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Marines strive to have everything shipshape, the Marines of 34th FIST no less than other Marines. Shipshape can mean spit-and-polish, everything as clean and neat and shiny as humanly possible—and then some. These are Marines we’re talking about, after all. In a deeper sense, shipshape means having one’s body and mind in peak condition, and all of one’s gear, equipment, and—most important—weapons in the best possible condition. Getting himself and all his equipment—most important, his weapons—shipshape in all regards is one of the most important things a Marine can do to increase his odds of winning and surviving his next firefight.
Thirty-fourth Fleet Initial Strike Team had been on Ravenette for close to half a year, standard, running hither and yon to plug holes in the porous Confederation Army defensive line, living in vermin- infested bunkers that had been thoroughly trashed by the soldiers who’d inhabited them before the army had moved to less severely infested bunkers. They’d just fought off a division-size assault, a battle they’d won only because the Confederation Army’s 27th Division—in contravention of orders from General Jason Billie—had turned its artillery onto the flank of the secessionist soldiers just as they were about to overrun the Marines’ positions.
No, 34th FIST wasn’t shipshape, it was . . .
“Shit-shape!” Sergeant Tim Kerr shouted as he barged into the bunker occupied by second squad’s second fire team. “This whole damn squad is in shit-shape!”
Corporal Rachman “Rock” Claypoole, second fire team leader, spun about to yell back at Kerr, but froze with his face twisted in anger and his mouth open. He froze because he remembered that Kerr was no longer Corporal Kerr—another fire team leader just like him, although a good deal more senior and experienced—but Sergeant Kerr, his squad leader. Even though the squad leader was a good deal lower in rank than Ensign Charlie Bass, the platoon commander, when a squad leader was in the kind of mood Kerr looked to be in, he wasn’t much junior to God.
Claypoole shut his mouth with an audible clack of teeth and untwisted his face, stifling his anger. He stood a little more erect and looked about the bunker. The room had been crudely gouged out of the coral-like wall of the escarpment that rose above the beach on the north side of the Bataan Peninsula, and its walls roughly smoothed; at least the worst of the protrusions had been knocked off. That was all the finishing the engineers had had time to do when they were preparing the defensive positions for the war now being fought here on Ravenette. Any protrusions they’d left had been replaced by gouges and pits, the result of fire from the attacking Coalition division that had nearly overrun the Marines.
One good thing about the gouges and pits was that they’d replaced much of the crud the Marines hadn’t been able to scour off the walls when they took over the bunkers from the army. A bad thing was the resulting stony debris scattered about. Not to mention the expended munitions that littered the floor.
When Kerr barged in and roared his displeasure, Lance Corporal Jack “Wolfman” MacIlargie jumped as though he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t, then just gawped at his squad leader, uncertain of what was coming next—he’d never seen Corporal Kerr so angry. He guessed that an extra ration of anger was issued to new sergeants.
Lance Corporal Dave “Hammer” Schultz had been leaning on the embrasure, looking out over Pohick Bay—just because the Marines, with help from the 27th Division, had defeated a reinforced division didn’t mean the Coalition wouldn’t order another assault. When he heard Kerr, he casually glanced over his shoulder at the squad leader, then just as casually turned back to his vigil and spat a thick stream of saliva onto the glasis that led from the beach to the escarpment. After the battle, the glasis had been carpeted with bodies, parts of bodies, and unidentifiable bits and chunks of gore, all of which had since been removed for mass burial. The detritus knocked from the face of the escarpment still lay on the glasis. Schultz rolled his shoulders. His back hurt from the wound he’d received weeks earlier when a metal facing-sheet from a trench fell on him while the Marines were beating off a major assault.
Kerr’s fury really wasn’t at the condition of his squad’s bunkers, rather it was a mechanism to distract him from his anguish over casualties. He’d become squad leader only because the previous squad leader, Sergeant Linsman, had been killed a few weeks earlier. He was in anguish about that, and about having had one man in each of his three fire teams wounded on the operation—so far. For that matter, he’d been wounded himself. Right, five of the ten Marines in his squad were already casualties, and as far as he could tell there was no end to the campaign in sight. That kind of thinking could lead to despair. Kerr didn’t want to despair, so he turned his emotions to fury, and took it out on his men.
Besides, if his men were uncertain about him, and they kept busy making their bunkers shipshape, they’d be less likely to dwell on the things that had him so upset.
“Look at this sty!” Kerr shrieked, kicking at the rubble strewn on the floor. “I want this bunker shipshape when I come back.” He glared at the three Marines of second fire team in order—he even glared at Schultz’s turned back. “And I want you and your weapons and gear clean and ready to stand inspection on my return.” One more glare and he spun and left the bunker as suddenly as he’d stormed in.
After a lengthy moment of silence, MacIlargie murmured, “What crawled up his ass and died?”
“Wants us too busy to think,” Schultz rumbled.
Claypoole stopped staring at the bunker entrance where Kerr had vanished and slowly turned toward Schultz. “Uh, too busy to think about what?” he asked.
Claypoole mulled that for a moment, wondering what might constitute a “half casualty.” Then it clicked; half of the squad had been casualties so far in the defense of the Bataan Peninsula. “Right,” he said. Damn good idea. Let’s get busy cleaning up this shithole.” He grabbed a push broom from a corner and tossed it to MacIlargie. “Start sweeping up, Wolfman.”
MacIlargie deftly caught the broom, but instead of sweeping the floor, he cocked his head in thought. “Rock,” he said slowly, “we barely have enough water to drink. How are we supposed to get ourselves and our gear clean enough to stand inspection?”
Claypoole gave MacIlargie a that’s-a-dumb-question-but-I-don’t-expect-anything-better-from-you look and said, “We’re Marines. When we don’t have what we need to accomplish a mission, we improvise. When we don’t have what we need to improvise, we simulate.”
MacIlargie blinked a few times. He understood improvising, but “How do we simulate cleaning ourselves and our gear?”
“Fake it,” Schultz grumbled.
MacIlargie quickly glanced toward the big, taciturn Marine, then started pushing the broom. After a couple of minutes he looked at Claypoole and said, “I could use some help here, you know. Why don’t you do something?”
“I am doing something,” Claypoole retorted. “I’m the fire team leader. I’m supervising. You missed some shit over there.” He pointed at a patch of floor that MacIlargie had just swept.
“Supervising, yeah sure, supervising,” MacIlargie grumbled. He didn’t look at Schultz, still looking out over Pohick Bay. A few minutes later, though, all three Marines were working together to clean out their bunker.
First squad hadn’t suffered quite as badly as second squad; four wounded and none killed. And, unlike second squad, two of its fire team leaders were both senior and experienced enough to be in line to be slotted into squad leader billets—should one become vacant. As a matter of fact, Sergeant Lupo “Rabbit” Ratliff, the first squad leader, believed that if 34th FIST had not been quarantined, and if its Marines had been rotated out to other units like everybody else in the Confederation Marine Corps, Corporal “Dorny” Dornhofer, his first fire team leader, would long since have been promoted to sergeant and made a squad leader. But it wasn’t Ratliff’s place to question the decisions of higher-higher, not even when he believed higher-higher was clearly in the wrong.
No, Sergeant Ratliff had more immediate concerns than howcomeforwhy nobody was moving on to other duty stations. Word had filtered down that a Marine lieutenant general was on his way to Bataan to take over combat operations from General Billie. Of course, that word was scuttlebutt, and probably as accurate as the idea that Ensign Charlie Bass was the secret love child of Confederation President Cynthia Chang-Sturdevant. Not that Ratliff thought a Marine lieutenant general wasn’t on his way, but the idea that an army general commanding a major operation would give up combat operations command to a Marine was just too absurd to consider. Sure, sure, a Marine had relieved the army combat commander on Diamunde. But in that case, the overall commander was a navy admiral, and he had removed the doggie and replaced him with the Marine. Here, the doggie was the overall commander and the admiral was subordinate to him. So there was no way—short of all the army generals getting killed—that a Marine would get command.
The straight scoop—and Ratliff knew it was straight because he’d gotten it directly from Charlie Bass, who had been in the squad leaders’ meeting that had just broken up—was that a Marine lieutenant general was on his way. Bass didn’t know what the three-nova’s function would be once he delivered the two divisions and two FISTs he was bringing. If it came to the worst, he’d be an inspector general.
Nobody ever wanted to stand an IG inspection, especially not in the middle of a shooting war. But, dammit, Charlie Bass thought third platoon should be as ready for one as it could be. So Ratliff called his fire team leaders together and told them to get their bunkers ready to stand a round of inspections. “I don’t care that you don’t have the shit you need to get your bunkers properly cleaned,” he said when they objected. “Do what you can with what you’ve got!”
When he dismissed his fire team leaders, he went in search of the other squad leaders.
“How’d your people react when you told them to get ready for an IG?” Ratliff asked Sergeant Kerr when he found him.
Kerr gave him a blank look. “What IG?”
Ratliff returned the look. “The IG Ensign Bass told us about.”
“I had a feeling you weren’t listening during the squad leaders’ meeting,” Ratliff said, shaking his head. “What’s the problem?”
Kerr looked into nowhere in particular. “No problem. I was, I was thinking about casualties, that’s all.” He hung his head.
“Look at me, Tim.” Ratliff put a hand on Kerr’s shoulder and drew him close. “Come on, lift your head and look at me.” When Kerr’s head stayed down, Ratliff squeezed his shoulder and gave it a shake. Kerr slowly raised his head and looked into Ratliff’s eyes from a distance of just centimeters. Ratliff shifted his grip to the back of Kerr’s neck and pulled until their foreheads touched.
“Listen to me, Tim,” Ratliff said softly. “I know you feel like shit because of how you got your job. So what? Most of our fire team leaders got their jobs the same way—someone above them got killed or too badly injured to come back. We’re Marines and that’s life for us.”
“B-but I, I . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You were almost killed on Wanderjahr and it took a long time for you to make it back to where you could be returned to duty. And then you had to deal with your own mortality. You’ve done a pretty good job of it, you didn’t let it get in the way of doing your job when you were a fire team leader. Now you’ve got more lives to be concerned about. That comes with the big bucks. You’re a good Marine, you were an outstanding fire team leader. Now be the outstanding squad leader you can be.”
Before Kerr could respond, Sergeant Kelly, the gun squad leader, boomed out “What’s this, kissy-face between squad leaders?”
“Up your ass with a railroad tie, Kelly!” Ratliff boomed back.
“Nah, Rabbit’s trying to teach me squad leader’s contact telepathy,” Kerr said.
“Squad leader contact telepathy? Never heard of it.”
“That’s because you’re a gun squad leader,” Ratliff snorted. “Gun squad leaders don’t have enough brains for anybody to read their minds.”
“So what do you think of that IG happy horseshit?” Kelly asked in a more normal voice when he reached the other squad leaders.
“Happy horseshit about says it,” Kerr replied.
Ratliff nodded at him sharply, glad to see Kerr was coming out of the funk he’d been in. “Whatever’s going to happen, it won’t be like the IG we missed by coming here in the first place.” The Inspector General of the Marine Corps was at Camp Major Pete Ellis, home of 34th FIST, when the orders for the deployment arrived and the inspection was canceled.
“Better not be,” Kelly muttered. “Ain’t a man jack in the FIST could pass a fire team leader’s inspection right now, much less a proper IG.”
“So what are we going to do about it?”
“And what we can’t improvise, simulate.”
From the Hardcover edition.