Alma over at Cat Rotator’s Quarterly has a new short out! And it’s only 0.99 cents!!!
Click the cover to get it!
Of all the gods, men fear the Scavenger the most. Wise men and women take pains to avoid His notice.
When Osbert Manns’hillda ventures into the mine called Scavenger’s Gift, the Dark One takes notice. Or does he?
She packs a lot into 5000 words. This story is deep, in more ways than one! You’ll enjoy it, I know I did!
And I just finished what started out as a short, and dammit, by definition is STILL a short story… Contrary to what some ‘friends’ are saying… It’s under 20000 words…
It’s out to alpha readers now. Another chapter worth of tease is below the break. As always, comments appreciated, and as usual, unedited…
Jace pulled into the main gate at Quantico, waking Esme who was sleeping in the passenger’s seat, “Gimme your ID, we’re here.”
Esme dug in her pocketbook, grumbling, “Already?” She handed over the ID and straightened up, scrubbing her hair, “That didn’t take long.”
Jace passed over the IDs, and the PFC on the gate handed them back, saluting, “Welcome aboard Quantico, sirs!”
Jace returned the salute, and drove slowly to the basic school barracks, with both of them looking around in curiosity. They’d been here for a summer camp as seconds, but that had been bus rides, and immediately into the field.
“Did we do the right thing by not taking leave?”
Jace shrugged, “Who knows. I’d rather get this over with, and being a class ahead of our peers can’t be a bad thing. This way, we don’t get stuck in Mike Company for a month or two, since the next class starts Monday.”
Esme stretched, momentarily distracting Jace, “I know. But twenty-six weeks more? I could really have used the thirty days at home to decompress and just relax.”
“And thirty days to get out of shape. Remember something like a quarter of our standing is based on physical fitness. Day nav, night nav, the endurance course, the obstacle courses… and the field exercises… sigh.”
Esme groaned, “I know, I know. You didn’t have to remind me.”
Jace pulled into the barracks parking lot, and they checked in, were assigned rooms, and started moving their baggage in.
The next morning they fell out and formed up as the cadre stood mutely in front of the formation. Jace was in the front rank, and Esme saw a small gunnery sergeant do a double take, then make a funny gesture toward him, and Jace stiffen. After the introductions, they marched to chow, and she managed to sit across from him, “What was that little gunny doing? I saw you react.”
Jace sighed around a mouthful of food, then gulped it down, “That is Gunnery Sergeant John Rey Ocampo. He was my team lead in the First. This is not going to end well!”
“He’s going to ride me hard.”
The first week passed uneventfully, with Jace and Esme both firing expert at the range, and surviving the first humps. Jace and Esme both started with forty pounds in their packs, and made the fifteen miles without a problem. One of the candidates, Kraft, who was always bragging tried to do the full hundred pounds the first time, and fell out at the ten mile mark, much to the rest of the company’s delight, as the gunnery sergeants and cadre harangued him mercilessly.
It wasn’t until they went to the first Marine Corps Martial Arts Program session that things went truly south for Jace. Gunnery Sergeant Ocampo was the primary instructor, much to his dismay. And he got singled out immediately.
Gunny Ocampo, all five feet six of him, scarred and wiry, stood in front of the pits in worn multicam and smiled. Esme decided immediately she didn’t like that smile, as he said, “Welcome to your doom. The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, hereafter known as MCMAP, is your gateway to being able to handle yourself in close combat. I find this class interesting, in that there is one officer in this group who is out of uniform, and almost a third of the class is female. For you ladies, if you think you’re going to get a pass, you are absolutely wrong! You’re going to fight against men every time. And since Mr. Cronin is out of uniform, I will be using him as a training dummy today, and every other day, until he is in the proper uniform. Front and center Mr. Cronin, front and center.”
Jace stopped in front of the gunny, and he said, “Turn around Mr. Cronin.” Jace turned to face the others in the company, and the gunny continued, as he patted him on the shoulder. “I am privy to other information and Mr. Cronin here is a black belt in MCMAP already, but he seems to have forgotten the proper uniform,” the pats turned into an attack, and Jace automatically fought back, with gunny finally gaining the upper hand and hissed in his ear as he ground Jace’s face in the dirt, “Cronin, you will not fuck up here. You will not embarrass me or the First. Do you understand?”
Jace managed a millimetric nod and tapped his hand, signaling he conceded. Gunny Ocampo pulled him to his feet, “Now, since Mr. Cronin is already certified as an instructor, I’d suggest you avail yourselves of his assistance. With his help, you just might pass this course. Now pair off.”
By the sixth week, Esme finally admitted to Jace she needed help, “I just don’t get the damn obstacle course. The other PT, no problem… But, there’s something I’m not doing right, but I’ll be damned if I know what. I’ve tried watching others, and I’m still missing something. Can we go practice?”
Jace shook his head, “Now you tell me.” He looked at his watch and said, “Let’s go. We’ve got an hour. PT gear in ten?”
By the third day, Jace was frustrated and so was Esme, as her times hadn’t improved very much. They had just finished a run through, when Gunny Ocampo pulled up and got out of his car, “What the hell are you two doing?”
They popped to attention and Esme said, “I’m trying to get faster through the course Gunny. But…”
Ocampo smiled, “Obviously you have a lousy instructor. Go away Cronin.” He made a shooing motion with his hands, “You are as useless as tits on a boar. I will instruct candidate Carter in the proper way to master the obstacle course.”
Jace retreated to the muster area, as the gunny took over. Twenty minutes later, panting and sweating, Esme asked timidly, “Gunny, why are you helping me?”
“Because you will not fail Miss Carter. We know who you are, and who your daddy is. You will make it through.”
Curious, she asked, “What do you mean you know me?”
“We watched your shooting at the academy, especially after you selected Marine, and Gunny Molina reached out to us. Plus he knows your dad, and Jace’s dad.”
“Did you know Jace before?”
He chuckled, “Oh hell yes. I trained that little shit once he got to the First. And he saved my ass in Jolo. He’ll graduate if I have to drag his dead body to the graduation ceremony.”
Jace finished the first phase in third place, but Esme could only manage twentieth place, much to her disappointment. They sat in the exchange, grabbing a bite to eat as she bitched, “Dammit, I’m not saying it’s not fair, but this physical shit really shows the difference between male and female physiques. If I ever see that gahdamn double O again, I’m gonna puke.”
Jace laughed, “Hey, you made it. And you came out what, third among the females?”
“Well, I wonder about Hartman. She’s… supposedly female, but damn…”
Jace grinned ruefully, “Point. She kicked my ass the other day at MCMAP, remember?”
It was Esme’s turn to laugh, “That was funny. And Gunny gave you a ration for it!”
They started the second phase the following Monday, with both of them getting promoted within the company, Jace ended up as a platoon sergeant, and Esme as a squad leader, which added more stress and work to their daily schedules. Esme remembered what the gunny had said at the O course, and wondered if this was part of their plan.
Jace really came into his element in the second phase, especially the scouting and patrolling section. Esme, now in Kraft’s platoon, was not having as much luck, as Kraft refused to listen to any inputs from the other candidates, especially the females. Things had come to a head when they were planning the first field exercise, when Kraft had refused to listen when Esme pointed out that the fire support plan and indirect fire support he’d designed would kill all of them, as he’d designed it to walk fire through the platoon’s planned route of approach.
Once they’d gotten in the field, Jace’s platoon was actually playing the OPFOR for them, and the cadre observers had tagged out all but three of the platoon as dead due to friendly fire. When the FEX was called off, both platoons were brought in to debrief, and Captain Watson had pointedly asked, Kraft what he was thinking. Kraft had blustered, then blamed the failure on Esme and Hartman, saying, “They don’t understand how to do tactics. I couldn’t trust any of their inputs, so I had to throw something together myself at the last minute. It’s not my fault.”
Jace had bristled, planning to have words with Kraft, but the debrief was cancelled. The next morning, Esme was promoted to platoon sergeant, Hartman to platoon commander, and Kraft was gone. Jace grinned wryly, Nothing like getting thrown under the bus to get your ass promoted. The first phase 2 test had cost them another six candidates, and the platoons were starting to shake out as far as personnel capabilities. The peer reviews were starting to kick in, and Jace wasn’t sure he would like them.
By the start of the third phase, Jace had been promoted to platoon commander, and so had Esme, so they got the ‘pleasure’ of planning the daily activities with Hartman, who had been promoted to company commander. Jace was enjoying the third phase, especially the crew served weapons portion and the convoy portion, since he’d already done these. He was lagging a little in the engineering, but he begged Esme to tutor him, in exchange for tutoring her on convoy ops. They were both being hit on peer reviews for going outside their platoons, but at this point, neither cared. Their unspoken mutual goal was to get through with as high a ranking as possible, as that would determine their selection options.
By the end of the third phase, Jace was number two, and Esme was number five in the ranking, as best they could figure. Jace got promoted to company commander, and Esme was promoted to his XO, which added yet another level of stress to the two of them. Selection night came, and they were both able to select pilot training. They celebrated by going over to Stafford and had a decent meal and a couple of beers, before driving carefully back to base.
In the middle of planning for the final expeditionary operations exercise, Gunny Ocampo had strolled into the barracks and said, “Your company commander just died. And your timeline just got shortened by twenty-four hours. Have fun!” He grinned as he led Jace out of the office, and down the hall to the cadre offices. Four captains waited for him, and he marched to the center desk, then reported in, wondering what the hell was going on.
Captain Watson looked up at him, “You know you fucked up the MOUT assault, right? You didn’t follow twelve-ten B one.”
Jace was stunned, “Sir?”
“You’re not supposed to use the alley. Where the hell did you get that idea?”
“Uh, sir, it worked before, and overwatch had said the alley was clear.”
“It worked before?” Captain Cohen chimed in.
“Yes, sir. That’s how we got the girls out in Jolo. I directed the team to an unprotected door in the alley.”
Gunny Ocampo said, “Captain, I can vouch for that. I was there.”
“Dismissed. Go back to your room. You’re out of the exercise.”
“Yes, sir.” Jace exited the office, and went back to his room, thinking morosely this was going to knock him down now at the last minute, again! You stupid sumbitch, you know better! Gotta play the game according to their rules. Need to tattoo that on your fucking forehead you idiot!
The next morning, he was stopped at the barracks door, “You’re out of the exercise. Go away,” Captain Watson smiled when he said it, worrying Jace even more.
Late that evening, there was a soft knock on his door, and he opened it quickly. It was Esme, looking like she’d been drug through a knothole. “We did it. Got through that sumbitch, no thanks to you. What the hell did you do this time?”
Jace shrugged, “I fucked up the MOUT. Looks like I shot myself in the foot again.”
Esme stepped into him, smacking him in the chest. “Stop that shit, Jace!”
He put his arms around her, mostly in self-defense, “I’m not doing this on purpose!” She buried her head in his chest, and he decided he liked that.
Four days later, tests complete, they sat in the auditorium, waiting for the graduation exercise. The colonel got up and gave a short speech, complimenting them on completing the course, and wishing them well in their future Marine careers. Capt Cohen was acting as the adjutant, and started calling names. Jace received the award for military skills, to some laughter and a few boos, with catcalls of ‘cheater’. Esme won the academic award, and Hartman won the staff award for excellence.
Jace was surprised to be called forward again, as the honor man, and received that award and was the number one graduate. Esme graduated fourth, and blamed her failure on the PT portion. Jace realized she really didn’t like losing.
Jace sat on the front steps watching the sun come up, a cup of coffee in his hand, as Rex ran frantically around the front yard, trying to chase all the odors that had floated in since last night. Aaron came out, coffee in hand and sat down in the rocker, “So, you’re going to Pensacola?”
Jace turned to face him, “Yes, sir. Esme and I both selected aviation.”
“You didn’t want to go back with the troops?”
“It’s not that, its… I want to fly Vipers. I think I can contribute more that way… Captain Tinney got me a couple of rides and I got to fly a helo at Cherry Point.” He took a sip of coffee, then sat it down, “Dad, I flew it! I didn’t have any problems. I mean they didn’t let me land or takeoff, but I flew it! And I got to fly a gun run in a Viper. It’s…” He shrugged, “It’s like taking sniping to the next level! You’re high enough to see, and the twenty mil gun follows your eyes. You can literally look the rounds on target!”
Aaron sighed, “So we’re going to have a damn flyboy in the family… I guess we may live that down eventually.”
Jesse stood in the door, “Aaron! Stop teasing him!”
Aaron laughed as he got up, “Sorry hon, that was too good to let pass. I’ve gotta get ready, I’ll grab something at the donut shop on the way in. I want to be there for shift change.”
Jesse held the door open and swatted him as he went by, mumbling, “Asshole.” Aaron went down the hall laughing, and Jace just shook his head. “Mom, I know dad may not like it, but I really do want to fly, and so does Esme.”
Jesse ruffled his hair, “I know you do. Your dad is a sarcastic sumbitch, and he goes that way rather than telling you how proud of you he is.”
At breakfast a half hour later, Matt asked them to help move some stock, and Jesse reminded them that Toad and Cindy, along with their two girls were coming in later, and Matt Junior and Kaya were coming home for the weekend from Sul Ross.
Six hot, dry hours later, Jace rode back into the corral. He got off Buck with a groan, his thighs burning, and beat his hat against his chaps and shirt, dirt flying. Gonna have to clean the pistol now, but at least I didn’t have to use it. Esme rode back in, laughing and hopped off Spots like she’d only been in the saddle for fifteen minutes. It’s not fair. She’s fresh as a damn daisy. And I know she rode drag too. He pulled the saddle and blanket off Buck and racked them in the tack room, then got out the hose and washed and brushed Buck down before turning him into the pasture, as Esme did the same with Spots.
Esme sidled up to him, batted her eyes, and asked, “Clean my pistol for me?”
He pushed her ahead of him, “Oh hell no. You can clean your own damn pistol. You got away with that once, but never again.”
She laughed, “Oh well, it was worth a try. You look like you’re sore.”
“And you’re not?”
“I’ll let you know in the morning.”
They walked in the house together with Matt and Aaron, after they’d emptied their guns, and Jesse growled at them, “You better not be tracking anything in this house. Felicia and I just got through cleaning! Toad and Cindy are fifteen minutes out.”
Junior and Kaya came in from the living room, and he was struck by how much they had changed. Granted it had been two years since he’d seen them, but damn.
Kaya looked like a spitting image of their mother when she was young, and Matt Junior was a clone of Matt. Esme was the odd one, she was small and dark like Felicia, and had the same bright personality her mother did.
Jesse already had the table covered in papers, and the cleaning box sitting on it, so he plopped down and started disassembling the pistol. Esme and Matt joined him, as Felicia set bottles of water next to everybody.
Dinner was fun, with Toad giving him a ration of shit for going aviation, while Cindy was just proud of him. Samantha and Sabrina were all grown up, in their last year of college at UT, and Sam was giving him the eye, which was unnerving him a little bit. Not that they weren’t good looking, thankfully having taken after Cindy and not Toad, but Jace was just flat afraid of Toad. He might look like a sloppily dressed college professor, but Jace had seen him shoot, and seen him take out the rabid fox that had rushed him one morning on the way to the shop without even thinking about it.
He was wondering what was going on with Junior and Kaya, as they were awfully quiet, other than when asked a direct question, and even then it had been short answers. Matt was finishing his ranch management and agronomy degree, and Kaya had just started her masters in accounting, so Jace guessed she’d take over for Jesse at some point.
Esme was quiet too, spending most of her time talking to Felicia. Not my circus, not my monkeys. I’m taking my happy ass to bed, I’m tired. I’m also out of shape for riding. I’ll worry about the rest of this crap tomorrow.