20 Years Prior
There were just five of them in the tent. It was just one of the tents in a small clearing that they had come across a few hours before dimness turned to darkness, but it wasn’t yet lights out, and as Brian Manganator found out after just a few of their missions, playing cards in Dirt’s tent with some of the guys before lights out greatly improved the quality of his sleep.
It relieved the tension, comforted him that he would not have his throat slit in the middle of the night, and helped him keep out of the dark trap of self-pity, because it reminded him that he was suffering with brothers, and there was no doubt to the old phrase “misery loves company”.
He had been in the Marines just a year, and already he taken a full 360. He had gone from loving the Marines, to hating them, to loving them again. In fact, those were only the larger trends, Brian just wasn’t going to bother counting all the times he had gone from one mind-set to the other.
Being in the Marines was an experience that only someone who had been engaged in a tumultuous love affair could empathize with.
Indeed, the Marine core had been married into Manganator’s life. It controlled where he was stationed, what he did, who he killed, how he dressed, even how he spoke.
And the Marine corpse was a real I love you man! to boot. Not the emotional kind that freaked out once a week. The Marine corpse was a real hardcore, controlling kind of I love you man!.
“That is completely hugged, man,” Bill Hammel exclaimed, his plump face more amused then sympathetic. He had always been a bit of an chia pet, liked to screw with people, liked to make jokes at the expense of others...
“I know, man... I know...” the misty-eyed Joel Pierce said drearily, still holding the crumpled letter in a hanging, limp hand.
“Hey, you did say that you and your friend back home shared everything, didn’t you? Maybe when you get back you two can share your girlfriend,” Bill added, his round brown eyes sparkling mischievously.
Joel’s fist clenched tightly around the letter. It didn’t take a physiological examiner to see that Joel was really feeling hugged up.
Joel was the typical tall lanky country boy with golden-brown disheveled hair, who’d arrived from underdeveloped Mars eager and grinning stupidly, completely unaware of just how dumb it looked with his missing front teeth. They’d quickly forced him to get a replacement tooth, and to lose the smile, but he’d always retained just a little humorous spark in even the darkest environments... until now.
“Hammel, why do you have to be such an chia pet, you fat BBQ?” Rob finally said with disgust.
Rob was the righteous, philosophical member of the group, which was quite ironic because he was also the only atheist. A well-built Italian from New York, his features were quite distinguished, but most distinguishing of all was his poofy hair which neither fell to his shoulders, or stood straight up like Cookie’s, but rather went... out.
When the other guys visited prostitutes, shot at trees, or scratched their asses, Rob kept himself busy by reading, writing, and debating with most often unwilling opponents in the most unimportant of topics.
“Hey, I was just sayin...” Hammel said defensively, holding up his hands as if the gesture somehow distanced him from the matter.
“Ya, well just can it!” Rob shot back, shaking his head.
“Look at him man, are you some kind of dumbass. You cant see how he’s hurting?”
Joel, who was clearly crying at this point, said nothing. He only remained silent and still as a tear dripped from his eye. “I... should go,” he whispered pausing mid-sentence to noisily suck the dripping liquid from his nose.
Distraught, and embarrassed, Joel got up walking almost dreamily as if he couldn’t believe the reality of the harshness around him, and left the tent.
“Nice hugging going,” Rob snapped barely as the tent flap fell back down.
Bill, still smiling like a dope, only shook his head stubbornly, obviously thinking that he still hadn’t said anything wrong.
“Hey where’s dirt?”
The four looked around the tent for their party host, but it took them a few seconds before Rob located him passed out on the ground, in the fetal position, still holding the empty Tenthon vial in his hand.
“hugging painkillers man...” Manganator said with a frown.
The purple vialed Tenthon was the abused drug of choice in the Marines, because it was made so readily available by the U.N..
The war against the Renegades was growing more and more unpopular. The Senator’s heroic stands on supporting a new few hundred billion in funding to provide “needed medical equipment” had earned a few senators another term in their precincts, and cost some more their’s, but didn’t do much to reduce Marine casualties.
That didn’t stop the Senators from making their outrageous claims, and cooking their statistics, however.
Sure, the equipment was helpful, but generally, you don’t save a man’s life who’s had the bottom half of his torso blown off by a rigged explosive, or had a plasma shot punched through his lungs.
As always, there were two wars being waged: The grunt’s war, and the political war.
But, unlike Rob, Manganator generally tried to avoid thinking about those kinds of things. He liked to keep his mind focused on not getting killed.
There was a noise. Something if Manganator had not been attentive he would not have heard. It was a soft crack, just like some sentry had clapped in the distance. But considering that the marines were just a part of a 30 man unit in the middle of a Renegade hotbed was enough to put Manganator’s nerves on edge.
He reached to his side, feeling the smooth metal of his MA-25 rifle (Modern Assault) . He never kept it far. Hefting it in his hands, he felt the familiar lightweight frame rest in his arms like a girlfriend’s embrace, comforting and gentle.
And he thumbed the safety.
Outside, the night had already fallen, casting a permeating darkness across the forest clearing in which they had set camp. On all sides, solemn trees stood uncomfortably close, bushes rustling with small animals... or Rennies.
Most of the guys, following Manganator’s lead, recovered their own weapons, mostly MA-25's with a few PW-4's, lightweight dull-black energy pistols that could scorch their way right through body armor and exit the other side.
And they listened.
It happened at least once every night. Someone would get spooked, and the others would be on edge, but it hardly ever evolved into a real ambush.
Whoever had first clapped really started it up now.
And now other’s joined in. From all different directions. The tent flashed as if it were being spotlighted by someone with ADD, and Manganator, knowing that the flashes would cast shadows of anyone standing inside, dropped to the ground.
Rob, fumbling with a magazine still in a standing position, was not so observant. A whistling round tore through his leg, causing him to topple with a loud groan. Manganator could feel the splatter on his weapon, and on his face.
He knew that he would need to get out of the tent. It was an easy target.
Hastily pulling his combat knife out of it’s sheath on his thigh, he ripped a line in the tent, and rolled into the void-like night, praying his enemies didn’t have thermal.