Bleeding Heart: Chapter 5

September, 2171

The months dragged agonizingly on. The remaining members of Larkins’ flight held on as best they could under the increasingly difficult training, and she had to admit she was slowly becoming more and more impressed with some of them even though she still had concerns about their abilities to pass.

The passing time was no friend to Larkins or her personal issues. She felt that she was becoming increasingly pinned in place by an unexplainable force that kept her from moving forward or doing anything with her life beyond simply existing. The feeling was mind-numbing and for the first time since leaving LV-327 she felt as if she was truly beginning to lose hope again.

The only bright spot during the spring and summer was parachute training. Evison worked with the trainees as their jump master during the flights, which left Larkins to fly the TT-150 herself. It was a small jet designed specifically for the purpose and wasn’t nearly as engaging to fly as a member of the D-4 dropship series would have been, but it was still flying. It still meant something to her and brought some relief.

After parachute training came the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training, which Larkins found rather boring. In between classroom and hands-on lessons, the trainees were repeatedly put through various survival tests singly and in pairs, which often meant she had to sit around doing nothing for several days while waiting for them to finish one of the survival scenarios. The interrogation resistance techniques were also taught by different, specialized instructors, which again meant that she had little to do during that part of training. She knew part of the reason the mock interrogations were conducted by different instructors was to make the trainees more uncomfortable by removing the sense of familiarity that might have been there if their regular instructors were involved, but she had a feeling that the members of her flight would have been far more afraid of her in an interrogation setting than they would be of someone they had never met before.

The flight size was also continuing to shrink, with four more members leaving after Falsson and Tucker. Lukeson and Herschel both failed separate survival courses and Latney gave up during the final phase of interrogation resistance training. Just as Larkins was starting to think that they were going to make it to the final tests with a full eight members remaining, a surprisingly high number to have so late in the course, what had started out as a simple scolding she directed at Private Beyer in late August had turned into a screaming match between them when the trainee’s temper finally snapped. Larkins had put Beyer in the brig for the rest of the day, but had been willing to let the incident drop until she brought Beyer back to the barracks that night and the young woman immediately told Evison she wanted to quit. Now the only trainees who were left from the original twenty were Porter, Snyder, Gravis, Connington, Spunkmeyer, Ferro, and Sydell.

However, Larkins surprised herself by managing to keep the promise she had made to Sydell. She still scolded, harangued, and snapped at the other trainees whenever she felt it was warranted and she pushed Sydell harder than ever before, but she didn’t take her frustrations with the young woman out on anyone else. Instead she turned the anger on herself and began going to the gym alone in the evenings and pushing herself to the point of exhaustion. Some nights she would come back to her room and fall asleep right away because she was so tired, but other nights her determination to get drunk pushed away the desire for sleep.

She found herself looking in the mirror more and more often, noticing how her body was changing. She was still muscular, but she was starting to lose more weight than was probably good for her. That was likely due to the combination of her brutal, self-inflicted exercise regimen and her frequent lack of appetite. She was nowhere close to replacing everything she was burning off.

“I can’t go on like this,” she muttered weakly to herself one evening when she got out of the shower and realized just how bad she looked. That was when it occurred to her that she had never had any kind of real vacation or break since she joined the Marines. There had been occasional days off, usually when Sloan decided she wanted everyone off base for a day, but she hadn’t taken a full day off at all since becoming an instructor and even though she earned thirty days of leave every year she had never taken a full week off. Maybe what she needed was an actual vacation. Given her position and how rarely she took leave, it shouldn’t be difficult to get permission to take all thirty days at once. If she could just make it through to the end of this flight’s training, the month between their graduation and the beginning of the next course would be a perfect time to take it. Most instructors usually took two weeks of leave and then spent the remaining two preparing for their next course, which meant Evison would have to do the prep on his own this time, but it was only fair considering she had spent the month after the last course doing all the prep work herself and getting it done ahead of time before he was even back from his two weeks.

She would have to decide where she wanted to spend her leave and what she wanted to do with her time, but she had two months to think about that. She typed up the leave request that night and submitted it. It might take several days for approval, but at least now she had something to look forward to. She spent the next several evenings doing research and by the time her request was approved had decided somewhere in Florida would be the best, and in the end she settled on Miami as the best option. In a city that large, there was sure to be something to keep her occupied no matter what mood she was in. She just had to make it through the last few months of the class.

The final survival test, which would involve the trainees being taken to another planet, dropped off in pairs, and left to make their way to a Marine base three hundred miles away, was rapidly approaching and Larkins faced it with equal amounts of dread and relief. She wasn’t looking forward to three weeks of doing absolutely nothing while waiting for them to show up, but at least once that was done the trainees who actually passed would only have a few final exams before graduating and the class would be over.

It seemed like forever since the last time Larkins had been on a Susquehanna-class attack transport, although it had only been sixteen months. But before that, other than the trip home after she was removed from her old unit the last time she had been onboard one was on LV-327.

As soon as their shuttle docked in the USS Stickland’s hangar bay, Larkins went up to the bridge to talk with Lieutenant Pickney, the ship’s commander, and inform him they were ready to depart. Then she headed to the nearby cryo room to get ready for cryosleep. The trainees were already prepped and were just getting into their cryotubes when Larkins entered. She found her assigned locker and took off her jacket, pants, and boots before squirming out of her utility bra without actually taking her undershirt off.

Evison and the ship’s Bishop-model android were already activating the cryotubes as Larkins made her way over to lie in her own tube, and she closed her eyes and waited as the hatch lowered over her and the cold gas filled the chamber, lulling her to sleep.

She could only guess that it was a dreamless sleep based on the fact that her next conscious sensation was of coughing and clearing her lungs as she came awake again. She groaned softly and forced herself to sit up, looking around and blinking blearily before shaking her head in an attempt to wake herself up. The ship’s crew had already gotten up and left, and she got up and began to get dressed as the trainees began to wake up as well. She was almost finished dressing and was just about to start buttoning her jacket when she heard someone gagging loudly. She whipped around to look towards the cryotubes and saw Gravis hanging over the edge of his tube. Forgetting her buttons, Larkins rushed over to him. They had been over the proper way to handle coming out of cryo with the trainees but he apparently had forgotten or hadn’t paid attention.

“Breathe deeply, moron!” she snapped. “If you make a mess on this floor you’re cleaning it up!”

She jerked Gravis upright and clamped her hand over his mouth, forcing him to breathe through his nose. That was the best way to settle cryo-induced nausea. When he had calmed down, she let him go and walked down the line of tubes, briefly looking over each of the trainees to make sure they were alright. The experience going into cryo and coming back out brought back an overwhelming sense of sadness as she remembered what it had been like to wake up on the Norman Scott, her old team’s ship, at the start or end of a mission. She sighed heavily, took one last look back at her flight members as they began to get dressed, and headed down to the mess hall to get breakfast.

After breakfast came the pre-deployment briefing, which was just a reiteration of what they had already explained to the trainees twice. They would be HALO jumping in pairs on the flight to the base and would have three weeks to make it three hundred miles west to the Marine outpost at Point Meadow. The terrain types included thick jungle, a mountain range, and a forest, which would slow their progress significantly. She would expect a normal RIFT trainee at this stage to make three hundred miles in about ten or eleven days on clear ground, or roughly thirty miles a day. Under these conditions, they’d be hard-pressed to make half that speed, which was the minimum requirement to reach the base in time. She and Evison went over the function and purpose of the GPS tracking beacons again, which they would monitor from Point Meadow while they waited for the trainees. When they had finished, Evison prepped the dropship while she helped the trainees get their parachutes and survival packs before getting strapped into their seats for the drop.

She was beginning to realize that sitting in the cockpit of a D-4 dropship was never going to feel right again. It was always going to feel like she should be prepping for a combat drop with Hanstad, not a training flight with a rookie or a survival deployment with Evison. Evison was in the pilot’s seat, so Larkins took the copilot’s position, which felt even stranger. She was fully qualified for the role, but sitting in that seat never felt right either, and it was a relief when they were through the drop prep procedure and the thoughts were ripped away by the powerful upward tugging sensation as the dropship was launched downward away from the Stickland towards the surface of LV-542.

It felt like a long time before they finally approached the first drop zone, but as they drew close, Larkins left her seat to go back into the cargo bay where the trainees were waiting.

“We’re coming up on the first drop zone. Gravis, Connington, you’re up.”

The two young men unstrapped themselves from their seats and stood up as the dropship ramp opened to the rear. They walked to the top of the ramp and stood side by side looking out as the “ready” light came on over the cockpit door, its red light filling the cargo compartment.

“Red light. Stand by,” Larkins said coolly, watching them closely to make sure they were doing everything correctly. They both crouched down to ignite their marker flares before standing up straight again, and within a few seconds the light flashed from red to green and Larkins yelled at them, “Go! Go! Go!”

Gravis ran down the ramp first, with Connington several paces behind him for safe spacing. They jumped off the edge of the ramp one at a time and quickly disappeared from sight. Larkins stood watching until the ramp began to close and then returned to the cockpit. Good luck.

“Gravis and Connington are away,” she reported to Evison as she took the copilot’s seat again.

“Good,” he said.

At the speed they were traveling, it only took a few minutes before they reached the next drop site, and Larkins got up again to go back to the cargo bay. “Sydell! You’re next!”

She felt sorry that the young woman was being forced to go through the test alone, but with an uneven number of trainees, someone had to do it, and Sydell was the only one who didn’t have a regular partner. At least her loner personality should make the solitude easier on her. Larkins had the highest hopes for her out of all of them.

Sydell unstrapped herself, stood up, and walked over to the top of the ramp as it opened. She lifted her heel to reach and ignite the marker flare on her boot and then straightened up, standing silhouetted in the ramp opening with her legs spread slightly for balance. She looked back over her shoulder and even though her expression was hidden by her silhouette, Larkins felt like the younger woman was glaring directly at her as if to say, “Watch me win this.”

The moment the light changed to green, Sydell dashed down the ramp and flung herself off the edge, disappearing just as quickly as Gravis and Connington had. Larkins watched and silently mouthed, “Good luck, kid. See you at the other end.”

The remaining two drops went without incident; first Spunkmeyer and Ferro were away, and then Porter and Snyder were the last two to jump. As soon as they were out and Larkins was back in her seat, Evison swung them around towards Point Meadow. It would take about forty-five minutes to get there, and Larkins was able to relax slightly as she found herself with very little to do beyond keeping an eye on the radar, which she already knew she could expect to stay clean.

Her chance to relax came to an end far sooner than she would have liked as they reached Point Meadow and were cleared to land. Evison brought the dropship in along the runway, gradually slowing to a hover in front of the hangar as the doors opened before gently maneuvering inside and setting down.

“I’ll go report to Colonel Sulzen,” Evison said. “As long as you don’t mind doing the post-flight check.”

“Go.” Larkins jerked her head towards the door and began running through the post-flight inspection checklist as he left. When she had finished the internal and systems check, she left the cockpit and walked down the ramp to do the external inspection.

“That was some pretty smooth flying,” someone complimented from behind her, and she turned around to see Captain Spears approaching. Point Meadow had a small fighter contingent of six SF-42 jets for defense, and Spears was the squadron commander. She was a year or two younger than Larkins and had been stationed at Meadow since before Larkins’ first trip there with her last class.

“Was that you?” the tall brunette asked, giving Larkins a friendly smile.

“No, ma’am,” Larkins shook her head, choosing not to return the smile. “That was Corporal Evison.”

“Impressive.” Spears nodded slightly, looking over the dropship. “Never could get used to how weird these things look. Or how slow and unmaneuverable they are compared to a forty-two.” She looked briefly at the closest parked SF-42 before turning her head back to the dropship.

“It does the job, ma’am,” Larkins said firmly, trying not to feel insulted by what she knew had just been meant as a conversational remark. “I’ve played fighter pilot in these before and won.”

“And lost,” a nagging part of her brain added as she remembered Hanstad.

“Of course,” Spears agreed. “Sorry. Hey, if you want to get together with the rest of my squadron and swap stories sometime while you’re here, feel free to. We’d all love to hear some new stories.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Larkins said, gritting her teeth and trying to remain polite. Spears was nice, but just because she was a pilot like Larkins didn’t mean the corporal had any more interest in talking with her or her squadron than she did with anyone else, especially not since they were all officers. Spears had given her a similar offer last time and had apparently either forgotten Larkins had refused then as well or was trying to give her a second chance. “But I’m not really much for conversation. If that’s all, ma’am?”

She saluted and hurried back inside the dropship without even waiting for Spears to dismiss her. She didn’t want to talk with anyone right now. She just wanted the next three weeks to be over.

The next two and a half weeks dragged just as much as Larkins expected they would. She rotated between wandering around the compound, watching through the base’s playlist of movies and television shows without paying much attention to any of them, and obsessively inspecting the dropship for any problems. The UD-4H transport was technically assigned to the Stickland and not really her concern but she needed something to keep her occupied. The H-type dropships were very different from the MD-4L that RIFT teams used. They had more powerful engines, which made them capable of lifting any vehicle in the USCM’s inventory, even the M40 Ridgeway tank, but the trade-off was increased noise and heat signature compared to the L-type’s stealth engines. The L-type also had superior radar-absorbent skin that was too expensive to be standard on all dropships as well as some of the sensor and targeting packages that were more commonly found on the OD-4J reconnaissance dropship. Also unlike the MD-4Ls, the H-type had no weapons at all except for four internal tubes for carrying AIM-190 Headlock missiles to use for defense against enemy aircraft, which had been standard on all D-4 dropships since the UD-4E, and a ramp-mounted machine gun.

Just because it wasn’t really her job to take care of the craft didn’t mean Larkins wasn’t going to while it was under her responsibility. She spent a fair amount of time climbing over the outside and crawling into every tight interior space making sure that every component she could possibly see or check was in good order and nowhere remotely close to the end of its service life. She did find several things that looked like they might be a cause for concern after a few dozen more flights and wrote down a detailed list for the Stickland’s crew to look over when they got back up to the ship. She would rather have everything taken care of sooner rather than later.

The worst part was her inability to drink. She could have tried sneaking at least one bottle in her pack for the trip but had decided it wasn’t worth the risk of getting caught. She spent more than a few nights staring up at the ceiling as she lay in bed, wishing for just one drink to help her sleep. She quickly realized she was going through alcohol withdrawal as the inability to sleep was soon joined by headaches, hand tremors that she was sometimes barely able to control around other people, random aches and pains, and a general feeling of discontent and annoyance. One night about two weeks into their stay at Meadow she found herself instinctively reaching for the bedside table and had to restrain the furious urge to tear the room apart when she remembered that she wasn’t back at Lejeune and didn’t have easy access to a bottle.

Evison spent more time in the communications center watching the trainees’ progress than she did. She stopped in occasionally to get an idea of where they were, but she mostly left it to him. All four beacons were moving at a decent pace in the direction of Meadow and for the most part it was difficult to tell who would make it and who wouldn’t. But as the days went on she slowly started to see a clear pattern emerging. Ferro and Spunkmeyer were making good progress and looked like they might finish well ahead of the deadline, while Sydell was slightly slower but still in a good position to arrive in time, as were Porter and Snyder, but Gravis and Connington were starting to fall behind. It was very slight, probably so minor that they couldn’t even notice it, but Larkins was starting to suspect the two wouldn’t make it.

Then on the eighteenth day, Larkins was just finishing an aimless stroll around the base grounds when Evison came running up to her, an alarmed look on his face. “We’ve got to get moving,” he said hurriedly. “Porter just called in. Snyder took a fall off a cliff and he’s not responding to her.”

“Son of a bitch,” Larkins spat, breaking into a run so fast that she left Evison behind as they dashed for the hangar. Point Meadow had a single RD-4K dropship, the primary model used for search and rescue missions as well as MEDEVAC flights, in the hangar. It would be better-equipped for this work than their UD-4H. Larkins knew that they should probably grab one or two of the base’s medics to come with them, but she wasn’t going to wait for that.

“You’re too slow with that bad hand,” Larkins snapped brutally as they reached the RD-4K’s cockpit. “I’m flying.”

Evison didn’t say anything, and Larkins barely waited for approval for lift-off before slamming the throttle forward and rapidly accelerating the ship out of the hangar and up into the air.

“Transferring tracking data to your console,” Evison said from the copilot’s seat, and a moment later Larkins’ screen changed, showing her the pair’s tracking beacon relative to their own position. Larkins pushed the engines to their limit, knowing that even a few extra minutes of flight time could be fatal if Snyder’s injuries were serious enough.

They approached the mountains quickly and Larkins whipped the dropship up and over them before turning towards the trainees’ position. As they got close she saw a cloud of bright orange smoke drifting over the mountainside and recognized it as coming from one of the emergency smoke grenades that the trainees were equipped with. She quickly slowed the dropship down and circled, looking for a good place to set down. She could see Snyder lying on the ground at the base of a steep rock face, and Porter was crouching over him, looking as if she was cradling his head in her hands.

“Can’t set down here,” Larkins told Evison when she realized there was nowhere flat enough for them to land.

“Right, then you get us close and hold position while I go out and get them.”

“No, you hold us, I’ll go,” she snapped as she maneuvered into position, hovering just above the ground a few dozen yards away from the two trainees. She knew that his missing finger didn’t really slow him down in any significant way, but she wasn’t going to waste any time.

Larkins unstrapped herself and darted out of the cockpit as soon as Evison took control from his seat, and she grabbed a collapsible stretcher from its rack on the wall in the cargo compartment before running down the ramp.

“Ma’am!” Porter called out, looking up as Larkins approached, and the corporal saw the young woman was crying. “Snyder, he-” Porter was crying so hard that she hiccupped in the middle of her sentence, interrupting herself before trying again, “He fell from up there! We were on the top and then he just slipped and fell and I couldn’t catch him!”

She pointed up to the top of the cliff face as Larkins dropped down alongside Snyder and began checking him. “Snyder! Snyder!”

“He wouldn’t answer me!” Porter hiccupped again, sobbing, “Is he dead, ma’am?”

“No!” Larkins snapped, finishing her quick exam. Snyder was unconscious and had a nasty wound on the back of his head, there were cuts and scrapes all over his body, and his left forearm was clearly broken. She grabbed the stretcher and laid it out next to Snyder, quickly snapping it into the extended position and demanding to Porter, “Stop your fucking bawling and help me!”

Porter managed to stop crying and helped Larkins gently transfer Snyder onto the stretcher, strap him to it so he wouldn’t move or shift, and carry it into the dropship. Larkins was struck by how pitiful Snyder looked, and she felt a wave of compassion for him, an emotion she was nowhere remotely used to.

“Ma’am?” Porter asked hesitantly, looking as if she was about to start crying again.

“Get in your seat,” Larkins ordered gruffly, trying not to let Porter see what she was feeling, but when the young woman had turned away, Larkins couldn’t resist the urge to lift her hand and gently touch Snyder’s cheek before strapping the stretcher down to keep him still and stable.

“Get back there and take care of Snyder,” she snapped at Evison the moment she was back in the cockpit, and the other corporal left as soon as she was in her seat again. Larkins pulled the dropship up and away from the ground before accelerating as smoothly and quickly as she could, banking around towards Point Meadow. “Hang on, kid,” she muttered softly to herself, praying to anyone who might be listening to keep Snyder alive.

The medics were already waiting when Larkins brought the dropship in for a fast landing as close to the medbay as she could, not even bothering to head for the airstrip. She lowered the ramp and waited until Evison came up to the cockpit and gave her the all-clear. She maneuvered the dropship over to the hangar and inside, setting down gently and shutting the engines off.

“You alright?” Evison asked, touching her gently on the shoulder. “I’ve never seen you like this before.”

Larkins roughly shook his hand off, growling, “Go check on Snyder,” as she tried to hide the emotions that were threatening to force their way out of her. Evison turned away and the moment she was sure he had left and was out of earshot, she slammed her fist down on the console. “Fuck!”

This was the first time she had seen a trainee get seriously injured before. Bruises, scrapes, and cuts were far from unusual during training, and one of the trainees in her last flight had even broken an ankle during hand-to-hand combat training, but nothing like this had ever happened. She had never guessed that it would affect her as much as it had. Even if he made a full recovery, Snyder’s injury was an automatic failure, and after Porter’s reaction there was no way they could send her back out to complete the test alone.

It wasn’t so easy to keep up the cold attitude of not caring if they weren’t good enough to pass, or be satisfied that someone was being removed for poor performance, when she thought of Snyder’s face again. “Not like this,” she whispered softly. “I didn’t want to see any of them go out like this.”

She wiped at her eyes in annoyance as she felt the tears begin to build up, scolding herself sternly, “Don’t you dare start fucking crying now, Skye.”

She unstrapped herself and left the ship, heading for one of the doors that led outside the hangar. Captain Spears was just coming in as Larkins approached, and she stopped halfway through the door to say, “Corporal, I just heard that you brought back an injured trainee. How is he?”

“I’m on my way to find out,” Larkins growled, pushing past Spears with no thought for decorum or politeness. She found Evison and Porter sitting in one of the front rooms in the medbay. Porter was still sniffling and had a box of tissues and a trashcan next to her, and Larkins turned to Evison. “How’s Snyder?”

“We don’t know,” Evison said, clearly trying to stay calm and act like the situation was normal. “We’re waiting for someone to come out and tell us.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Porter sniffled again, looking over at Larkins. “I swear I tried to grab him but it all happened too fast.”

Larkins looked Porter over and then turned her gaze to Evison and jerked her head towards the door. “Get her out of here. There’s no point in keeping her around. Get her settled into a room or whatever. I’ll stay and find out what’s going on with Snyder.”

Go comfort her. Do what I can’t. She would never say it, but it was what she was thinking. The moment Evison and Porter left, Larkins began pacing the length of the room agitatedly, glaring at the closed door at the other end of the room where the medics were working on Snyder. She had never imagined herself getting so upset over a trainee being injured. Maybe she was getting softer than she had realized. But Snyder had looked bad. She just hoped he would be okay.

Evison came back eventually, and Larkins had to stop pacing to try to keep him from noticing how anxious she was. She dropped into a chair facing away from him and began twisting and wringing her hands, interlacing her fingers in random patterns and trying to keep herself occupied.

Fortunately, it was only a few more minutes before the door opened and one of the medics came out. “How is he?” Larkins demanded immediately.

“Conscious,” the medic said. “He has a concussion, a broken arm, and his legs and torso are covered in abrasions and lacerations. From what Private Porter managed to tell us, he didn’t actually fall, at least, he didn’t free-fall. He slid down the side of the cliff, which explains the torso and leg injuries. He’s lucky. If he had free-fallen, it could have been much more serious. He’s awake now, if you want to go see him.”

Larkins took a step forward, ready to shove past the medic, when she stopped and swallowed as a heavy feeling settled in her stomach and the thought of going in there made her freeze.

“You go,” she said finally to Evison. “I can’t.”

She turned and walked away quickly, not fully understanding why she suddenly felt the overwhelming need for fresh air.

Chapter 4……………………………………………………………………………………………Chapter 6

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