Clipped Wings: Chapter 3

“Ground team, you’re cleared for departure,” Larkins said calmly into her radio as the dropship ramp finished lowering.

“Affirmative, ground team out,” Sloan replied curtly, and Larkins watched out the window as the ten Marines jogged out of the dropship and into the trees a short distance ahead.

They had only returned to this planet because Command wanted a second recon mission done to find out if the alien hostiles had already set up a base or had only been doing recon of their own. This time they had set down a fair distance away and were going in on foot for ground reconnaissance of the area they had been attacked in before. If they ran into trouble, Larkins and Mathis would have to rush in to help.

She didn’t even know why Colonial Administration wanted to set up a colony here, and like so much else, she didn’t care. Her team’s job was to secure the area and check for more hostiles. That was it.

“Now what?” Mathis asked, looking around the cockpit.

Larkins got up, pulling her personal Mossberg 590 from its rack on the wall and heading for the cockpit door. “Now we keep the ship secure until they get back.”

She left the cockpit and walked around the edge of the cargo ramp to the other side, and then down the ramp. At first glance the grassy area and the trees surrounding them on all sides looked just like Earth. But at the same time there was something not quite right about them, something distinctly alien in the shapes and colors that kept Larkins constantly aware of the fact that they weren’t on Earth.

Mathis came down the ramp behind her and Larkins looked over to see her with her M39 submachine gun up to her shoulder as she glanced around nervously. Larkins smirked humorlessly, bracing the butt of her shotgun against her hip and holding it sideways pointing up and away from her body. “Relax, kid. Last time we were here it took a while for the shooting to start, and we did a wider sweep of the area this time before we landed. You saw for yourself there was nothing.”

Mathis lowered her M39 and held it defensively across her stomach as she continued looking around. “It’s strange. So like Earth, but at the same time not really.”

“Yeah. Lot of planets are like this. You’ll get used to it eventually.”

The two women were silent for several minutes as they watched the area around them for any signs of approaching hostiles. Finally Mathis asked, “Were you close to him?”


“Private, uh, Hanstad. Were the two of you close?”

Larkins shrugged. “I didn’t join the Marines to make friends, kid. I’m here to do a job, not play cuddly with everyone who walks across my path. Hanstad was an okay guy, I guess, and he was a decent copilot. That’s all I needed to know.”

“You really don’t care about anyone but yourself, do you?” Mathis asked, her tone sharp but her voice quiet, as if she was annoyed with Larkins but didn’t actually want her to hear what she said.

The snide remark combined with the conversation she had overheard several days prior between Mathis and Stein caused something inside Larkins to snap. She whirled around and grabbed Mathis by the front of her uniform, pushing her back into one of the ramp’s hydraulic struts and snarling, “Listen to me, you piece of shit! You don’t know a damn thing about me, so how about you keep your dumbass opinions to yourself? I don’t care if you decide you like me or not but I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand here and be lectured by a little bitch who hasn’t even known me for a month yet. I only want two things from you: do your job when we’re in the field, and leave me the fuck alone when we aren’t.”

Ashamed by her outburst, Larkins let go of Mathis and turned away to look back out at the surrounding area. She heard Mathis striding angrily back up the ramp into the dropship and shook her head. Great job, Skye. Way to show the rookie how to be professional in the field, and oh, nice job letting your emotions control you, weakling. Can you imagine how Sloan would have reacted if she saw that? Larkins knew all too well that Sloan would have had a field day with her if she saw that behavior. Their raised voices could have easily attracted attention if there were hostiles in the area. Hopefully Mathis would be too frightened to tell Sloan about what had happened.

Larkins kept watch for the next several hours, knowing the rest of the team wouldn’t be back for a while. Protocol dictated she should go up and drag Mathis back out to help her, but she was perfectly fine with letting the rookie sulk in the cockpit and keeping watch herself. When 1200 approached, she went up into the ship and pulled a ration pack out from their supplies. Returning to the bottom of the ramp, she sat down on the slanted metal surface and set her shotgun down next to herself before opening the pack and beginning to eat, still keeping a close watch on her surroundings. When she was finished, she cleaned up her trash and went in to check on Mathis to make sure she had eaten.

“You have lunch, kid?” she asked as soon as she entered the cockpit. Mathis was slouched back in her seat, feet up on her console, staring blankly ahead, and she pointed wordlessly to Larkins’ seat. Larkins bit back the angry remark that came to mind when she saw the remains of a ration pack resting on the seat, undoubtedly placed there just to be annoying. Ignoring Mathis, she picked up the trash and put it with her own to get rid of later.

She returned to the cockpit and leaned against her console, facing Mathis.

“Let’s get one thing straight, Mathis. Neither of us have to like each other. I don’t mind saying that you annoy the absolute shit out of me. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to die just because you decide you don’t like me and you aren’t going to listen to me at a critical moment.”

Mathis glared back at her defiantly. “I know how to do my job, Larkins. I’m not going to screw it up and get anyone killed. I’m not an idiot like Hanstad must have been.”

“Who the fuck are you to say anything about that?!” Larkins demanded, shocked by Mathis’ audacity.

“Got himself killed, didn’t he? Must have been his mistake. Either that or you screwed up and got him killed yourself.” The young woman gave Larkins an accusing look. “So which was it? Was it his fault, or yours?”

“Hanstad was a damn good copilot and he did his job just the way he should have. It was no one’s fucking fault,” Larkins growled, her teeth clenched tightly as she struggled with the urge to beat Mathis into her seat.

“Right. And it’s no one’s fault that you got rough with me a few hours ago for pointing out a fact that you didn’t like. Keep telling yourself that, Larkins. But think about this: one of you was to blame. And if you’re so dead set on defending Hanstad and swearing he did nothing wrong, then there’s only one other option. You.”

Larkins had nothing to say to that so she stormed angrily out of the cockpit and went back outside the ship to resume keeping watch. Her mind was racing as she tried to process Mathis’ accusation. It wasn’t her fault Hanstad had died. It had just happened. Neither of them was to blame. “It’s not your fault, Skye,” she whispered to herself. “You’re a good pilot. A damn good one. There’s no way Hanstad is your fault. You’re too good for that. You’ve got to be.”

There was no way she could accept that Hanstad might be dead because of a mistake she made. She joined the Marines to be the best of the best, not to fuck up and get people killed. Mathis didn’t have the slightest idea what she was talking about. But what if she’s right? What if one of them had made a mistake? They might have. And she was sure it wasn’t Hanstad, so that only left her.

“Did I really?” she asked, speaking out loud again. She tried to think back and remember everything she did during the few minutes between takeoff and landing back on the Scott. She was sure she had done everything right. But maybe that was the problem. Maybe she had made a mistake and not even known it. If that was true, it could happen again. She could screw up and get Mathis or herself killed.

“No,” she said desperately, trying to convince herself. Get control of yourself, Skye. You’re better than this. Don’t let your feelings control you.

But she didn’t get any more time to try to get her emotions under control. Her radio activated and Sloan’s voice came through, tight and urgent. “Get your ass on our position, Larkins! We’ve engaged the enemy and are taking heavy fire!”

“Copy that,” Larkins responded, turning and running up the ramp. Mathis was already starting up the ship as Larkins entered the cockpit and dropped into her seat. She took the controls and headed off in the direction the ground team had gone, her eyes flicking over the information being displayed on her computer screen and the inside of the cockpit canopy, showing the ground team’s position relative to the dropship. The ground team had gone on foot at a slow pace to avoid drawing attention and hadn’t moved in a straight line. Terrain that had taken them hours to cover would only take minutes for the MD-4L dropship.

“Deploy primary and secondary weapons pods,” Larkins ordered as they approached their team’s position.

“Deploying primary and secondary weapon pods,” Mathis repeated in confirmation, and a moment later Larkins felt the slight tremors of the pods opening and the dimmed text on her screen indicating the available ordnance lit up. The primary weapons pods contained several multiple-barreled rocket launchers with AGR-210 Zeus and AGR-216 Banshee unguided rockets as well as several SIM-190 Headlock short-ranged guided air-to-air missiles, all of which both Larkins and Mathis could fire, while the secondary pods could contain a mix of larger guided air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, which only Mathis could fire. The GAU-113B autocannon mounted in the nose was also available for either of them to use but only Mathis had controls to aim the turret.

The ground team’s position came into sight a moment after the pods deployed. They were in a large, fairly open valley with lines and clumps of trees scattered around, and high brush in between. They had taken cover in what looked like a dry streambed that sank several feet below the surrounding area. Larkins could see tracers from the team’s two smartguns going out and brilliant green pulses coming back at them from the enemy emplacements several hundred yards away, most of them covered under trees. A series of explosions detonated around the streambed in quick succession and Larkins heard Collins calling over the radio, “Skylark, ground team. We’ve got mortar-type explosive launchers firing at us from bearing one nine three, approximately six hundred meters out.”

“Ground team, Skylark. Tally enemy mortar position. Weapons hot. Am committing.” Larkins rolled the craft slightly to the right to line up with the enemy mortar position, which was in a slight depression in the ground. It was about eight hundred meters out from the dropship as Larkins caught the emplacement in her sights, called out “Rifle two!” to report the launch of two air-to-ground weapons, and opened fire with the Banshee rockets. Two shot out in quick succession, their orange glow flashing through the sky before they exploded one after another, obliterating the mortars and leaving a large crater behind. Larkins was already swinging around to engage a team of hostiles operating what seemed to be their equivalent to a heavy machine gun. “Guns guns guns,” she said coolly, and the Cheyenne shook almost imperceptibly as she squeezed the autocannon trigger and the heavy weapon burst into life, sending 25mm shells ripping into the ground all around the aliens. Although it was too far away for her to see the devastation clearly, she knew her aim had been good.

“Ground vehicle approaching at heading three forty,” Mathis reported, and Larkins could sense the nervous tension in her voice. “Captured.”

Larkins angled the dropship slightly towards the indicated position before the last word was out of Mathis’ mouth. She could see the vehicle in question in the distance and although she couldn’t quite tell for sure, it looked like it was hovering slightly above the ground rather than moving on it. A moment later, Mathis called out, “Rifle one!” and fired an AGM-220 Hellhound. The guided missile shot out from the pod, tracking the moving vehicle as it closed in. “Shack one!” Mathis exclaimed as the missile struck and the explosion engulfed the vehicle.

“Skylark, enemy reinforcements approaching from multiple bearings,” Sloan said. “Get your ass down here and pull us out.”

“Wilco, ground team,” Larkins replied as she brought the dropship down towards the streambed, hovering just a few feet off the ground and facing the majority of the enemy fire. Before she could even give Mathis a command, her copilot had already taken control of the autocannon turret and was directing fire back in the direction of the green pulses of energy being fired at them. Larkins lowered the dropship ramp and several moments later Sloan said, “All friendlies aboard. Close ramp and get us the hell out of here.”

“Report radar check,” Larkins called to Mathis as she pulled the dropship up and headed for space and the Norman Scott.

“Clean,” Mathis reported. “No radar contacts.”

Larkins was too self-controlled to let out a sigh of relief, but she did let herself relax slightly. If only they could just make it the rest of the way back to the ship without running into another one of the fighters that had attacked them last time.

It wasn’t until the dropship was being pulled into the Scott’s landing bay that Larkins really allowed herself to relax. She felt the tension leave her muscles as she slumped down into her seat almost unnoticeably. As soon as they had finished shutting down the engines and computers, Mathis asked, “I did pretty well out there, didn’t I?”

Larkins hesitated and was about to reply until suddenly everything that Mathis had said earlier came rushing back. She froze, speechless for a moment and torn between ignoring the kid and exploding with rage at her. Finally she decided it wasn’t worth it and gave the answer she would have given even without their previous argument. “I’d give you a passing grade, kid. Don’t let it go to your head. You’ve got a lot to learn and just so we’re absolutely clear, I’d kick your ass out of this cockpit in a second if I could get Hanstad back instead of you.”

Mathis let out a huff of impatience and strode out of the cockpit, not quite stomping with annoyance but definitely making more noise than she needed to. Larkins shook her head, not sure whether or not to regret her words. She might have been harsh, but she knew there was nothing more dangerous than a rookie who got overconfident in their own abilities. Mathis certainly wasn’t Hanstad, and Larkins wanted her fully aware of it so she knew she still had a long way to go. It was the only way Larkins could keep a leash on her and keep her and the rest of the team safe.

Unfortunately for Larkins, her intention to keep a leash on Mathis seemed doomed to fail. Shortly after they arrived back on LV-327 and the Norman Scott was resting in its berth at the edge of the Marine compound, Larkins and Mathis were in the ship’s hangar bay reloading the dropship’s weapons and performing routine maintenance. They worked in silence except when they needed to speak to each other until Mathis said suddenly, “For the record, Larkins, I wish I could have met Hanstad if only to know if working with him would be preferable to you.”

Larkins had a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other, but that didn’t stop her from clenching her fist around the pen and almost breaking it. “If you’re trying to say something, Mathis, just come the fuck out and say it.”

Mathis stopped working to look at her. “And what do you want me to say, Larkins? That you fucking suck? That I can’t stand working with you because you’re such an insufferable bitch? That I don’t trust you not to get me killed like Hanstad?”

Larkins hurled the clipboard to the ground as she growled, “We are not talking about this again.”

“Oh, yes we are,” Mathis shot back. “You said yourself that we’ll never be able to work together if we can’t trust each other, and it’s obvious neither of us can trust the other. I certainly can’t trust you because you’ve made it all too clear the only thing you care about in the entire world is yourself.”

“And what about you, dumbfuck? You’re the one making this all about yourself. Hanstad and I might not have been cuddle-buddies, but we got along alright. My life was just fucking fine until you showed up, and now everything’s about what you want and how I should treat you. You think I’m selfish? Maybe you should take your smartass observations and try them on yourself.” Larkins was shaking with rage. Why of all times did Mathis have to show some backbone now? Why couldn’t the kid just leave her alone? “You know what? You’re right. We can’t work together if we can’t trust each other, and I can’t trust you. Congratulations. You just got out of post-mission maintenance. Get the fuck out of my hangar bay. Go.”

She pointed to the door and once again, Mathis half-walked, half-stomped away. Larkins looked after her for several minutes, her mind spinning. What’s going on, Skye? Her world was far from perfect or orderly, and Sloan could be unpredictable, but at least she had a general idea of what to expect day to day. Now that was out the window. Mathis had come in and upset all of that and Larkins wasn’t sure what to think. She certainly didn’t know what to think of their last two arguments. Her partner’s sudden defiance had come out of nowhere and Larkins didn’t know what bothered her more: the defiance itself or the accusations Mathis had thrown in her face. One of you was to blame. And if you’re so dead set on defending Hanstad and swearing he did nothing wrong, then there’s only one other option. You.

“I didn’t kill him,” Larkins whispered to herself as a dull ache started in her chest and began to grow. She shook her head, trying to get rid of the sensation, but Mathis’ words kept echoing in her head again and again, mixing with the deafening sound of the canopy shattering as the alien fighter’s shots ripped through it and blew Hanstad apart. She saw herself turning around to see what was left of him over and over again, mixed with the memories of his blood covering her hands as she cleaned up the cockpit. She looked down at her hands and the oil and grease covering them began to blur and change color from black to dark red. She gasped in horror and fell over backwards as she tried to get away from her own hands as the grease took on the color and texture of blood and began to spread over her hands and up her arms. Fumbling sideways, Larkins grabbed a rag from a nearby cart and began scrubbing frantically at her hands, gasping with a mix of terror and disgust.

The flashback ended as quickly as it had started, and Larkins heard herself crying softly. Tears rolled down her face and she sniffled loudly, clutching her head with her hands. “I’m sorry,” she moaned. “I’m so sorry!”

She didn’t even know who she was talking to. Who did she have to apologize to? She was better than this. Stronger. She had taught herself better than the average weak-willed person. She could push through this.

Angry determination replacing her grief and guilt, Larkins pushed herself up, wiped her face off with the rag, and jumped into the powerloader sitting nearby. She strapped herself in, powered it up, and began replacing the rockets they had fired from the dropship earlier, gritting her teeth angrily as she worked. Mathis wouldn’t get to her. Her guilt wouldn’t get to her. She couldn’t let them. She had a job to do. Even though she couldn’t even begin to imagine giving a fuck less about anyone on her team personally, they were still her teammates. She still had a duty to them and she couldn’t be the responsible team member they all needed if she allowed herself to be weak. Feeling grief or guilt weren’t even options for her.

She finished loading the missiles, shut down the powerloader, and was just stepping out of it when Sloan entered the hangar. Larkins shot to attention, her back perfectly straight and eyes fixed forward as Sloan approached and looked around. “Where’s Mathis?”

Larkins swallowed nervously. This couldn’t possibly go well. “I dismissed her, ma’am.”

Sloan glared at her. “And why did you do that, Corporal?”

Larkins licked her lips and hesitated for a moment too long, triggering an explosion from Sloan. “Answer me, damn you!”

“Ma’am, she was being disruptive and making my work difficult. I felt I could perform my duties more effectively without-”

“And you were completely incapable of controlling her?” Sloan’s voice was full of disgust and sarcasm as she stared down Larkins, standing less than a foot in front of her.

Larkins was careful not to make eye contact or even twitch as she attempted to reply, “Ma’am, I tried to-”

“Did I ask for an explanation, Corporal?” Sloan’s eyes narrowed dangerously and Larkins backtracked hurriedly. “No, ma’am.”

“Correct. I did not ask for an explanation. I asked for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, Corporal. Were you completely incapable of controlling a subordinate enlisted Marine under your supervision?”

Larkins’ heart sank. This was another one of Sloan’s trick questions. She was fucked now. There was no way out of this one. With no other choice, she said weakly, “Y-yes, ma’am.”

There was a loud bang as Sloan slammed her hand down on the cart next to Larkins. As hard as the young corporal tried, she couldn’t keep from flinching. “You’re pathetic, Larkins,” sneered the older woman. “Pathetic and a disgrace to the Marine Corps. You don’t deserve those stripes on your sleeves.”

Larkins felt her cheeks and the tips of her ears burning with shame. She was too humiliated to even be angry at the way Sloan was treating her. There was nothing she could say to Sloan that wouldn’t incur a wrathful response.

“Maybe some time to yourself will give you a chance to think about your own incompetence,” suggested Sloan, giving Larkins a sick smirk. “You’re confined to the female quarters for the rest of the day, including during evening meal.”

“Ma’am?” Larkins asked, startled. There was nothing unusual about Sloan sentencing someone to confinement in their quarters for a few hours, but never while there was still work to be done. “Who’s going to finish he-”

“I suppose I’ll have to do your job and get Mathis back in here. She’ll have to do all the work she would have had to do anyway and everything you haven’t done. I’m sure she’ll be happy about that.”

“Ma’am, please, I’d like to stay and fini-”

Once again, Sloan cut her off, this time with a threatening glance as her voice rose dangerously. “I gave you an order, damn it! Now are you going to walk out of this hangar bay and back to your quarters, Corporal, or should I make you crawl there on your stomach?”

Glad to be escaping Sloan, Larkins started to turn towards the door only to be grabbed and spun back around to face the sergeant, who roared in her face, “Did I dismiss you, Corporal?!”

“No, ma’am,” Larkins whispered, tears of fear, shame, and anger welling up in her eyes as she fought to keep her voice steady.

“And what do you say to me, Corporal?”

“Ma’am,” Larkins forced herself to stand perfectly straight, realizing what was expected of her. “Corporal Larkins requests dismissal and permission to return to her quarters.”

“Permission granted,” snarled Sloan. “Get your lazy, incompetent ass out of my sight. Dismissed.”

Larkins forced herself to walk evenly as she left the hangar bay, spacing her feet carefully so as not to further enrage Sloan, but the moment she was through the door she felt what little composure she had left begin to shatter and she took off running full speed to the hatch that led out of the ship onto the dock. She kept running as she descended the staircase that zigzagged down to ground level and turned towards the open space between her and the main building. No one was around to see her, and she was glad. She threw open the door and ran down the hall to the women’s quarters, slamming the door behind herself. She slumped over Collins’ mattress on the lower bunk and let the tears fall as soon as she saw there was no one else in the room. She didn’t know what to feel. Her anger at Sloan was mixed with anger at Mathis as well as all the feelings the rookie had stirred up inside her and everything was spinning around like a tornado, one emotion giving way to another only for that to be replaced by another. Right now, she didn’t want to feel anything until she could get it all under control. She got up and began to pace the length of the room agitatedly, trying to calm herself down and stop crying.

She caught sight of her tear-streaked face and red eyes in the mirror and laughed bitterly. “You’re a fucking gorgeous sight, Skye.” She sniffled and turned to fully face the mirror as the tears continued to roll down her face and drip off her chin despite her best attempts to contain them. “Stop crying, damn it!” she hissed, and slapped herself across the face. It didn’t help. Something had broken the seal on all the emotions she had been keeping locked up inside herself and now she had no control over any of them.

None of this would have happened if Hanstad was still here. Larkins turned away from the mirror, kicked off her boots and took off her jacket, tossing it carelessly on the floor before climbing the ladder into her bunk and sitting down hard on the edge of the bed, her legs dangling off the side. And that was the real problem. She had never grieved for Hanstad. She hadn’t let herself. She told herself there was nothing to grieve over because they had never gotten to know each other well. But she was starting to see she had been wrong. She did care about Hanstad just a little bit. He had been in the cockpit with her ever since she was assigned to the team, backing her up on every mission they want on. He had been just as affected by Sloan as everyone else but he had still been a source of stability for Larkins. They hadn’t been friends and she certainly had held no romantic interest in him, but he had always there as a solid, steadying presence even when she struggled to control herself. He had offered her friendship and she had turned it down. Now he was gone. She had missed a chance she had been too blind to see in the first place. Larkins wiped her face with her hands and whispered softly, “I miss you.”

Her stomach growled loudly and she realized that it was dinner time. At least, it was for everyone but her. Sloan liked depriving her Marines of food as a punishment. She wouldn’t get a chance to eat until breakfast.

She might not be able to eat, but that didn’t mean there was nothing for her to drink. She had learned a long time ago that some of the metal panels that made up the base walls were loose and could be removed. Some led into dark, empty gaps in the walls just large enough to be used as one of her various hiding places. Others, like the one over her bed, were just large enough to hide a few things inside. Pulling her legs up onto the bed, Larkins turned around so she was sitting facing the panel in question. It had to be pushed and jiggled in just the right way, but she had done it so many times that it was easy. It popped free in a moment and Larkins reached inside the dark hole, groping around until she found what she was looking for. Withdrawing her hand, she pulled out a nearly-full bottle of Black Frost vodka, one of her preferred alcoholic drinks. Sloan would have an absolute bitch fit if she knew any of her Marines had alcohol on the base, which was why Larkins kept it hidden so carefully.

Reaching back in, Larkins tried to find the glass she kept with the bottle, only to curse loudly as her fingers brushed against it and knocked it off the ledge, sending it down inside the wall with a clatter. Muttering to herself, Larkins leaned in to see if she could look down in the space between the panels and see the glass, but it was no good. There was a faint gleam that might be the outside light striking the glass, but it was impossible to tell and it was too far away for her to reach anyway. She’d have to drink straight from the bottle. It might be annoying, but she didn’t care. Most people she knew didn’t drink vodka straight up anyway. She was an exception. If she was going to drink, she wanted to taste the alcohol, not mask it with another flavor. If she wasn’t picky about what she drank, there was no reason to be picky about how she drank it.

Popping the lid off the bottle, Larkins lifted it to her lips and took a gulp, barely wincing as it burned the back of her throat on the way down. She was never bothered by the burning sensation, and today it was even a welcome feeling. It was something she could feel other than emotional pain. Replacing the wall panel and sitting back against the wall, Larkins took another sip, swishing the liquid around her mouth before swallowing it. No one would come into the room for a while so she wasn’t worried about being caught. Sloan’s schedule could vary wildly on any given day; sometimes they were allowed rec time right after dinner, but other times she set it earlier or later. Today she had decided that since they had just gotten back from spending several days in cryo, they were all in need of an extra exercise session. It was a brilliant idea for someone intent on causing as much suffering as possible. Make everyone eat a full meal and then force them into hard exercise. At least Larkins’ punishment got her out of that.

Curling one arm around her aching stomach, which was still crying out for food, Larkins slumped against the wall, occasionally sipping from the bottle as all the unwanted memories of the past few weeks began to replay themselves like an awful movie she couldn’t take off repeat. Hanstad’s death, every argument with Mathis, the rookie’s accusations towards her, Sloan’s mistreatment and abuse, and everyone else’s indifference.

Maybe it was time someone finally did something about Sloan. Maybe she could find a way. She could go on leave and go back to Earth or at least somewhere else that she could send a message to someone higher up the chain of command. Or if she could just last until the end of her contract, she could file a report when she arrived back on Earth. Or maybe they would finally get rotated off this hellish planet and back somewhere where Sloan had less control over them.

The ideas were pleasant but completely unrealistic. The travel time between LV-327 and Earth or even the nearby colonies meant offworld leave was out of the question. The only leave they were allowed to take was in the town, and she already knew the comms operators there would be no help.

She lifted the bottle and drank again, reflecting that it was equally unlikely that they would get rotated off LV-327 any time soon. Although most units were supposed to be rotated periodically, especially those based on planets considered to have harsh living conditions, in practice it was difficult to do. There weren’t always enough available units to rotate one out of a harsh environment into a better one. Sometimes rotation simply meant leaving one hell for another. Larkins also privately suspected that Command had a tendency to forget the LV-327 base and its personnel even existed except for sending them supplies and when they were needed for an operation.

As for reporting Sloan at the end of her contract, for some reason none of the other Marines whose contracts had expired had done anything about Sloan when they left. Either their reports were ignored or they hadn’t filed them in the first place. Larkins had a feeling the second possibility was the more likely explanation. Sloan had everyone convinced that she was unstoppable and nothing could be done against her. Everyone who had been lucky enough to get out had already given up. They also probably didn’t want to go through the trouble of making the report and having to answer endless questions and delay their discharge.

She had about a year and a half left to go on her contract anyway, and she already knew what would happen when it was over. As much as she despised Sloan, she couldn’t give up flying, and transferring out was just another bittersweet dream. There would be no reporting Sloan on the way out. She would sign another contract and “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” and “How high should I jump, ma’am?” and “How many push-ups, ma’am?” her way through until either one of them was dead or Sloan finally reached retirement age. That was her only real chance: to outlast Sloan. She didn’t know exactly how old Sloan was, but she had to be in her early forties. Most RIFT personnel were pulled off field assignment after their forty-seventh or forty-eighth birthday, depending on their physical evaluations. Larkins had already endured over eight years of Sloan’s micro-dictatorship. If she could just survive six or seven more, she would make it. Sloan would be out and someone else would take her place.

“Heh, maybe they’ll promote me into her place,” she smirked to herself. “I’ll make those worthless pieces of shit that call themselves Marines sit up straighter than she ever could. Except I wouldn’t have to treat them like animals the way she does. Then I can get rid of Mathis too. Toss her sorry ass back to a rear echelon assignment where she belongs.”

Larkins held the bottle up, eying it. She couldn’t remember exactly how much had been in it, but either it had been less than she thought or the dozens of sips she had taken in the middle of her introspection had added up more quickly than she realized. “This is going straight to my head.” She said the words out loud again and then giggled uncharacteristically. “Dumbass,” she scolded herself light-heartedly. “They don’t promote pilots to command ground teams. What are you thinking?”

She glared at the bottle of vodka again. “Oh, I’m supposed to be fucking depressed right now. I shouldn’t be feeling this good.” She knew what she was doing was a bad idea. She’d be fucked to and from Sunday in every way imaginable if Sloan or any of the others caught her drinking. But for once, she didn’t care. Her nerves were completely shot after the recent stress and the emotions that were still trying to force their way to the surface were beginning to seriously aggravate her. She just wanted a break from everything. She wanted to forget it all for a while regardless of the consequences. “Fuck me, then. I guess I’m doing this.” She giggled again and held the bottle up, saying before she drank, “Cheers, motherfucker.”

Gunfire and colored lights exploded in Larkins’ vision as she opened her eyes, and she moaned weakly. Her head was pounding and her stomach felt like it was twisted into knots. Someone was shaking her and yelling her name. “Larkins! Larkins!”

A palm slapped her across the face, and she tried to focus on the person yelling at her but her vision was too fuzzy. She blinked her eyes and it cleared just enough for her to see a feminine figure in BDUs and with short, slicked-back blonde hair standing next to the shoulder-height bunk. Collins.

“Waddya want?” Larkins mumbled, feeling as if her tongue was stuck to the inside of her mouth.

“Wake up, damn it!” Collins slapped her again, but Larkins was too far out of it to respond properly. She was just conscious enough to recognize that she had the hangover from hell and her hand was still limply clutching the vodka bottle.

There was a commotion in the doorway and then Sloan’s voice demanded, “What the hell is going on in here?!”

Larkins winced, shutting her eyes and lifting her other hand to clasp her head as the sound seemed to echo inside her skull.

“She’s drunk!” Collins snapped.

“What?!” Sloan appeared next to the bed and grabbed Larkins’ short red hair, twisting her head around to look at her face and causing Larkins to let out a yelp of pain. Larkins knew she was in serious trouble, but she was far too hungover to do anything about it. How much had she actually had to drink? She must have either fallen asleep or passed out, but how long ago? What time was it?

“Son of a bitch!” Sloan growled. “How’d she get alcohol in here?”

Collins yanked the bottle from her grasp. “I don’t know, but here it is.”

Sloan release Larkins’ hair and the corporal flopped limply back onto her mattress, unable to even keep her head up as Sloan grabbed the bottle. “Shitty excuse for a Marine! Larkins! Answer me, fuckwit!”

“Srry, ma’am,” Larkins slurred, looking dazedly at the enraged sergeant. “Aren’t you s’posed to be retir’d? Thought you were gone.”

Sloan looked as if she was about to either hit Larkins or have a stroke, but instead she roared, “Go back to sleep, you worthless piece of shit! I’ll deal with you in the morning when you’re fucking sober!” She glared around, and Larkins dimly realized that most of the team was either gathered in the room or watching from the door. “All of you go to fucking bed. Lights out in sixty seconds and not one word from any of you. I want absolute silence. Tomorrow you’ll see how we punish alcoholics.”

She stormed out of the room and slammed the door on her way out. Collins appeared in front of Larkins’ face, shaking her head. “Stupid motherfucker. I can’t even begin to tell you how sorry I am for whatever Sloan’s going to do to you, but it’s your own fault. As far as I’m concerned, you deserve whatever you’re getting.”

She stripped off her uniform pants and tossed her jacket on the floor next to them before ducking down out of sight into her bunk. Larkins rolled over onto her back, in too much pain to even care about her impending punishment. Sloan and her bitch parade could wait until the morning. All she wanted was to go back to sleep until the hangover faded. She didn’t care about anything else.

Chapter 2……………………………………………………………………………………………Chapter 4

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