Rancid odours and stinking mud clung to the uniform of PFC Reinmoore, working its way deep into the fiber and metal of his BDUs. His skin felt itchy under the material, and much of the smell likely emanated from his own unwashed body.
Everything had an unmistakable copperish undertone to it, tickling the back of his nose and keeping his fight-or-flight reflexes on edge. The scent of blood lit up his instinctual desire to flee like a christmas tree, but he pushed on, knee deep in the mud of a freshly-upturned open field.
The two men to his sides kept their rifles close, as did Reinmoore. White-knuckle grips and feverish steps as they rushed towards the only sources of cover they could see in the entirety of the AO.
Before they were halfway to cover—a burnt-out Scorpion tank with smouldering corpses still attached to the half-melted gunner position—there was a sound like a clap of thunder, followed by a roiling gale-force wind.
Before the three Marines could even react, the green blob of plasma was upon them, striking the center of their formation and scattering them to the ground. Reinmoore felt a superheated wave of pressure pop his ears and blister the skin on his back, but when he looked up from the mud he found that he was still alive.
That was more than could be said for the other two men, who were both now half-smoking corpses, neither of which were intact.
Reinmoore cursed, picking up his muddy, water-logged rifle, and cradling it close as he heaved himself down into the glassy crater the fuel-rod burst left in the dirt.
The PFC slammed into the fresh impact crater, ignoring the splashing muddy water that soaked his BDUs with fresh liquid. He checked his magazine, rested it on the lip of the crater, and watched the foggy battlefield for any sign of movement. Even something as simple as a bend in the dirt, or a shift in the smoke.
The battlefield grew still, with only the distant sounds of gunfire, explosions, and the harsh hisses of plasma fire.
Reinmoore found himself holding his breath, waiting for something to happen.
Something did, and a body crashed down into the crater next to him, covered in just as much blood and putrid mud as Reinmoore.
“Shit!” the newcomer hissed, keeping himself as low to the ground as possible, repeatedly cursing and shaking as he sidled up next to the crater walls. “Oh shit!”
Reinmoore watched him for a while, shaking his head and going back to staring down his rifle scope.
“Who’re you with?” he asked.
“What?” the newcomer looked up in shock, as though only now registering the other man in the foxhole with him.
“Your unit,” Reinmore said. “Who’re you with?”
“74th Mechanised,” the man replied.
Reinmoore whistled, blinking his eyes and scanning them around at the burnt out tanks and vehicles dotted around the smoke-engulfed landscape. “You guys got your asses kicked.”
“Yeah?” the man furrowed his brow, looking Reinmoore up and down. “Like your unit was any different!” he spat.
“I never said it was,” the PFC said, looking down at the man and reaching out his spare hand. “Reinmoore.”
The Army Trooper grabbed it, shaking it once. “Goldlich.”
Reinmoore flicked his head towards the two corpses next to the crater, their BDU’s flapping in the wind, and armour plates cooling from white hot to gold under the light drizzling rain. “Do me a favour,” he said, “see if those two have any spare ammo on them.”
“You want me to pick corpses?” Goldlich shifted in place, gripping onto his army BDUs. “Out in the open?!”
Flicking his head from side-to-side, Reinmoore gave the Trooper a side-eyed glance. “It’s either that, or you better have some spare mags, because I sure as hell don’t.”
The Trooper sagged his shoulders, rolling his head. Reinmoore only just now noticed that the man didn’t even have a rifle.
The Trooper rolled over, smearing more mud over the titanium plates on his chest. He shifted his legs under him, taking a deep breath. “Cover me.”
“That was always the plan,” Reinmoore said.
Goldlich launched out of the foxhole, reaching the corpses in a few short strides. His hands immediately went to the two rifles that had dropped next to the dead marines, though one was half-melted, and the other was sinking deep into the mud.
Before Reinmoore could yell at him to focus on ammo first, plasma streams launched from out of the smoke, hissing and whining as the superheated charges broiled the air around them, striking the mud and spitting up globs of molten soil around Goldlich’s feet.
Reinmoore took aim through the smoke, launching off a few rounds at the muzzle flashes, wherever he could see them. The fire began to trail more towards the crater, the two sides exchanging fire through the haze.
Goldlich slammed back into the crater, and Reinmoore followed suit as a trio of blue plasma orbs smacked into the crater lip where he lay just seconds before.
“Dammit!” Reinmore cradled his rifle close and shook his head, checking the magazine. “Can’t see ‘em!”
Goldlich looked up, craning his neck to peer over the lip. “They cloaked?”
Reinmoore sneered. “They don’t need to be.”
“Oh god,” Goldlich shook his head and held onto his helmet with a vice-like grip. “Oh god! We’re gonna die here, aren’t we?”
Reinmoore let out a breath and stilled his heart, fighting off the existentialism of that revelation, and tilting his head. “Well, I ain’t gonna lie to ya.”
He let the sentence trail off and die, silence reigning over the pair.
“So?” Goldlich asked.
Reinmoore looked at the Trooper. “So what?”
Goldlich blinked, his brow furrowed in confusion. “You said you weren’t gonna lie to me, so what?”
Reinmoore grinned. “So nothing. I have nothing else to say,” he laughed.
Goldlich’s face twisted into an incredulous sneer. “You think this is funny?”
“Death is the final joke,” Reinmoore winked.
“God,” Goldlich went back to his wilting, terrified prayers. “I shouldn’t even be here.”
“By all rights, none of us should be,” Reinmoore clapped him on the shoulder.
“No, I mean… shit I dunno what I mean,” he said, trailing off as though he had said too much/
Reinmoore studied him for a while, before shifting in place to angle his body towards the man. “Where’s home?”
Looking up, Goldlich sniffed. “What?”
“Your home. Where is it?” Reinmoore flicked his head somewhere off into the distance. “You local?”
“No,” Goldlich shook his head. “No. I’m…” he sighed, closing his eyes. “I’m a prisoner. Was a prisoner. Penal colony, got the option to draft for a reduced sentence.”
Reinmoore’s brow knitted together. “What’d you do?”
Scoffing, Goldlich shook his head. “Larceny, theft, smuggling. If there was money in it, I did it.”
“Damn,” Reinmoore looked off to one side. “That’s rough.”
“I thought you should know, you’re gonna die next to a prisoner,” Goldlich chuckled with no mirth behind it.
“Well, I ain’t a priest,” Reinmoore said. “So I can’t exactly absolve you of your sins.”
“No one in my unit knew,” Goldlich continued, ignoring Reinmoore’s quip. “And they all died thinking I would help them, but goddammit I was only ever a thief! I should’ve just taken the rap.”
“Then you’d be in prison, and have even less chance of living through this.”
Goldlich continued to ignore him, retreating more into himself. “I’m a coward!”
“Hey!” Reinmoore reached over and slapped the Trooper in the face. “Look at me! You’re not a thief anymore, you’re a soldier. You’re not a coward, you’re a soldier!”
Reinmoore pointed out of the Crater, his eyes burning and his jaw clenched. “And goddammit, I’m gonna die out there next to a soldier, first, you hear me? That’s all that matters, and anything else you brought to this foxhole doesn’t mean shit right now! Get me?”
Goldlich turned slack-jawed somewhere through the rant, before setting his jaw and nodding. “Yeah, yeah I get you.”
“So,” Reinmoore grinned, reaching out a hand towards the other Marine. “Let’s go die a soldier’s death, eh?”
Goldlich looked at him, before sighing, and nodding his head. He took Reinmoore’s offered hand, and the two launched up out of the crater, sprinting into the smoke with their rifles raised.