Clipped Wings: Chapter 5

Miraculously, Larkins did manage to get a full night’s sleep without dreaming, although that didn’t make her sleep any more restful. She woke up the next morning still tired, but when she looked around she saw she was also the first one awake. Dropping out of her bunk to the floor, she briefly considered opening the blinds but decided against it. It would only wake up the others and she would prefer to have some time to herself. There was just enough light coming in around the edges of the blinds for her to see to get dressed.

Once she had pulled on her uniform and boots, Larkins made her way out into the hallway and down to the mess hall. None of the Marines were there, but Bishop was standing behind the counter in the small kitchen area.

“Good morning, Corporal,” the android greeted her politely, only briefly looking up from his work. “Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes.”

“Thanks,” Larkins said quietly, grabbing a mug off the tray of clean, upside-down mugs on the counter and picking up the coffee pot. After filling the mug and dumping in a few creamer and sugar packets, Larkins wandered over to the table and sat down, sipping the drink and watching idly as Bishop continued to cook. He wasn’t just responsible for staying awake with the ship when they were in cryosleep and watching over it while they were on deployment. When they were back at base, he had a hand in most day-to-day work around the compound.

Bishop had only been with the unit for a little over a year. Once again, their isolated position meant that despite their strategic importance they were considered a lower priority than many other RIFTs and larger units and so when the Bishop model first came out in 2166, replacing the older Mathias model in front-line military use, it had still taken a year before Larkins’ team had gotten their Bishop. Apart from his appearance there wasn’t much noticeable difference between Bishop and Mathias, but supposedly he was smarter and had faster processing capabilities than the Mathias model had. Whether he did or didn’t, he did his job well and although Larkins found it a bit strange to work with a machine that looked identical to a human, she also knew that he could be relied on in any situation. If anything she trusted him more than any of the human members of the team.

Larkins finished her coffee as the other members of the unit started entering the room and Bishop began setting pans of food on the counter. Sloan was the last one in and immediately pushed her way to the front of the line, but once she had her food she remained standing until Larkins got her own food and retook her seat at the end of the table and then sat down across from her.

“Alright, Larkins,” she said. “Let’s play a little game. We’re going to see if last night taught you anything about operating within time limits. You have sixty seconds to eat as much as you can, and whatever’s still there at the end of sixty seconds you’ll be cleaning off the floor.”

Larkins’ heart sank. Was there no end to the torment? Sloan turned to the other members of the unit. “The rest of you aren’t included in that. You’re not the ones being punished.” She held up her watch and put her thumb on the button that would start the stopwatch counter. “Larkins, your time starts now.”

She pressed the button and Larkins began shoving the food in her mouth and swallowing it as quickly as she could. She barely took the time to chew, but at least it meant she didn’t really have to taste the eggs, bacon, or toast, which were never the most enjoyable meal to begin with. They weren’t unbearable but being stored in powdered or frozen form instead of being fresh didn’t do anything good for their flavor. The other Marines continued eating at a normal pace, not daring to look over at her as she continued choking down what was on her plate.

She was getting close to finished when with no warning whatsoever, Sloan reached across the table and whipped her tray against the wall. The plate smashed on the metal surface and food and shards of glass scattered across the floor. “Time’s up, Larkins,” Sloan growled. “Now clean that fucking mess up.”

Larkins bit her lip as she got up, wanting to say something but knowing it would only make things worse. But Sloan noticed and her voice was low and threatening as she asked, “Larkins, do you want to do more push-ups? Say, maybe a hundred, right here, right now?”

Larkins swallowed. She had no idea if this was a genuine question or one of Sloan’s tricks. But if she hesitated to try to puzzle that out it would only make Sloan angrier. So she said cautiously, “No, ma’am.”

“Then don’t give me that fucking pouty lip!” Sloan snapped. “Get cleaning before I kick your ass, you worthless waste of oxygen.”

Bishop came over, holding a broom and dustpan. He looked as if he was about to start cleaning up himself but paused and looked first at Sloan and then at Larkins as if not sure what to do. Larkins sighed, knowing what Sloan expected. “Thank you, Bishop. I’ll take care of it.”

She took the broom and dustpan from him and began cleaning up as the rest of the Marines continued eating. Between bites of her own food, Sloan announced, “Despite this unfortunate little show of a lack of discipline, you should all be grateful that I’m in a good mood today. It’s Saturday and you’re all getting a day of mandatory leave. And when I say mandatory leave, I mean mandatory. When we’re done eating you’re going to get whatever you need and then we’re all going to walk down to the entrance and I’m going to watch every single one of you walk out. I don’t want to see any of you back here asking to be let in before 2000 hours. I don’t give a shit what you do in town, just be back here no earlier than 2000 and no later than 2130. That means you too, Larkins.”

Larkins dumped the last bit of glass from the dustpan into the trash can and handed the broom and pan back to Bishop before announcing, “I’m finished, ma’am.”

Sloan took a drink from her glass of orange juice, making Larkins fidget for a moment before answering, “Good. Now just stand there. Don’t do anything. Just stand there. Since you finished eating so quickly, you can wait for everyone else.”

Manipulative bitch. It was all Larkins could do to keep the scowl off her face as she stood waiting. After a moment, Sloan asked coolly, “Corporal Larkins, are you aware that when I instruct you to stand anywhere in my presence, you are meant to stand at attention whether I explicitly order it or not?”

Cursing herself for an obvious mistake that she should have caught herself making, Larkins swiftly moved out of her slightly relaxed pose to the “at attention” position, replying crisply, “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry, ma’am. It won’t happen again.”

“Too late,” Sloan said coldly, her voice condescending. “I think you need a lesson in respect and humility, grunt. Get down on the floor on your stomach.”

Her cheeks burning with embarrassment, Larkins obeyed, lying flat on the metal floor next to the table and turning her face sideways, letting one cheek press against the cold surface.

Sloan eyed her emotionlessly. “Hands above your head and nose to the floor, bitch. And then don’t even think about twitching until I give you permission.”

Larkins had no choice but to comply, and as she turned her head to press her face to the floor, Sloan taunted, “See, grunt, you can be trained.”

The remark stung harshly, but Larkins simply took it, not allowing herself to react. It’s just another insult. You’ve taken more of those than you can even remember, Skye. Why are you letting it get to you now? Just don’t feel anything. Shut down the emotion. She lay perfectly still, her eyes clenched shut in anger as she fought with herself until everyone else finished eating and Sloan gave her permission to get up and ordered them all to get ready to leave.

“This is my first time going on leave here,” Mathis said as they walked back to their room. “Um,” she looked hesitantly back and forth between Larkins and Collins. “Is there anything specific I should bring?”

Collins seemed to be in a bad mood, and Larkins noticed she was rubbing a large bruise on her arm. Then she saw that Collins had another bruise over her right eye, although her tan complexion made it much less noticeable. Before Larkins had time to wonder what had caused them, the blonde corporal replied sharply to Mathis, “You’ve got a brain, don’t you? Figure it out.”

Increasing her pace, Collins left them behind. Larkins was about to give Mathis some advice but Reverdin beat her to it. “The two most important things to take are water and money. Make sure you stay hydrated. Sloan won’t let us even take a canteen off base, but Collins bought a few with belt pouches on the civvie market for us a few years ago. I’ll get you set up with one before we leave. There are public water fountains you can refill it at but you’ll need money if you plan on buying anything else to drink, which I would recommend, and you’ll need money anyway to buy lunch and dinner.”

“Thanks.” Mathis and Reverdin were slightly ahead of Larkins now, and they ignored her as they kept talking. Mathis commented, “Wouldn’t think Collins would give a fuck about the rest of us. She hasn’t seemed to any other time. Certainly not a minute ago.”

“Give Collins a break,” Reverdin said. “It’s hard to tell for sure, but I get the impression Sloan puts more pressure on her than we see, given that she’s Sloan’s second. She does care; she just doesn’t show it a lot.”

Mathis and Reverdin fell silent as all three of them entered their room and found Collins already changing into civilian clothing. Larkins stripped out of her jacket and pants, reaching into her locker for a pair of jeans, a white t-shirt, sneakers, and her black baseball cap. She pulled on the jeans and shirt and was about to sit on the edge of Collins’ bed to put her shoes on, just like everyone who had a top bunk had to, but the other corporal gave her an angry glare. Surprised but deciding it wasn’t worth the argument, Larkins knelt on the floor instead and pulled her shoes on one at a time. She put on her cap, grabbed her wallet from the locker, and tucked it into her pocket. She put her belt on halfway before taking her Smith and Wesson Model 719 out of the locker and threading the belt through the holster loops. She never carried the .357 Magnum revolver on combat missions, but she wasn’t allowed to carry her Marine-issue M86 off-duty. She didn’t really feel a need to carry a gun all the time, especially not in such a small colony, but she did prefer to have one just in case she ever did need it.  She buckled her belt and clipped the pouch of spare ammunition loaded in moon clips to the belt on her left hip opposite the revolver. The last thing she did was take her aviator sunglasses out of the locker and put them on the top of her head above the cap’s visor.

Closing her locker, Larkins returned to the mess hall, where Bishop was almost finished cleaning up the remains of breakfast. She opened the cabinet where their canteens for off-duty use were kept, and then on an impulse grabbed three instead of one. She filled them up, put one in a pouch on her belt next to the ammunition pouch, and handed the other two to Mathis and Reverdin as they entered. They both looked surprised, but only Reverdin gave Larkins an actual “Thank you,” while Mathis simply dipped her head in acknowledgement. Larkins nodded wordlessly back at both of them and walked out to wait by the main entrance for everyone else to arrive, pulling her sunglasses down over her eyes as she waited. It only took a few minutes for everyone else to arrive and Sloan quickly hurried them out through the gate and shut it behind them.

The base was about three miles away from the colony, mainly for security reasons, but Sloan’s rules meant they weren’t allowed to use any of the base vehicles to drive there. They had to walk. It was annoying, but Larkins had found it was an interesting opportunity to observe the other Marines. Although they all walked in a loosely cohesive group, the few who considered themselves friends would invariably gravitate towards each other and end up spending their leave time together. She already knew that Visalli, Tasselis, and Fleming would stick together, as would Wilderman and Silvain. Collins walked sullenly alone for a few hundred feet and then suddenly broke into a jog, leaving the rest of them behind. Reverdin and Lucero also stayed close to each other, dropping back from everyone else so they could talk privately. Mathis looked as if she wanted to join them, but hesitated. Larkins couldn’t blame her. She didn’t know what went on between the APC crew in private, but she could sense that anyone else who joined them would just be intruding.

She thought about motioning for Mathis to join her, more out of pity for the rookie than anything else, but thought better of it. Their mutual dislike aside, her pity for Mathis wasn’t strong enough to help her endure sharing the day with someone else. All she wanted was to be alone, so she said nothing and Mathis walked by herself. Eventually Stein, who was the only other one in the group who had no one with him, jerked his head at Mathis, indicating she should walk with him. Knowing that the young woman would at least have a trustworthy companion made Larkins feel a little better and she turned her attention back to the road ahead.

Lightford Springs Colony was formed in a rough square about a mile on each side, not including the surrounding farmland. A sizeable portion of the six thousand-person population worked on the farms, although many were employed in the small commercial and industrial zones, particularly at the biodiesel refinery and shipyard. When the Marines reached the western edge of the town, most of them headed towards the colony’s commercial area. Having no specific plans on how to spend the day, Larkins decided to wander around the edge between the outer residential zone and the beginning of the farmland.

Most of the tassel-weed fields on the close side of town were growing close to harvest-time and Larkins could see people and machines at work in some of the fields harvesting the plant already. She had been on LV-327 long enough to have some idea of how the farming colony operated. Tassel-weed was a fast-growing plant, particularly when properly cultivated. A crop could grow from seed to harvest-time in just three weeks, partly thanks to the constant sunlight. The farmland surrounding the colony center was divided into four sectors, each planted and harvested at a different time. This meant that there was a near-constant stream of crops being sent to the biodiesel refinery, which had been in continuous operation since its construction was completed several years prior. The refinery was directly next to the shipyard and the finished biodiesel was pumped directly from the refinery into the shipyard and from there into tanker ships to be carried out to the various colonies on other planets.

Larkins reached a road running out of the town into the fields and had to wait for a Toyota 4Runner utility vehicle to pass before she could cross. She saw the brilliant yellow of the Weyland-Yutani symbol on the front doors and watched for a moment as the vehicle made its way between the fields of tassel-weed on each side. Weyland-Yutani, or just “the company” as most of its employees called it, owned and operated almost everything to do with the farming and biodiesel aspects of the colony. They owned the farming rights to the land and most of the farmers and their laborers were company employees. The biodiesel refinery had been built by the company and was operated under their authority, and most of the tanker ships that transported the fuel offworld were also company-owned, although the shipyard itself was under the direction of the Colonial Administration.

The Colonial Administration was the government organization that ran all of the United States’ offworld colonies. Although it was ultimately a part of the federal government, on the individual colonies it operated much more like a local government. The Chief Administrator was much like a mayor or governor, and along with many of the other higher-ranking officials who were in charge of each colony was elected into office, not promoted internally, and any qualified resident of a colony could run for election into an Administration office on their colony.

It was Colonial Administration that set out the operating procedures and local laws of each colony, to be supported and enforced by various other agencies, including the Colonial Marshals. No colony could be set up without the presence of both Administration and the Marshals, regardless of how much of the colony’s property or personnel belonged to a private company like Weyland-Yutani. On some small colonies, almost all the residents were either directly employed by large companies like Weyland-Yutani or were contractors for them, but on a colony like LV-327, there were also many colonists who worked for smaller companies or even ran their own businesses. Ultimately every colonist and business no matter how large or small was subject to the authority of the Colonial Administration. The only ones who weren’t were the Marines.

Larkins reached the end of the residential area and turned into one of the roads that connected the settled zone to the farmland, heading back towards the center of the colony. She pulled the canteen out of its pouch on her belt and took a drink, looking longingly at the air conditioners sitting in the windows of the squat, all-metal houses that lined both sides of the street as the quiet hum from several of them reached her ears teasingly. There were a few people outside, mostly caring for small, personal gardens containing whatever flowers or vegetables they had coaxed to grow in the oppressive heat or sweeping off their sidewalks. Although most of the houses had concrete sidewalks and many of the streets in the “downtown” part of the colony were paved, the outer streets were unpaved and every vehicle that went past raised a cloud of dust that settled on everything.

Larkins considered to herself that the colony was very different than the Marine base. The colonists had to deal with the same heat and never-ending sunlight that she and her team did, but their lives weren’t the same. Life on the colony wasn’t easy but it wasn’t dismal either. There was an attitude of purpose and direction in how the civilians went about their daily lives compared to the oppressive atmosphere of the base and the complacent behavior that had fallen over all under Sloan’s command. Larkins could see some of the colonists talking with their neighbors as they worked on their respective properties. When she took a closer look at their body language, she noticed the one thing they had in common was that they were all relaxed. There was no hidden tension or anxiety. They might not all be close friends but they still communicated and interacted together in a polite, sociable way. Although Larkins really didn’t care how they treated each other, it was interesting to note the difference. And at least they weren’t suffering like she and everyone else under Sloan’s foot did. That was something she could be glad for.

Larkins continued wandering aimlessly through the straight, orderly streets, gradually working her way towards the commercial zone. No one paid much attention to her, although a few people along the way called out a polite greeting and she always responded with a wordless nod of acknowledgement. She was about to turn a corner towards the eastern end of the colony when she saw several children running around, playing in the road and on the sidewalk, so she crossed the street and kept heading south instead. She couldn’t stand kids. As far as she was concerned, they were loud, messy, and generally undisciplined. Even when she was young, she had always stayed as far away from kids her own age as possible, merely watching them with disinterested disdain.

At least she would never have to worry about having kids of her own. Just the thought of having children made Larkins smirk ironically to herself, wondering if that would be a bigger or smaller train wreck than her experiences under Sloan. She could never raise even one kid. She didn’t have it in her. She remembered that had been a point raised several times when she was younger, particularly by her parents. They had assumed that she would want kids sooner or later and were concerned that she wouldn’t have the social skills or gentleness to raise them properly.

She understood the concern but had never shared it, having no plans for parenthood. Why would she want to have children when she was so disinterested in people that even a romantic relationship wasn’t something she considered? None of what made a romantic relationship function was appealing to Larkins. An emotional bond with someone else was out of the question for her. She had seen what happened with other relationships growing up. Even the happiest couples had their arguments and drama. They might have been happy overall, but she wouldn’t be. Why would she settle for a combination of arguments, drama, and happiness when she could skip the arguments and drama and just move right on to being content by herself? Didn’t that ultimately mean greater happiness? And as for physical intimacy… Just the thought made Larkins cringe in disgust. That was equally out of the question for her. She could never expose herself like that to anyone. It wasn’t even a consideration for her.

The foot and vehicle traffic increased noticeably as she reached the beginning of the commercial zone. Her water canteen was almost empty, so she made a quick stop in a convenience store to buy a soda. The cool air inside the store was soothing, making her reluctant to leave after she made her selection and paid, but she made herself exit the store and keep walking, hoping to find something that might interest her until lunchtime.

Until then, she had nothing but her own thoughts for company and her mind soon turned back to her earlier musing. She had never given much thought to what would happen for the rest of her life, but thinking about children had brought that topic to the front. Most people spent their adult lives working, raising their children, and having friends, until they reached the age where they could retire to relax and enjoy the later years of their lives.

“What about me?” Larkins asked herself as she walked down the street, passing shops and businesses of all kinds. The streets weren’t crowded, but there were quite a few people walking around and going about their lives. Some of the closer people looked over at her when she asked the question out loud, but she walked past before they could say anything. It was an important question and she was surprised she had never considered it before. Her plans had always centered on her career in the Marines. Not just that, but specifically her combat career. She had been so focused, first on making herself successful as a pilot and then on just surviving Sloan until something better came along, that she had never stopped to think about what would happen when she herself was too old for combat. What would she do? She couldn’t imagine taking a military desk job, but there was nothing in the civilian world that she could do either.

Given her pay rate and savings she could probably retire as soon as her third contract was up, which would be right around the time she would likely be removed from combat status, but then what would she do? If she wasn’t going to work, how would she spend her life? What would she do when she got older and still had no connections to anyone or anything? Would she just get old and die quietly alone? What about after that? Was there an “after” after death?

Larkins could still remember one of her teachers in school commenting that the question of whether or not there was something more to the world after death was one of the oldest debates in human history. She herself had heard countless arguments for and against the idea but had never been able to form an opinion for herself. She could never tell if it was because all the arguments were equally convincing, equally unconvincing, or both. But if it was true, then what would happen to her? Was there a point where she would be judged by some higher authority?

Larkins knew she had a quick temper and a bad mouth and often seemed apathetic to others, but underneath all of that she tried to be a good person. She had a strong idea of right and wrong and a sense of duty and responsibility, but was that enough? Was simply trying to be a good person all it took, or was there something else she was missing? Or was death simply the end of human existence? A last breath, a last gasp, and then nothing? As far as Larkins was concerned, that was no more or less likely than there being something else. Not emptiness, or blackness. Just… nothing. No thought processes. No sense of any kind. The end of existence.

“Stop it,” she hissed to herself. This was no time for an existential crisis. The future didn’t mean anything. All that mattered was her ability to do her job in the present. She could figure the rest of life out as she got to it.

Larkins spent the next several hours wandering aimlessly around the colony until lunchtime approached. She found a small restaurant on a quiet street and stepped in, once again feeling the luxury of a cool, air conditioned atmosphere, this time mixed with the smells of various foods. The restaurant was busy but not crowded. A waitress looked over at her as she carried a tray of plates to a table. “Just one?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Larkins nodded, taking off her sunglasses and placing them on top of her cap. “Fresh or frozen?”

That was an important question to ask on an offworld restaurant. Some depended solely on frozen or otherwise preserved food transported from Earth or other colonies, while others were able to get their food grown fresh from local farms. Given the size of Lightford, it was a coin toss as to where any particular restaurant got their food from but it also played a big factor in what most people would choose to eat.

“Fresh. I’ll be right with you.” The woman passed out the plates of food, tucked the tray under her arm and turned to Larkins, grabbing a menu off the stack by the door. “You can follow me. Window or table?”

“Uh, window, please,” requested Larkins politely, and followed the woman to a window booth.

“I’ll give you a few minutes to decide what you want.” The waitress handed Larkins the menu and disappeared. Larkins dropped into the booth and let some of the tension ease out of her body as she looked over the menu. Fresh food meant a lot more options on the menu would actually be worth ordering, and this place seemed to have a good selection despite the harsh conditions on the planet. Larkins smiled to herself as she imagined what any of the other Marines would think if they saw her looking over a menu and seriously considering what she wanted. They probably all thought she didn’t care what she ate, although that wasn’t true in the slightest. Larkins didn’t eat a lot, but she did enjoy food and she had a clear knowledge of what she did and didn’t like.

She passed right over the pasta and salad entrée sections on the menu and looked at the meat section. In the end, she decided on two cheeseburgers with French fries. In a place like this they would taste much better than the same order at a generic fast food restaurant, and she was in the mood for something simple but filling. She considered ordering lemonade before joking darkly to herself, “You’ve got enough sour things in your life, Skye. Maybe it’s time to try something sweet.”

Eventually she decided on a blend of strawberry and white cranberry juice. The waitress returned a moment later and Larkins gave her order and then sat looking out the window as she waited for her food. She sank a little deeper into the comfortable cushion on the bench as she felt herself begin to relax further. A little secret that only she and Stein knew was that a year prior, the medic had diagnosed her with prehypertension, or constantly elevated blood pressure. He hadn’t needed to ask her any questions to try to determine the cause. They both knew. The cause stalked around them every day, ready to pounce on the slightest infraction or shortcoming. Stein hadn’t said it but Larkins suspected that her diagnosis was also the case for all the other Marines in the unit, and with how worked up Sloan frequently got, Larkins could only imagine what hooking her up to a blood pressure monitor looked like. Maybe someday she’ll finally blow a blood vessel and that’ll be the end of that.

But sitting in the relaxed environment of the restaurant, Larkins could practically feel her blood pressure dropping. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs and tensing up her entire body, and counted to ten slowly before breathing out as slowly and thoroughly as she could, exhaling as much air as possible and letting her body go limp as she did. It was a technique she had learned several years before to help herself relax, although ironically, it only worked when she was already in a semi-relaxed state. If she was agitated, she would still be tense afterward. This time it worked wonderfully and she felt better than she had in a while. Crossing her arms over her chest and hugging herself gently, Larkins leaned back, let her chin fall to her chest, and closed her eyes, almost feeling peaceful.

The wait for her food was impressively short and Larkins dug in eagerly as soon as it arrived, barely able to stop from groaning with enjoyment as she tasted real food for the first time since the last leave day she had taken several months ago. This was definitely a place she’d like to come back to again.

Larkins made her food last as long as she could, not wanting the relaxed feeling to end. She could sense that at soon as she walked back out into the heat, her mood would drop again. But eventually, her plate was empty and she motioned for the waitress, paying and leaving a decent tip before exiting the restaurant. Just as she thought, the moment the oppressive heat wrapped around her again, her sensation of calm and peace disappeared and her good mood plummeted. She took a look back at the restaurant as she walked away. It was still a nice place, and she still wanted to go back some time, but it would be nicer if it was on a better planet. Away from the heat and constant sun. Away from Sloan and the memory of her.

Larkins resumed wandering up and down the colony’s streets, this time trying to pay more attention to the people passing by and the different shops, stores, and businesses that were open. That was a sufficient pastime for a while until she saw a sign for a liquor store and she faltered, thinking of the bottle of vodka Sloan had taken from her and remembering the desire to feel the burning and the numbness it could bring her while she was in the brig. “Just keep walking,” she whispered to herself. But then she heard Sloan’s voice in her head from the night she was released. You haven’t learned anything. You’re going to do it again.”

“Stop it,” she muttered, looking away and beginning to walk forward again. But she still heard the voice in her head, mocking her. “You’re weak, Larkins. Now that you’ve been down that road once, you’re not going to stop.”

Against her own will, Larkins turned back to look at the store, that devilish, taunting voice still in her head. Sloan’s voice, but not words she had actually said to Larkins. “You want it. You need it. Do it.”

Still not even fully consenting to her own actions, Larkins walked up to the door and entered the building. This time, she barely felt the cool air as she began browsing the shelves, her heart pounding and her hands shaking. She knew this was a terrible idea. She had a system for smuggling things into the base but there was no way she could control herself around alcohol again. Not after the last time and what she had felt in the brig. She was dragging herself kicking and screaming into a minefield and couldn’t stop it.

The store had a wide variety of different alcoholic drinks and Larkins initially found herself most tempted by another bottle of Black Frost but eventually settled on Crown Royal Canadian whiskey. The clerk at the counter barely looked old enough to be drinking himself, and he certainly didn’t seem to notice Larkins’ anxiety as she paid. He gave her a paper bag with long carry loops to put the bottle in, and Larkins slipped her arm through the loops and pulled the bag up so they rested over her shoulder.

Just as she had barely felt the cool air of the store, Larkins didn’t feel the heat of the outside when she walked back out onto the street. Her cheeks already felt like they were burning from shame. Sloan had been right. She hadn’t been able to stop herself. She had been weak.

The bottle taunted her for the rest of the day, hanging in the bag on her shoulder as a constant reminder of her own shortcomings. She contemplated throwing it away several times but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Even when she sat down on a bench in the shadow of one of the stores to rest, she kept the bottle tucked close to herself. She would return to base a few minutes early and hide the bottle by the back entrance, then sneak out when everyone else was asleep.

It was closing in on 1800 when Larkins began to feel hungry again. This time, she decided to just grab a sandwich from one of the local convenience stores, and ate it absentmindedly. Any enjoyment she had gotten earlier in the day was gone, ruined by the constant presence of the bag on her shoulder, a nagging whisper telling her how pathetic she was.

Finally, 1930 arrived and Larkins began the walk back to the base. She didn’t see any of the other Marines on the way and was glad for that. The bag was plain and nondescript, but she still didn’t want anyone to get curious or ask questions. When she got close to the double row of barbed wire fences, Larkins looked closely through at the compound inside. There was no sign of Sloan or Bishop, although it was impossible to tell if Sloan was watching from a window somewhere. But there was no turning back now, so Larkins broke into a run, dashing around the base to the rear entrance. There was a small hole not far from the gate, likely dug by some burrowing animal making a home for itself. Larkins tucked the bag inside and then ran back to the front gate just as some of the other Marines appeared in the distance. A few minutes later, she saw Bishop coming across the compound towards the gate.

“Good evening, Corporal,” he greeted her as he stepped into the guardhouse and pressed the button to open the gate. “Did you enjoy your day out?”

“Yeah, sure,” Larkins said half-heartedly.

“Sergeant Sloan is in her quarters. She doesn’t want to be disturbed for the rest of the night,” the android informed her as she entered. “Okay, good to know.” Larkins headed for the main building. That was fortunate. She was looking forward to a shower and quiet evening until it was time to sleep. She knew she had to find a time to retrieve her hidden purchase, but once that was done, she just wanted to forget about it. Until Sloan pushed her too far some day. Until the unstoppable cravings came again.

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

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