“Okay, listen up, cockroaches!” The sergeant’s voice echoed in the docking bay. We had just trooped off the shuttle and it was still hissing behind us as it cooled down. The heat of it at our backs felt good in the chill of the tanker, prepped to enter outer orbit where the temperature would drop even further.
There were five of us, mainly reserves who’d never seen combat. I had seen combat. So had Hen beside me. They usually stuck the shocks with the reserves because war wasn’t like it used to be, they said. I gripped my left wrist, trying to steady it. There was still pain there where the scar was. That’s where they usually hit you, slicing at the wrist. Then you either bled out or you lost a hand. Either way you were out of combat. Or, if you got lucky, you were in the reserves. I got lucky, I guess.
“Gonna outlive the apocalypse,” Hen said beside me in a low pitched whisper. I laughed. It was an old joke and a tired laugh.
“It’s a standard drill,” the sergeant said, shooting us the stink-eye, but men like him, they played gentle around shocks. We were heroes, if you hadn’t heard. “Chammies in the northeast quadrant, arms-locker inaccessible. Standard issue guns,” he pointed to a crate beside him, “with half-charge.”
One of the reserves cursed under his breath. The sergeant got in his face and just stared at him a moment. Corks was a thin kid, with just a wisp of a pubescent mustache on his face. He got red from the neck of his uniform up to his hair with the sergeant up close.
“You say something, private?”
“I don’t think you heard me right. I said, did you say something, private?”
“Yes, sir.” But his voice faltered.
“You think this is some sorta game? This may be orbit today, but tomorrow you get called up to the rings, you got chammies jumpin a civvy ship, and you’re just pissing yourself, because your gun’s half-charged and you think you’re gonna die!”
Corks didn’t answer. There wasn’t really any right answer to something like that.
“Get your gun, private,” the sergeant ordered through gritted teeth.
The guns were standard issue, like the sergeant had said, which meant they were pretty weak to start with. You can say a war is on all you want, but unless the regents saw some money in it, it was the civvy ships who paid for the top guns so their guards, even if badly trained, had weapons to make up for that bad training. These guns, they had one trigger which was like to overheat as not, and one setting. Charge runs out fast on a gun like that. Starting with half-charge, you may as well not have a gun at all if you’re up against chammies.
“The point,” the sergeant drawled, his eye fixed on Corks who was trying to settle into a standard stance, “is that you know how to hand-to-hand with bastards like these if the need should ever arise.”
He scanned the rest of us, not quite looking Hen and me in the face. There was a chance he’d never seen combat himself. That would be my guess. Because it seemed sometimes, you know, that those who’d never fought often talked the loudest.