The definition of the word “rural” changed for Corporal Dwayne Hicks when he and the rest of his RIFT arrived in Tibet. The pictures he had found online of the mountainous and somewhat barren country made it hard to believe it was home to so many people, and even harder to believe it was going to be his unit’s home for the foreseeable future.
It had been over a hundred years since Tibet had gained its independence in the aftermath of the collapse of the People’s Republic of China following a two-year war in the 2160s. After the war, the Tibetans had taken full advantage of their new freedoms and fully devoted themselves to developing as a nation. They had only recently reached a point where they were ready to take their first steps into colonizing space, primarily with the goal of gaining access to natural resources they lacked without depending on imports from other countries. They had a fully-equipped military, but although the Tibetan Space Force was well-trained, they lacked operational experience.
Hicks’ RIFT platoon, the 14th Independent RIFT Platoon, had been attached to the 2nd Division to augment the strength of the RIFT platoons attached to each of the division’s three regiments. The 2nd Division was the second unit to be rotated into Tibet as part of the United States’ alliance with Tibet. They would conduct additional training missions with the Tibetan forces and accompany them on any combat operations over the course of the next year.
“Think we can get some mountain training in while we’re here?” Lance Corporal Saundy asked from behind Hicks. “This is the perfect place for it.”
“That’s up to Vandran,” RIFT Staff Sergeant Travin replied, referring to Lieutenant Commander Vandran, their platoon leader. “Just remember this isn’t a training mission for us-”
“We’re training with the Tibetans, I know.” Saundy sighed. “Come on, Sarge, we’re not gonna be training with them twenty-four hours a day, right?”
“No, but a mountain expedition requires planning, and I don’t know if we’ll have time for that. Besides, a lot of the mountains here are considered sacred so we’re not allowed to climb them.”
“Can always find a non-sacred one and do it on leave.”
Travin looked back to glare at her over the top of the outward-facing bench seat. “Absolutely not. The last thing I want is to learn that you broke your neck falling because you got a little too ambitious.”
“Yeah, you know better, Saundy,” Corporal Moss, the squad’s B-team leader, added.
When Travin and Moss weren’t looking, Lance Corporal Medinow, who had turned his seat away from the driver’s station to face the rest of the troop compartment, mimed them with his hand and Hicks quickly ordered, “Can it.”
“What’s with you, Hicks?” PFC Nandi asked, giving Hicks a look.
“He wants us all on our best behavior because he knows the general who’s taking the division,” PFC Kartrella smirked, and slapped the heavy weapons operator on the arm. “So no fooling around, or Hicks’ll get you.”
“Knock it off,” Travin said firmly.
Hicks didn’t mind Kartrella and Nandi’s comments, but he hoped that people wouldn’t make a big deal about the fact that he knew General Paulson.
Paulson had been a colonel stationed at Camp Lejeune when Hicks was in RIFT training. They had met when Paulson and several of his staff came to observe several of the training squads. Hicks had been in the middle of a solo urban combat simulation when Paulson arrived, and the colonel had called Hicks over at the end of the exercise.
“What’s your name, son?” he asked, returning Hicks’ salute.
“RIFT Private Dwayne Hicks, sir,” Hicks had replied.
Paulson gestured down to Hicks’ shotgun. “That’s an interesting weapon. Do you mind?”
Hicks looked down at the shotgun. He was the only member of his training squad who had taken advantage of the fact that RIFT members were allowed to use personal weapons even in training. The old Ithaca 37 had been passed down through his family since the Second World War until it had finally come to him. Several of his ancestors who owned it had never used it, and it was practically in like-new condition apart from several modifications that some of them, including Hicks himself, had made to it.
“Of course, sir,” he said politely, habit making him check that the shotgun was clear before handing it over even though he had already done that just a moment before.
Paulson gently took the shotgun and turned it over, inspecting it closely. “This is an original, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” Hicks confirmed. “It’s been in my family for eight generations. My ancestor carried it in the Second World War.”
“I see it’s had some modifications made. Have you ever considered replacing the pistol grip with something with a shallower angle? It would give you better recoil control.”
“No, I’d like to leave this the way it is for as long as possible, sir. My ancestor took that grip off a German submachine gun, and this gun’s been like that ever since. The only changes I’ve made were cutting down the barrel and putting on a longer magazine tube.”
“I saw you using a modified quad-loading technique,” Paulson pointed out, looking down at the shotshell holder on Hicks’ belt.
“Yes, sir, I call it hex-loading. Four rounds two at a time, and then two more at once. That’s why I wanted the six-round magazine instead of the original five-rounder. Then I cut the barrel down as short as I could with this magazine.”
“You seem to have put a good bit of thought into making this a practical weapon,” observed Paulson. “How’s your training been going?”
“Difficult, sir,” Hicks said, relaxing slightly. Paulson wasn’t like some of the stories Hicks had heard about high-ranking officers. He spoke with a genuine, sincere tone that gave the impression that he was truly listening to what Hicks said, and he held himself upright with a quiet, humble dignity instead of aloof arrogance. “I have eight months left to go, but I think I can handle it.”
“Well, I wish you the best of luck, Hicks.” Paulson gave Hicks a faint smile. “I think I’ll be keeping an eye on you. I can see you have quite a lot of potential as a RIFT member.”
Paulson had been serious when he said he was going to keep an eye on Hicks. He had frequently come around to observe during training, and while he frequently interacted with other members of Hicks’ unit so that there was no appearance of favoritism, he always had some word of encouragement or advice for Hicks. Paulson had been there when Hicks graduated, something one of his instructors later told him was rare.
That had been the last time he had seen Paulson in person. Hicks had gotten shipped out to the 14th Independent RIFT Platoon a few days later, and the only contact they had since then was shortly after Hicks found out Paulson had been promoted to general. It had taken some time to get a contact number for Paulson’s office, but Hicks made sure to call and congratulate him on his promotion, and they had ended up talking for several hours.
It was sheer coincidence that Paulson’s tour at his previous assignment was up just two weeks after General Ellington’s tour as commander of the 2nd Division ended. Now Paulson was being rotated in from Europe to take command of the division once they arrived in Tibet, and because Hicks’ platoon was attached to division headquarters, they would likely report directly to him most of the time.
Hicks was drawn from his thoughts when Travin called, “ETA, Levitsky?”
“Twenty minutes! Should be approaching Lhasa in five!” The Israeli exchange pilot replied.
“Alright.” Travin adjusted himself in his seat and looked over to the young man sitting lounged back in his chair at the APC commander’s station. “Whittaker? You asleep over there?”
Hicks turned back to see Whittaker lift his head slightly. “No, I’m awake, Sarge.”
“No, you were sleeping.” Moss leaned out of her seat to pat Whittaker on the head.
Moss sounded confused and apologetic. “Geez, sorry.”
“Let him sleep if he wants to. I do it,” Hicks said.
There were several minutes of silence and then Latchett asked from his place directly behind Hicks on the other bench seat, “Hey, Hicks, you’ve met Paulson. What’s he like?”
“Well, he doesn’t say much. He’s very nice. You can talk to him about anything and he’ll give you advice about whatever you have on your mind. Just be remember to be respectful and don’t forget he’s the one in charge.”
Moss asked, “Hasn’t he been trying to get juvenile felons into the Marines?”
“Yes and no. He’s been one of the lead developers and advocates for what he calls the “Second Chance Program” for kids in prison with good behavioral records to enlist so they can have a shot at turning their life around.”
“I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I’d be willing to trust someone with murder in their past,” Moss said, shaking her head.
“It depends. If someone wants a second chance, they should be able to take that opportunity when it comes their way. They’re not just gonna toss a bunch of criminals into the Marines.”
“I’d still be wary of them. That’s someone I gotta trust to have my back when shit hits the fan.”
“You learned to trust me, Moss,” Medinow said.
“You’re different. You’re just talkative and have a lot of energy. You didn’t kill anyone.”
“I just think it’s funny that you can actually sit still long enough to take an M16 apart and put it back together.”
“You had to see me in action before we became friends. Treat an ex-felon the same way if they’re set on turning themselves around.”
“Like I said, I thought you were a personality type I couldn’t get along with. You’re not a murderer.”
“Paulson believes there are some who deserve another chance at life,” Hicks said. “That’s the whole reason he came up with the program. If we get any former prisoners in our unit at any point, I expect them to be treated with respect.”
“They’ll get treated with respect when they earn it,” Moss replied. “No one comes into the USCM and automatically gets respect. You earn it by doing your job well and watching out for your teammates. I don’t think the Corps should become a literal get-outta-jail-free card.”
Travin spoke up. “Hey, I don’t care if that’s your opinion, Corporal, but if we do get any new team members from Paulson’s program, they will be treated as such, as teammates. Like you said, we watch out for each other, and I don’t want anyone disrespecting another Marine because of where they came from. If you don’t have their back, how can you expect them to have yours?”
“You have a good point, sir, but I still think it’s a bad idea.”
The viewing screens at the APC commander’s station were connected to the dropship’s external cameras, and Hicks craned his neck like everyone else to get a look as they flew over the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, a blend of modern apartment complexes, Buddhist temples, and all manners of construction work. It reminded Hicks of Saigon without the skyscrapers and tropical greenery. Part of him wished they had stayed in Saigon instead. At least the weather was somewhat similar to southern Alabama, although much warmer. Maybe it was the fact that he was so used to being in warm places that made him dread the thought of staying in the cold dryness of the Himalayas.
A few minutes later, they reached the joint Tibetan-USCM base and set down at the airfield. Once they touched down, the dropship ramp lowered and Medinow drove the Stryker out. He paused to open the back ramp to let Levitsky and the dropship’s crew chief, PFC Sapatti, enter and take their seats. Once they were seated, Medinow closed the ramp again and drove across to one of the ground vehicle bays. Hicks and the other Marines unstrapped themselves, quickly put on their backpacks, and picked up their duffel bags once Medinow parked the APC.
All twelve Marines exited the APC and formed up into two lines, with Travin and Moss at the front. Hicks briefly glanced over at the platoon’s first RIFT, who had flown in on their own dropship and Stryker, as they formed up. Vandran called out the order for both teams to begin marching, and Hicks followed behind Travin as they proceeded to the RIFT barracks building, which was about a quarter of a mile away.
They entered the lobby of the two-story building and Vandran and RIFT 1 led the way up the stairs, the lieutenant commander calling out at the top, “RIFT 1, take the left wing! RIFT 2, on the right!”
Travin led them through the door into the right wing of the building, revealing a single short hallway with five doors on each side, and Hicks frowned slightly, realizing that they wouldn’t each get their own rooms, and two of those doors most likely led to shared bathrooms.
The line of Marines stopped as Travin walked down the hall, throwing open doors and peering into each room.
“Alright!” he called out when he turned back at the end of the hallway, starting to point at rooms. “Levitsky, you’re bunking with Saundy in Room Seven down here! Hicks, you’ll be with Medinow in Six! Kartrella, Nandi, Room Five! Alston, with Latchett in Four, Sapatti and Whittaker in Three, Moss has Two, and I’ll take Room One! Move, boys and girls! You know the drill! Vandran and I are due to report in to Paulson, and I’ll be straight back here afterwards.”
Hicks followed Medinow to their new room. It wasn’t quite as nice as some of the RIFT quarters Hicks had been in prior, including Saigon, but it was a good size and had double windows to let in extra light, a luxury not even many better RIFT barrack rooms had. It was certainly better than the stories Hicks had heard from the veteran members of the team about being assigned to bases so small that not even the privileges of being a RIFT meant much and they were crammed into barracks where they had to fit four people in a single room.
The drab room was too bland for Hicks’ liking, but he knew a few small personal touches would liven it up, especially when Medinow started putting up selections from his picture and poster collection, which were all from the countries and colonies he had been stationed at over the years.
Hicks began unpacking his duffel bag as Medinow pulled out his latest poster. He had gotten it shortly before they left Saigon, and the image on it was of a bustling downtown street at dusk with a yellow flag emblazoned with three red stripes running across the center snapping smartly in a breeze creating a top border to the poster.
“You planning on collecting every poster from every country and colony in the known universe?” Hicks asked, pulling his folded clothing out of his bag and putting it in a drawer under his bed.
“That’s the goal,” Medinow replied. “The day before we ship outta here, point me to the nearest tourist shop in Lhasa.”
“Remind me, wasn’t there a place you forgot to buy a poster?”
“Oh, yeah. LV-165. I had to call one of the Marines back at the base there and sweet-talk her into sending me one. Once I get too many to keep carrying around, I’ll send them home and start over.” Medinow laid out the rest of his posters on his bed. He glanced out into the hall, then back at Hicks. “Hey, can I ask you something personal?”
“Have you noticed Whittaker’s been a bit… off lately?”
“He’s always been quiet,” Hicks replied. “Why?”
“I feel like something’s wrong, like he’s upset about something. I know he’s usually quiet, but this feels different.”
“Maybe something happened back home. Have you tried asking him?”
“Hard to ask when he just grunts at you and tells you to fuck off.”
“Talk to Travin or Moss, then. Maybe they can sit Whittaker down and figure out what’s going on. We can’t have that while we’re working with the Tibetans.”
Medinow nodded, although he looked like he wanted to add something to the conversation. Hicks was quick to organize his drawers and place his shower things in a place he could easily get to later that evening. After that, he walked up and down the hall making sure that everyone was settling in. With Travin busy reporting to Paulson and Hicks being the A-team corporal, he was particularly responsible for making sure the rest of A-team had everything they needed, so he leaned in the door of Room Five to check on Kartrella and Nandi.
“You two need anything in here?” he asked.
“Nah, we’re good,” Kartrella said. The diminutive mechanic was already lounging on her bed looking up at the ceiling, while Nandi was still finishing her unpacking. “Once Nan over here stops dragging her boots. I swear, I don’t know how it takes you so long to unpack every time.”
“It’s called precision,” Nandi shot back, her tone full of false sarcasm as her lips twitched in a barely-concealed grin. “That’s what being a gunner is all about, grease face.”
“Actually, precision is for those of us who are actually trained how to use a sniper rifle properly,” Kartrella bantered. “Your job is just to spray bullets in the general direction of the bad guys.”
Hicks shook his head in resignation. “Every time I watch you two, I understand why people are always trying to figure out whether you’re best friends or worst enemies.”
He stepped back into the hallway and came face to face with Moss. The combat engineer had already let her brown hair down from its bun, and it flowed freely over her shoulders. “Hey, Hicks. How’s it going?”
Hicks shrugged. “Good. Everyone moving in okay?”
“Yeah, I think so. I’m hoping Travin gets back soon and we can get lunch. I’m hungry.”
Hicks looked down at his chronometer. “Shouldn’t be too long. I’m not sure if we should be excited or worried about what the food here is going to be like.”
It was Moss’ turn to shrug. “It’ll probably be like back in Saigon. They’ll have a mix of whatever the local troops get served and the usual shit we get stuck with.”
The door that led to the landing and stairway opened and Travin came in. “Alright, boys and girls, everyone out here and line up for lunch!”
They lined up and marched down to the mess hall, and Hicks was disappointed to see that the primary course for lunch was chicken soup. He got his food and sat at their assigned table between Medinow and Levitsky, picking up a spoonful of broth and tilting his spoon slightly to watch the thin, watery liquid trickle back into the bowl.
“At least it’s not fucking meatloaf,” Latchett grunted.
“Meatloaf isn’t bad if you make it right,” Moss said. “Grandma always made the best damn meatloaf you ever had. Her secret? Adding a little ground sausage, minced garlic, and a lot of oregano.”
“You got lucky with meatloaf, then.”
“Nothing beats that abomination the cooks called spaghetti that one night on LV-287,” Medinow said.
“That ‘spaghetti’ would make my own grandmother rise up from her grave and beat the chefs senseless with a rolling pin,” Sapatti added. “That and the bruschetta were complete disasters.”
“I’ll take the bruschetta over this chicken water and carrot chunks.”
Hicks grinned as he listened to everyone else. “Speaking of chicken, you know what I miss from home? Fried chicken. That was Sunday night in southern Alabama for me. Fried chicken and a big glass of hibiscus iced tea.”
“Didn’t you say you have your grandma’s recipe for the chicken and the tea?” Medinow asked.
“I do, but I was the one she trusted most to never tell anyone her recipes, so I’m not telling you a single word of it.”
“Then why bother telling us if you’re not gonna share?”
“To see what you would do to get me to tell you the recipe.”
“And what would I have to do?”
“Well, my friend, you’ve already passed step one, which is be extremely trustworthy. Step two is to maintain that trustworthiness for at least fifteen years.”
“What’s after that?”
“You’ll see when you get there.”
“How do I know you’re not just fucking with me?”
Hicks gave him a lopsided grin. “Maybe I am, maybe I’m not.”
Medinow shook his head, but he was smiling.
“Just be happy you all will have the chance to go try the local food here,” Travin said, “So you won’t get stuck with stuff like this all the time. Just make sure you behave out there.”
“When was the last time any of us misbehaved, Sergeant?” Medinow asked.
“Well, do you remember on LV-510, in Netrayas, when you and Latchett got caught climbing the giant palms on the beach because one of you knuckleheads wanted to see who could get up faster?”
Medinow nodded. “Yes, I do remember that.”
“I will give you credit, at least the only problem is that you were out past curfew, and neither of you were intoxicated.”
“Even stupider than that was the time Latchett tried arm-wrestling my old sergeant,” Levitsky said.
“Sergeant Aravon, when we were in Tel Aviv?” Latchett said. “Yeah, I remember that.”
“He nearly took your arm off,” Moss said, laughing a little.
“I only accepted the challenge because he didn’t look like he could take my arm off!”
“Even though I warned you three times?” Levitsky asked.
“I wanted to see for myself.”
“And you nearly paid the price for it.”
“Can we try not to do stuff like that while we’re here?” Travin asked.
“I don’t think we can make any promises,” Medinow said.
“Try. At least I can count on some of you to behave.” Travin looked over at Hicks.
“But can you count on any of us in combat?” Whittaker said.
The rest of the Marines glanced at him. “What makes you say that?” Latchett asked. “We can all count on each other in combat.”
Whittaker shook his head. “I’ll believe that when I’m not the one who gets killed in the next wargame.”
Hicks knew what he was talking about, and he didn’t like the dull look in Whittaker’s eyes. “What happened in Vietnam was no one’s fault. Not even your own.”
“It was an accident! It could have happened to anyone!”
Whittaker gave Hicks an icy glare. “If you think you’re being helpful, I can already tell you you’re not.”
“Okay,” Travin cut in, “That’s enough. Whittaker, you need to get over what happened on that exercise back in Vietnam. Hicks is right. It wasn’t your fault. Now, everyone eat up. We’re scheduled to meet with Paulson and one of the Tibetan officers after lunch.”
After lunch, they returned to the RIFT barracks building. The building was in the shape of a ‘T’ with the barracks halls on each side of the crosspiece, while the center wing held the lounges, briefing room, and other recreational spaces that were reserved solely for the RIFT members.
Both RIFTs went straight to the briefing room and took their seats. Paulson and a Tibetan officer in a field uniform were standing at the front of the room in front of a large projector screen.
Once everyone was seated, Paulson greeted them. “Welcome to Khetsun Base. I hope you all had a comfortable trip here and are settling in well.” He gestured to the Tibetan officer. “This is Colonel Pakshi. He’ll oversee most of the exercises you’ll be doing with your Tibetan counterparts.”
“Welcome, all of you,” Pakshi greeted. “I look forward to working with all of you over the next year. We would like to begin by going over what your role here will be. There will be a mix of exercises where you will either be split up by your occupational specialties and assigned as observers on the Tibetan teams to watch your occupational counterparts in action, and other exercises where your teams will work side by side with ours to make sure that our troops perform well. Your responsibilities will also include helping our conventional units work in conjunction with Reconnaissance In Force Teams. Many of the soldiers you will be working with already have a grasp on English, so there is little need to be concerned with a language barrier,” the colonel, Pakshi, explained. “However, you will be encouraged to use universal hand signals so that you will be accustomed to using them so there are no issues if you encounter troops who do not speak English, and there will also be exercises where you can only use hand signals.”
“All of these troops are fully trained,” Paulson continued. “They all know how to do their jobs in theory. These exercises are to evaluate how well they can put training and theory into practice, and to help them make any improvements they need to maximize effectiveness.”
Paulson and Pakshi spent the next twenty minutes going over further details of their cooperation with the Tibetan forces, and when they had finished, Paulson asked, “Any questions?”
Medinow raised his hand. “When do we meet the Tibetan RIFTs, General?”
“Tomorrow morning at 0700,” Pakshi answered for Paulson. “They’ve been out on preparatory exercises since yesterday and won’t get back in until late tonight.”
Paulson looked around for anyone else raising their hand and then said, “Alright. We’ll see you again bright and early tomorrow. Dismissed.”
As the Marines dispersed, Hicks walked over to Paulson, who held out his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Corporal.”
“Likewise, sir,” Hicks smiled and shook Paulson’s hand.
“How was your tour in Vietnam?”
“Well, sir, I knew that some of the irregular warfare tactics they teach in RIFT training were first developed by the Vietnamese, but it was interesting to see how they put them into action. Those LLDB troops are difficult to keep up with, though.”
The Luc Luong Dac Biet, the Vietnamese term for Special Forces, was the Republic of Vietnam’s equivalent to the US Reconnaissance In Force Teams. Although contemporary LLDB units were structured almost identically to RIFTs, the LLDB had been around much longer, originally with a different layout, and they had played a key role in helping the United States to bring the original RIFT concept to maturity.
“I can imagine.” Paulson looked amused. “I know their reputation.”
“We certainly learned some things. General Kiên doesn’t fuck around.” Hicks rubbed the back of his head, remembering the night that the Vietnamese general sent the RIFT platoon and an LLDB platoon on a jungle patrol and into a series of mock ambushes, ranging from sniper and machine gun nests to camouflaged tanks and bunkers. Kiên had watched on the video feed from each member’s camera and after the patrol had made them all stand in formation while he gave them a personal critique. While he was terrifying, his criticism wasn’t just insults and putdowns like many of the Marine trainers resorted to; he took the time to describe how each of them could do better.
It was that memory that brought Hicks’s thoughts back around to Medinow’s observations of Whittaker. He remembered Whittaker wasn’t happy about being the only casualty during that scenario. It hit the young Marine hard, even though it wasn’t real, and he didn’t join the rest of the RIFT afterward to wind down before bed. He also didn’t talk to anyone unless it was necessary the next day. Travin tried to bring him out of it by telling him that the purpose of the wargames was to practice and try to prevent casualties like that from happening.
Whittaker acknowledged that, but Hicks could still detect a degree of frustration from him. He’s not sure he’ll be able to make it out in the field, Hicks had thought to himself.
Paulson brought him out of his thoughts. “The general’s reports were entertaining to read. I’m glad you and the rest of the platoon have had the opportunity to assist our allies in training.”
“I think it was the other way around in Vietnam,” Hicks replied. He paused, trying to think of how to bring up Whittaker. “Could I ask some advice, sir?”
“Corporal Medinow and I have noticed Corporal Whittaker’s been a bit… withdrawn lately. I know he’s usually quiet, but something about this doesn’t feel right. He’s angry. I know he was upset about how he got ‘killed’ during one of the exercises General Kiên put us through, but I don’t understand why he’d still be upset over that.”
“In a real scenario, there would be no do-overs,” Paulson replied. “This isn’t a sport, where you can always try again. A Marine dying in combat isn’t something you want to go through.” A hurt look passed through Paulson’s eyes. “Trust me.”
Hicks nodded a little. Though Paulson didn’t see frontline combat much anymore, he had a long career speckled with impressive victories and devastating losses. He didn’t make general by doing nothing. Anyone set on making the Marines their career for a few decades had to expect loss at some point.
“Just remember what you’ve been taught over the years, but also don’t forget that in a real situation, you can’t save everyone. There will be points where you have to make hard decisions, and those decisions, regardless if they were right or wrong, will haunt you for the rest of your life, because every man and woman in your RIFT is a human being with a life outside the Marines. Their lives are not to be carelessly tossed away.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Good.” Paulson gently squeezed Hicks’s shoulder. “I would suggest trying to talk to Whittaker before your first training session. Reassure him that things will go differently.”
“I’ll give it a try, sir,” Hicks said with another nod. “Thanks for listening.”
“Any time, son. Good luck tomorrow.”
After talking with Paulson, Hicks joined his team transferring the rest of their equipment from the dropship into the APC to bring back to the barracks building, which had several storage rooms for each team. The only items that couldn’t be kept in the barracks were the small arms and ammunition, which had to be secured in one of the base’s armories nearby.
Instead of keeping most of their equipment on their assigned Susquehanna-class transport, RIFTs almost always took the majority of it with them when they moved from base to base. The practice allowed them easy access to their entire inventory for practice or maintenance, although it did mean that every time they switched bases, got sent up to their ship to go out on a mission, or returned from a mission, they had to pack everything up and move it again. RIFT members became very proficient at packing and moving their equipment quickly, and most teams could do it all in under two hours. Most also had developed a good sense of what equipment could be left on their ship and not moved, which helped further decrease work time.
When he had finished with his duties, Hicks returned to his room to find Medinow had already made it back and was organizing the rest of his belongings. They had been given the rest of the day to wind down and relax or go to the gym or pool for exercise.
“Am I the only one who’s scared shitless that I’m going to teach someone the wrong way to do something and it’s gonna get them killed later on?” Medinow asked.
“I don’t think that’ll happen. It’s not like we’re taking untrained troops, giving them one lesson, and then tossing them out onto a real battlefield,” Hicks replied. “I’m more worried about not being able to explain something.”
“Oh, Latch was already fretting about that. He said that he can perform field surgery in his sleep, but doesn’t know how to explain his whole process.”
“That’s one thing you can’t exactly skip details on.”
“Nope. I don’t think any of our jobs are something you can skimp on details.”
Hicks shook his head. “And like Paulson said, this isn’t a race. This is a cooperative exercise. We’re supposed to be teaching and learning from each other.”
“I know. I’m just worried about fucking up, that’s all.”
“Don’t.” Hicks patted Medinow’s shoulder. “You’ll do fine. Hell, you’re probably the best teacher out of all of us, and the people we’ll be working with already know how to use and operate most of the equipment we use. It’s not like we’re training them from the ground up.”
“Yeah, that’s true. Still, I don’t want to let them down. Or let Travin and Vandran down.”
“You won’t. We’re just lucky we don’t have any extreme perfectionists on our team.”
“Latch comes closest to being a perfectionist, but that’s because his job doesn’t give room for error. He’s not an asshole about it, though.”
“Yeah, we don’t exactly want a diplomatic incident on our hands.” Hicks sat on his bed. “Do you wanna go to the base range and shoot for a while?”
“If you want to. I need to find something else to do.”
They stopped in at the armory to sign out weapons to take to the range. Hicks took an M16A5P and Medinow picked an M41A submachine gun. They found Levitsky and Sapatti already on the range practicing with their M39 submachine guns. There was some friendly banter between Medinow and the two pilots, but Hicks wasn’t paying attention as he was focused both on hitting his target and on trying to figure out how to open dialogue with Whittaker.
After spending some time on the range, Hicks and Medinow returned to their room, where Hicks began reading through a translation of one of the Tibetan training manuals to get a better idea of what the Tibetan troops were taught. He found himself occasionally looking over at Medinow’s posters, unfocused and distracted. The taller Marine was lying in bed, reading a book on Tibetan customs. At one point, he noticed Hicks was staring in his direction. “Do you need something?”
Hicks shook his head. “No. Just thinking.”
The base grew quiet as night fell over the mountains. As the members of RIFT 2 left the shower, Hicks observed Whittaker as he went about his business, not saying a word to anyone. He looked at Medinow as the bigger man ran his towel over his hair, spiking his thick, dark hair. “I don’t know what I could possibly say to fix things. I’ve been ‘killed’ in wargames before, but I never took it this hard.”
“I bet there’s something else on his mind,” Medinow replied. “We can’t help him until we figure out what it is. He’s always been quiet. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a damn good Marine when the situation calls for it, but he doesn’t really interact with the rest of us in our downtime. Remember in Netrayas, how he’d always request leave by himself? I assumed he was going out with a girl, so I never really paid much attention to it, but when Latchett and I went down to the beach to play volleyball with RIFT 1 one afternoon, I saw Whittaker sitting up on one of the cliffs overlooking the beach. He was completely alone.”
“Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people like being alone.”
“I get that, but-and please don’t think I’m nuts…”
“Something felt off. I couldn’t explain it. It just felt… off.”
Hicks nodded slightly as he got dressed. “No particular reason? Him being alone just felt off?”
“Pretty much. I just had a feeling that he shouldn’t be alone.” Medinow picked up his dirty uniform and shower supplies. “I don’t want him to get hurt.” “None of us do. We just need him to tell us what’s bothering him so we can help.” Hicks picked up his own belongings and followed Medinow back to their room. He knew tomorrow was just going to be training and letting the Tibetans get an idea of how RIFTs operated, but that just meant there was a longer road of anxiety ahead until their first wargame.
Accompanying Music: Walk Through Fire – The Everlove
Mission Reports…………………………………………………………….Chapter 2 Coming Soon