Rituals by Rick Partlow

RITUALS

Rick Partlow

 

McKay was pushed into his acceleration couch as thelander rocketed away from her monolithic mothership,leaping with a lemming’s enthusiasm toward the sullen planet below.

– It’s just another Balls-In, – he repeated silently, – Just anothersimulation.

That was what he’d told himself on every Ballistic Insertion he’d experienced since he’d enlisted. It had worked, too, back when he’d been a private, green and fresh out of college. But now he was Second Lieutenant Jason McKay, commanding his own reaction squad, and that blue-green hemisphere that filled the forward view screens wasn’t Earth. He was some twenty light-years from home, above the second world out from 82 Eridani, and it was all too real.“Whatever could have possessed me” – he wondered, – “to go to Officer’s Candidate School?”

– Sir? – Sergeant Wolczk turned to him, confusion furling his Cro-Magnonesque brows.
McKay realized with a start that he must have unconsciously vocalized part of that internal question.

– Uh…I was just asking if everything was secure, Gunny. -McKay lied.

– Oh, yes, sir. -the burly Marine sergeant said with a grin,- All the troops’re strapped in and everything’s battened down.

– Good. You okay back there, Constable Mei? – McKay craned his neck around to speak to the man behind him.

Looking lost in the smallest combat armor they’d been able to find, Mei Shin Lao made an unlikely cop; but the spindly, fiftyish Laotian was the chief constable of Inferno, one of the roughest colony worlds of the Republic.

– Yes, I am quite secure, thank you. – Mei replied.

– When the guano hits the turbines, stick close to me. -McKay told him, – Don’t get me wrong, – he hastened to add, – I’m sure you can handle yourself, but Marines train to a certain attack pattern, and if you’re not in a ‘friendly’zone, they’re likely to pump you first and ID the remains later.

– I will do as you suggest, Lieutenant. Thank you for your concern.

– It’d be a good idea for you to watch where you’re moving too, Captain. – McKay told the other occupant of the command compartment who sat beside, and dwarfed by comparison, Constable Mei.

Captain Miguel Hernandez was a fair-haired Titan in the bulky, black armor of the Colonial Guard, a weighty rocket rifle wedged between his knees.

– I will go where I damn well please, McKay! – the Argentinian snapped, – And I still plan to file an official protest with the governor about this unacceptable command structure. I am your superior officer, and I should be leading this attack.

– Regulations, Captain. – McKay reminded him, visibly unimpressed with the man, – Only a Marine officer can lead Marines in a combat situation.

– Then it should be Guard troops leading the assault! -the big man smacked the plastic lining on the bulkhead with his armor-gloved fist.

– Nearest Guard troops are two days out, on Eden. -McKay said, a flush of heat travelling swiftly up the back of his neck.

– It’s only blind luck we were this close to Inferno. I assume you’d like to retake the base while some of your soldiers are still alive? – the Captain’s eyes narrowed in a look meant to seem threatening, but rendered ludicrous by the convergence of the man’s bushy blond eyebrows.- I find your tone offensive, Lieutenant.

– That’s a damn shame. – McKay grunted, feeling the checks slip off his temper.

He was millimeters from a court-martial offense when the lander’s de-orbit burn ended and free-fall rescued him.

– If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to brief my squad. – Un-strapping himself, McKay grabbed a handhold and shoved himself through the hatchway back into the troop compartment. Sergeant Wolczk scrambled to follow, moving in the null gravity with practiced ease.

– Ten-shut! -Wolczk’s voice cut through the squad’s chatter as the pair halted themselves inside the compartment.

The squad fell silent and turned in their acceleration couches to face McKay. He silently scanned the faces of the nine men and three women. Remembering their names wasn’t too difficult: they were emblazoned on the breasts of their fatigues. What was hard was attaching anything meaningful to those names. Out of the twelve,he could only put together as much as a thumbnail sketch of three.Closest to him was Corporal Ari Shamir, the quiet young Israeli who always seemed to be reading something. Next to the corporal was Shawn Dobbs, a giant of a man who McKay knew didn’t give a damn for officers in general and him in particular. Over in the corner was Joanna Corson, the skinny, Canadian private with the squeaky voice that everyone was always mimicking. He’d only been in command for four months, and almost half of that had been spent unconscious in the g-tanks. He wished he knew them better…but it was probably better that he didn’t.

– It’s about a half-hour till we hit atmosphere. – McKay announced in what he hoped was a calm, steady voice, – You know the score. Some local politician name’s Luan Shou Shin has the Asian immigrants in New Saigon stirred up about the local conditions. He’s got about a hundred of them together–mostly Pan-asian Alliance exiles from the Uprising–and they took Inferno’s Colonial Guard armory, got ahold of some heavy weapons. The local cops only have antipersonnel, riot control stuff, so they called on us to pull the CeeGee’s ass out of the fire.

– So what else is new? – somebody muttered, sotto voce.

– What kinds of heavy weapons are we talking about, sir? -Shamir asked.

– Rocket rifles, assault cannons, lots of heavy personal armor. – McKay replied, – Maybe a couple of attack vehicles. Luan and his people have combat experience,but we don’t know if they’re familiar with high-tech targeting systems. Standard tactics, though: hit ‘em hard and fast, and hit ‘em again before they know what’s happening. Take out their vehicles first, then penetrate the building. I wish we could just level the place, but we’ve got to bust out the Guard troops they’re holding.

– How’d they take the armory in the first place? – asked a skinny private with ears two sizes too big for his head.

His name was…Nichols, that was it.

– Inside help: civilians working maintenance. Theysuckered everyone in, gassed them with their ownsecurity system. The good Captain managed to escape to warn the cops and they called us…We were the closest thing available since the Bradley was refueling at the solar antimatter factory. Mei and Hernandez managed to get to the planet’s only shuttle and came up to help us coordinate the attack.

– Damn CeeGee’s were always a bunch of amateurs. -Dobbs muttered.

– At ease with that crap, Dobbs! – Wolczk snapped.

– Just stay tight and listen to Gunny and we’ll all get through this. – McKay finished, hoping he sounded convincing to them… because he sure as hell didn’t believe it himself.

* * *

Wind buffeted the bulbous lander as it descended through the upper layers of Inferno’s atmosphere, the ship’s delta wings grabbing furtively at the gradually thickening air, its heat shielding glowing with ionized fire.This was the part of a Balls-In that always made McKay sweat: the moment between the shutdown of the hydrogen-fluorine rockets and the start-up of the ramjets.“The jets won’t start!” -his mind screamed at him, “We’re all going to die!”.But the crew in the cockpit was expert; the jets sucked in air and ignited, kicking them all soundly in the pants.McKay resumed breathing and hit the intercom switch on the bulkhead beside him.

– All right, boys and girls. – he announced, – We de-ass in twelve minutes. Wait for the smoke and use your thermal sights. Everyone secure helmets and check your seals.Good luck and good hunting.

– Good hunting? – Mei repeated, cocking an eyebrow.

– Just a kind of ritual. – McKay shrugged uncomfortably,not wanting to go into how he had picked up the expression from a previous commander.

He slipped on his armored battle helmet and secured its airtight yoke.

– Oh, yes. – Mei laughed humorlessly, – A ritual. – he pulled on his borrowed helm and continued the conversation through its comlink, – All cultures have their rituals, do
they not, Lieutenant?

– I guess, – McKay muttered, wishing the man would dropit.

– And what we are about to do, – Mei continued, caressing the assault rifle strapped across his chest, – Is surely the oldest ritual of all.

* * *

New Saigon was a city in flames. It hardly seemed possible in an age of plastiform buildings; electric-powered transportation; fusion generators and beamed energy transmission; but Inferno was not Earth. Many buildings were constructed out of native wood, and many vehicles ran on methane or alcohol. Add to that mixture several dozen self-styled revolutionaries liberally tossing around firebombs the night before, stir vigorously, and voila! one family-sized bonfire. People had stampeded through the packed-dirt streets of the low, sprawling town, screaming in uncontrolled panic, leaving their possessions behind, abandoning the city to its fate and heading down the river as the flames burned high into the early hours of the morning. But that had been last night. Now the fires burned in solitude, those not lucky enough to escape the flames left as smoldering corpses in the smoking wreckage.

The living remnant in the city was gathered into two armed camps. The Exiles under Luan Shou-Shin were held up inside the Colonial Guard planetary armory, the largest building in New Saigon. Attack vehicles prowled the street without waiting for the assault they expected from the constabulary unit out of Peiping, the nearest city, whom they assumed Mei’s people had called. Mei’s constables, meanwhile, were barricaded in the local Government Center, waiting for something more potent than a handful of riot police.And on the river that bordered the city on the east, some of the more daring souls watched from the shelter of crudely built wooden rafts to see if or when the two groups would finally decide to shoot it out.

For hours, they had been disappointed: nothing had happened.Until an ear splitting sonic boom shattered every window left intact in the city.The light-grey Fleet Marine lander bled off speed as it curved back around the rain-sodden fields west of the city, then came in low and slow two streets behind the armory, belching thick clouds of dark, electro-statically charged smoke that obscured eye and electronic sensor alike. It hovered for a scant moment less than two meters above the street, vectored-thrust jets swirling the smoke around it as a rear egress hatch flew open and sixteen figures dropped into the darkness below. Its job done,the lander moved on to circle the armory, still trailing smoke, and headed west to the farmlands to touch down lightly on its VTOL jets.

Buried in gouts of impenetrable fog, the two attack vehicles on the street fired blindly and desperately, filling the air with missiles, explosive shells and laser pulses,until first one then the other exploded in an incandescent cloud of molten metal, as missiles tipped with chemical hyper-explosives found their weak spots. The two Marines responsible dropped their shoulder-fired launchers,unslung their auto-rifles, and ran to join the rest of the squad.

– Shamir. – Gunny Wolczk radioed, – Take your group and hit the rear entrance. The rest of you follow the LT and me.

Before he had finished speaking, a half-dozen Pan-Asians in CeeGee armor scrambled out of the front entrance firing rocket rifles at targets whose positions they only half-understood from their helmets’ unfamiliar optics. Dobbs and LeClerc swung around their gimbal mounted, dual-drum-fed autoguns,received the signal tones from their helmet-gun targeting links, and opened up on the revolutionaries. Their nearly-recoilless, polymer autoguns spat out a deadly barrage of alternating tungsten penetrators and hyper-explosive 12mm frag rounds, theone-two punch hammering through the thick armor and butchering the men within, turning the six defenders into scrap metal and scattered bodily parts in less than a second.

– Smoke, Peterson. – Wolczk ordered.

The PFC pulled a pair of canisters out of a belt pouch, jerked out their pins and tossed them through the big, open double doors, filling the entrance corridor with clouds of inky smoke that spread through the building as quickly as the fire had spread through the city. With the entrance cleared, Dobbs ducked inside first, followed by Wolczk, while McKay and his two guests led the remainder of the group in, leaving LeClerc to guard the rear. Confused, unarmored Exiles, running helter-skelter through the hallways, balked at the sight of the invading Marines and tried to bring up appropriated weapons – or tried to turn and run the other way, but were either blown into hamburger by Dobb’s gun or pumped with tantalum core 6mm slugs from the others’ rifles.

– Command station to the left. – Hernandez announced,running up beside McKay, his armored boots ringing on the floor like hammer blows.

– Captain. – McKay instructed, – Go with Peterson and LeClerc and secure the command station. If you can, try to grab someone alive and find out if all of your people are being held in the detention cells downstairs. That’s where we’ll be headed. Call me if you find anything.

– As you say. -the Guard officer agreed, noticeably more cooperative now that the adrenaline had begun to pump, – But I cannot promise I will be able to restrain myself with any of these vermin. – he headed off to the left, followed by the two Marines.

– He’s a wonderful guy. – Wolczk muttered to McKay over their private channel.

– Yeah. C’mon, Gunny, let’s go find those thumb-fingered CeeGees. – he switched over to Mei’s channel, – You doing okay, Constable?

– Fine, thank you. – Mei said calmly, even as he spun on his heel and put a single round into an incoming rifleman.

McKay grinned.

– I can see that you are. All right, Dobbs, take point. Casey, watch our backs.

The six men set off at a brisk trot, disdaining the nearby elevator banks for the emergency stairwell while PFC Casey covered their backs with another smoke grenade. The door to the stairwell was locked… and shortly it was nonexistent, after Dobbs let it have a top-to-bottom burst. He led the way and the others filed through behind him. Glancing at Dobbs, McKay idly entertained the thought that the man must be wearing an industrial exoskeleton under his armor. Even with what had to be forty-five kilos of gun, armor and ammo, the big man took the stairs three at a time.They reached the door to the detention level unopposed, Wolczk trying it and finding it locked. Dobbs was about to do his number on it when McKay got a transmission over his helmet comlink and put a restraining hand on the gunner’s arm.

– Wait a second. – McKay ordered, – What was that?

– This is Captain Hernandez. – the Argentinean repeated, – I have the command station secured, but your trooper Peterson is dead.

– Damn! – McKay hissed, feeling like he’d been kicked in the nuts, – Did… did you capture anyone alive?

– Not yet. But the security scanners are working. I have the detention level on the screen.It appears that all of my men are being held there, and they are heavily guarded: a dozen men, five in armor, one with an assault cannon.

– What’s the layout?

– The ones in armor are patrolling the halls; the one with the heavy gun is on your right.The seven others are in the detention control center at the left end, about fifty meters down the hall.

– Can you gas the ones in the control center? – McKay asked hopefully.

– Negative. The gas cells are dry. If you will wait, we will come down to aid you…

– No. – McKay cut him off, – I need you to coordinate with Corporal Shamir. Get ahold of him, and let him know if there’s any concentrations of enemy and where they are.Try to find Mei’s people…

– I can see them on the outside scanners already, – Hernandez interrupted, – They’re approaching the front entrance, about twenty of them.

– All right. – McKay sighed, – Contact Corporal Shamir and get them working together. We’re going to free your men. I’ll call you when the smoke clears. McKay out.

He turned back to his half-squad.

– All right, let’s do it by the numbers. The second Dobbs takes out that door, I want Casey to toss in a smoke grenade. We got a gunner on the right, four others in armor up and down the hall,plus seven regulars at the end of the corridor.Nichols, you draw the gunner’s fire, give Dobbs enough time to get in and nail him. Gunny, you and me’ll try to take out the guys on the left quick with grenades. Watch your aim though, we got CeeGees on both sides of the hall.Casey, you and Mei wait until the hall is clear, then go take the detention control center. Use gas grenades if possible, but don’t take any chances. Everybody ready?

A chorus of “Aye sir’s” answered him as Casey pulled out his last smoke grenade.McKay fed a rocket-assisted anti armor grenade into the launcher mated to the side of his autorifle, and the others followed his example.

– Okay, Dobbs, do it!

Dobbs squeezed the trigger of his weapon, lifting the muzzle from the base of the door upwards, blowing it into scattered bits of debris with a metallic roar. Casey chucked in his smoke bomb, then Nichols followed it through the doorway, rolling into a crouch in the center of a corridor lined with transparent plastiform cell doors.Clouds of smoke billowing around him, Nichols fired his grenade launcher by reflex at the first target he saw, an armored guard standing just to the right and in front of the assault gunner. The anti-armor grenade took the man at belt level and blew him in half in a deafening explosion that splattered everything within ten meters with blood and metal fragments.The Pan-Asian gunner was momentarily startled, but he was also a combat veteran. He swung around his twenty kilo weapon and fired two rounds at Nichols through the smoke. Even as the gunner was firing, Dobbs was squeezing through the stairwell door behind Nichols and more armored troops were running up from the left,taking wild shots at the incoming Marines.The gunner’s volley missed Nichols by a good meter, the rocket-assisted rounds impacting a cell door with a double-thunderclap,punctuated by the screams of the Guard soldiers within.Dobbs growled deep in his throat and hosed the gunner with a ten-round burst of 12mm that chewed up the firing mechanism of the rebel’s cannon before decapitating him.Behind Dobbs, Wolczk and McKay intercepted the advancing armored troops with a pair of rocket grenades,each of them downing a man with explosions that shook the halls. That left one armored Asian, no time for the two Marines to reload their launchers, Constable Mei not yet through the doorway, and Dobbs facing the other direction.

– Dobbs! – was all McKay had time to say as he andWolczk and the Asian revolutionary opened up with their rifles almost simultaneously.

McKay could see his shots ricocheting off the heavy armor on the man’s chest and tried to adjust upward toward the faceplate, but a stream of smoke-trails was already erupting from the Exile’s rocket rifle. All McKay could do was stare in helpless amazement as two of the 15mm, gyro-stabilized mini-rockets punched through the honeycomb boron-ceramic armor over Wolczk’s chest and blew a fist-sized hole in his back. An eyeblink later, the gunner was dismembered by along burst from Dobb’s autogun, but Jason’s horrified gaze was glued to the Gunny. His body seemed to float to the floor with impossible slowness, and through his faceplate Jason could see a look not of pain or fear but of profound confusion. Those squinting, half-alive eyes locked with McKay’s and for one uncanny moment he felt frozen in time, as if Gunny Wolczk’s death were such an unnatural thing that the universe wouldn’t allow it to occur. But then his shoulders touched the floor, breaking the spell, and Casey and Mei took off at a double-time down the corridor toward the control center, leaving McKay and Dobbs gaping in disbelief at the lifeless body of Gunnery Sergeant Van Wolczk. McKay heard someone moaning softly, like a man slowly dying, and realized that it was coming from him.“Nichols”, his brain whispered like some stranger clearing his throat for attention. “Where’s Nichols?”As if in response to his thoughts, an eddy of smoke rose from the floor to reveal PFC Arturo Nichols sprawled face-down a few meters away.

– Aw Jesus. – McKay knelt beside him and gently turned the eighteen-year-old over, but he was gone, his throat blown out by a mini-rocket, – Dobbs! – McKay ordered through clenched teeth, – Go help Casey–now!

– Yes…aye, sir. – the big man nodded slowly, tearing his gaze away from the Sergeant and turning to run down the corridor as gunshots sounded from the direction ofthe detention control center.

McKay left the two bodies and walked over to the cell door that had been shattered by the assault cannon. There were seven men inside; all dressed in the light-green duty fatigues of the Colonial Guard. Three of them were clearly dead, their uniforms shredded from the fragments both of the door and the Asian’s cannon rounds. The other four were alive, but they had seen better days. One was conscious: a slim, young east African with a broken and swollen nose and blood running from his left ear. He looked up at McKay, blinking his eyes to clear them, and tried to get to his knees, coughing from the smoke drifting down the corridor.

– Who are you? – he asked in accented English.

– Marines. – McKay told him over his helmet’s external speaker.

Offering a hand, he pulled the soldier to his feet.

– Are you okay? -he shook his head.

– I can’t hear you so good, but I want to fight them.

– Come on then. – McKay urged, waving for the man to follow.

The soldier grabbed a rocket rifle from one of the dead rebels and hefted the heavy weapon confidently. McKay glanced around him. There were dozens of other Guard troops in the other cells in the corridor, pounding soundlessly, screaming without being heard behind the soundproof doors. Without a computer key card, McKay realized, there was no way to open the cells except from the control center. Jason signaled for them to wait with an upheld hand, and they seemed to relax.

– Casey, this is McKay. – he radioed, – Sitrep.

– Control center is ours, sir. – Casey reported, – We’ve got a couple live ones. They say Luan Shou Shin’s somewhere on this level.

– Right. Stay there till you hear from Shamir. See if you can get the cell doors unlocked.

– We’ll try, sir. It may take a while… Some of the control boards were hit.

– Do your best.

– Sir. – Casey wondered, – What about Luan?

– Don’t worry. – McKay replied grimly, – I’m going to find him.McKay out.

The Lieutenant turned to his new-found ally,who appeared to be getting impatient.

– C’mon. – he motioned, – We’ve got to find… – he was interrupted by the ringing echo of a gunshot, and a shrill scream somewhere off to his right.

– Dammit! -Jason took off headlong down the corridor with the African at his heels.
Rounding a curve to the left, they saw a tall, rakishly-mustached Chinese male whom Jason recognized from the threat briefings as Luan ShouShin calmly firing a pistol into an open cell of restrainer bound Colonial Guard troops. Two were already dead,and he was lining up on a third…

– Son of a bitch! – Jason opened up with his autorifle, the deep-throated stutter of his weapon in sharp contrast with the muted cough of the young Guardsman’s rocket rifle.

The Exile leader danced backwards under the impact of half a magazine of McKay’s 6mm slugs before a pair of mini-rockets blew his skull apart like a water balloon. The African soldier, his eyes wide and wild, kept pumping round after round into the corpse until his weapon went dry. What was left of Luan by the time the rifle’s ammo drum hit empty bore little resemblance to a human being. By instinct more than anything else, McKay swept the area with his helmet sensors, but saw only more imprisoned Guard troops. Letting out a deep sigh, Jason felt a shudder run through him, all the fear and an gerand hatred welling up inside his gut, rising like gorge in his throat.It shouldn’t have happened like this. They had done everything by the book, no mistakes, but Gunny and the rest were still dead. McKay had to shake his head to dispel the memory of the experienced Gunnery Sergeant greeting his new Lieutenant, merged with the lingering image of the same man’s limp and lifeless body. Eventually, he realized that someone was speaking to him over his helmet comlink.

– …tenant McKay, are you there, sir? – it was Shamir.

– I’m here. Report. – he was surprised at how calm his voice was.

– The base is clean, sir. – Shamir’s voice told of physical and emotional exhaustion, – No resistance left anywhere if Captain Hernandez is reading the sensors correctly. -along pause, and McKay could hear him taking a deep breath, – We lost Corson and Dundee. Richards and Mitchell are wounded, but they should both pull through.

– Call the lander. – McKay ordered, fighting to keep his brain working just a little longer, – Have them contact the Bradley, send out a medical unit.Get Mei’s people to set up a temporary hospital till we can evac the wounded. Get some stretchers down to the detention level, some of the CeeGees’ll need treatment.

– Aye, sir.

– Oh, and Shamir… – McKay trailed off, his voice catching in his throat, – You’re acting Sergeant.

– Uh…yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.

Jason leaned heavily against the wall and slid slowly down to the floor. He knew he should help the young African untie the CeeGees. He knew he should gather up his men and get them to the command center… but not just now.

* * *

It was about a half an hour later before McKay, Casey and Dobbs made their way back up to the commandcenter, leaving Mei and his cops on the detention level to care for the wounded. Small fires burned in places and the corridors were filled with drifting smoke that coated the walls with soot. Bodies of rebels, and a few of local police littered the hallways, but McKay studiously avoided looking at them.As the three Marines approached the entrance to the command center, they heard the sounds of some kind of disturbance from their destination: shouts, crashing furniture, and the unmistakable sound of flesh striking flesh. McKay was too drained to hurry. He just continued walking at a normal gait toward the wide, open doorway.

– Tell me! – Hernandez’s voice reached them before they came to the entrance. – Tell me where he is! – the smack of a fist into flesh echoed off the walls.

McKay came to the doorway and saw the brawny Guard Captain, sans armor, clutching a bound Vietnamese teenager by the shirtfront with one hand and slapping him with the other. Blood was already flowing from the youth’s nose and mouth, and he looked only half-conscious.

– Captain Hernandez. – McKay pulled off his helmet and tossed it and his rifle to Casey, – Just what are you doing with that Marine prisoner? – hisvoice was soft, but deadly as a loaded gun.

– McKay, you… – Hernandez spun around, but hesitated in mid-bluster.
The grim set of McKay’s jaw was enough to give even the arrogant Guard Captain pause.

– I was attempting to force the whereabouts of Luan Shou Shin from this Exile scum we captured.

– Put him down. – McKay ordered.

– I will have the truth from him. – Hernandez insisted, voice rising like a child denied a toy, – That Goddamned gook is responsible for my personal humiliation! Having to run from the city like a child…

– I said. – McKay repeated, stepping up and punching the Captain full in the face with a straight left, – Put him down!

Hernandez pitched over backward, hands going to his nose, while his prisoner slumped to his knees. The Guard Captain spat out a red blob, swearing through clenched teeth as he struggled to his feet.

– Bastard! – Hernandez started into a lunge for McKay, but Corporal Shamir appeared like a wraith, interposing his autorifle between the two officers.

– Don’t. – was all the Israeli said.

– Luan Shou Shin is dead. – McKay told Hernandez, his voice more tired than angry, – I killed him, with the help of one of your men. Remember your men, Captain? The reason we didn’t just bomb this building to rubble? The reason I just got five good people killed? I’ll tell you one thing Hernandez, it sure as hell wasn’t to save your reputation. Why don’t you go and see to your men, Captain? Why don’t you just get the hell out of my sight.

Hernandez looked as if he were about to say something,but reconsidered after a glance at Shamir’s assault rifle. Wiping a hand across his chin, the Captain turned on his heel and stomped out of the room. McKay stepped over to the other side of the command center, where the two wounded Marines lay. Richards, a hard-muscled woman with hair shorter than McKay’s and skin the color of dark chocolate leaned against the wall with half-closed eyes, her left thigh swathed in a thick field bandage. Mitchell, a wiry, pale teenager who’d joined their squad at the same time as McKay, was stretched out unconscious, an oxygen mask over his face and a soaked-through dressing taped to his right side.Jean LeClerc, bereft of both his helmet and his autogun,was leaning over Mitchell, checking his vital signs with as mall, electronic sensor.

– How is he? – McKay asked the French-Canadian.

LeClerc shrugged.

– Lost a lot of blood. Got maybe three shattered ribs, a punctured right lung. He’ll live, but he could use some attention, and soon.

McKay nodded then went over to squat beside Richards.

– How’re you doing, Private Richards?

– Feeling no pain, sir. – she said, grinning, eyes slightly out of focus, – Jean’s got me pumped with some good shit.

– Her femur’s broken. – Jean told him, – But the artery’s still intact. She’ll be fine. They’ll have it fused and she’ll be walking in a few days.

– Good. – Jason patted her on the shoulder, – You take it easy. The med techs’ll be here soon.

– McKay straightened and moved to where Shamir was leaning on the commo board,talking to the lander.

Jason sat on the edge of the panel and waited for the Corporal to finish.The young Israeli finally signed off and looked over to his Lieutenant.

– Lander says the medevac team’ll be here in five minutes, sir.

– You did a good job taking this place. – McKay told him honestly.

Shamir just nodded. His short, black hair was matted with sweat, and there were lines of exhaustion in his face.

– Sir… – he trailed off helplessly.

– What? – McKay prompted.

– I don’t understand why they did it, sir. – he said, shaking his head, – They had to know they couldn’t hold this place. Why didn’t they just hit it and fade back into the crowd? Why wait here and get slaughtered?

Jason started to answer, but hesitated. In a moment like this, did the young corporal really want to hear his college professor’s theories of terrorist tactics and symbolic martyrdom? Hell, what did that professor know about death?

– It’s just a ritual, Ari. – he sighed, – Just a ritual.

Written by Rick Partlow

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Like it or don’t, I ain’t your mother. Stay cool y’all.

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