Clipped Wings: Chapter 2

Her dreams hadn’t been peaceful. Neither had the dreams she had after they got back to LV-327. Two weeks after their return, Larkins woke herself out of a nightmare about those frantic moments in the dropship. The heat of the room did nothing to help her feel better as she got up and began to get dressed. LV-327 was one of the worst places a base could be set up. The entire planet was tidally locked to its sun, which meant that one side was always facing the sun and one side was always facing away. Until she had been assigned there she had always thought tidally-locked planets were uninhabitable. Unfortunately she was wrong, and now she was virtually trapped on one.

LV-327 was home to one of the largest farming colonies in the settled portion of the galaxy. Although the side facing the sun had several different climates, a plant called tassel-weed had adapted to survive, even thrive, in the hot desert environment near the equator. A few genius scientists had found out years before that not only could the “weed” be cultivated and grown in defined plots, but it could be processed into biodiesel. Given that biodiesel was one of the main forms of fuel for vehicles and machinery, it had only taken a few months for the Colonial Administration to send the first teams out to start building a colony and begin farming operations. LV-327 was close to the edge of explored space and although there were several other nearby colonies that were slightly nearer to Earth, there were no Marine bases on any of them so a small outpost had been built on the planet to house a single RIFT for rapid response to the surrounding colonies.

But building a military base in such a remote location and in such harsh conditions had a price. Despite the importance of the colony and the base, their distance from Earth, farther out than any other existing colonies, meant that the Marine facility had been built with a disturbingly stark, minimalistic approach. Air conditioning was non-existent and the only things protecting the Marines inside from the constant ninety-degree temperatures were the walls and portable fans. Even those brought almost no comfort at all. The first “morning” after their arrival on LV-327, Larkins had woken to find herself drenched in sweat and her tirade of angry curses woke up her roommates, which certainly hadn’t earned her any points with any of them. The only good thing about the heat was that in the past few days when the nightmares started, it was already so normal for everyone to wake up sweaty that no one had been suspicious of her soaked sheets and clothing. Not that anyone would have asked any questions anyway. They didn’t care to ask Larkins about her personal life and she didn’t care to let them.

Trying to shake off the memory of the nightmare, Larkins pulled on her boots and walked out into the corridor and down to the dining hall. As much as she would have preferred to be alone, there was only one table and she had no choice but to sit with the rest of her team. She compromised the best she could by taking the seat at the lowest end of the table and sliding as close to the edge as possible just like she always did.

Breakfast was silent as usual. Sloan didn’t allow talking during mealtimes. It was just another reason why most of the Marines hated her. Larkins didn’t care. She was glad for the silence because it meant no one would bother her. All she wanted was to eat her food and escape to somewhere she could be alone. She could take a book and hide out in one of the supply closets towards the middle of the building where it would be a few degrees cooler.

However, that thought only lasted until the end of breakfast. Sloan turned to Larkins as the group of Marines stood up. “Your new copilot is getting here today. She was supposed to be getting assigned to a unit at the new base going up on LV-764 but they rerouted her here, which is why she’s getting in so soon. Transport should be arriving within half an hour. I want you out at the landing pad waiting for her in two minutes. Get her set up in the women’s quarters, show her around, and get her up to speed on operations here. I want her ready to go into action by the end of the day.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Larkins muttered. Sloan was the only NCO she had ever heard of who insisted on being called “ma’am”. That was supposed to be reserved for officers and some training NCOs as an optional curtesy, but Larkins had quickly learned that Sloan had a major superiority complex and all any of them could do was go along with it.

On one hand, it really wasn’t a big deal to have to wait outside, given that it was uncomfortably hot inside anyway. On the other, at least being inside would have offered some shade and protection from the heat of the sun shining directly on her. Larkins lifted her hand and idly watched the beads of sweat forming and running down her arm. She wiped her face, glad that it would take more than a half hour for her skin to begin burning despite its fair tone. The new copilot was in for a rude experience in more ways than one and she felt sorry for whatever poor motherfucker got sent out to them.

Looking back at her hand, she watched as more sweat built up and dripped off, falling to the ground. Then a split second, it wasn’t sweat she was looking at, it was blood. The blood that had covered her hands as she tried to clean up the mess in the dropship cockpit. She let out a gasp of horror, the blood disappeared, and she was left shaking herself out of the flashback. “What the fuck?” she whispered softly, her heart racing.

She looked up at the sound of an incoming ship. A dropship was approaching rapidly, blowing up a haze of dust as it came in and set down on the landing pad. The ramp opened and a moment later three Marines strode out. Two were wearing flight suits and helmets and the third, obviously the new pilot, was wearing a utility uniform and carrying a duffel bag. The dust settled as the Marines approached Larkins and her heart sank when she saw how young her new copilot was.

“Corporal,” the dropship’s pilot, a tall Hispanic man, nodded to her. “We’re here to pick up PFC Hanstad’s remains and transport them back up to our ship.”

“That would be Sloan’s job,” Larkins said coolly, wanting nothing to do with having to pull Hanstad’s body out of the morgue where it was being preserved. “She’ll be in her office. Main building, turn left inside the door, and it’s down the hall.”

The pilot and his silent companion immediately headed for the building and Larkins turned to give the young woman standing in front of her a critical look. Her duffel bag still clasped in one hand, the blonde Marine lifted her free hand in a friendly greeting as she said cheerfully, “Hi! I’m Kimberly Mathis, the new dropship crew chief.”

“Good for you,” Larkins muttered. Mathis gave her a look of confusion but before she could say anything, Larkins demanded, “How long have you been in the service?”

“Just graduated training,” Mathis said with a bright smile.

Fuck. The last thing Larkins needed was a rookie to look after. She eyed the young Marine silently until Mathis shifted uncomfortably and offered, “You can call me Kim if you’d like.”

“I won’t,” Larkins said firmly. “Let’s go, kid.”

The redheaded corporal was silent as she led Mathis back to the base. This was no place for someone right out of training. Hell, it was no place for any of them. Mathis had no idea what she was in for. Larkins wanted to tell her that the smartest move would be get right back on the dropship and go back to where she came from, but she knew it wouldn’t do any good. As they entered the building, she said finally, “I hope you aren’t expecting the same kind of treatment you got in training. The food is shit, there’s no air conditioning, the showers are too warm to cool you down at all, and if you’re expecting your own room, forget it. We’ve got two rooms for the men and one for the women, so you’ll have three roommates with you, including me.”

“Okay.” Mathis’s voice had dropped to a quiet whisper as she looked around nervously. Larkins could tell this wasn’t what she had been hoping for, and even though she felt bad for Mathis, there was nothing she could do. She didn’t know what to say and it probably wouldn’t do any good even if she did. Mathis was going to have to get used to this kind of treatment.

Larkins kept her pity to herself as she showed Mathis around the base and introduced her to some of the other members of the unit, who greeted her with varying degrees of disinterest. Sloan was nowhere to be seen and Larkins was glad for that. At least the kid would be spared for a few hours. Maybe she’d at least make it until tomorrow before being exposed to Sloan’s wrath.

However, any hope that Larkins had for Mathis making it through her first day without incurring a fit from Sloan disappeared at dinner. She looked up from her plate as Mathis sat down across from her but said nothing. Mathis watched her eating for a moment and then asked “Is it always this quiet?”

“No talking during mealtime!” Sloan snapped from the other end of the table, making Mathis flinch.

“I’m sorry, Sergeant, I didn’t-”

“I said no talking, damn it! And you address me as ‘ma’am’, is that understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Mathis said weakly, her composure faltering.

“Good. Now shut the fuck up and eat your food.”

Larkins shook her head but kept her thoughts to herself even when she saw Mathis looked like she was about to cry.

After dinner, Mathis got Larkins’ attention by tugging on her sleeve when they were out in the hallway. “What did I do?” she asked, obviously confused and upset.

Larkins wanted to tell her that it wasn’t her fault, but coddling her wouldn’t help. Instead she said gruffly, “Sloan runs things differently around here. We might not like it, but she’s the one in charge. Get used to it. If you want to make it through this assignment without having her on your ass every day, I suggest you keep your head down and learn the rules fast.”

Larkins closed her eyes and rubbed her temples when Mathis walked away. Way to be helpful, fuck-wit. You know what’s going on and you’re apparently the only who gives a shit about anything else besides making it to the end of your contract, but you can’t even handle supporting the rook.

There was nothing she could do now. The only mercy that came with serving under Sloan was that she allowed the Marines the free time they were supposed to get, so Larkins grabbed a book out of her locker and hid in one of the supply rooms, settling in to enjoy what little time she would have to herself before lights out. Before the nightmares came again.

The next morning, Larkins met Mathis in the hangar after breakfast to do routine maintenance on the dropship. Larkins had just finished inspecting the landing gear when she heard agitated exclamations and curses coming from the cockpit. She hurried up the ramp, demanding sharply, “What did you do?”

Still sitting in her seat, Mathis threw up her hands in confusion. “I don’t know! I was trying to set up a full systems diagnostic and the whole computer froze!”

“Damn it,” Larkins muttered in annoyance, seeing the screen was indeed frozen halfway through the diagnostics set-up. She sat down in the pilot’s seat. “Let me try to fix it.” She turned on her own monitor but before she could patch in she heard Mathis pressing a few keys and then exclaiming, “Shit!” a second before her screen went black. She tried restarting it but got no response. The anger came bubbling up from out of nowhere and she slammed her fist down on the console. “Fuck! What did you do, Mathis?”

“I was trying to fix it, and I guess I shut everything off!” Mathis’ voice was barely above a sob of frustration. Her tone and helpless behavior only made Larkins’ anger stronger and she got to her feet, turning to face the young woman as she snarled, “No, you crashed the entire fucking system. How the fuck did your stupid ass pass basic flight? Are you seriously that clueless?”

“I’m sorry!” Mathis exclaimed, shrinking back in her seat. Larkins pointed to the door. “Get out.”


Larkins took a deep breath, trying desperately to control the urge to punch Mathis. “Get the fuck out,” she said, speaking slowly. “Clearly you’re no good to me, so I’m going to have to fix this myself.”

Mathis slid out of her seat, ducking as if she knew Larkins wanted to punch her. She fled the cockpit, her boots thumping on the floor as she went. Larkins sighed and sat back down at her console, trying to get the computer restarted as the anger began to fade, leaving a nagging, annoying pinprick of guilt in her chest. She shouldn’t have lost her temper. Mathis was inexperienced, and it was Larkins’ job to help her become a good copilot. Instead, she had scared her off. I’m sorry.

There was no point in finding Mathis and saying it. Sorry didn’t change anything. Sorry didn’t change the fact that they were all in an awful situation. Sorry didn’t mean Larkins liked Mathis in any way. And sorry certainly didn’t change the fact that Mathis had made a mistake. How many more mistakes would she make? There’s no way in hell I’m dying because some stupid rookie makes a mistake. I’m going to have to rely on myself from here on out.

That day seemed to mark the beginning of a disturbing trend between Larkins and Mathis. They had to work together every day, and every time it turned into Larkins losing her temper with Mathis. Nothing the young woman did was ever good enough for her. There was always something to complain about or criticize. Larkins was puzzled by her own behavior. I’m not a perfectionist. Why am I being like this? I don’t have to like Mathis but I should at least be able to work with her without snapping on her every time. We’ll never do well in combat together if this is the only way we can interact.

But after a few days she began to realize that she was treating Mathis like that because she didn’t trust her. Mathis was just out of training, had never been into combat before, and had no idea what to expect or how important the slightest detail could be to getting them out alive. Hanstad had understood. Even though she hadn’t been friends with him either, he knew what he was doing and she trusted him as her flight partner. Mathis was an unknown. For all Larkins could guess she might freeze up the very first time they got fired on.

Several days after she came to that realization she also started to recognize that she might never trust Mathis unless she got to know her a little better. That meant actually trying to interact with her off-duty. I can’t do that. But she knew she had to. Mathis’ inexperience aside, conflict between the two of them could end with them both just as dead as if the rookie froze in combat. So she forced herself to go looking for Mathis and found her in the female quarters, lying on her bed with a book. Larkins wasn’t surprised. It was always too hot to really do anything physically active for recreation, so reading and watching TV were the most common activities during free time.

She sat down on the edge of Collins’ bed directly across from Mathis, who flinched when she saw her. A flicker of guilt left Larkins mute for a moment before she said hesitantly, “Look, Mathis, I… This can’t go on. We’re never going to make it if we can’t learn to trust each other. I think that maybe it would be helpful if we tried, um, getting to know each other better.”

Her heart was racing as she waited for Mathis to reply. I don’t want this, I don’t want this, I don’t want this! Finally, Mathis put her book down, looking equally hesitant. “I think it might help. Maybe if you get to know me better you’ll see I’m not just a stupid rookie who’s going to freeze up.”

“Okay, um, well, where are you from?” The question sounded painfully awkward and boring and Larkins mentally slapped herself for it. But Mathis didn’t seem to notice and answered, “Spring Arbor. It’s a little town in southern Michigan. I grew up there. Most of my extended family lives there and I’m the first one from my immediate family to leave. I’ve got two brothers and two sisters, all younger than I am, so they’re still living with my parents.”

Larkins was silent, not sure what to say until Mathis prompted, “What about you?”

Go on, Skye. Tell her you’re a city girl from Raleigh, North Carolina. Tell her you spent your entire life growing up there and didn’t leave until you enlisted. Tell her about your family. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t force the words out. She knew she needed to say something to help her bond with Mathis, but she didn’t want to. That was her personal life and no one needed to know about that. She couldn’t share that. She remained silent, battling with herself until she finally gave up. Fuck this. She stood up abruptly. “You know what? Forget it.”

She turned and walked quickly for the door to make her escape. She caught a glimpse of the mirror next to the door as she went and saw Mathis looking after her with a hurt, disappointed expression. That made Larkins hesitate for a fraction of a step as the guilt rose again, but she forced it back down and walked out, making sure to slam the door behind herself.

Using the gym on this hellish planet came with a myriad of risks because of the unbearable heat. PFC Stein, the team’s medic, had long since given up on trying to tell Sloan that. She had their exercise regimen planned out and they were going to work until she was satisfied or they passed out. It was one of the few times where Larkins agreed with Stein. She admitted to herself that he was a highly competent medic, but normally she had no interest in anything he said.

She hunched her shoulders in and bent over the handles of the exercise bike as she pedaled, ignoring the heavy breathing from Collins next to her. Collins was the squad mechanic and B-team corporal. She wasn’t a bad person on her own, but she invariably went along with Sloan’s orders just to save herself from the sergeant’s wrath even at the expense of her team members. She had joined the unit shortly before Larkins, and the pilot could remember how much she had changed. In the beginning Collins had been somewhat outgoing and even tried to stand up for the others, but months of humiliation and verbal abuse in front of the Marines who were supposed to be her subordinates had changed that. She became quiet, withdrawn, and moody, and kept to herself whenever possible. That wasn’t how RIFT members were supposed to be. They were supposed to watch out for each other, not focus on saving themselves. She was just another example of how badly dysfunctional the unit was.

On Collins’ other side were Wilderman and Silvain, who were taking turns using a pull-up bar. It was no contest, really. Wilderman was a smartgunner and had more upper body strength than Silvain, a Vent Rat and the A-team corporal, although Silvain was more agile and could move a lot faster. Like Collins, he had tried to stand up for some of the others after being assigned to the unit, with the same result.

On the other hand, Visalli, the team technician, had instantly been a problem in Larkins’ eyes. He was perfectly competent but there was something not quite right about him. Something hidden underneath his cool, distant attitude, like he had already been holding in an explosive temper before being assigned to the team. The fact that he had almost punched Larkins during an argument hadn’t helped matters. Tasselis, the squad’s second smartgunner, was equally untrustworthy in her eyes, although that was based just off of a feeling Larkins had when she was near him. Fleming, the team engineer and Tasselis’ spotter, was at least fairly quiet and kept to himself.

Corporal Reverdin was lying on a bench across the room from Larkins, sweat dripping from her dark skin as she hefted the barbell above herself again while Lance Corporal Lucero spotted for her. The pair was the team’s ground vehicle crew and two of the only members of the unit who had any type of bond with each other beyond tolerance and commiserating. Both had less than a year left on their contracts and had endured Sloan for far longer than any human being should.

Reverdin’s unconventional tactics had gotten the unit out of quite a few tight situations but more often than not earned her a later scolding from Sloan as a result. Having grown numb to it, Reverdin would simply nod, say, “Yes, ma’am,” and leave to have a cigarette in some hidden corner where Sloan wouldn’t catch her. Sloan smoked too, but she didn’t allow anyone else in the unit to. Just like how she wouldn’t allow them to get window-mounted air conditioners for their rooms but she had one in her private quarters.

Lucero was able to easily avoid Sloan and Larkins by spending most of the day in the armory. When he came out, he said nothing, did what he was told, and kept to himself. The only thing Larkins really knew about him was that he spent a few years as a cooperative exchange Marine with an Israeli unit and that he was buying a vacation home in Tel Aviv when his contract was up in order to stay connected with the people he had made friends with.

Her gaze fell on Mathis, who was running on a treadmill with Sloan watching critically. She was so much like Collins and Silvain when they had been new to the team, but even worse. Younger, more innocent, more naïve. She shook her head, feeling pity for the young Marine. You’re going to have a much harder time because of that. You’ll end up just like Collins and Silvain, or worse.

“Come on!” Sloan snapped, reaching over and adjusting the dial on the treadmill to speed it up, forcing Mathis to match pace with it. “Faster, grunt!”

Because Sloan was focused solely on Mathis, Larkins didn’t bother holding back her scowl. “Grunt” had long-since fallen out of popular use to describe rank-and-file troops, but some people still used it. The way Sloan always said the word was particularly derogatory. It was the verbal equivalent of grabbing the person she was addressing by the back of the head and grinding their face into a puddle of mud. She had used the term on Larkins more times than the corporal could count, but somehow it still stung just as much each time.

Larkins looked more closely at Mathis and realized the kid was starting to tire. Her face was bright red and sweaty and she was running awkwardly as if she was having trouble keeping her balance. Larkins looked over at Collins. She was the team’s second-in-command. It was her responsibility to say something before Sloan pushed Mathis too far. But Collins only caught her eye briefly before looking away and pretending to focus on her own exercise, doing nothing to help Mathis. Once again Larkins didn’t hide her glare. Bitch.

She couldn’t verbalize the thought without causing serious trouble, but she had no chance even if she had wanted to, because as the thought crossed her mind, Sloan sped up the treadmill on Mathis again and the young woman lurched and stumbled. She was immediately whipped off her feet and thrown backwards to the floor, landing heavily with a yelp of shock and pain. Sloan stood over Mathis, glaring down at her. “Get up.”

Mathis began to get to her feet, shaking slightly. “I said get up!” Sloan barked, grabbing Mathis by her uniform and pulling her upright. “Stand at attention, Private!”

Mathis obeyed, but Larkins saw her trembling as Sloan leaned in close. “Did no one ever teach you how to pick your feet up and put them down again at a speed faster than frozen molasses, Private?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Mathis said unsteadily, looking as if she was about to burst into tears.

Sloan’s voice was barely above a growl as she responded, “So that’s ‘Yes, ma’am, no one ever did’ then! We’ll have to teach you, won’t we, Private?”

“Y-yes, ma’am.” Mathis stared straight ahead, not daring to look at Sloan.

“Not today we won’t. You’ve already failed for today. You’re going to stand there and not move until the rest of us are finished our workouts.”

Larkins shook her head wordlessly to herself, avoiding meeting Mathis’ eyes as she continued pedaling, while the unfortunate private stood completely still in the middle of the room and Sloan got on the treadmill herself. Sloan was a master of manipulation and that little exchange had proven it. Mathis probably hadn’t realized it but because of how Sloan had worded that question and also how she could choose to interpret any answer, there had been no response the rookie could have given to save herself. Either a “yes” or a “no” would have gotten her in equal amounts of trouble.

Sloan marched them into the mess hall for dinner the moment she decided they had exercised enough for the day, continuing to berate Mathis and everyone else she felt had underperformed. Even though she couldn’t stand Mathis herself, Larkins couldn’t stop her fists from clenching every time Sloan directed a fresh insult at the newest member of the team. Maybe she couldn’t say anything, but Sloan was equally unable to stop the rebellious thoughts that Larkins kept to herself. You’ll get what’s coming to you some day, bitch. Justice is going to come back and bite out a huge chunk of your ass like a fucking crocodile, and we’re all going to better off for it.

The insults continued during dinner, although at a slower pace as Sloan had to alternate between eating and throwing out sharp remarks. She moved on to insulting Silvain for most of the meal, calling him weak and pathetic for not keeping up with Wilderman on the pull-up bar. Larkins tried to block it out and focus on eating the tough meat and mealy mashed potatoes as quickly as she could. The moment Sloan dismissed them, she made her exit as quickly as she could, grabbed her current book from her quarters, and headed for one of the supply rooms. She climbed up the end of one of the supply racks to the top shelf, where she had hidden a pillow and bedroll behind several boxes to be more comfortable. It was one of several hiding places she had throughout the base, and probably her favorite.

Larkins knew that most people who knew her probably couldn’t even begin to imagine her relaxing to read a book, and they were right to a degree. She didn’t particularly enjoy reading or find interest in much of what she read. But it was a way to pass the time, and just because she wasn’t a big fan of reading didn’t mean she didn’t have an imagination. She had found the ability to get lost in the world of whatever book she was reading was a welcome relief from the harsh reality of her own existence. Her lack of interest in any particular subject or type of book also meant that what little enjoyment she did get from reading could be gotten from any book, whether it was mystery, adventure, science fiction, or romance, so she had a wide selection to choose from. Her current novel was one in a series of adaptations from an old movie series about a zombie apocalypse engineered by a corrupt corporation as a means of destroying the world and rebuilding it as they saw fit. In terms of quality it was absolutely the lowest form of fiction trash, but like any other book it was nothing more to Larkins than a way to pass time and so she couldn’t really care any less.

However, she had only read a few pages when the door to the supply room opened and someone came in and began moving around among the shelves. Being careful not to show herself and expose her hiding spot, Larkins peeked over the boxes on the edge of the shelf and saw Mathis walking around with a clipboard and looking at various boxes and containers on the rows of shelves running the length of the room.

There was no reason to say anything to her, so Larkins silently lay back down and continued reading, making sure not to rustle the pages of her book as she turned them. She hoped Mathis would leave quickly, but several minutes passed and the young woman was still there. Then to Larkins’ annoyance, the door opened again and someone else came in. There was a pause and then she heard Stein saying, “Mathis. Didn’t expect to see you here. Aren’t you supposed to be on rec time?”

Mathis’ response was subdued. “No. Sergeant Sloan ordered me to double-check our inventory of disaster relief packages to make sure it’s accurate. She said it was my punishment for what happened in the gym today.”

Stein sighed heavily. “Field assignment not what you were expecting, is it?”

“I don’t know what to think. The instructors at flight school said most RIFT commanders cared about their troops and treat them really well. They told me there were a few tough ones, but honestly, this is worse than the DIs at basic! Sloan isn’t even giving me a chance! And I know I haven’t been in the Marines that long, but I’ve never, ever heard a sergeant talking to their troops the way Sloan insults all of you-us, I mean.”

Larkins knew that eavesdropping wasn’t the best thing in the world to do and some people would probably consider it creepy, but she had been in the room first and she wasn’t intentionally listening in. They simply weren’t talking quietly enough for her to ignore them and if she let them know she was there, that would give away her hiding place. She wasn’t willing to do that, so she rolled over and lifted herself up on one elbow but remained silent. If she couldn’t ignore them, she might as well find out what was going through Mathis’ head.

“Trust me,” said Stein grimly, “You’ve barely seen anything. Just wait until someone really does something to set her off. It’s not pretty. Some of the things she’s put us through have bordered on outright torture.”

“How can she do that? They always told us in training that leaders are supposed to look out for their people and do what’s best for them, even if that means being hard on them, but this doesn’t sound anything like that.”

“Look around, Mathis. We’re weeks from anywhere out here. Sloan can get away with just about anything she wants because this is about as isolated as you can get. She was bad when I first got assigned to this unit, but once we got stationed out here she got ten times worse. Looking back at it, I’m convinced she weaseled her way into getting us put out here just so she can treat us however she wants. This is all one massive power trip for her. She loves manipulating people and putting them down, and out here she can do that to her sick heart’s content. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out she’s a fucking clinical psychopath. I know enough about it to know all the symptoms are there.”

“Isn’t that something that should have been caught during her psych eval back when she joined the Marines?”

“No. Especially not if she knows about it. Psychopathy is hard enough to catch in the first place, and for someone who has it and is self-aware of it, it’s borderline impossible. They know all the right answers to give to make everyone think they’re just wonderful, but the moment enough eyes are looking away, out comes the demon. And with no one out here for her to answer to, Sloan’s got more freedom than most psychopaths so she’s a lot more overt and aggressive because she knows she can get away with it.”

It was the first time Larkins had ever heard someone seriously refer to Sloan as a psychopath. Almost all of the members of her team, including Larkins herself, had called Sloan a psychopath behind her back at some point, but she had never stopped to think that it might actually be true. It would explain a lot.

Mathis sounded like she didn’t believe Stein. “How’s she getting away with it? Why hasn’t anyone tried to report her to Command?”

Stein laughed bitterly. “You mean like Teller? She was our old A-Team corporal a long time ago, back when we first got assigned here. She tried sending a report in about how Sloan was treating us. It was a great idea but the brass couldn’t be bothered to send a full team to do a proper investigation all the way out here. They did a half-assed enquiry and of course none of us dared to say anything against Sloan. Like I said, she’s better at manipulation and weaseling her way into and out of things than you could possibly imagine. Not only did she get out of the whole thing, she turned it around on Teller. Next thing we knew Teller was up for court-martial for making false statements and trying to get a senior NCO wrongfully convicted.” Stein sighed again. “Maybe if we had all stood up together, we could have done something. But Sloan was already playing all of us against each other and we were so afraid of her that there was never a chance of that happening. Teller got convicted on all charges and Sloan was back here laughing about it by the end.”

That had been years ago, only a few months after she arrived in the unit as a Lance Corporal, but Larkins remembered it clearly. It was the first time she realized just how far Sloan would go against her own troops. The memory of the look of shocked horror on Teller’s face when she found out that she was going to be the one being court-martialed and not Sloan still made Larkins’ stomach twist itself in knots.

“That’s terrible,” Mathis said quietly. “What happened to Teller?”

“Don’t know for sure. She’s probably still sitting in a cell somewhere waiting for a bad conduct discharge. At least she was luckier than Bryington. He was one of our old smartgunners before Wilderman. A few months after what happened to Teller, he had the bright idea that maybe getting a second report out would make the brass sit up and listen, but by that time our reporting procedures had changed. He had to put his report through Commander Berkley, our platoon commander over on LV-623. Berkley stalled the report and came out for an inspection himself. Sloan played it off again, Berkley left and killed the report, and Sloan bullied the shit out of us until someone gave up Bryington’s name.”

“What did she do?”

“Nothing, at first. That was the part that scared all of us. She didn’t scream at him or push him harder during chores or exercise. She just let it go until our next offworld mission. The moment we were out of cryo, she forced him into a pre-mission workout harder than I’ve ever seen another human put through before. It went on until he collapsed, and then she made him not only carry his full combat load, but also the extra ammunition and gear for his smartgun that Visalli was supposed to be carrying for him. Poor son of a bitch was carrying too much weight and already exhausted. We got attacked by alien hostiles on the mission and he couldn’t keep up. I think you can fill in the rest.”

Mathis was clearly horrified. “She murdered him.”

“Probably not deliberately, but yeah, that’s basically it. And it got the point across. None of us dared to say anything. And it got worse after that. Now for what she calls ‘security reasons’, Sloan is the only one with the password to our offworld comms computer. No one gets to send a message without her approval and without her being there while we record the message so she can make sure we aren’t saying anything she doesn’t want us to.” Stein’s tone was disgusted. “You have no idea how it feels to record a video to send to my wife back on Earth and have to tell her that I’m happy and doing really well out here, even though that couldn’t possibly be more bullshit, just because Sloan’s standing over my shoulder the whole time.”

“And none of you have ever tried hacking the computer?”

Stein gave another dark laugh. “We tried. Just once. Visalli’s our combat tech and even he couldn’t crack it. Not only that, Sloan caught us in the process. I won’t go into the details of what happened after that, but it wasn’t a fucking picnic.”

That was another one of the more vivid memories Larkins had of the past few years of enduring Sloan. The power-mongering sergeant hadn’t been sure how many of the Marines had been involved in the plan so she had punished them all equally with a brutal outdoor exercise that went on until half the team had passed out and the other half, Larkins included, were doubled over vomiting from the sheer pain of how far their bodies had been pushed.

“What about the colony’s comms? Can’t we get access to them and send a message directly to someone who can do something?”

“Again, in theory, it’s a great idea. But there are only two comms systems on the planet besides ours: Weyland-Yutani’s, and the Colonial Administration comms center. The company’s transmitter is reserved for their private use only and all other traffic goes through the Administration comms. They check IDs and purpose of message for every communication that gets sent out to make sure people aren’t abusing the system. As large as the colony is, we’re isolated enough that there aren’t a lot of messages getting sent back and forth, so they only have two people doing the screening and neither of them are willing to cooperate with us. We’re sure Sloan’s bribing one of them, and the second one’s no good either. Either she’s bribing him too or she’s got something on him. No, there’s nothing we can do. Sloan’s got us all caught in her fist and tied up in a nice, pretty package. We’re stuck here and the only thing most of us can think about is finishing our contracts and getting the fuck out of here. I suggest you do the same.”

“Just fucking great,” Mathis sighed. “It’s bad enough I have to work with that bitch Larkins. Now this. You know, she came up to me a few days ago and said she wanted to get to know me, and then when I tried getting into a conversation with her she just stared at me and then walked out!”

Larkins flinched. She should have known that would come back to haunt her.

“What you need to understand about Larkins is that she doesn’t care about anything or anyone besides herself,” Stein explained. “I’ve known her long enough to see that. She doesn’t care about you so don’t expect her to be nice to you. She’s completely focused on herself and that’s it.”

Larkins had to hold back a sound that would have been a mix of a shocked gasp and a growl of anger. She hadn’t thought Stein would go that far.

“She really is an awful person,” Mathis agreed. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to fly with her when she can’t even treat me like a human.”

Larkins ducked her head, her cheeks burning shamefully. She couldn’t have been more humiliated if they had both said those things to her face. She wouldn’t have even had a response, because she couldn’t blame them for getting that impression even though it wasn’t true at all. I care more than either of you could ever understand. But there’s no way I can show that without seeming weak.

“My advice is to just keep your head down, listen to what she says, and try to stay on her good side. Same with Sloan. Life might just be bearable enough for you to make it to the end of your contract.”

“Right. Well, I guess I’m done here. I’ve got to give Sloan my paperwork and hope she decides this was enough of a punishment for me.”

The two Marines finally exited the room, leaving Larkins in silence with her thoughts. She wasn’t sure how to feel or what to think. Stein had been bad enough, but hearing Mathis say she was an awful person hurt more. Stop it, damn it, she scolded herself. Don’t let that get to you. Don’t be weak.

There was nothing she could do. If she apologized or let what they said get to her, she was no good to herself. She had to be stronger and ignore the guilt and hurt building up inside. “You’re the lucky ones and you don’t even realize it,” she muttered. Stein and Mathis just had to finish up their contracts and get out. Larkins was stuck in the unit for the foreseeable future. Not only was Sloan restricting when they could send communications and what they could say, she was blocking all transfer requests. There was no way for Larkins to transfer out, and she couldn’t just let her contract expire. As awful as her situation was, she knew she couldn’t give up flying. She couldn’t give up combat missions. If I can’t be a Marine pilot, I’m nothing. There was no shortage of jobs for civilian pilots, but it wasn’t the same. It wouldn’t satisfy her. Right now, she’d rather have one gem in the middle of a rough life than a plain, ordinary existence with no significant positives. When her contract was up, she’d sign a new one and trap herself in Sloan’s grasp for several more years, because the role she had right now was the only thing she felt she could do. If she lost that she was worthless to herself.

Chapter 1……………………………………………………………………………………………Chapter 3

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