Ink and Bourbon
Tilting at windmills. Because those windmills think they're better than us.

In Every Clime and Place - Chapter I
Paracynic, 2011
Science Fiction. 15 minutes. Strong language.

USS Tripoli, Asteroid belt patrol, 14 NOV 2050

I fanned my cards and held back a scowl.

"Two," I tossed a nine and a four into the heap of discards and held onto my pair of kings and a ten. I probably should have thrown away the ten, but I was hoping to intimidate Johnson and O'Rourke, who each took three cards.

Lance Corporal Sabatini, who had the deal, flicked my cards at me. "Dealer takes one."

She tried to keep her face blank, but I could see the glint in her eye. She had something good.

I looked at the cards she had given me. Jesus H. Christ! Another king and a ten. That was a full house. I hope I didn't react. That was far better than I hoped for.

PFC O'Rourke tossed the minimum two chip bet into the kitty. He wore his customary grin, but I could tell he wasn't happy with his hand. He usually looked like the leprechaun on the floor of the old Fleet Center, where our grandfathers watched the Celtics after the Gulf War. Today he looked like the same leprechaun with a stone in his shoe. He really was a decent poker player. I had just known him long enough that I could spot hints in his mannerisms that anyone else would miss. He had diddly squat.

He and I joined the Marines together twelve years earlier. We both made corporal within six. The difference was that I only had to make corporal twice to make it stick. Terrence O'Rourke and Michael Collins might have a lot in common, but I learned a lot quicker than he did. When he was around alcohol, he got very drunk, and very honest. That was bad for advancement. I had the same problem, but I liked my second stripe, so I learned to moderate my intake.

PFC Johnson was new to the platoon. This was his first cruise. I figured he must be a good Marine, because new boots usually have to do some Earthside duty before they get sent on belt patrol. He sure as hell hadn't been in an Earthside command long enough to play cards, because they'd never have let him go. He was a bad player, but, like a typical brainless Marine, had too much pride and grit to leave the table. I hadn't known him a month, but I could see his whole hand reflected in his pained expression. He slowly shuffled his cards, making combinations and muttering to himself. I would bet my pension that he had one pair, low face or high number and nothing else.

I felt for the kid. I told the rest of the platoon to limit the pots so he wouldn't get cleaned out every payday. I also think he played with us because he was trying extra hard to fit in. He was the new man, the only black Marine in my fire team and the only southern country boy. The rest of us were Yankee city kids.

For all his failings as a card player, he was a damn good automatic rifleman. He got the job because, at nineteen, he was young and athletic enough to lug the extra weight of the TAR and its ammo.

He raised the ante by one chip. Everybody saw that.

I looked carefully at Lcpl. Sabatini. She was holding some heat. Better than a full house? Maybe. She had an evil gleam in her dark eyes. She was a cutthroat player who grew up in New York City, then joined the Marines and qualified for infantry. Not many women do. She was not the type to take prisoners.

"I'll raise five," I decided.

Johnson put up with all the enthusiasm of a six year old getting a vaccination. Sabatini dropped in her chips with a flourish and a smirk, silently asking if that was the best I could do.

O'Rourke looked at me with a martyred expression.

"This is a stiff pot on PFC pay, Mick," he lamented, "and me your best buddy. Fellow Irish kid from Boston. You'd think that'd mean something." he shook his head sadly.

I wasn't swayed. "If you could hold your liquor, you'd probably be making sergeant's pay."

"Holdin' it isn't the problem. It's puttin' it down," he grinned self consciously.

"Christ, Terry, you've gotta be the world's oldest one-striper."

"I'm trying to get into Guinness."

"You're usually trying to get Guinness into you."

"Can you think of a more noble goal?"

"Conceded," I smirked, "but stop bitching about your E-2 pay."

"I was planning to take the difference from the new meat here," he jerked a thumb at Johnson, "but this cheating wop keeps winning." O'Rourke was not catching cards, so he decided to fall back on psychological warfare. Harass, rattle and distract the opposition.

Angelina Sabatini did not rattle easy.

"I'm after your pot o' gold," she smiled, returning racial slur for racial slur.

"Seriously, Mick, we should make her play with her sleeves rolled up. I know she's got a deck stashed up there. Or topless would be even better."

Good old Terry. When ethnic jabs fail, fall back on sexism.

"You think I'm robbing you guys now?" she countered, "If I distract you dirty old spud munchers any more, I'll be able to retire after this cruise."

"I don't object to losing money in a good cause," O'Rourke grinned.

"Cut the Blarney and show some chips, Marine," I said. He grumbled and put up.

Sabatini raised three more. O'Rourke folded, Johnson and I saw the raise and called.

"Pair of jacks," said Derrick Johnson.

Can I call 'em?

"Full house," I laid down my hand, "Kings over tens."

Johnson actually looked disappointed. My eyes, however, were on my lovely Italian teammate.

Her face fell.

"Damn. All I got is two pair."

I smiled and reached for the pot. She laid out two aces.

"A pair of ones," she continued, "and another pair of ones."

I looked in shock at the four aces. "Fuck."

"Tempting, Chief, but I think I'll settle for the cash." She scooped the pot from under my frozen fingers.

I shook my head sadly. It wasn't much money, but she had gotten me.

O'Rourke shuffled, "Another hand?"

I shook my head. "I'm going for a cup of Joe and a head call."

"Rotating the stock?" he asked.

"Pissing is the only exercise my poor pecker is getting on this trip."

"Your right hand shut you off?"

"Got jealous after it caught me with my left." I walked out before any of them could return a parting shot.

I was a corporal. These Marines were my fire team.

Technically, I should not be playing poker with them. I was a Noncommissioned Officer, albeit as low ranking an NCO as you could get. I should be maintaining a professional distance. There were several good reasons I was playing. First, we were away from the Fleet. We were on a small patrol corvette, which basically carried a platoon of Marines and the necessary Navy staff to keep us going. All told there were only thirty Marines, and a third of us were on duty at any given moment. So we were a bit short handed for cards.

Second, I felt that creating a bond within the team was more important than "professional distance," especially for a corporal. That would be kind of like a snail refusing to be seen with a slug.

Third, out here nobody was going to say anything. Lieutenant Mitchell didn't care what we did, so long as we pulled our duty, didn't break any government property, and fought like tigers when he told us to. Gunny Taylor was only concerned with our loyalty. I swear, if we robbed a bank on leave, he'd drive the getaway car. Nobody was going to screw with his Marines. He was the only one entitled to abuse us. For our part, we would low crawl over ground glass if he asked.

And, fourth, there just wasn't a damn thing to do out here.

We had eight hours a day on duty, either guard posts or combat drill, eight hours to sleep, two hours maintenance of the ship, and the remaining six were free time. After a month, we had exhausted the ships' movie library and the literary library was getting worn thin. There were no civilian women on board, little alcohol, and that pretty much left cards.

I won't say there was no sex, but it had been made impractical. The official Rules and Regs said no "fraternization" among military personnel in the same command. That meant the ship. That reg was used to keep women off Fleet duty for years, until some sage pointed out that eliminating the women doesn't eliminate the sex. I've never been down that road myself, but I can see somebody being convinced. I've been on some lonely cruises.

In practice, the brass looked the other way unless you caused a problem with screwing around. Unofficial Marine Corps policy was to screw Navy personnel and steal equipment from Army personnel. I understand the regs. Affairs cause problems. There was no privacy on a ship this small, and less than fifty people, so you couldn't stay away from somebody if you had a spat.

On the way back from the head, I ran into my squad leader, Sergeant McCray. He was a short, very muscular black Marine who only had two expressions: angry and disgusted. Right now he looked disgusted, which meant he had been given an assignment.

"Collins, your team ready for a landing?"

"Good to go, Sarge. What's the word?"

"Riots at a mining outpost. We got the usual shit detail. The lieutenant wants all the squad and team leaders in the chow hall at fourteen hundred. Tell your Marines to get their shit packed."

I groaned, "Aye aye. I'll break the news."

Teach me to complain about boredom.

I had fifteen minutes to get to the meeting. I stuck my head through the hatch where my Marines were still at the table.

"Secure the game," I ordered, "and get ready to hit the beach." It was still a beach. To us, any landing was a beach.

"What's up, Corporal?" Johnson was the only one still new enough to call me by rank.

"Time to earn some combat pay, Marine. I got a meeting with the Powers That Be in ten minutes. I'll let you know whatever they tell me then."

"Get used to being a mushroom, lad," O'Rourke told Johnson.


"They keep us in the dark and feed us shit," Sabatini explained.

I don't know when that expression came into use in the Corps, but if somebody told me it was two days after our founding in 1775, I'd believe it.

"Suck it up, Marines. I'm off. I'll be back as soon as I can."

I made my way to the chow hall, thinking about the mission. I didn't have any specifics, but it seemed like the kind of thing we had been doing for damn near three centuries.

I was one of the first to reach the chow hall. I got a cup of coffee and sat down to wait for the lieutenant. He entered shortly, waving us down as we stood to attention. Within a few minutes, we were all assembled.

"All" is a misleading term. The platoon leadership consisted of Lt Mitchell, Lt. Evers: our intel and operations officer, Gunnery Sergeant Taylor, Sergeants McCray, Hernandez and Pilsudski, our squad leaders, and six lowly corporals, who led the two fire teams in each squad.

"Afternoon, Marines," Lt Mitchell barked. We responded.

The lieutenant was nearing forty, his crew cut revealed his hairline engaged in a heroic fighting retreat. He was too old to be a First Lieutenant, but we were all too old for our ranks. The Marine Corps didn't have any money to throw around. Promotions weren't handed out for merit, they were used to fill a slot. I was a corporal at thirty, and O'Rourke would get false teeth before sergeant stripes.

"We have just received orders from Battalion command on Halsey. There's a workers' uprising on some Godforsaken rock and we're the closest force in the area. Our mission is just to evacuate American and USNE government liaisons and social workers from the installation. The riots are the mining company's problem. The population of the asteroid is around ten thousand, so we ain't going to try to squash a rebellion with thirty Marines."

"If you want to make it fair, sir, I could just take my squad," Sgt Pilsudski offered. He was a tall, blond Pole from New Jersey. He was the most reserved Marine I ever met. He didn't drink, hardly swore and I'd never seen him run around with women. He was also a bloodthirsty maniac. When he got a mission, his whole face lit up. His squad was cross trained in reconnaissance. They got off on operating alone, making crazy forced marches and flanking maneuvers. He was my fire team leader in Africa. I remember some insane hit and run raids we pulled on the guerillas. He was in his early thirties, maybe three or four years older than I.

Just for some background, we were a basic rifle platoon, but since we weren't with the company, each squad had a secondary specialization. Pilsudski's was recon, Hernandez Marines were combat engineers, and McCray's were heavy weapons. We very rarely used crew served weapons on a mission like this, but we had them just in case. On this deployment, we were so damn bored, we had all cross trained a bit in every specialty. The training broke up the monotony. We still bitched, of course, but it was a relief to try something new.

Second Lieutenant Evers called up a map on the tri-D projector. The inside of the asteroid was hollowed out, airlocks had been installed, and living quarters were built in the interior of the rock. It was laid out like a city. Streets for public transport and ore haulers, residential blocks, an entertainment district (I held out a secret hope that we would be selected to secure that) and the corporate office and legation section. That was where the officials we were out to rescue would be. It was also were the rioters would be thickest, as they would target Corporate property. Joy.

"Alright, Marines, here's the situation. The workers are rioting. There are ten thousand people on this rock, say four thousand potentially dangerous. How many are against us, we have no idea. They are armed with personal defensive weapons: low velocity sidearms, knives, clubs, modified mining equipment, definitely some home made explosives. Mining involves some blasting, so expect some of these guys to have rigged up crude grenades. The corporate guards have FN and HK assault rifles, submachine guns and shotguns. They have a handful of crew served weapons. They should co-operate with us, but they are not under our command, not our allies and not to be trusted. The only friendlies you can count on are on this ship right now, plus six Marines at the embassy compound.

"The artificial gravity on this rock is zero-point-eight G. Atmosphere is Terran standard. The whole interior is pressurized, and if that's compromised, they won't need us.

"The mission is to make our way to the legation quarter here," he stabbed a button and an area of the map turned red, "round up the embassy personnel, USNE officials, dependents, and those claiming asylum, and get them back to the airlock. We will then shuttle them back to the ship, holding the airlock for as many trips as it takes.

"Sgt Hernandez's and one of his fire teams will guard the assault shuttle and the airlock. Sgt McCray and Pilsudski, along with Hernadez's other team, will continue to the legation and collect our people. I think we will take this route," he traced a road on the map, "as it is the most direct. Ski will lead the way, McCray's squad will follow. We won't take any vehicles in, the roads are probably barricaded. If we are attacked, Ski's squad falls back to the main body and we fight our way through. Keep under control. Don't blow up any more of this rock than we have to." He turned to Sgt Pilsudski. "You're the guide, Ski. If you want to detour around anything, just say so."

"Aye, aye, Sir," the sergeant replied, a nasty smile forming on his lips. He was a damn good Marine, but something wasn't quite right about that man. He really enjoyed this shit. I was glad he was on our side, though.

"When we reach the legation, we will assess the need for transport. If necessary, we will obtain it. Lt Evers has information that a few light vehicles are within the embassy gates, and if we need more, we'll borrow them from corporate or take them from somebody."

Gunny Taylor walked in carrying an ammo can. He placed it in front of Lt. Mitchell. The lieutenant reached in and grabbed a handful of rounds. He passed them to the sergeants, who kept one and handed four to each corporal. I looked at the cartridges in my palm when Sgt. McCray gave them to me.

They were beanbag rounds. Designed to fit in the 20mm grenade launchers under the barrels of our rifles, they were designed to knock a man down without killing him. In theory. The human body is a tricky thing. One man will die from a kick in the stomach, and another will keep coming with a bullet in his head. People have died from "nonlethal" projectiles. The fact that we got them indicated that we were to expect lightly armed crowds.

"Orders are that we carry nonlethals," Lt Mitchell went on, "Give each Marine in your fire team one of those.

That covers my ass when I have to tell HQ that all my Marines carried them in addition to ball ammo. We don't want a fight, but I will not take casualties to protect corporate property or civilian rioters. We carry full weapon and ammo load. The corporate guards have real weapons, and some of them might have been captured. If anybody aims a weapon at your Marines, cap the bastard.

"We shove off at nineteen hundred. The ride in the assault craft should be one hour. Any questions?"

I had none. It was the same old shit to me. Keep your Marines in formation, stay alert, keep your interval, spot the enemy before he can hit you and shoot straighter than he does. Immediate action drills to respond to ambushes, mines or attacks from any given direction had become second nature to us. Half of the platoon had been blooded in the Wars of Stabilization in Africa before heading for the stars. The routes, equipment loads, negotiations and so on were for those of more exalted rank than my humble self.

After we were dismissed, I made my way back to my fire team's bunk area. Each team shared a room with four racks that folded into the bulkheads, two to a side, four wall lockers, and four foot lockers. Cpl Chan's team had an identical room separated from ours by a shower room, head and Sgt McCray's office and bedroom.

My team had their weapons and armor ready for inspection when I came in. I looked Johnson over carefully. This was his first "hot" deployment with us, maybe his first ever. He had everything picture perfect out of the Guidebook. I reached out and unpinned his PFC insignia from his collar.

"We don't wear rank in combat," I explained, removing my own double chevron pins from my faded olive drab utility jacket. "Don't advertise the leaders to enemy snipers. For Christ's sake don't salute either of the L-T's either."

"Got it, corp," he nodded eagerly.

Other than the chevrons, he looked fine. His Team Automatic Rifle was spotless, ammo can hooked to the side, but the belt not yet loaded.

O'Rourke and Sabatini were locked on, but I checked them over anyway, just so Johnson wouldn't feel singled out.

"Set your sight elevation for zero-point-eight G," I told them, unfastening the combination lock on my Advanced Combat Rifle where it was fastened to my rack. I slipped the chain through the weapon, then made the adjustments to the sights.

The ACR was a stubby little weapon, with a five millimeter rifle barrel on top and a twenty millimeter grenade launcher underneath. Both were magazine fed, the fifty round mag for the caseless 5mm rounds bullpup fashion behind the pistol grip and the ten round mag for the grenades just in front of the trigger guard. The sight was a scope capable of magnification up to 10X, low light, or infrared sighting, with a laser range finder. If that marvel of technology failed, it could be folded over to the side to expose low tech iron sights. It was a good weapon, but Chesty Puller, patron saint of the Corps, would have been disappointed. There was no bayonet attachment.

The adjustable G settings on the sight were a quick fix to make the weapon serviceable in space. Several truly recoilless weapons designed for zero G were in development. The Army was issuing one on a trial basis right now. Maybe when we got back to Mars base, we could swipe some from the division at Fort Schwartzkopf. I took the heavy body armor from my footlocker. I slipped my head through the neck hole, then zipped up the sides under my arms. I would zip up the neck later, as the thing was heavy as hell and I don't like to sweat more than I have to. The armor was made of layers of ballistic nylon with ceramic plates sewn between them to protect the vitals. A blunted triangle of armor hung down over my family jewels, giving me a feeling of added security. I donned my helmet, lowered the plexi visor to test the fit, and keyed the internal mike.

"Fire team check. Johnson, you read me?"

"Five by five, corp."





Satisfied, I removed the helmet. "Uncover, Marines. Okay, here's the plan..."

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