudy helped strap down the sniper rifle, taking the barrel and silencer into his own pack with the scope. Rudy tugged on the strap hard enough to rock Pappy to his toes and back before nodding with satisfaction. Pappy returned the favor by helping attach the leg back securely. Lovell smirked and watched the sniper team. He was a translator and intel-based. Lovell spoke eight languages and was taught more about body language than he thought ten years ago. Now, his brain catalogued the angle of bodies toward or away from each other, eye movement, and everything else down to the finger twitches. He liked watching how people interacted. Especially people he knew well. Holsey liked to keep himself distant, but he was very attentive toward Steiny and got on well with Garza and Lilley. Lilley was also close to Garza, which was most likely why Holsey spoke to him, as well as Hasser, Team Two’s gunner. People, like Ray, liked to think he was Walt’s closest friend, but it was more likely the boys from Bravo Team that Walt was closer to. As for himself? His favorite person was probably his driver. He and Baptista did not get off on the right foot originally. Baptista came in to replace his RTO of a year and spoke broken English with a habit of speaking too fast. After a lot of him trying to push the other man into being angry, too, he got nothing but passive apologies and a genuine attempt to do better.

It was hard to dislike someone who was trying to be good at their job. And he was a sergeant and had gotten into recon. He was not stupid, no one who was in their field could be. There were too many tests, too much information to retain. No one was unintelligent, but maybe dumb in other ways. He listened to the advice to just look passed that. Once he did, he found Baptista was actually not a terrible person. He was compassionate and a natural caretaker. He was soft to Lovell’s often distant nature. He was teaching Holsey his native language at the moment, and was always happy when Lovell spoke with him. It was not a common Earth language, and was barely spoken off world, but he picked it up quickly as it was so close to Spanish, which was one of the most common ones spoken still.

A smack on his helmet told him Baptista was by his side again. Moments later the ship went dark and the silent hovering began. The door dropped open. Lovell watched one by one, the men of the platoon dropped into the night. Soon it was his turn to nod at his lieutenant and drop into the stratos as the off-yellow gray of the planet below came closer at high speed with Jupiter glowing as a picturesque backdrop. He could barely see the other Marines as they dropped and their suits flickered against the black sky and the glistening reflected the tones of the gases and stars. He knew they were out there, of course, falling as he was. And the sensation of so many of his friends out there, swift, silent, and deadly, made him smirk.

It was a lower drop than the one onto the Mars surface for training. Perhaps to expedite the process and get the non-recon units out of the air as fast as possible. Regardless of the reason, Lovell pulled his chute as the rest of the all-but translucent against the pitch-black above them. He lived for this part. As much as he enjoyed his job and specialty, this was what he believed every recon Marine lived for. The fall. The drop and how it caused the heart to jump into the throat and blood to pump. And as the ground was close enough, it was the sensation of an unguided fall. Banking on experience and knowing his on body on how to roll out of the fall, ready to fight. The suit absorbed the impact as he dropped from foot to knee and let the momentum push his body forward. As he tucked in, Lovell unlatched his rifle and by the time he was kneeling again, one hand out to stop a second roll, the buttstock was firmly pressed into his shoulder. A soft thud and cloud of the dust plumed up, meaning another one of his men had landed. With the quickness, he knew it was Holsey. Next to him, Baptista popped his head up. Another thud behind him was followed by two scurrying footsteps. Lovell stayed statue-still as Doc ran up beside him and dropped to his knee, bag on his back hardly limiting his mobility. Lovell looked over at him and Steiny with a nod.

“Two-Two is up,” He told Doc. By the way his head was facing slightly left, Lovell knew he was watching the approach of the last two for their team. “Command landed to the East, let’s hook up with them.”

“Copy,” Doc clipped and stood.

He and Steiny followed and ran in the direction of Baptista and Holsey, both of whom were East of their position. Two flashes of blue told him Baptista heard their approach, and sounded off. They drew level and headed toward where he saw Gunny drop while he was in the air. Most likely, they were headed to Team One. Lovell and Team Two pushed forward just slower than a full run to catch up. Unlike Mars, they were not running in loose sands as much as a hardened clay-like surface that kicked up sediment in their wake. It made running easier, as they did not sink to their ankles with every step. With how heavy Doc’s pack was, it was the actual blessing Team Two never spoke of. They knew Doc was tough as nails. In many ways, recon knew their combat medics were tougher than they were. They were trained the same until specialty schools. Green-side Corpsmen who were sent with special forces teams were trained for both Seal and Recon skills on top of their medical training. Doc Bryan had been in training more than Trombley had been in the service. Yet, he, Pappy, and Gunny, the only men older than the good Doc, moved as though they were still nineteen with life ahead of them.

Speaking of Gunny. Lovell saw the man’s form laying prone in the distance, weapon trained on their approaching forms. Instantly, Lovell and Baptista flashed their Blue Lights. While he did not want to be on the receiving end of anyone’s rifle, having Wynn’s pointed at them was an extra cause for concern. He was one of recon’s most decorated and successful snipers in field. Even with a standard-issued weapon, he was the deadliest on the team. Team Two halted and Lovell watched the prone form slowly move to a kneeling position and flash his own light and called them forward. They moved forward, and Lovell wondered how far out he had caught their movement from his perch atop a low plateau. And if just beyond the crest he had the rest of his team waiting.

What he did not expect was that Command had dropped almost on top of Team One and Fick had sent Pappy and Rudy to a neighboring plateau to watch their front just as Gunny watched their six so he could call out to Company and Bravo-Three. Team Two joined them on the plateau and found Fick kneeling next to Q-Tip, looking over the map and his voice using the same, clipped tone that highlighted his annoyance. The broken conversation was enough to tell he had reached one of the other leaders, and was debating on hanging up. He looked at Christenson, who was helping Chafin with his boot on the ankle he rolled a week before and tilted his head.

“Captain America ended up with Two-Bravo,” Chafin explained with a hiss as Doc took over and grasped the offending foot. “Damn, Doc, you gonna buy me dinner after manhandling me?”

“You’ll be lucky to get a fucking latte,” Doc muttered with his usual level of annoyance. The men began rolling Chafin’s ankle gently and watching his wrist monitor. “Fucking landed on your off foot again, Chafin? Fucking boot-ass mistake.”

“Doc, there was a boulder at my drop sight. Next time I promise to break both legs instead. Just for you.” Chafin snapped and tossed his head back in defiance.

Doc’s head snapped up and Lovell knew the man was glaring at the Marine. Though his face did not make a difference in this situation. He looked back at the foot and patted his calf lightly.

“Seems you just aggravated it again in the drop, which is good. When we get to the victors, come see me and I’ll treat it better. Can you at least run on it,” he asked. The edge of annoyance was gone. He had moved into treatment mode.

“Yeah, I got it Doc,” Chafin muttered in defeat.

Lovell looked from them to Fick, who was now standing. Pappy and Rudy were still forward of them, and Gunny still holding his position to the rear. It had been almost a minute since the lieutenant spoke to Captain McGraw. Whether that meant the other officer was ignoring him or the conversation had stopped officially, Lovell was not sure. But if the tight stands and the way the younger man’s shoulders were rolled forward said anything, he was annoyed. More than annoyed perhaps. The sergeant watched as the LT’s shoulders raised and fell with a heavy sigh and helmet turned to look at him. He figured these helmets were a blessing for the young man who was constantly schooling his features in light of the geniuses he worked with. He waited until Fick got his composure enough to give the situation report. When the silence carried on longer than usual, Lovell pushed gently with a calm, “Sir?”

“Bravo Three is separated and spread out. Captain McGraw landed almost a klik from the rest of his platoon. He will stay with Espera’s team. Call forward to Person and have Brad take over command of the platoon.”

“Yes sir,” Lovell replied. He paused and let out a contemplative sigh. “Do you want us to link up with the rest of Bravo Two, or are we staying with you?”

“I am going to have Pappy and Rudy take their team and yours to the rest of the platoon. Gunny and I will take Stafford and Christenson to get Bravo Three collected and meet with everyone at the Bravo rally point.” There was something in Fick’s voice that made Lovell’s throat tighten. A hint of something akin to dismissive or defeat.

“Do you have any of the Three channels,” Lovell asked with the disbelief coloring his voice. The heavy pause that followed was an answer enough. “I will grab those from Ray, who does not at all have access to them.”

He heard a snort from under the lieutenant’s helmet. It was as much of a laugh as the men ever heard from the young man. A short, harsh noise they all became fond off. Lovell was smirking under his helmet, glad he could at least chip away at that tough façade for a moment. It was the little victories that mattered in moments like this.

“I will be happy to receive these codes we do not have,” Fick replied before walking to Gunny. Lovell smirked and walked to Baptista to relay the news. When Baptista connected him with Person, he stepped to the side.

“Two-Alpha, this is Two-Two, how copy,” Lovell called.

“Two-Alpha, here. Send traffic, over,” Brad’s short tone punched through the distance.

“The LT is sending Two-One and Two-Two forward to link up with your team and Two-Bravo,” Lovell told him. He gave a pause to make sure he was not speaking too fast. “Hitman Three Actual misjudged his drop and is currently with Two-Bravo. Hitman Two Actual will be collecting the other platoon. You are to hold the fort until he returns. How copy?”

If anything, the silence that fell over the radio was more of an answer than Brad replying. He knew the man was running through several phrases in varying level of poetic vulgarity at the moment. Lovell waited patiently and shifted his weight from one leg to the other as he did so. After a minute, Brad was replying again.

“Copy. Tell Hitman Two he has an incoming patch,” Brad said. Even through the radio, his infamous Iceman tone was clear and cold as artic winds. “Out.”

Lovell sighed heavily and walked toward where his team knelt, waiting for further instruction. In the distance, he saw Fick laying prone with Wynn, no doubt discussing what to do. He felt for the young man. He really did. It was one thing to deal with inexperience and foolhardy Marines. It was another for those people making bad choices to be higher in rank and position than he was. While he and Captain America had the same billet, McGraw was still a captain. In the eyes of the GA armed forces, McGraw was senior to the more experienced and more competent Fick. And where some enlisted men were put up for commissions and meritorious promotions, those days were far behind for the leadership. Maybe the only justice lower castes had in the military. Officers lost their ability to jump rank without the time in service to match it. Though, in some cases, the officer deserved it. if only to protect himself and his men from dying. His gaze dropped to his own men, who were still and ready to move in an instant. Their lives attached to strings played with by idiotic puppet masters.

“What’s word, sergeant,” Holsey asked.

“As of right now, stand by to stand by,” Lovell told him. “We will be hooking up with Pappy and heading out shortly.”

“Roger that,” Holsey replied and rested back onto his ankle. Lovell just sighed heavily and shook his head. How they were going to survive this, he had no idea. It was not the threat of the insurgents that he was worried about. It was the people in charge of their lives and safety. And the ones who stopped others from going their job effectively and correctly.

“It’s fucked, dog,” Poke muttered to Brad.

They had linked up with the rest of the platoon about ten minutes before. Now, the team leaders and Doc stood in the distance from the rest of the platoon while Ray tried to help Captain America fix whatever he had done to his radio in the fall. They were all baffled by how he had landed so far from his own men when their drop had begun a few minutes behind second platoon’s in the first place. Running into someone from Alpha would have been easier to explain, as they dropped at the same time. This, though, was a mystery. And one none of the team leaders had the time or patience for. All of whom were standing far too close to be doing anything but planning. Brad towered over the group of them. At the moment, Poke was tucked close to his body with his head angled up and into Brad’s neck. Brad’s head was pointed down and almost blocking the smaller man’s position from moving. If not in space suits and in the middle of nowhere, it could have been intimate. However, especially with three other men right there, it was not. It was functional.

Rudy was making the rounds with the men, making sure everyone was okay and their gear was clean or at least still intact. Pappy would let him know everything being discussed in the impromptu meeting, but having him there would alert Captain America that something was going on. The last thing any of them wanted was the man paying attention to them. Their eyes flicked over to where the man’s hulking form was hunched over Ray, and where Ray showed his near-saintly patience for the man. Beside them was Hasser, who was most likely helping with that factor. Still, even his brightness was not enough to combat the immense cloud of suffocating idiocy that McGraw emanated. It was a miracle any of them survived the drop when people like him were in charge.

“Did the LT say how far away Bravo Three was when you stepped off,” Brad asked Lovell, who shook his head. “Great. Kocher was probably told to stay put with his team until he made contact.”

“I’m telling you, when he landed, the dude could barely get out that he was unable to use his radio properly. I thought Lilley was going to throw him off the cliff with how much he was babbling. It’s embarrassing.”

Normally, Brad tried to stop people from speaking ill of officers. That type of dissension in the ranks could be poisonous for the unit as a whole. But in this case, there was no getting around the truth. From what Hasser and Leon had told him separately, Captain America had been a hair above nonverbal when trying to understand which team he had landed next to. Worse, he did not seem to know the voice of his own men enough to grasp that it was not his own Bravo Team he was next to. Even as Poke drilled it into his incredibly thick skull, he was more worried about making it to the objective than letting his platoon know what happened to him. Truth be told, he knew most of the men would have been elated at the prospect of the man being missing for the whole of the unit. Not that they were sadistic and heartless. They simply knew it was safer.

This was why Recon teams functioned alone.

“Look, at the end of the day, so long as we get Fick back, we’ll be fine,” Lovell told them. Doc grunted in agreement. All Brad could do was blink at that statement.

“He’ll be back,” he replied quietly. His eyes looked out at the men posted in a perimeter to hold their makeshift camp until they heard from their platoon leader or Gunny. When they became so comfortably reliant on an officer rather than just the enlisted men, no one knew. Sometimes between the choir boy with porn mouth introducing himself and him changing Encino Man’s assault plan, they all gave in. “He’ll be back and have the rest of Bravo in tow.”

He could hear the young man’s idealistic promises of how he’s assured of that fact play in his head. The way his bright eyes glowed in the starlight that broke through the ship’s windows. Fick had come to him the night before to go over everything one last time. He had become reliant on Brad and the other team leaders for making his choices. He brought ideas to the table and waited for their perspective before making choices so long as it was up to him. He never approached his own choices without the safety of the platoon in mind. But last night was different. He had come with the plan for the assault. It had changed again. It seemed everything they were planning for had been thrown out the window. There was no assault on a hamlet right away. There was no town to take over. It was to push as far through the territory as possible with as little contact as possible. The aggressiveness of force was now replaced by the necessity for speed.

“That is the exact opposite of what recon does, sir,” Brad had told him in a hushed tone. They had been completely alone, but he still whispered as if the meeting was illegal. He looked down at the smaller man with disbelief and anger flickering in his blue eyes. But Fick had held his gaze with nothing but understanding and disappointment in his own. Not disappointment in Brad, which was why the anger was kept in check. It seemed like this was a self-deprecating thought process.

“Godfather wants eyes in field,” Fick told him. His voice held that clipped, sharp tone he used when talking about a plan that was not his. It did not take Brad long to learn the different ways he spoke. The earnest way he seemed to prod for opinion mixed with the youthfulness in his eyes. This lacked any of that now. His gaze was closed off and voice short. There was no discussion there. Whether he knew it or not, that was information for Brad to think on later.

“And when we are too far in for resupply and our nuts are out, sir?” Brad had watched the young man’s face like a hawk. His eyes bore in and held Fick’s gaze for a heavy and silent. Minute. Finally, the young man sighed and looked down and away. It was not a sign of weakness or even giving up dominance to Brad. He knew that. It was Fick trying to find that balance between his own feelings for the men of his platoon and his duty to follow orders. A high order. A wire balanced act that no young man should be forced to do with the fall was not just his own life. He licked his lips and pressed them tightly together.

“Well, then we get out nuts shot off,” Fick had finally told him. He looked up. This time, his voice was met with an apology in his gaze. The impossibly green orbs danced over Brad’s face. Pleading for him to understand this was out of Fick’s hands. That no matter how much both men hated it, there was nothing they could do. That he was letting Brad and the platoon down by doing his job. Brad felt a lot all the time, despite what his features and ways of displaying it said. And it was a punch to the gut to see the way his lieutenant looked at him like he was failing them.

“Sir,” Brad started but stopped himself. He had not been sure what to even say at that point. He was sorry? He understood? He did not blame Fick? It was all too personal for a team leader and his platoon leader and for two men who met not two weeks ago. It was comfort he was not sure Fick even wanted. It was his turn, then, to look down then back up. He had left with a nod. A nod that said nothing.

Now, seeing roughly 30 men approaching from the west, Brad felt a calmness wash over him. He nudged Poke with his shoulder slightly and nodded in their direction. Poke, who was still half a step away from being against Brad’s body flush, turned to see what the team leader was referring to. Their young lieutenant had Bravo Three and his own team trailing behind in tactical columns. Considering the time lost hunting everyone down, it seemed Fick knew it was smarter to just punch through the distance and link back up with his own platoon. Brad’s eyes darted over to Captain McGraw, who had yet to notice the men arriving. It could be the lack of forwarded radio traffic, or his stupidity. Brad would bet a few good thousand it was the latter option. He moved from Poke’s space to stand over the captain, who still seemed baffled by what Ray was telling him. Ray’s voice had gone from his usual chipper tone to one Brad assumed he used when talking with Poke’s daughter. Slow, overly articulate, and stained with annoyance.

“Sir,” Brad spat. The word tasted so foul in his mouth when speaking to McGraw. “It seemed your men are inbound. Has Lieutenant Fick failed to call to you over the comms?”

There was a long silence before McGraw’s head snapped from the papers in front of him to up at the towering sergeant. His head shook slightly and then he looked at his wrist. Brad saw, even from his height, that there was a line through the radio symbol. He had muted it, probably while talking to Ray or accidentally while fussing with a setting he had no business changing. The man quickly tapped around on his monitor before standing. He was a head shorter than Brad. While he was broader, it was less the lean and imposing build that mothers such as Gunny or Garza had. He almost looked portly, even in his suit.

“Nate,” The man gasped. The pause told Brad Fick had replied. “No, I was not getting your messages until just now. I see you now, though.” Brad felt a snarl in his throat. He knew the man would not own up to having his radio effectively off. “I’ll let the men know to get ready to move out.”

He turned and seemed startled by the fact that Brad was still standing there, looming over him. Good, a sadistic part of him enjoyed the way he could picture those small, blue eyes looking up at him with fear Probably blinking with his mouth open under that stupid mustache he tried to grow like the rest of the men. He felt a smirk, the one Ray told him looked like he was a crazed killer, pull at his lips. He waited a moment with his eyes boring down at the officer and let himself radiate with intensity. He waited for the man to tell hum what to do. After a long, awkward moment, Brad knew the captain was not about to do that. Satisfied, he stepped back and raised an arm over his head with a lazy circle of his wrist. He kept it there long enough for the message to be passed along. Soon enough, he stood with a school circle of grunts standing easily with their rifles laying across their chests. His eyes swept over them all before looking just over their heads and into the distance. Not that they’d know.

“The LT is about 2 mikes from being here, so get your shit together. Expect to be oscar mike immediately and moving fast. We’re already late as is,” he told them all. A murmur of affirmative responses were mumbled out as the men dispersed to handle what they had to handle first.

Chapter Text

Stafford stood on watch with Gunny. Everyone had to do their part, apparently, and the LT didn’t seem to find himself or gunny above watch. When Fick announced the fifty percent watch order two hours ago, he and Christenson figured they would be pulling the whole night. They did not expect the young officer to say he would take second watch and gunny would take the first watch. Or for gunny to post out without a word. He had always known staff and officers to be pricks. Letting the junior enlisted to everything, and when none of them were around (or in the platoon’s case, not enough of them), the corporals and sergeants were stuck with the work. He hoped Wynn was different. He was a calm old dog. Someone the guys really took to. He seemed the type to lead by example. Right now, he was emulating that leadership quality. When Fick noticed the silence instead of replies from the two men, he tilted his head and only commented with a humored, “I can’t ask you to do anything I can’t.”

Apparently, Fick missed that class in officer candidate school. It was probably the only day he was sick, too. But as it stood, once Fick returned from his meeting with company, he dug his own grave not far from the victor and stretched out. His helmet was off and acting as a pillow. He was acting no different than the rest of the men in that moment. Just shifted uncomfortably in the dirt, trying to not let his bones bruise from the impact.

They were condition two for sleeping and watch, so he and gunny had their helmets off and by their feet. Both men were watching out in the vast open nothing for movement both knew would not happen. At least on Earth and Europa, being out in the open like this meant wild animals. Europa was the first successful breeding program for wild game and genetically engineered species that had been extinct. Not dinosaurs like some old books said, but simple animals. Ones like the rhino and the tiger. They were trying to make Europa the new Earth when the colony was first established. A wish to get terrestrians to move from their homeland. All it did was spark an upsurge in pride for the caste. They may not have had much on the planet, but they had their identity and claim to be the only humans from Earth anymore.

It also meant some animals that had vanished from the original earth’s surface had a new place to roam. Of all the places they had been to, the final project of a terraformed Europa was his favorite. It was dynamic and really was the pleasure planet. No one with anything less than a top gear job could afford to breathe the air there, now, but in the armed forces? They were able to go just about anywhere if they got deployed. It was why he had stayed in after his two years. A chance to see the universe and explore. He liked his home enough and visited when he got the leave for it. But there was no giving up the adventure that recon gave. He had been left with his unit, once, in the jungles of Earth and were told to survive for a month with what they were dropped with and what they could find. One of their extreme training courses. The rush he got from relying on himself rather than the comforts of technology was intense. He never thought he would be the type to enjoy the “great outdoors” when he was growing up. But there he was.

And here he was. Behind him was the glowing planet of Jupiter, reflecting the stars’ distant rays against the mixtures of gases. A molten, metallic core with raging ion storms arching magnetic waves that, without their suits, could prove to be dangerous. It was far different than the world he grew up in. Where the air was smoggy and gray all the time. The clouds of pollution hung so low, the top of buildings were obscured by the fog. There was violence every night and day, and the GA seemed to forget that the city even existed. Many of the men in the unit had similar stories. Holsey from Algiers, Poke from LA, and himself from Rio. They were all from sprawling and dangerous areas, where joining the armed forces was a gift for them. A chance to see more. Unlike many people he grew up with, Stafford had finished schooling with ease. He had gained the nickname Q-Tip from the kids he grew up with, being the only white boy there, especially one with shockingly white-blond hair. He never understood why anyone would want to go back to that life after seeing something more.

He remembered conversations with some of the others from big cities like him about the weird things they had to do. Poor families had a hard time properly paying for the right insulation from rays on days when the temperature got too high. It was the same days that the cities more or less shut down, as it was dangerous to go out without protective suits. Most families could not afford more than one, so they all spent time in a suit either too big or too small at some point. It was the same for poorer colonies on the planets and moons, but mostly Venus with its proximity to the sun. There had been an outcry for an atmosphere update when a section had gone down about twenty years before, not long after Q-Tip was born, that had killed hundred from radiation. Since then, politicians trying to look good, actual altruistic people, and celebrities trying to stay relevant have made it their life mission to use their money to send proper suits to families in need. Though Io was still relatively new and up-to-date with their technology, the short distance between it and Jupiter’s rays had been a concern. Where it was patched into Europa to use that energy to charge the artificial light, it was still not put into Io’s systems to convert that energy into something useful. Five years ago, a shutdown occurred for a few hours, seriously injuring people. Stafford hummed to himself as a thought struck him.

“Yo, Gunny,” he called quietly.

“Yo, Stafford,” Gunny parroted with a smirk on his face.

“You remember when the GA sent a shit ton of suits to this place on Io? How far out was that from here?”

“About half a day’s ride on transport,” Gunny replied slowly. As if he was putting together the same thoughts Stafford was.

“They ain’t our shit, but they can be modified, right? To use the same reflective patterns for camouflage if someone knew their way around the suit?” There was more silent, so Evan looked over and saw the way Wynn’s brows pinched together. “Someone who could hack the entirety of the GA Broadcast system, for example.”

“Stafford,” Gunny finally said as he picked up his helmet and put it on. “You are going to be one damn good gunny yourself someday.”

Normally, he would preen under such praise from Gunny Wynn. But at the moment, he was less than pleased that he could be right. He put on his helmet as well and turned on his heat sensors. Silence fell over the pair as they scanned the area. After a moment, Stafford caught a red dot moving. It was pear-shaped from the distortion of distance, but with no native wildlife, it had to be human. It seemed Gunny noticed it, as well. The older man motioned for him to drop prone slowly before sliding from his box to his stomach.

“Q-Tip,” Gunny whispered, “Pass it down the line that we have possible foot mobiles watching us. Stay low. I’m going to wake up the LT, so he can get in touch with command.”

“Aye, Aye Gunny,” Stafford replied before he scurried off on his stomach, rifle balanced over his forearms.

As he approached each team’s watch, Stafford flashed his blue tracker before giving the hand signal to drop prone. He told each group, in turn, to wake the rest up and stay low until they heard from the lieutenant. By the time he got to Colbert’s, it was clear Garza had seen the rest of the men drop low, as Stafford found the two men on watch flat on their stomach with their rifles set and pointed outward. He got through a few sentences of his explanation when the larger form of Colbert himself low crawled up and made him start over. That they had seen heat signatures in the distance that were shaped vaguely humanoid. That this part of Io had access to low technology suits that had reflective cells. That they may be in use with the dark sky giving them cover. They were still a day and a half from the nearest false sun point. He heard Brad swear under his breath and watched as the man shuffled back to where Ray was puttering around on his external transmitter.

On his way back, he heard Fick over the radio telling all men to hold fire until the movement was identified. They could be about to open on blue forces, such as H&S, but Stafford doubted it. They were currently looking South, and H&S was in the other direction. He paused to think over the shortness of the tone used, as he realized it was not his choice. It was the Encino Man’s brilliant plan to try and get as many of his men killed. The young corporal was seething as he made his way back to his team and found his leadership watching the distance. He crawled level with the lieutenant, who looked over at him and then forward again.

“How far do you punch them out at,” Fick asked quietly.

Stafford bit his annoyance back and simply concentrated. He closed his eyes and let the muscles relax for a moment. They stung and throbbed with dryness and exhaustion. But, slowly, they eased up. He blinked once, then twice, to stimulate them again. He closed them before looking up. When he was confident his gaze would be forward and at the people they were watching, he opened them and let his eyes adjust to the sensor’s reading. He watched how the blobs moved without any limbs showing but moved in a way that was distinctly bipedal. They lacked the fluidity that a service member would have in the dark, as the night vision on the civilian suits were horrible. He waited and looked at the other landmarks that were black or purple in his visor. The mounds and rocks he had seen without the distortion.

“I’d put them at 450, maybe. No more than six,” he finally replied. It was not a great set of numbers. One, it was vague. One hundred and fifty meters was a lot of guesswork. And both numbers were a stretch when firing without scopes. While well within the range of all weapons aside from the side arms, they were effectively impossible to hit in the dark like this. It was possible that was why they picked the location they had.

“Nate, they could be getting sights on us now,” Wynn told his officer gently.

“I know, but the captain said to stay put unless we get fired on,” Fick clipped back. “He hopes staying low means they will miss us and-”

“What are we waiting for.” A voice panicked over the radio. “They have their sights trained in, waiting to blast us apart.”

Stafford sighed and shook his head. Captain America was panicking. It was tense at the moment. They were alone in the Io wastes with an unknown number of possible hostiles on the other side of a ridge from them in the dark. Bravo was two kliks east of Alpha. They were alone. But recon didn’t panic when this happened. This was part of the job they all signed up for.

“Ignore him,” Fick snapped. He inhaled as if he wanted to say more before freezing. “Stafford, move!”

The young man’s arm reached out and pulled Stafford from where he was laying prone. The two rolled a few yards from that position, only for the dirt to get churned with a rocket. Stafford rolled off his lieutenant and paused just long enough for Fick to yell at them all to start firing. Next to him, he heard the officer calling to their platoon commander and confirming that those people were not friendly forces and were using unregulated RPGs. After a bit of back and forth, each minute passing making the LT more agitated, the man finally scooted back from the edge of the ridge and lower down, so he could crouch-run between the teams. Over the radio, he gave directions and coordinated the retreat back to the victors for safety.

The cracks and snaps of rounds firing and flying over head echoed through the helmets. Now that the firing had begun, a few more figures had popped out of their hiding spot lower on the ridge. With no higher ground on their end of the valley, Pappy and Rudy were grounded and hoping to move to a better position. However, the word from command was to hold their position until Charlie came as back-up. Alpha was pinned down, as well, so collecting the unit was not possible yet. It seemed command had a major oversight in this plan, and it was where they stationed the victors to be picked up by the Marines. They were on mostly even ground with a few deep gullies carved from the winds that whipped through. There had been no real attempt to hide the LAVs, which was a mistake. Acting as though the people they were facing were not smart enough to have eyes on the wastes. They had been the ones to call for war. It was dumb to think they would not have come prepared for an invasion. They had been given a month to plan. And First Recon walked into their hornet’s nest.

To his left, Chafin saw the two sergeants with Jacks. It was too dangerous without turret guards for Manimal to get up onto the gunner position. He was on the ground with his LMG instead as the sniper team set up their rifle in hope that it would help. He and Bud had spaced out from the snipers to draw fire away from the pair and lay down covering fire at the same time. Jacks was about to move as a distraction. To draw fire from the pair as they laid out as flat as possible and used their suits to reflect their body heat. It was dangerous to have a sniper posted in the middle of the firing line this, as their shots were fired one at a time. It was an extreme case, and Fick had decided to risk it. On the other side of the fight, Gunny was posting up for the first time in a while with Q-Tip, who had no formal spotting training. It seemed saying no to the boy wonder was not something his fellow corporal was willing to do. Or he simply did not want to miss out on a chance to see Gunny in action up close and personal. Chafin was man enough to admit he was jealous.

He would wait for the stories later. Right now, he and Bud were acting as talking guns, firing bursts in the other’s silence. He was not sure they were hitting anything, as all that was visible were the small orbs of heads popping up in the distance. He would kill for a flare at the moment, but with no actual cover, a flare was dangerous. The other side seemed to understand this, as well, as they had yet to send any into the sky, either. It was pitch black, though they had the advantage of what little light Jupiter cast glowing toward the enemy and its heat slightly obscuring their own signatures in the sky. There was no proof that the other side had optics that allowed them to see everyone, but it was safer to assume they did. No one thought about the suits the region was sent until Stafford mentioned it. Who knew what else they had over there.

He waited until Bud’s rounds ended before pulling back on his trigger. He, Rudy, and Pappy had the semi-automatics on the team. Bud and Jacks both had the machine guns. His rounds were shorter bursts, but the pauses were important. Even in the cold air of the moons, barrels could overheat and warp from excessive use. The talking guns was a method used to keep constant rate of fire while allowing each gun a few seconds to cool off. When Jacks finally joined them, it would be better. Three guns were always better than two, especially ones that gave more than five rounds a pop. Chafin pinched the tip of his tongue between his teeth as Bud began firing again and watched as one of the orbs was hit by a tracer and dropped.

“Fuck yeah,” Chafin breathed with a feral grin on his lips. “Get some, mother fucker.”

He was too far away from Bud to say anything in the fire fight, but he knew his buddy was smirking at that hit. Just before it was his turn to run, Pappy called out that Jacks was going foot mobile. Both men stopped firing and laid flat out against the ground to have as little as possible visible to the enemy. Chafin could hear his heart pounding in his ears now that the line had fallen silent aside from incoming rounds and Jacks’ footsteps running by. It was only a few seconds, but they felt like years before his buddy called that he was safe. Immediately the LMGs were rattling off one then the other in organized pairs. While each teams’ machine gunner pairs fired off, the pops of the rifles now echoed clear as day in the interim. Chafin could feel his blood pumping and his body getting warm from the adrenaline pumping through his system.

When they heard what their new assignment was rather than time at base, Chafin figured it was going to be a shitty POG mission with no resistance. That they would roll through the moon’s landscape and handle what little opposition they received. He had not come expecting an actual fight. A real danger that would be worth their time as a unit. No one had really expected anyone here to put up a fight. And now that they were getting what they wanted, it was like new life was pumping into Recon. Yet, they were holding their breath and waiting for it. Either for command to mess up Fick’s plan, or for it work.

For once, it was the latter as a heavy thud caused the dust to jump around their bodies. It was too far for Chafin to feel the thrust hit his body, which meant Gunny had fired. A moment later, his right side felt like a strong wind slammed into him as the thud came from Pappy and Rudy. In his visor, two orbs vanished from the line. The gun fire picked back up and rained down on the remaining eight people. The orbs became full bodies moving in an attempt to flee. The gunners began the spray and pray method as two more heavy thuds concussed through the air and shook the plateau. Two more bodies fell to the ground instantly. Chafin watched as the LMGs mowed down the last of the people and silence fell over the valley. No one moved for a few minutes. He felt the throb from his excitement and instinctively pushed his hips down into the ground to relieve pressure. A grunt escaped his lips and he waited for the all clear.

Instead, they heard a soft whirling noise and he looked up. Jeff’s drone had been set loose to survey the scene. One by one, the Marines pushed up from their prone position. No one moved to put their safety back on. While it could have been a small scouting group, the chance of more waiting just out of sight was possible. A further ten minutes passed as the whole of Bravo-Two remained like statues in the night, no one moving a muscle as they waited for their LT to pass the word. When the whirling noise returned, and the drone landed, Fick’s voice came over the radio.

“Team leaders meet me at the command victor. All men stay condition one for the evening on watch and condition two while racked out. Back to fifty percent watch unless Godfather says otherwise.”

Chafin rose to his feet and shuddered as the last of the adrenaline left his system. His visor was turned to normal reception rather than thermals. The last thing he needed was to trip over something and making Doc even more pissed at him. He watched as Pappy and Rudy put their rifle away in silence shaking his head. For two men who were some of the deadliest in the platoon, they seemed to be the most bothered with the taking of human life. He never understood why they would have taken such a position if they did not like the blood on their hands. Two mild men who seemed to care more about human life than everyone else. He learned early on not to ask how it felt to get a kill. What he always meant as a way of congratulation, it got solemn responses from them and brought down the mood. Rudy always seemed to try and understand where Chafin was coming from, but Pappy always looked distant. The amount the hated what he was doing was clear as day. So instead, he walked over to Bud, who had at least one confirm kill and shook the broader man by his shoulders.

“Helluva first night on the damn moon, Bud,” Chafin said as he shook hard and laughed. “Fucking showed those fuckers we mean business.”

“Getting to see Gunny in action, too. Damn, it’s fucking Christmas,” Bud agreed with a grin clear in his voice.

“Well, you two can ask Stafford about it tomorrow,” Rudy’s calm tone told them as he walked over and secured the rifle. “Back to watch and your graves. Pappy and I want everyone rested before we step off tomorrow in case this happens again.”

“Yes, mom,” Bud grumbled as he pulled off his helmet and settled onto the ground. There was no real annoyance for the way the man mothered over his team. It was a bit more affectionate than Poke and Brad’s bothering, but it was no different than any other team leader. Pappy may have been the official leader, but everyone knew Rudy was the one who took care of everyone from his own team to the gunny from time to time.

“Careful, or I’ll make sure you are using your wipes behind your ears,” Rudy replied easily as he hoisted himself onto the turret and set up for watch. He was keeping watch with Pappy when everything kicked off. There was no doubt that he would be keeping watch a little later as everyone else was disrupted.

“Do you really think they were watching us,” Chafin asked as he rolled into his grave and looked up in the direction Rudy had moved.

“I don’t think they found us on accident,” Rudy replied lightly. “We’re in their home. Whether they are doing something wrong or not, they know this place better than we ever will.”

“Stupid mother fuckers should just surrender instead of letting us shoot their asses up,” Chafin muttered and shook his head. He could see the sympathetic and serene face that Rudy no doubt had. On any other man, it would have been gay or weak to show so much emotion. But Rudy was a different breed.

“Everyone is a master of their own fate, Chafin,” Rudy told him. “It’s not our place to tell them what is and is not right for them.”

“Whatever, man. Don’t get too sappy or your husband will think you’re leaving him, fag,” Chafin muttered. He heard a snort from Rudy above him. Both men knew that Chafin did not mean what he said, and also that it was his way of giving into the topic. He hated the idea of fate and predestination. He also hated when Rudy preached about people creating their own good and bad energy. There was only so much rainbows and glitter talk he could handle in a night.

“I’m sure Pappy could find someone better than me either way,” Rudy laughed. “I’ll wake you in three hours.”

“Yep,” he replied and rolled over. His body had finally stopped shaking and pounding from the rush of the firefight. It was not long before the night took him, and he was asleep again.

“We got lucky,” Nate told the men in front of him. His voice was stained with the gut-wrenching guilt and pain he felt about what happened. About what could have happened. The small things that added up to so much more. Something as simple as suits that could have had his team wiped out. “I’m not sure what would have happened if Stafford did not think on his feet.”

His eyes looked over the men in front of him, wishing he could see their faces. He had grown dependent on their expressions. They said so much in their silent self-control. It was powerful the way they all handled themselves. How they knew themselves. He got comfort from their even gazes and their unwavering eye contact. It was a comfort for Nate, who had been raised with signs of respect including the eye contact he was now lacking. He wanted to see the way Poke stared forward with his near-dead eye intensity as he spoke. How it felt like he was trying to bore through his skull with that gaze. Lovell’s earnest listening with his head tilted just to the side, possibly from damage to his inner ear after years of service. Pappy’s calm and comforting looks, so similar to Gunny’s own watchful eyes. And Brad’s eyes, littered with hidden meaning and emotion. The small things he had become so heavily reliant on during their few weeks together now felt further away than home was.

“To be fair, sir,” Poke spoke up, “Leader boys like you wouldn’t know as much about those shipments. Was a big deal for us when shit like that got dropped somewhere.”

Nate simply sighed and nodded. He knew, logically, that Poke was right. He had no need to track information like that, especially not five years ago. He was still a student, finishing his degree. He was still waiting to learn more about officer candidate school with no prospects of being recon, At the time, he figured he would join the legal offices or maybe public relations. Find a way to reach out and touch as much of the community as possible. It was not until he had a run in with a few recon enlisted men who were training him that he even thought to go with the infantry. Once he had, there was no where else he wanted to be. But when those suits were sent to the colony, he was still a bright-eyed student, waiting to walk across the stage and get his diploma. Unlike the men he served with now, he was not forced to enlist and serve. This was his choice.

“That may be,” Nate replied, though the hidden appreciation of the sentiment was clear in how gentle his tone came out for a briefing. “I need to know if any of the men have heard about Io in their circles. I’m not dumb enough to think the Lance Corporal Underground is not active enough to get information passed along. Anything. Training missions getting messed up, lost equipment, angry off-worlders leaving the military at the end of their service who were from here. What we saw tonight was not a rag-tag group of civilians getting the jump on us. This was planned out and well executed.”

There was a silence that fell over the men now. They were thinking. Nate tried to picture the way their brows pinched, or nose scrunched as they thought. The way Pappy always looked down when he was mulling things over, or how Espera’s nose flared when he was pulling up blanks. He looked to Doc, who was standing almost immediately to his left. The man shifted from foot to foot before grounding himself. He had something to say. Nate turned his body to him, opening up for conversation. Though his face was hidden by the visor, his eyes were wide and pleading for whatever Doc had thought of. Anything would help now that they were alone.

“Two years ago, we had a number of vehicles break down in the Navy outside of the capital. No one thought much of it as it was an old freight ship. It was chalked up to issues in the engine and assumed it had exploded upon impact.”

Nate sighed heavily enough that the men watched his posture sag. He nodded and waited for the Doc to continue. He hoped the pause was enough for the man to realize he was asking for more information. Preferably whatever was being carried on the ship.

“It was nothing too important at the time. All the main cargo is carried on ships with Marines or Seals on board. This was old tech. A mobile suit, three outdated LAVs and a good number of parts that could fix them up for work on an average cruiser to make it all-terrain.” Doc continued. “If someone knew what they were doing, they could take the guns off the broken mech and use them elsewhere.”

A low whistle came from Lovell as he seemed to be on the same page as Fick. This was bad. Chances of that being a mistake was not high. While separately, they were not overly dangerous cargo, together with the right mind, that was disaster for the Marines. He watched as Lovell and Pappy shifted in their spot.

“Gentlemen,” he asked carefully. He was not used to Pappy of all people being uneasy.

“Sir, it’s something the reporter said.” Pappy explained. He looked over at Lovell before continuing. “He made it seem like there were missions going on that were higher level of secrecy than SpecOps he was not allowed to report on. This was the first SpecOps one that was open for him to observe.”

Nate looked pointlessly to Wynn’s face. He couldn’t see if the man knew about this or if he was just as caught off guard. He looked back at the two sergeants who were holding their rifle in front of them at a relaxed parade rest. But there was a tension in their bodies that told of their slight discomfort even bringing this up. His head dropped, and he nodded at the idea. There was something about the way they were standing on edge. A lack of confidence in themselves was something he was not used to seeing. Not with these five.

“How did you find this out,” Nate asked carefully. His head ticked just slightly toward Mike again.

“Reporter was running his mouth to Garza on the way here. He didn’t say much beyond that.”

Silence fell over them and he sighed heavily. He nodded a few times to gather his thoughts. He rubbed his hands together through the gloves. His rifle dangled loosely now that it was free from his grasp. He looked at his men and looked out beyond their shoulders and into the distance where Alpha had been pinned down. He had received word from Barrett that they were all up and well. Charlie was fine, as well. All he needed to hear was how H&S fared and what command had to say about what he passed up. If Stafford would even get the recognition he deserved. He looked back to Lovell in the eye, or so he assumed.

“Until we know more, assume it’s hearsay,” Fick finally decided. “Doc, as much as you remember about the freighter going missing would be great. We have two days of driving ahead. Lovell? I’m going to want to talk to Carisalez. He brags about being able to fix anything, I need to know how possible what we’re imagining. And…”

Nate sucked in a deep breath. He was weighing how to phrase this. He did not want everyone to know. He also did not want the men to be unaware. He worried his lip for a moment with his head angled down and to the right. His eyes were unfocused, though they looked to the ground. What was he even going to say about this?

“Let’s be discrete, gentlemen,” he heard Brad say. “Like sleeping with an officer’s spouse.”

The comment made Nate scoff. He shook his head slowly and then tilted his head up toward the taller man. He had a smirk on his lips, though it was safe behind the visor.

“Those who won’t talk too much, tell. Drivers, mostly. But we need to keep this low. The last thing we need is for people to overreact and hit RTC when they finally make it to the surface.”

The men took the sharp nod as a dismissal and slowly peeled away from where they were. All but Brad, who stood firm with his head tilted at an angle and watching his officer. Mike was there as well, though it seemed the older man was showing a bit of ignorance to the moment. He was giving privacy for Nate to turn to the man he had come to look at as his best soundboard for something he did not know if it should be official yet. And it seemed the plea he had sent the men had been registered in Brad. He wanted to be surprised, but it seemed the man had an unnatural skill at reading people. At reading him.

“Sir, do you really think this is what could be happening,” Brad asked.

“Brad,” Nate started. He licked his lips and swallowed thickly. “I wish I knew what this was about. I have had a feeling I have not been getting all the information since I got to this unit. Maybe it hasn’t been passed right, or maybe I am looking into things too much. But this feels wrong.”

“This isn’t what we do,” Brad reminded him. “We come in, sneak around, and leave again. We move unnoticed.”

“So why are we here,” Nate finished. He watched as Brad nodded slightly before looking over at his team. “Sir, I know you don’t want chatty people to know, but I’m afraid you have put me in an uncomfortable situation. Ray doesn’t shut up.”

Nate snorted and shook his head. The smile was now stretching full.

“However, he is probably the best person to tell about this.”

“Do you think you could trade him out for a different driver,” Nate asked. If he could get Ray searching for any hint of radio communication away from their own frequencies, it may give them an edge.

“Sir, I think I could get just about any guy here to do whatever I want,” Brad replied heavily. There was such a tease in his statement. A short snort escaped before he could even stop it. He was cocky. “I’ll send him to your victor in the morning when I see Dirty head over.”

“Brad…” Nate asked as he watched the sergeant step away. The man stopped, but he did not turn to face him. It seemed he needed privacy as well. “Stay Frosty.”

He did not need to see his face to know the man’s lips pulled into a smirk. That shark-like one that made him feel like prey when it was flashed at him. He could tell by the way his head turned over his shoulder slightly and shoulders rolled back. Nate smirked and shook his head as he made his way to Mike. The older man reached out and grasped his shoulder lightly. He shook a few times before clapping him and butting his helmet against Nate’s gently. Nate sighed heavily and closed his eyes.

“I am worried about this, Mike,” Nate admitted. “What aren’t they telling us?”

“Nate. You need to remember sometimes it’s best that we don’t think too hard on that. It’s the only way we survive.” Mike sounded tired, or almost bored. Like he had almost been done with this foolishness.

“Mike. We just got lit up by guys who were hiding in plain view. We almost lost a few to RPGs if not for our thermals picking up on them. This isn’t a normal insurgency. This is not a normal mission.” He looked back toward where the men who attacked them now lay dead. “There is something we don’t know, and Godfather is going to get our boys killed.”

“I’ll talk to Barrett,” Mike promised. He held the younger man tight in the shoulder and pulled him in again, so their helmets clunked together. “I’ll handle it. You worry about the boys.”

“What did you tell him,” Barrett asked.

The two gunnies were leaning against Barrett’s LAV’s tracks. They were tucked away a day after the action both companies faced. The company had been on the move since the call of 0600 Zulu. Dirty Earl had come over to answer a few questions, and he noticed Ray was not on comms when they called to the front vehicle. It had been Brad’s short replied and icy tone instead of the chipper and sharp comments. He had missed the way Ray seemed to make radio chatter fun to listen to. He was, maybe only at those moments, professional. But it was all painted with that hint of jokes heavy in the comments. But it was also the heaviness that was felt in the vehicle. While Stafford had not been there, but the man was smarter than people gave him credit for. And it seemed Nate had found a way to get underneath his strange speech habit and get the information the young man wanted to tell him. Likewise, he seemed to grasp that what he realized about the suits was just the tip of the iceberg.

“I told him I’d talk to you about it,” Mike answered honestly. “I have no idea what else to do about that, Rich. The kid has too many points. And too many questions.”

“And for once, we don’t have the answers for them,” Rich agreed. “Bryan was noticing something was off, too. He had asked Godfather why they had not been warned that the opposition could have gear designed to hide.”

“And what did the Godfather say,” Mike asked, almost dreading the answer.

“Told him it was a good example of why men needed to keep their gear ready and stay in proper conditions. As if he was not the one to call for condition two last night.”

Mike looked at Rich and shook his head. They were both in condition two now, as they were in a camp with H&S and they had shields up that would stop most medium-level attacks. He was able to look over his friend and study his face. They had been together a few times now that they were gunnery sergeants. Rich had been in only two years less than Wynn. Mike had even been part of Rich’s Corporal’s Course training, as well as his staff sergeant when Rich was still a sergeant. He had gotten used to the similar expressions Mike had. The almost tired and bored face that met most complaints. It was easier than schooling into a passive one. They knew by now that just about anything they were about to be told would be stupid. Foolish, even. It was just easier to be delighted when that was not the case. The hazel and green eyes stared back at his own bright honey ones. They searched each other’s gaze long enough to know neither had the answer they wanted to hear.

“We can only assume the reporter was right at this point,” Mike conceded. “There is something more happening on Io than just this small insurgency. And longer than just six months.”

“I’m not surprised. It’s all been too easy. Too simple. Rebellions have not happened despite rules being pushed onto people. It’s almost as if people find it easier to go along with it than risk another war. The GA has the ability to eliminate entire plants.” Rich pointed out as he let his legs straighten. “One bit of code removed and the whole atmosphere would shut down. It’s a lot of power to hold.”

“At the same time, if someone knows that code, it’s a damn good bartering chip. Not just the off-world sites they have to worry about. Two space colonies could turn into a vacuum with just as much ease if someone knows what to do.”

“You know,” Rich sighed. “That may just be what we are doing here.”

“Someone who could take down a freighter is enough to be a threat to the GA and everyone on those colonies,” Mike added. “Or worse, had the freighter delivered.”

“You’re starting to sound like Person with those conspiracies,” Rich teased as he stood up and stretched. Mike followed and looked over at where Nate and Bryan were talking with their heads together. “How is the boy king?”

“Know how there are people you actively try to find reasons to dislike someone and come up with nothing,” Mike asked lightly.

“Must be so difficult to have such a good LT to not have to babysit,” Rich lamented with a smirk.

“It’s torture, let me tell you. If his self-sacrificing doesn’t get him killed, I may do it to cut the shit out.”

Rich let out a bark of a laugh and shook his head. Both men grabbed their helmets from the ground and made their way to their officers. It was Bryan who noticed them first and he patted the younger man on the back before stepping to the side and made space for the other two men to join them comfortably. Bryan’s eyes were locked on Nate’s face still with a curious gaze and a tight jaw. It seemed the two men were discussing their far-flung theories as well. More elaborate than the solemn truths that the two old enlisted men had discussed.

“Do we have a word on when we step off,” Rich asked. His tone made it clear he was done with the gossip. Bryan only nodded in response and rubbed the back of his head.

“No,” Rich admitted. “Godfather wants us to wait for RCT 1 to link up with us before we move out. In the event of the magnetic storm that is brewing in the distance, communication may be difficult.”

Mike looked over at the Eye, which was glowing bright and angry in the distance. It was too far to see how the storm was swirling, but the way the air tingled said that without proper gear in the next few days, they were in danger of exposure. They would be in condition one while sleeping soon if it did not get subdued with a canister. With the invasion, he doubted the GA was willing to send out anything that could be shot down.

“They have a plan for how to keep the barrier up without the charging cells we should have attached to the generator,” Mike asked. He knew the answer. And all he got in response was a pair of leveled stares pinning him in place. He sighed and shook his head. “We will be on seventy-five percent watch after what happened last night. There is no way Godfather will want us unguarded.”

“That’s not all,” Nate finally spoke up. He rubbed the hair at the top of his head. It was getting longer than when he originally joined them, though even with a few days without a chance to shave, his face was clear. “Sixta wants us to have all the men within grooming standards by 0700 Zulu.”

There was a heavy pause before Rich just walked off. Mike shook his head. He would probably go to tell the men once he got his annoyance under wraps. It was understandable. There was more important things to worry about than Pappy’s moustache and how long Rudy’s hair had gotten. It was far longer than the three inches, and it had been for a long while. The lower-level officers and staff NCOs knew it was low on the ladder of topics to worry over. It seemed with Godfather not knowing how to run a deployed battalion meant Sixta had little else to worry about than what was important on base. Mike looked at Nate, who just arched his eyebrows and let a small, open lipped smirk tug.

“I’ll make sure the men are squared away,” Mike sighed and headed off for the platoon.

As he did, Nate looked back at Bryan and sighed.

“How long do you think we will be here,” Nate asked as he puttered around on his wrist monitor. He saw how everyone was doing. He could see who was in REM sleep on their break and who was working out. He was uncomfortable staying so close to where they were the night before. While they killed all the men, it did not mean they had not made radio calls on their locations. That they had not been followed at a distance or with drones. He hated it.

“With how slow RCT will move with all their equipment and vehicles?” Bryan clicked his tongue and thought about it. “A day maybe. They need to land with a lot of ass to transport. They can only move as fast as their slowest vehicle.”

“That’s what I figured. Let’s just hope tonight is quieter than last night,” Nate hoped.

The two officers looked at each other and Bryan nodded slowly. They parted, and Bryan went to find Rich. It was not difficult to spot his hulking build. He was a silhouette in the sky against Jupiter. His hands were placed on his hips with one cocked out to the side. It was the stance he had come to know as Barrett attempting to look imposing and as though he did not want to talk with anyone. It was truly unfortunate that Rich had long lost that buffer when it came to Bryan. He walked up beside the gunny and patted the small of his back. They looked out at the planet in the distance, lighting up the scenery with an eerie glow. He was not sure what he and Mike talked about, but it was enough to shake the man. Rich looked up at him.

“Ever feel like following orders gets difficult when you don’t even know what you are doing?”

Bryan only hummed in response. He got it. He knew where Rich stood on everything. He was a Marine through and through. He would always do as he was told so long as his orders were lawful and just. It was hard to know if those orders were just that when they had no idea what they were doing. They had lost connection with their moral compass while trying to keep up with Godfather and Sixta. It was dizzying.

“Rich, we’re just doing our job here,” he reminded the man. “Nothing more.”

They had six steps to take when it came to leadership. The first was mission accomplishment. They could not to anything that jeopardized the mission. Second was welfare of their troops. It was hard to handle both on the easiest of missions for recon. They were constantly weighing how far to push the men with how much they needed to do. Where they needed to give and when they needed to take. It was hard. This was not any easier sitting in a camp.

“Right, just doing our job,” Rich muttered and pulled the wad of chew from his lip and tossed it to the ground. The clump hit with a splat and he looked up at his captain. With a heavy sigh, he looked at Bryan with tired eyes and walked past with nothing more than a pat on the shoulder.

Bryan watched Rich as he headed to the men and started to talk to Cpl. Scott from first platoon. Scott had been their runner during the last mission until he picked up rank and took over the team leader position for One-Alpha. Bryan and Rich were still fans of using him to pass information between the men. While he was with Burris and a few others who were a bit less favorable, Scott was their favorite. Bryan watched as the two men spoke at a distance. The smaller man nodded and headed to his platoon again. Rich turned and looked over at Bryan before heading back to their vehicle. There was something wrong and it was now causing a drift between himself and his gunny. And Patterson did not like it. He looked down the line to command’s set up and shook his head. This was going to be a long war at this rate. Even if it lasted a few weeks.

Chapter Text

It had been five days since last contact. Five days since they felt their blood pounding and the dizziness from excitement. They were now rolling through the illumination of false lighting sent high into the atmosphere decades ago when Io was first created. It was harder for people to hide from them without getting trackers on them. At the same time, it was harder to sneak up on places as Io’s wastes continued to be an empty vast nothing. Yet, somehow the landscape was still dynamic and awe inspiring. The deep canyons carved from ancient winds now buffered with the false bubble the GA had put in place. It was nothing like Europa or even Earth or the colonies biodomes. And Garza had not been wrong when he told the Reporter he would want to do nothing more than get pictures of the sky and the way it cast an eerie glow over the land. He had spent half of the drive looking out the glassless window at everything with a smile on his lips. He got what Garza had talked about when it came to seeing things new. The excitement of seeing something outside the civilization and the sprawling cities he was used to visiting.

He had been with the Marines for just over a week and he was still trying to find his footing with them all. But what he did know was here, in this half-armored vehicle undersupplied and at the tip of the charge, he felt safer than with all of RCT One and their heavy armaments. There was something that sitting with the men who accepted him, more or less, that the actual logistical improvements could not top. He was not one of them, despite the way Bud had tackled him the night before and threw him over his hip and to the ground in a playfight. Yet, Evan knew that these men would risk themselves to protect him more than RCT would have. Not because they were just less skilled, but because he had a small connection with them. Enough to make him feel better about the situation. Yet another way he was starting to understand what Garza had meant about trusting the men he was teamed with.

Yesterday had been one of the stranger experiences he ever had with a unit. While on a chow break, rather than going with Lieutenant Fick to the briefing with the battalion leadership, he stayed with Leon and Hasser, who had orders to teach him how to fire a rifle properly. He laid in the dirt for an hour and learned all the intricacies of the weapon they were all able to use blindly. He had never shot a weapon before, so the kick had been enough to startle him and hurt his shoulder. Still, Hasser had laid prone next to him and adjusted his hold and where he gripped before guiding him into a kneeling position and teaching him how to tuck his arms in close for bone support. Each time the rifle went off, he felt it through his body.

When the platoon leaders returned, he had asked why they taught him to use a rifle. He had never seem someone so youthful look so old immediately. The green eyes looked over his face and then to Gunnery Sergeant Wynn’s face before replying.

“You are in place of Two Alpha’s fifth member. We know the men are fully capable of handling everything on their own, but Sergeant Colbert raised the point that you seemed competent enough to watch a sector if we needed you to.”

Evan had swallowed heavily. When the officer told him that he could turn down the weapon, he insisted it was okay. That if the Iceman trusted him enough to put a live weapon in his hands, he would not let the man down with feeling nervous about it. He figured at some point, all of the men there had been nervous with live ammunition. But it was trained out of them by now. He would have to learn to deal with it. Thankfully, the rifle was not loaded, though it was resting between his legs with the barrel angled enough to point out the window. It was then that Garza dropped from his perch, as he liked to call it and smirked at him. Garza was fast becoming Evan’s favorite. While Colbert was kind enough in his detached and unique way, the younger Marine seemed to lack any issues reaching out and being familiar.

“Hey, reporter, did Hasser forget to tell you how to comfortably hold your weapon,” he asked lightly and nodded at the ignored rifle.

“I guess, I just figured I did not need to hold it, I guess,” Evan answered honestly. Instantly, Garza was in his personal space and his hand dove between his legs for the rifle’s barrel.

“Relax, if anyone, I’d be grabbing for Lilley’s bits,” Garza laughed as he pulled the rifle up.

“Too bad Lilley’s married, and his wife is hotter than you’ll ever be,” Ray chirped from the front.

“Ray, being complimented by you is hardly something to write home about,” Brad replied as he watched out the window. Ray’s cackle followed.

Garza draped the rifle downward, so it was pointed at the floor in front of one foot and resting over his knees. Evan watched before fighting with the sling and clipping it on again. He saw the way Colbert’s head jerked back to get a look at whether or not he was situated. Evan fussed and adjusted a few more times until he felt as comfortable in their suits as possible. He looked at the rifle then back at Garza, but it was Brad who spoke.

“You hold it like that in case you need to use it in a rush. Your buttstock is collapsible for tight quarters like this. You can have it loaded and instantly at the ready in second,” his voice rolled through the comment with the same instructor voice he gave Trombley. “Never get caught with your dick out.”

Evan nodded and swallowed thickly. There was something both intimidating and comforting about being the sole recipient of Brad’s attention. He was intense and direct, but never condescending. The few times his corrections were given too harshly, he made a point to reach forward and ensure harm was not done irreparably. The only exception to that was Ray, who it seemed thrived under such scrutiny and judgement. Their boundaries seemed to not exist with what they could throw at each other. It was something he was fascinated by, as well. These were two men who were not of equal rank or time in service, yet Ray was given almost free reign to say as he pleased so long as anyone higher up was not around.

“Do you think we are going to see anything happen this close to civilization?” Ray’s cackle was response enough. But, as always, the man felt the need to expand his thoughts into sentences.

“Near civilization he says,” Ray laughed. “Homes, this is the boonies. See people think being Off Worlders is fancy and shit but look at this. We are in the middle of Butt-Fuck Nowhere. Artificial sun isn’t an attempt to make shit civilized. This is fucking resource central. Only fucking miners come out here.”

“Why would minors drive all the way out here,” Garza asked from the turret. Trombley looked confused as well, but Ray scoffed and threw his hand dramatically into the air.

“Miners as in the people who work in fucking mines. Get the cum out of your ears. No, see this moon is pretty much an engineer’s wet dream for raw material. It’s part of why so many people were sent here to begin with. It’s all silicate and iron. Not to mention we should be able to see Prometheus soon, so sulfur a-plenty for conducting.”

Evan’s mouth opened and closed around unspoken words in his shock. He looked over at Trombley, who shrugged. He then looked up at Garza, who seemed unbothered by this. He quickly wrote it all down before he forgot anything Ray said. If it had been wrong, Brad would have told him so, after all. He would just fact-check when they got to the first city not under the insurrection. There was a lot of talk among the men about the way people surprised each other and stood out compared to their pigeon-holing. While Wright had always known the belief that castes and related intelligence arguments was not based in fact, he had not seen that argument so well backed before now. He had been sent out with a number of other units: Rangers SEALs, and Greens before. The majority of those units were made up with pre-enhanced members of the GA military. Very few Terrarians made it past the initial selection process as a way to “weed out” the weak.

It was the harder part of his job. Often times, he would go out with basic ground troops and see the action from the battlefield. Yet, he was rarely out with the men for more than a few hours or a day at most. He would head out of the wire on a patrol or two, then immediately go back with the officers and sit around for the briefings that followed or proceeded missions. It was difficult to accurately portray the truth with such a limited access to what the men and women were doing out beyond the limits of the protective shield. That was the story Evan always wanted. He knew that this new terrorism was more than just a boots-on-the-ground mission. He had put in for three separate possible missions he had heard about. One through Delta and two through the Royal Missions. Delta was a strictly stealth and intel-based unit that relied on Mechs remotely operated from hovering stations above. The mechs were small and sleek- about the size of a young adolescent, but as strong as an average sentinel armory unit. They had planned to drop a few into Io, but his request never came back, and his contact who gave him that information was relocated to an off-worlder position for media spreading. The Royals were not military specifically, but GA adjacent. As with every major campaign, the use of individuals who were deemed “private security” were unleashed to remote locations. These men were often prior service and operated without the same rules of engagement that restricted the actions of servicemembers. Both those requests were sent back with a thinly veiled threat to stop looking deeper.

But when the Recon members of the GAMC were announced through his wires as the official Global involvement on Io, he immediately pulled strings to get attached. What Evan had expected was much of the same—that he would be with RCT-1 and stay far from the action. Due to the logistics of the assault and information that had not been passed fully to him, the man went from behind the wire and safe to in the front vehicle. This was unprecedented access to a unit that was one of a kind—the Recon community as a whole, not specifically 1st Marines. They had been together for merely days, and it seemed almost every member of the platoon he was with had, in some way, coached or taught him something new about the war, the military, the people, or the GA as a whole. Ray Person specifically had been a shock to the system.

“Why do people have to physically mine out here,” Trombley asked. This time, it was Brad who replied.

“The charge from the Eye. It generates too much static and magnetism. Mixed with the atmosphere that is outside the false one that was formed makes the disruption stronger. The military has the money to poor into strong enough units for us to store, but for a small mining community, it’d be too expensive to buy the Mechs and the conductors to run it.”

“Yeah, James. Most people thought it would be like Europa when they came here. Maybe it would have been if there had not been so much useful shit. Why the fuck would someone make a hospitable place to live when it can make you money.”

“A-fucking-men,” Brad muttered.

The silence raised a question in Evan’s mind, but one he would ask to someone else. While he knew the two men up front were introspective enough to ponder it, there was something that also told him both would clam up still if he asked too much. He makes a note for later.

 

“It’s quiet,” Nate said. He was looking out into nothing with his Kevlar held in his hand.

From his point of view, he had said it to the vast open land only a few inches away. A world separated by the shield RCT-1 had running from their H&S Battalion. He knew, however, that he was not alone. He had heard the heavier man shift the sand just enough. Even over the nonstop buzz of conversation that echoed not unlike music in the background. He turned and was not surprised to find it was Colbert. He regarded the man for a moment and looked forward again. A click told him he would have company for a while.

“Breaking the SOP, sir? Can’t have you decrying rules and regulations already,” his breathy but humored tone floated in the air. Nate snorted at the comment.

“Behind the shield, we stay condition two, now. No worry of my wellbeing, sergeant, be assured.” Nate smirk turned wry and he looked up the few inches of height difference between himself and the other Marine.

Brad unlatched his helmet and removed it. His hand immediately came up to rub against the short, blond hair on his head. Nate understood the need to massage the skin. The pressure of a heavy Kevlar pressing down stressed the scalp. No doubt running his hand through his hair would relieve that pressure minutely. It would, at least, be enough. Nate tore his gaze away from Brad but not before the other man noticed. His retreating gaze caught sight of the smirk on the other man’s lips and eyes. One that the officer returned when he sighed and shook his head.

“How are the men,” Nate asked.

“They’re fine, sir. Bored.” Nate huffed and Brad continued. “We’re not headed to the towns yet, are we.”

Nate was startled by the directness of the question, but he did not show it. He looked forward and swallowed his statement down. He took a moment to compose his throughs in a way that came across as simple and unbiased. Only then did he turn back. When he did, he found Brad looking back, patiently, and waiting to hear him out. There was something behind the man’s eyes that said he was not about to believe much of what was given, but Nate had to try.

“I believe at this point command has decided the assault on these hamlets was obsolete and pushing forward to Colton and the surrounding cities was more important.” Nate held Brad’s gaze unwaveringly.

“Any word on intel on those foot mobiles who got the jump on us?”

“None, sergeant. Irregulars as much of what we will see.” Brad nodded but held his eye contact. “Something on your mid, Brad?”

“Plenty, sir. But nothing you will answer.”

Nate couldn’t help but smirk at that. Brad was rewarded with a flash of his teeth as the officer shook his head and looked forward again. They stood in silence for a moment before the sergeant angled forward, mimicking Nate’s own poise to look out at the emptiness ahead of them. The landscape was lit now with minimal artificial sources and the eerie glow from the parent planet of the moon. The eye was no longer lingering overhead like a promise of the danger ahead. Instead, they could see the very tip of Prometheus in the distance. It was not considered dormant as it still produced a steady stream of sulfuric gases to the atmosphere. The spires of the plants and factories at the foothills of the peak were barely visible through the yellow-gray cloud that was lit orange from the side. More than Mars, the landscape on Io made Nate feel more like he was in a wasteland. It was flat, open, and untamed.

Nate had grown up on the colonies. Unlike the moon and planet-based colonies, the two in space lacked the dynamics of a landscape. The design was about the efficiency of life. While cylindrical in nature, the ground always felt flat. The buildings towered in the main streets regardless of what level he visited. Offices and businesses loomed over grid-like streets in the center levels and homes sprawled in winding webs of streets. For the most part, no one drove as transport was completely automated. Magnetic tracked transports moved the populace around. The only vehicles manned by humans, for the most part, were the off-world transports that brought people to and from the colonies. It had been a shock on the moon specifically to have such a vast view of space. Both the destination and the expanse of ground.

It was no lie when Leaders were seen as closed off, and much of that was due to the design of the colonies. Justice and Hope were both run with each task designated to specific location. Schooling did not happen where banking or government practices took place, and all houses were on the top layer to literally separate work and home lives. The Moon had been laid out in such a traditional Terrarian way with bases and barracks mingled with the administrative businesses. While the Moon was specifically for basic training with military and all major governing bodies, it had a few towns created to house those who worked on the Moon and full military installations. He had never walked from his classes to the place he had lived until Officer Candidate School. It was so novel to him. So simple.

“Do you ever get tired of this, Sergeant,” Nate asked. He did not look over at Brad, but he could feel the interrogative manner of his stare. “The landscape.”

“Constantly, sir. I was raised on Second Earth. Io is depressing in comparison,” Colbert replied easily. “But I can see how you are so fascinated.”

“Going to make a jab at my Colonial ways, Brad?”

“Sir, I would never speak so disrespectfully toward a superior.” His voice was tainted with the tongue in his cheek.

Nate did look over at him. Brad’s eyes were shining with mirth and entertainment at his own statement. A shared secret between them that mock Nate’s childhood was precisely what he had just done. And he had gotten away with it. Nate nodded solemnly. The looseness of Brad’s face tightened instantly, and the glow vanished in second. The shift back to a sergeant. Nate nodded at him.

“Get some rest, Sergeant. We have a lot of ground to cover tomorrow, and we don’t know what is waiting for us.”

“Roger that, sir.”

He watched the man’s retreating form and marveled at the lack of dust kicked up in his wake. As though he floated just above the ground rather than impacted on it. Colbert moved with an uncanny grace that so many lacked. It was as inspiring as it was intimidating. How easily he could sneak up on someone. How deadly he was in his actual trained situation.

Not long after Brad’s silhouette mingled with the rest of Bravo-Two, Mike came over to collect Nate. They had their meeting with the company commander, after all. He could not spend all night contemplating the deadly efficiency of his men or the vast expanse of unknown beyond the shield. Mike and Nate walked in silence outside of the gentle thunk of their Kevlars bumping against their legs as they moved. They found Capt. Schwetje and Gunnery Sgt. Griego at their vehicle muttering. Capt. McGraw and his gunnery sergeant were closing in fast, as was Bravo-One. Nate nodded at the two other platoon leaders and the staff noncommissioned officers fell to the side in their own group.

“Godfather said the people shooting at us could have obtained illegally modified suits from the locals here,” Schwetje told him in a dull tone. “Until now, they did not think we’d have opposition this far out.”

Nate looked over at Mike, who kept his face trained. The younger man swallowed and looked forward again. What plagued him was if they knew about that type of opposition at all. His mind fell onto all the bits of information his men scrapped together from their memory of current events lectures or bullying it out of the Reporter. If they were able to gleam that much from news and reports, Nate had to believe there was more they were not being told.

“Unless we are linked up with RCT-1, we are to be in condition one. Men are to keep their uniforms intact and accounted for. Any damage to the unit must be handled with RCT-1 and assessed by Sergeant Major Sixta, himself.” They nodded. “We step off at 0700 and will continue on until we make it to the edge of the Miner’s Region.”

The group in attendance waited for a moment. When they were about to step away, the captain seemed to remember something else, and they all paused.

“Oh, and we need to the gunners to keep an eye out for discoloration because there is a chance they may know how to reflect the temperatures.”

This time, he nodded and turned back to his vehicle. Nate swallowed again and walked to were Mike had drifted to. He opened his mouth to talk but caught the tight lips of Mike and closed it again. There was a long moment where the two men stared at each other before the older man nodded. Nate sighed and followed. Nate had his head down when he saw Mike’s feet stop. He halted as well and looked up. They looked over to where some of Bravo-Two were having what looked like a meeting of the minds. Brad looked over a moment later, followed by Ray. Both men subtly jerked their heads toward them. In the middle of the conversation was Reporter and Doc. Mike and Nate exchanged looks and headed over.

 

“Homes don’t worry. Your one true love and his wife are on their way over,” Ray told Brad. The man did not even humor him with a comment or a look.

They had been talking when Reporter came through with his pad. They were not interested in his messages, figuring they were from his girlfriend, when Doc noted the address of the sender. It was someone with the military units intelligence. Reporter apparently had friends in high places. Suddenly the banter session over Rudy and Pappy became an unofficial meeting of the Team Leaders and Assistant Team Leaders.

The sender informed Reporter of three crashes, including the one Doc knew about. One had more gear and weapons that were meant to get decommissioned and melted down for scraps. The other was a ship that was classified. Doc, who had the most training with other units and held a higher clearance than anyone outside of command began to explain what was kept on those ships. Everything from basic AI interpreters for independently deployable mechs to hard files of information getting sent straight to the Moon for the GA Library. Ray had taken the holopad when the others started to spitball ideas of what could have been on it. His mind was in what was written and finding something wrong in the message. He had fallen silent just long enough for Brad to notice his energy shifting from hyperactivity to hypervigilance. And for a man who claimed to hate everything Ray did and existed for, he was quick to ask what was wrong and crowd in over his shoulder.

Ray knew exactly what was on those ships because she had said it in the message. It took a while for his eyes to process the patterns, but clearly spelled through her careful organization was the terms “Artificial Intelligence Ports,” and “Frequency Interception.” Her thinly veiled explanation of when and where these ships took off and crashed placed them departing from the Ionian capital district and landing on the far side of Prometheus where a defunct mining company existed. Three days drive from where they were station. When he tossed the tablet to Reporter, he asked Lowell to look it over and see if he was just being a conspiracy theorist. Lowell did not have to look because Rudy knew someone who had been at that company when it closed. The government had done nothing to explain why they had been closed, and he was sent to work on Venus instead, rather than Castillo, which also held a high iron industry.

“You minds meeting makes a man worried,” Gunny drawled at them. Ray grinned and shrugged loosely.

“What do you have on your holopad,” Nate asked. His eyes were translucent green from the glow of the tablet against the otherwise dim light.

“Something I think you should see, sir,” Pappy told him gently.

Nate looked at all the men in the eyes on at a time before taking it from Evan. Gunny fell into his side and they both read it. Ray stood and watched how Gunny’s honey eyes slowly coasted over the words, while the LT’s scanned them quickly three times over. He looked up after the second one to make eye contact with the reporter and read it a third time. There was a moment of silence when their gazes stopped shifting and they stared at the message. Nate looked at Mike, who nodded.

“I need to talk to Alpha Company,” he told Nate softly, but not soft enough for the men to not catch. If Gunny had not wanted them to know this, he would not have said anything at all.

“Is there a way to save this and encrypt it,” Nate asked the group, but his eyes fell to Ray. Ray, in turned smirked darkly.

“Of course not, sir. That would be against regulation,” Ray’s voice was as chipper and playful as it was talking about dicks and pussy.

Nate only nodded and handed the pad to Ray rather than its owner. Ray tucked it into his drop bag and crossed his arms over his chest. He could see the way the LT’s face warred over duty and rules. The men could get in a lot of trouble for accessing this information, punishable up through death, in fact. He and Gunny were now in a similar boat if they did not turn them in. He sighed and nodded, mostly likely to himself, then looked up. There was a fire in his eyes. A sharp decisiveness that Ray had never seen before. One that sparked a bit more trust and admiration for the man.

“This cannot leave this circle,” his eyes cut to Brad’s, who was standing next to Ray. “No one. We have been issued no warning outside of gunners needed to look for discoloration on horizons. Get that file encrypted and delete it from your entire pad completely. Got it?”

The men nodded. Brad cleared his throat. There was a question in his eyes, and Ray knew he was checking the validity of the order than had clearly been passed to him directly.

“Interrogative, Sir. I am not to tell one soul?” The subtle emphasis said it all.

“Affirmative. Is there anything else?” His gaze swept through everyone again.

“Sir. We know what they have,” Ray spoke after a moment of silence. He felt pinned by the sudden fire in his eyes, but Ray held the gaze evenly.

“Very well. We will discuss this in a different location. Carry on gentlemen. Revelry is 0700.”

Ray knew what that meant. In a place not surrounded by other people. Specifically, other units Nate did not trust in the way it seemed he trusted Bravo-Two and Alpha. If he was willing to let Brad tell Kocher as a warning, Ray was willing to give the man a heads-up as well. After the man followed in Wynn’s path, Ray looked down at Reporter.

“Are we in trouble,” he asked. The bemusement of his face made the question all the purer in his worry.

“Relax, my liberal Leader buddy, our Boy King will take good care of us.” Ray’s voice was brighter than his actual hoped.

“And he won’t rat us out,” Evan pressed. But Brad replied this time.

“The LT is on our side for this,” he explained. Then a wry smirk tugged. “I am assured of this.”

Chapter Text

They were camped only a few hours from the mines Ray had mentioned two days before. Rather than the straight shot through the easy terrain, Godfather had them turn and make a wide circle around it to approach from a new angle. Now, they had Prometheus staring at them from the side rather than ahead, and the murky air discoloring the hills in the distance. The sulfur, though filtered through the atmosphere adjusting toxins, was permeating the air enough to create a dense, heavy scent. The adults they pretend to move with made jokes for the first klick about it being someone ripping ass, but now they all grew bored of the humor and simply turned on the filters of the helmet when in the victors. Even now as Brad walked toward Bravo Three, the kept the kelvars on to avoid the slight lightheadedness that came from instinctively taking shallow breathes to avoid inhaling too much.

There had been an argument between he and Ray that morning. Brad knew Ray was unsure about anyone outside of their immediate circle knowing about the message and the crashes. It was not that Ray did not trust Kocher—that was something Brad was sure of with this. It was more that Kocher would be surrounded by others that Ray was unsure about. Namely McGraw, the platoon commander. As the smaller man pointed out a number of times, he was gone. It did not matter if the man was intelligence. It seemed all of his baring and composure was lost the moment they stepped off. There was also Redman, Darnold, and the rest of Eric’s team. Ray liked Jeff—they had been in training together for most of their Recon experience and were even deployed in the same unit the mission Brad had met his RTO on. Jeff, however, was with the command vehicle as the driver and mechanic, not as part of the lead vehicle.

Brad got it. This was not some small thing to talk about like a fuck up in the communication line designations or the fact that once they delivered the wrong colored tracers to the Army units on Mars three years ago, and almost caused Joint Service blue-on-blue fire. This was something that bordered on conspiracy. Yet, Brad could not let his other best friend not know about this. Kocher had been there with him through the hardest missions, he had been there and dragged Brad from his drunken rage and vitriol a few years back and out on a death run to sweat the booze, anger, and self-hate out. In the same way Ray was always there to be the loud light, Eric had been his steadfast rock. For six years now, Eric and Brad had served together nonstop. There was nothing that came through Brad’s life that the other man had not known about. And this was too much of a threat to become the exemption to the rule. The fight was that Ray seemed to not trust Brad’s opinion on the situation. And when Ray agreed that could be a part of it, the blond had stalked off with intent to get away from the Terrarian and his overly expressive brown gaze.

Almost as soon as Brad rounded the LAV Kocher and his team rode in, the man’s steely gaze lifted. They were with RTC-1 still, which meant there was no need for condition one suits. The man looked like a brute to others. He was husky in build with a stocky, broad form and enough height to look imposing, even beside Brad. His face was always set with a practiced indifference that the other sergeants also wore most days, but his eyes were always deep with thought and emotion. He was secure enough in himself to know that they were nice eyes, and it was the color and his thick lash line that most of the higher-ranking members of Bravo used to give Kocher Hell. Those eyes flicked over Brad’s form that was anonymous with the helmet on. But he felt read. The eyes stopped at key points where the blond carried tension—his shoulders, arms, even hands were taken in before Kocher looked over at Darnold and the rest of his team and nodded his head away from the vehicle. After a moment, they all cleared out. Another beat and Brad had removed his helmet. His nose wrinkled at the scent that filled his senses, and Kocher smirked.

“The Iceman’s one true weakness-swamp ass.” Brad did not humor him with a response, but rather he posted up against the vehicle

“Boys holding up?” The flatness in his voice relayed how little he cared about the boys rather than Kocher’s safety. The smirk Eric gave hinted that he understood.

“I’ve had worse teams to run. You know Redman and Darnold.” Brad hummed. “I got my pick for the team like you did.”

“There is that.” An easy silence set between them. Brad kept his gaze and face even and expressionless, but his eyes were filled with conflict. He could feel it in his own gaze and mind. Kocher seemed to have noted it. He nodded his head slightly to have Brad sit, which he did after a pause.

“I’ve heard some rumblings about your platoon leader out this way,” Kocher warned. Brad did not like the smirk that grew at Brad’s reaction. He new his eyes sharpened with reigned in anger and slight panic. “Greigo doesn’t like him Thinks he’s no good for the platoon. Thus far McGraw hasn’t said anything other than he’s young.”

“McGraw is an old body getting combat experience to make major,” Brad muttered and looked away. He felt the question in Kocher’s eyes and relented. “If anyone asks, there is nothing going on.”

“Of course not.” And with that, Kocher took his helmet and flipped the main connector to the microphone and set the helmet down. Brad did the same. “What happened.”

“It has to do with those irregulars we faced off against a few nights ago. Their suits were GA equipment sent to the colonies in the event of more shortages in the power to the atmosphere generator and protection.” He looked over and watched as Kocher’s eyes shifted through a few phases as the information was catalogued and filed away. “They knew there was a chance of this and sent us in blind. Some of our boys knew of other events that happened like that.”

“Who,” Kocher asked. He needed reliable intelligence. Brad understood.

“Tim,” he replied. Kocher’s features sharpened immediately. Just like the lieutenant, that was someone not to doubt. “A freight ship with cargo including broken down or incomplete mechs and vehicles. Which got us thinking about what else could have happened above Io.”

“And,” he pressed.

“Possible acquisition of AI technology and codes to disrupt frequencies. We don’t know how complete either was upon the freight crashing. But there were three individual crashes of GA equipment headed for the Moon.”

“Fuck,” Kocher muttered. “This may not be as asymmetrical as they told us it would be.”

Kocher was an Off-World caste member, but he was tactically minded. He was clever, thoughtful, and careful. He was the type of person who enjoyed reading about warfare and policy to get an understanding of it and use it in his own version of leadership. He was quick to grasp dialects and customs, handy with conversations and base interrogations in the field, and comfortable sifting in the gray area of issues while looking for a solution. He was not a genius by any means, but he was the one puzzle master of the group. If anything, being undefeated in chess for five years proved that. Brad always relied on his as his assistant team leader and then his battle buddy before that to pick up on what he had missed. He was not flawless, but with Kocher, his team was always perfect.

“This may be something less of a terrorist action,” Kocher finally decided. It was the conclusion Brad had made while talking to Pappy the night before. “Whatever we are driving for is a rebellion. And if it’s based in the decommissioned mines, there is a lot we are not aware of.”

“Which is why Ray has been in the backseat and not driving.”

“I thought our radio chatter has been more professional recently.” Brad snorted. “Research, then?”

“Trying to find what could have happened.”

“Who knows all this.” Kocher looked away and shook his head when Brad did not reply immediately. “That’s telling.”

“Mike, Fick, Paps, Rudy, Lowell, Espera, Doc, Reporter, and Ray for sure. Stafford most likely, considering he was the one who remembered the suits in the first place.”

“So much for that gangster rap theory, eh?”

“I have a feeling Mike told Patterson and Barrett.”

“If they know, then at least Smith and Cody know. Barrett practically raised Cody in the Corps and Smith was intelligence with Patterson before they both went recon.”

“We don’t want many people knowing. I was permitted to tell you by Fick.”

“Would you have otherwise?” The tension Brad felt in his jaw was enough to answer that with a no. “That bad, huh?”

“Worse. If it gets to that point, tell Jeff. He is in McGraw’s car and can keep Bravo Three from going on a suicide mission for glory.

A silence fell on them. Brad watched as the forms of Charlie Company Marines wandered back and forth with the dirt kicking up in their wake. The eerie red glow from Jupiter mixed with the yellowish green smog from Prometheus and dust to cause an orangey haze. Every other mission had been simple and clean for Brad. There were rules and parameters he had worked in. Clear cut patterns and guidelines. He was responsible only for his men and answered to himself. It was up to him to choose if an action was just or not. He had control. Here, he was functioning at the whim of his superiors—people who had always been faceless names on the other side of a radio transmission. The training to follow orders was bound to war with having superior experience and understanding. He was terrified.

“I’ll keep an eye on things here. I got your six, Brad.”

He only nodded.

 

As he returned to Bravo Two and his own platoon, he heard the unmistakable sound of Ray calling out for attention. He was not sure the topic from this distance, as few people’s voices carried in the way the Terrarian’s did. His brain seemed almost trained to pick up on it. As he drew near, Brad surmised that the topic was about Trombley, who was glaring up at Ray. Person was in condition three, his breast plate and arm protection off with his helmet so his lightweight sensory output armor beneath hugged his form loosely. Brad only rolled his eyes before approaching.

“Wait,” Ray sounded shocked. He abruptly turned in his spot and kicked up a plume of talcum-like dust. “You have a kid on the way?”

Trombley looked back at Ray with narrowed eyes. For a moment, it was clear that had Ray not outranked Trombley in this moment, the man would have lashed out for the shock and not so gently implied insult. It was reasonable, however, as James did give off the distinct air of someone who genuinely did not like most people and saw little value in them. How much was carefully constructed through what he was shown and taught as opposed to what Trombley actually thought was something Brad had wondered for a while now. He was young and surrounded by men who used contempt and insults as a method of displaying affection.

“Pairing,” Brad explained as he drew level with Walt. He had his arm plates off and was holding the shoulder attachments of his breastplate from impacting his body. Brad leaned over the open window and grabbed a packet from the ratfuck bag and straightened out again. “Just about every Leader and Educator is paired, offered, or has their DNA stored in the system for someone else.”

Walt and Ray looked between Brad and Trombley a few times so in sync, it could have been practiced. They looked back to Trombley, who nodded with a smirk, then to Brad, who simply ripped open his MRE with his teeth.

“We were paired when we were 16. Married at 18,” Trombley explained with a sneer that hid his shyness of the topic. But it was there, in the tension beneath his eyes and how he both sought out and avoided eye contact. “We were trying for a child before I was sent into training.”

“Okay. What the fuck is pairing,” Ray squawked. Walt nodded. “You make it sound like fucking eugenic dog breeding horse shit, homes.”

Brad leveled him with a long, patient look before squeezing some of the chunk-formed patty to the edge of the MRE and breaking a chunk off with his teeth. It was apparently barbeque pork, though it oddly tasted like their Salisbury Steak and meatloaf.

“It’s similar,” he acknowledged after swallowing. “We take a test and give blood samples for DNA and it gets put in a database. It is matched up against a member or members of the opposite sex in the regional database to find who has the best compatibility. It’s a way to yield the best next generation without the mess of a divorce.” He looked over at Walt, who swore under his breath. Ray was silent with his mouth hanging open in both shock and disgust, “It’s not as popular for my caste, but for Leaders like Trombley? It’s just about mandatory.”

“So, what. Fuck if you’re gay? Or if you want to fucking do it normal? Get to know each other?” It was not at all shocking to hear how disturbed and almost disappointed ray sounded at this.

“There are centers with sperms and eggs stored and a line for surrogates if you’re not heterosexual,” the Reporter joined in. “You get asked your preference before you are submitted. And testing is done after puberty when most people have a basic understanding of their sexuality. And the pairings are not mandatory. They’re suggested, but they are scientifically produced and have high results, especially if the subjects are older when they gave their samples.”

“And people go along with it? Even you fucking Educators who are supposed to be all smart and shit?”

“I was paired,” Brad said suddenly to cut off Ray. A flicker of recognition and regret passed through the other man’s brown eyes. “I had to take the evaluations to be accepted into the caste, and the tests were done regularly. I was 14 when my submission hit a match with a girl down the road.” He ripped off another piece of the food while watching Ray deflate. The others, however, were more interested. “we were together from Third Year up until I returned from my first deployment. She had gone into medicine and read more into the science behind the process. She retook her evaluation without telling me with our best friend from school. I was out by Saturn, so I would not have been able to take the test, anyway. They got matched, and I returned to base to find a package with the engagement ring and an invitation.

“To hit them,” Walt asked with his voice uncharacteristically harsh and steely.

“To the wedding,” Ray chimed in. His voice was cold and clipped.

“They claimed they knew I would understand,” Brad elaborated. He bit off more food and chewed it bitterly. “Science.”

“What did you do,” Reporter asked.

“Motherfucker went. He was the fucking Best Man and everything,” Ray answered for him. Brad looked over and noticed the younger Marine digging dirt out from under his nails with his jaw clenched so tight the muscle bulged from under the skin.

Trombley went to open his mouth, looking a bit shocked and almost sympathetic. Whatever he had to say was cut short by Fick strolling over with his silent, loping gait. The calm, half grin he wore while approaching his men froze when his eyes fell on the tense looks for Two-One Alpha. His gaze flickered from curious to concerned, then blank. He picked up his pace with his helmet clinking softly as it connected with his thigh.

“Is everything okay,” he asked openly. His gaze, however, was trained specifically on Brad. The sergeant looked up passively and sucked more pork into his mouth.

“Sir, are you paired,” Ray asked in lieu of an explanation.

Fick always had a four-step process for fielding inquires, comments, and concerns from Ray, Brad noticed. He would look away and his lips would part slightly, and his jaw dropped just enough that there was a small gap between his top and bottom teeth. He would then blink no more than three times, slowly, as he clearly filtered through responses. He would then lick his bottom lip and close his mouth with a swallow. Most likely pushing down the comments he deemed funny but inappropriate. He then would inhale and exhale slowly before looked back at Ray with professional blankness. Brad watched it take place like clockwork as Nate replid.

“I am not Ray. Unfortunately, there would be more paperwork than anyone wants for us, so I am assuming you are not asking this for personal reasons.” His face remained almost passive as his voice was crisp and smooth like any briefing. Yet there was a glimmer of humor in his green eyes. Ray crowed at the answer with his bleating laugh.

“The Terrarians are asking because I am, and they did not know what it was, sir,” Trombley explained with that annoyance returning.

“Yeah, so if Jimmy Boy here is, why aren’t you,” Ray asked.

Nate looked at Ray for a moment before his gaze swept across the other curious faces. He sighed and relented.

“My parents wanted us to get paired and tested after we finished all of our schooling,” Fick explained. And for a Leader, that also included university. “We would be more prepared for the questions and our bodies would have finished developing and changing by graduation. I knew by my second year of university that I wanted to go into the military and opted out of DNA submissions and evaluations.”

“Why,” Ray asked. “Don’t want a kept woman waiting?” There was a playfulness to the curiosity that made it seem less invasive.

“If I died, I would leave someone tied to me because of series of ones and zeros.” He tilted his head for a moment and seemed to take note of the people before him. “And I did not want the machines to do all the work for me.”

“So, what sir. You just hope you’ll come across that one person for you.”

Nate’s face was a small smirk and a head tilt, but his eyes were beaming. The artificial sun lit his eyes and made them almost translucent. Rather than reply, he walked off toward Espera’s team. After he left, the team stayed silent aside from Walt’s chuckle. Ray turned and looked at Trombley.

“See, Trombley. That’s the type we expect to have someone waiting at home. Or Walt.”

“Don’t bring me into this,” Walt shot back immediately.

“But no. It’s you and the Reporter-”

“Hey!”

“-who do. At least I have eye candy to look at while rolling across this dusty piece of shit.”

“Ray, even if you got a perfect match with someone, nobody would want to get within 100 yards of your disappointing, disease riddled, sister fucking dick,” Brad sharply muttered.

“I love it when he gets jealous,” Ray announced brightly.

Brad did not reward his cheerfulness with a response. He leaned back into the open window instead, which left an opening for Ray to smack his backside with a heavy clap. Hidden from view, the smile was in full form as Ray loudly proclaimed he was off to piss. There were times he crossed the line and genuinely upset Ray with his comments. He was glad this was not one of those times. Rather, it had been a distraction from an uncomfortable and still-painful memory from taking over. The Terrarian was an empathetic and compassionate friend even with his loud defensive technique and hiding behind the mask of a clown. And more than anything, he was pretty skilled at riding A-Gunner to Brad’s mind when he was not fit for driving.

Ray knew about his ex-fiancé. He did not know the specifics of why they had been together for six years, but the fact that she had left him for his best friend and then he was in the wedding was knowledge. It was not a moment of him being open and effusive with the man for his friendship. The story came out one night not long after Ray had joined First Recon. He had been just shy of 21 at the time and signed his paperwork for the first voluntary contract after the mandatory to years of service. They had been on ship that night in their utility bottoms and uniform shirt. Ray, as always, wore his black hoodie from the unit as he had finally been through all the training for it. Brad had sat with his arms bridged across the bottom rung of the raining with his legs thrown over the platform and head resting on his arms. Ray had his hands gripped like a chin up on the same bar with his chin perched on his fists and legs swinging over the fifty foot drop to the cargo dock below.

It was times like that when Brad remembered how young Ray was than himself. He had just received a message from his girl who had been back home for the entirety of the mandatory service. She had returned home and expected him to do the same—go back to Nevada and start a family like their parents had. When Ray stayed active and moved from Radio Operator with the infantry to reconnaissance, she left him. Brad had told him his own tale of heart ache to try and soothe the ache he knew was felt. It was a small glimpse behind his carefully perfected walls. The first of many over the next year and a half that Ray had been with him. He could still see the way Ray’s large, brown eyes stared blankly out into the vast emptiness of space as if he could feel that in his soul—that loneliness.

“Sergeant,” Trombley’s voice cut him to the present. “Why do you let Corporal Person get away with everything?”

“Stick around long enough and find out,” Garza replied as he sauntered over from Espera’s team. There was no heat to his voice. More like a dare and an invitation. “Tony wants to know if the switch between me and Walt is official.”

“Piss him off already? That’s got to be a record,” Brad mused lightly. He skipped over Trombley’s question to one of business. Gabe flipped him off easily and he laughed. “For now, you and Leon are the best at the Fifty for two-one. Walt had practice with the Mini when with Bravo One last drop. Lead with our best hand.”

“Good to go,” Gabe replied. He dropped down next to Walt and knocked their shoulders together. The blond smirked tentatively. “I thought you were collecting yourself a team of pretty white boys.”

“If I had been doing that, Ray would be in Charlie by now.”

 

Lilley watched as Gabe sauntered back over with his pack from the lead vehicle. Walt had just left with his own from the gunner position. It was weird to have a personnel change during the trip, but he figured there was a reason for it. As the sergeant’s battle buddy, his situation hardly changed, though. He still went in with Espera. It was Leon who had to handle the change. As Gabe changed his course, Lilly let his foot drop to the side from where it was propped up in the window frame of his open door to keep an eye on him. He knew Gabe well enough, but they had generally been on different squads. Even though Two-One was split as a ten-man team—or nine with a reporter at the moment—rather than just two separate teams, there was little interaction between the two units when out in the field. More so now than on foot with their vehicles being divided. Only Lilley and Ray spoke on the main communication line and the sergeants used their personal comms that were direct to the command vehicle.

“You on the team for good now,” he asked as Gabe drew level with the door.

“Yeah, Brad wants me on the fifty. Or he wants Walt’s singing.”

Garza shook his head and laughed as Leon and Christopher started chanting “One of us,” over and over before tossing the bag into the holding compartment where the rest of the gear was stowed for the Marines. There was a bit more ease with the men at the moment. It was most likely the novelty of having RCT-1 and the protection of the shields for this long out of the wire that had the boys as hyped as the unit had been over the last few days. That, and the distinct lack of actual combat.

This was not normal for them. It was contrary to their standard operating procedures to be in the open like this, surrounded by so many high-profile vehicles and top-level officers. They, at most, had a single Mech per team that functioned as a complete mobile outpost. Now, they were reliant more on the assistance and coverage of an auxiliary unit than their own skills. While, yes, they were underutilized and bored, they were also getting lazy. Or that was how Espera felt recently. Jason was quick to agree. He had been one of the few in the unit, similar to Espera himself and Jeff, to have come from a different job field for his mandatory service. He had been Motor Transport. It was part of why he and Jeff were the ones checking on all the vehicles whenever the caravan stopped.

“Anything important from the boys up front,” Christopher asked. His voice was always polite and unassuming in a way that went with Walt’s. The blond held more authority to his tone, though. Christopher was young, barely promoted to an NCO, and that showed.

“More of the usual bitching. Colbert and Person are married, Trombley is their fucked-up kid. The LT has become the hot pool boy that Ray keeps poking with a stick to get a reaction out of.”

“Yeah, how’s that working for him,” Lean asked from where he was supposed to be napping in the back seat.

“He’s alive. So, he’ll spin that to make him seem like God.” Lilley laughed at Gabe’s cheery tone. “Really, it’s all a show for the Reporter, I think.”

“What is,” Leon asked from the back.

“The bickering. They’re normally pretty petty about things, but it’s gone up a notch.”

“Nah, dawg,” Espera had strolled over with his cocky strut during their discussion and was now resting his wrists on the door frame and leaning down slightly so he was looking into the vehicle. “Ray knows what he’s doing.”

Before anyone could ask, there was a crackle over the comms and everyone’s heads perked up and looked at the center console. The voice echoed through Lilley’s helmet, which was perched on his knee. It was Doc’s voice, asking if someone else could get eyes on the side pathway headed toward the mines. It had been labeled a possible service road by the foot patrol done by Alpha’s Three-Two. It had been abandoned long enough that the fine powder was a yellow-tinted dust again. Their heads craned over to get eyes on road. He could see Rudy looking through his scope with a slow pace, but that was the only movement of the camp. The rest of Bravo Two stood perfectly still with their eyes trained in the direction of the mines. After a moment, the radio crackled again.

“There is movement,” Rudy confirmed. “One-six foot mobiles moving from shoulder to shoulder.”

“Copy that, any eyes on possible weapons?” It was the clipped tone of the lieutenant that replied. The lightness was gone and it was almost stabbing with clarity. Lilley’s eyes moved up to look at Espera, who exhaled slowly.

“Negative. Movement only.” There was a long pause. “Sir, they seemed to have moved deeper into the shoulder out of sight.”

“Copy that. All personnel return to condition one and prepare to be Oscar Mike.”

There was a beat of silence before the camp was a flurry of precise motions. Men donned their helmets and clambered into the vehicles. The vehicle shifted as Gabe climbed to the turret up top and the doors shut in tandem. He could not see his sergeant’s face, but he could tell by the tension rolling off him in waves that his features were pinched in worry and focus. He rolled his own lower lip between his teeth as he waited for word from the LT. he had a feeling if Fick had the ability to make his own missions, word would have been passed already. However, it was a tense ten minutes before the crackle came back over. The voice was just as harsh as before, but somehow there was a hint of being dejected.

“Two-Two, we will be heading into the mines,” the LT called over. “Keep minimum dispersion and turn on night vision when we hit low-light regions. Keep chatter off the net and watch for irregular movements in the corners.”

Espera swore under his break and tossed his body back in a rather petty movement. Lilley turned over the engine and adjusted his posture. There was a moment of silence before Christopher asked why they were moving without proper eyes on the path, target, and situation. No one answered, but the sound of the lead vehicle moving filled the air.