Sighing, Tal looked up at the ceiling, remembering that technically, this time last year, he was still contracted with the Core for a 6-month deployment to Planet Nauru, a barren, sandy shithole in the middle of nowhere. Nauru’s geography was especially horrid, with everything covered in a fine layer of sulfur so the smell never escaped his lungs, and for second, he wondered just exactly he’d survived out there…
Another gust of wind blew over shifting desert sands, sweeping up a cloud of finite particles and depositing it over an old, lonely two-lane road that lead to nowhere in particular.
Tal sighed as more hot air passed him by, sweating half to death under the scorching desert sun as he sat discontentedly in a tattered plastic folding chair. At his feet were several water bottles, some empty, some full; all cluttered around the faded exterior of his rifle’s stock. A single drop of sweat fell from his chin, through the thin grates that formed a catwalk-turned-observation-post, and onto an uncovered light vehicle’s cloth seating down below.
He shifted his head up, wiping some sweat off of his brow with a gloved hand, and looked around. To his right was a young man who somehow had managed to fall asleep in all the discomfort of Nauru’s desert, a similarly-styled weapon lying next to him. Tal turned his head left to find two other mercenaries leaning on a rusted railing, one staring out into an entirely empty expanse with a pair of binoculars while the other had a smoke. With nothing else to do while on post, he leaned back in the chair and opted to reflect upon all of the mistakes he’d made in life.
The most recent of these mistakes had to be taking this job, as in the aftermath of Yaren’s capture the Core had put out a bulletin looking for any interested parties who would assist them in cleansing Nauru of any dissident Corsair survivors who escaped their grasp in the initial brawl. It was to be a quick, easy buck, and Tal was always down to make a quick, easy buck.
Only this time, it felt like he’d been sitting out here for years.
Omicron Delta’s three suns continued relentlessly beating down on their makeshift desert checkpoint, hastily set up on a rusting, old overpass, while Tal slipped a sweat-soaked boonie hat off his head, revealing short black hair that glistened a bit under the light. Normally, he’d hang the garment out to dry, but doing so here would only invite sand to get all over it and increase his levels of dissatisfaction.
“‘Fierce planetside opposition’ my ass,” he thought, stuffing the fluffy hat into a back pocket before returning to a more lax position.
Time continued to tick away, winds continued to blow, and all three suns continued to “be a bunch of assholes” until suddenly, the howlings winds that carried clouds of sand across miles of open desert just died off, leaving complete silence in it’s wake. Holofilms and superstitions led him to believe that an ambush was afoot, causing him to tense up and prepare for action, waiting for a bullet that never came screaming past overhead. Instead, after around five minutes or so, the wind picked back up, blowing a load of sand into his then-open mouth.
Tal spat with several exaggerated “p-tews”, gaining unwarranted attention by his equally bored squadmates. “You okay?”, one of them asked.
“Yeah, just got some uh, sand in my mouth.”
The man returned to his cigarette and machine gun whilst Tal coughed up what he hoped was the last stray sand particles that lodged themselves in his throat and spat them down through the grates, wiping his face off before returning to sitting around aimlessly, staring off into the distance.
“Why are we even here?”, he thought, shifting around so he could sit up straight, “couldn’t the Corsairs just go around us? God, this sucks.”
He didn’t particularly want to taste combat again, especially not against a bunch of starving, deranged Corsairs, but partaking in pretty much any other activity sounded a fair deal more appealing to the mercenary. Hell, he was even willing to visit Rheinland.
With a swift motion of the arm, he brought a watch up to his face, eagerly scanning the device to see if any time had actually passed. Disappointingly, only five minutes had gone by since he last checked his timepiece. He looked around, scanning his comrades once more, and sat back slumped into his seat. It was gonna be a long deployment. At least housing was going to be provided by the Core.
It had better be good.
He almost couldn’t believe it; he’d just survived six hours of the most menial-yet-mentally exhausting stint of his entire career as a mercenary.
Now he sat triumphantly in a slightly less uncomfortable cloth chair, cruising down the same two-lane road that they had blankly stared at out of sheer boredom for so long in a light military utility vehicle, painted a flat light tan color to fit in better with the dune sea that was Planet Nauru. An incredibly hot aura wafted around his face and clung to his skin, likely originating from several hours of the vehicle’s sealed black interior sitting within sunlight’s reach, but he shrugged it off, more than willing to just deal with it if it meant that he stopped getting bracketed by waves of sand every twenty seconds.
“Oi, kid,” droned Tal towards his partner in the seat adjacent to him, making sure not to take his eyes off the road as to avoid inadvertently running straight into some kind of horrific danger, “what’re you gonna do when you get off this damned rock?”
There was silence at first.
“Well, I’m getting paid a lot for this job, plus a few other jobs I picked up along the way. I’ll probably have enough then to comfortably settle down on say…Cambridge or some place like that. Maybe after I get settled, I’ll go look for a girl. A big strong one, too, and now that I think about it, I’d really fancy one of dark-skinned miner types from the Tau systems, y’know? We’d enjoy a quaint life together on a plantation during each day, and then make sweet love during each night. I’d light some candles, and then she’d casually stroll in with a feral swagger, dressed only in the finest lingerie money can buy…”
Tal cocked an eyebrow, taking his eyes off the road to glare blankly at his partner despite his conscience telling him otherwise, trying to process the torrent of information that surged out of the man’s mouth.
“…What’s your name again, kid?”
“Daniel Wheeler, from the Kingdom of Bretonia.”
“Right, uh, Daniel Wheeler from the Kingdom of Bretonia, remind me to stop asking you questions.”
With a quick motion, he returned to the road, only to discover that in his distracted state he’d edged the vehicle ever so slightly right, ending up so close to the elevated edge of the desert road that they’d nearly gone off onto the sand. He jerked the vehicle back over into their lane, marked by a faded white line and an endless, ruined divider dotted by rusting, damaged, or missing streetlights, and breathed a sigh of relief, although the pain wasn’t over yet, for here was still the incredibly awkward hour-long journey through miles of empty terrain to get back to base.
A clang echoed throughout the relatively small enclosure as Tal dropped his gear, hastily packed into a blue duffle bag, whilst simultaneously basking in the glory of his shiny, new, albeit temporary home as he stood in the doorway of one of many containerized housing units that were scattered around the base. His in particular was a bit closer to the massive stacks and rows of barriers covered in barbed wire that separated him from the dangers of the desert than he’d liked for it to be, but he’d always preached that beggars couldn’t be choosers when he was still back home in Liberty.
Home seemed a lot more distant to him than it really was, even if Manhattan was half a galaxy away, mitigated only by the fact that he didn’t really have anybody to return home to in the first place. Still, the prospect of showers on the reg, consistently hot meals, and a comfortable bed would make even the coldest, most emotionless man homesick, and Tal was no exception to this rule.
A bed. That’s what he was missing.
He dropped down to a neat, compressed squat, heels fully planted on the single sheet of thin steel plating that made up his container’s flooring, and unzipped one of the many zippers lining the handy bag that had accompanied him on so many “adventures”, reeling back slightly when a mountain of equipment nearly popped out at him. It was an honest miracle that he had managed to pack all of this equipment into such a small bag.
With one swift motion of the hand, he grabbed the topmost clutter of shirts, all heavily wrinkled from having been messily shoved into his bag, and tossed them aside, moving his other hand in to clear useless clutter away to look for anything resembling a sleeping bag. Finally, after sifting through what seemed to be an endless sea of drivel, he came upon the black, rolled-up slab of nylon that would be his bed for at least a week, if not longer, and he spent little time unraveling it.
Standing back up, he scanned his personal abode once more. A few shirts were scattered there, some empty water bottles stacked up over there, his weapon leaning on the wall, but something seemed to be out of place. “No matter,” he thought, slipping his boots off and tossing them aside, hurriedly crawling wearily into the warm, inviting fluffy bag. Night had already begun in the desert, a place that spared no one with it’s heat now sparing no one with it’s jarringly cold temperature, and he was very eager to cross the line into sweet warmth to avoid freezing to death within a poorly insulated, glorified metal box with a single bulletproof window.
As he moved to rest his head, he was met with a surprisingly flat, stiff pillow as the fluff of his sleeping bag failed to provide any kind of cushion or elevation between him and cold, hard ground. “That’s what I forgot,” he thought, taking a deep breath, “A pillow.”
He got back up out of his bag, thin black socks doing little to protect his feet from the cold-infused into the metal flooring, and duck-walked rapidly to the door, pushing it wide open to reveal a completely blank landscape, minimally lit only by improvised light sources set up on large poles by the Core’s in-house engineering teams. Naturally, not wanting to stay out in the cold for very long in minimal clothing, his eyes very rapidly scanned the poorly illuminated desert floor until they finally locked onto a suitable target: a sizable brown rock.
“That’ll do,” he thought, sucking in air as a gust of wind hit him head-on.
Prior to this mercenary mission on Nauru, he never thought that he’d look at a rock with so much longing in his entire life, moving quickly under the pressure of several successively colder wind gusts and closing the ten feet gap between him and his new pillow. It was definitely heavier than he expected, rough edges and texture scraping up a good portion of his raw hands and arms as he scooped it into his arms and cradled it like the incredibly overweight baby it was before turning about and skittering back into his box.
Sand still covered much of it, as well as him now, but it was only a small problem compared to the harrowing one he faced before. With another incredible feat of strength, he lifted the rock up, and proceeded to lightly tap it against the floor, shaking off a considerable amount of sand that gathered within every crevice of his new pet rock and brushing it all into a corner of his room, and finished up his task by depositing the rock on a long end of his sleeping bag.
“Wonderful.” His preparatory actions had successfully secured him a small, but easily workable, living space, allowing him to climb into bed victorious, resting his head firmly on perhaps the softest rock in existence. Maybe a new day would bring new adventures.
He could’ve had it all.
A loving wife, however many kids the pair of them could handle, and a large house on Planet Manhattan. A nice luxury sedan for the weekends, with a more utilitarian vehicle for transporting their kids around to school and other activities. Maybe even a pet or two, for their kids to play with and for consolation when the inevitable divorce came over the horizon.
Here, once more, was a lonely Tal Ravis, having found a comfortable seat in the sand that placed him well within overwatch of Omicron Delta’s three suns, aimlessly milling about, thinking about what just could have been.
His night had gone rather well and he found himself enjoying a good night of uninterrupted sleep despite having slept on a random rock he fished out of the desert, with the exception of a slight pain that crept into his life every time he turned his neck a bit too far to the right. “Oh well,” he had thought, “Could’ve been worse.”
With a quick glance of his timepiece, he noticed that it was now twenty minutes past twelve. In backwater, unnamed forward bases such as this one, hot meals were incredibly hard to come by, but by some grace of God, there were hot bowls of chicken-flavored synth gel which were even painstakingly dressed up to look appetizing waiting for him after he woke up at around 11:50. Normally, he’d be forced up much earlier, but it seemed that nobody else cared much about their predicament either. As for the meal, it was about as good of a brunch as he could’ve hoped for out in these parts, minus the lingering taste of homesickness that greeted him with each bite.
Now he was well and truly stuck with nothing but time to kill, but thankfully, a four-year enlistment contract with the Libertonian Marine Corps gave him some kind of prior experience with this type of ordeal. After having been stationed at a similarly desolate desert outpost on Planet Los Angeles in California for the better half of his enlistment, he was no stranger to boredom, and quickly set up one of his mortar team’s favorite pastimes.
Planted firmly within a small mound of sand just a couple yards ahead of him was a spare, bent-up bar of high-temperature alloy, left over from earlier construction efforts in their camp, while his projectiles of choice, pebbles and rocks, were scattered all around him. The premise of this game was simple; hit the target with a rock or something. It wasn’t the most exciting activity, but after yesterday’s awful conversation with fellow mercenary Dan Wheeler, he wanted to stay far the hell away from any of his associates, eliminating the possibility of enjoying a good old multiplayer game of Spades.
He brushed his unloaded rifle aside, propping it up against the same barrier that he was leaning against, and reached out with a gloved right hand, sweeping away copious amounts of sand before finally probing a rock and grabbing hold of it. Lining up the shot was probably the most difficult part; gravity, wind, and rock mass were all factors to consider while the target itself was no broad side of a barn. After a bout of lining up, deep breaths, and serious calculations, he reeled up and tossed his rock. It tumbled a bit in the air and overshot the target slightly to the right, causing Tal to frown, severely discontented.
He fished around nearby for a bigger rock, not leaving his well-entrenched position seated along the barrier, as maybe more weight with the same amount of power behind it could result in a successful hit.
“God, I’m putting too much thought into this.”
First was the line up, then the silent calculations, and finally a deep breath before the toss. With one swift motion, he let the rock loose and watched as it gracefully soared through a bright, dry afternoon, only to see that it fell short of its target by a handful of centimeters.
Tal cursed and fished around for yet another rock, coming upon one that he felt was just right. He aligned the mid-sized stone with the same hole as last time and eagerly reeled up, letting loose a small jagged rock that tumbled even more unpredictably and violently than before. It hit the bar of alloy with a slight “ding”, and he instantly raised both hands well above his hands in joy.
“WOO!” he cheered, “FUCK YEAH!”
It was incredibly satisfying to hit a mark like this, such an elusive rod of alloy, and he sat victoriously, pants just about coated in sand by now, for around twenty seconds before looking at his watch once more. Hardly three minutes had passed, and upon this realization, Tal let out a long sigh, rapidly changing moods from elated to depressed, and fished around for another rock or two.
Tal sat once more in the driver’s seat of an unarmed, lightly armored transport vehicle, motoring along discontentedly through miles and miles of unoccupied desert, with only the occasional sand dune passing by. Layers of tinted bulletproof glass and lightweight synthetic composite armor panels surrounded him with an intention of protecting him and up to three other soldiers from the elements, but served only to turn the vehicle into a sauna, powered directly by the never-ending rage of Delta’s three suns.
His black, tattered carbine rifle, propped up against the driver’s side door, gradually leaned over and brushed against his leg. He gave it little more than a quick glance before forcibly nudging it back into place with a swift jerk of his left knee, sighing as the constantly vibrating vehicle shook his weapon back onto his sand-scarred pant leg.
With the exception of a short, 2-day journey to Durban Station as part of a routine supply operation, today marked the start of the fourth month of his six-month deployment on Planet Nauru, and he’d been eagerly counting down the days until he could finally take a hot shower.
Dan Wheeler, who was sat in the passenger seat, was combing over a somewhat large tablet, with a map of the region splattered across it’s cracked screen.
“Right up here is where they want the first one,” he declared, pointing at the nothingness that presented itself directly ahead of them.
Oddly enough, in the two days that he had been gone for, most of the Core marines previously stationed at the FOB had received an order from the Guildmaster himself to relocate, leaving only a handful of support personnel and roughly a platoon’s worth of mercenaries. Such a sudden decline in manpower required much more effort from everyone that was left, dragging previously bored men from their now personalized living boxes into the field, however unmotivated they were this far into the campaign.
Tal pulled the vehicle to a screeching halt in the middle of a flat patch of sand, overlooking more of the nothingness that he’d come to know as home. Cursing, he fumbled around with all types of clutter on the center console, empty bottles, papers, plastic cases, until finally he extracted a long probe with a box on the top end, better known to the public as a deployable camera, from underneath a pile of small bags and useless equipment.
It was a direct order from Guildmaster Nodtviet; to catch any remaining Corsair forces, which by now had to be either highly mobile or dead, cameras would have to be placed in key strategic locations planetwide, marking points of interest that none of the Core’s tacticians had even bothered with visiting first.
At least everyone else had to suffer too, thought Tal, stepping out from his vehicle into the sunlight, squinting as he set a course and made his way towards what vaguely must have been their intended target, shovel in one hand and camera in the other, carbine dangling freely from his lower back. Once he swore he was close enough to the big red X, he squatted down, heels planted firmly into the sand, and jammed his shovel into the sand, excavating a small hole for him to sodomize with the pointy end of his camera stick. Once the stake was impaled into the hole sufficiently, as denoted by a bright red line, he took a large shovelful of sand and dumped it at the camera’s base, packing it in like some kind of crude, crappy sand castle erected at a beach without any water. Or scantily-clad women.
The camera let out a few beeps as Tal punched a very specific series of buttons on it’s topmost control panel, giving one, final prolonged confirmation beep before going completely silent with only an occasional red flash of a small LED light next to its infrared lens flaring up intermittently. He firmly shut it’s lid and recovered from his squat, retreating back towards his vehicle as quickly as possible without actually running.
One down, only twenty-two more to go.
He didn’t remember what it felt like to have his first milkshake, but it sure as hell didn’t feel like this.
Tal watched as thin, pink-colored fluid slowly ran down the reflective innards of his brown drink pouch, down and down until it reached his mouth. He grimaced a bit as the liquid came into contact with and diffused over all nine thousand of his taste buds, getting a load of iodine water purification tablet with a hint of strawberry, but nonetheless appreciated the idea of having a beverage that passed for a milkshake, or at the very least looked like one, out in the boondocks.
It was his personal reward for personally planting eleven cameras out of twenty-three total earlier in the day, as part of what had to have been the most absurd idea he’d ever heard, a dubious reward that had somehow made it’s way down over his chin strap and onto his camouflaged plate carrier. He peeled the pouch away from his lips and leaned back against the door of his portable house, looking down to find multiple bright pink spots dotting the center of his chest amongst all the tan smears he’d purposefully made as part of his effort to make more “desert-appropriate” camouflage on a particularly boring day.
Crackling emerged from his right hand as he squeezed the now empty brown plastic packaging up into a small ball, setting it aside on the step next to him as he leaned back, kicked his feet up onto an empty crate of ammunition, and enjoyed a Delta sunset, bringing his now unloaded carbine up against his side to emulate the feeling of being loved.
Honestly, at this point, it wasn’t that bad anymore.
“Either that, or I’ve stopped caring,” he thought, taking a deep breath as the skies gradually turned a darker shade of blue.
“You should’ve just left me in the rain!" she screamed, tears welling up in her eyes, "Here’s the rest of your payment, choke on it, y-you monster!”
There she went, someone who for once wanted a loving relationship, out the door, stomping furiously into a rainy Manhattan night. Tal leaned up against the doorway of his Scimitar, holding a credit chip in his hands. He had no idea how he wrecked their previously meaningful relationship, forged through hardships over four months of trans-Sirius travel, in just ten minutes. Previously, he had thought her departure would help heal his guilt over her injury; it only added a layer of newfounded loneliness, a feeling with which he never had issues coping with up until now, atop the plethora of events that gave him his characteristic, cold gaze that extended for miles upon miles. Truth be told, he wanted as much as ever to stay with her, wanted to run out into the rain and apologize, wanted to grow old with her at his side, but it was far too late now.
She was gone.
Coarse grains of sand rattled against cold-forged steel as Tal scooped hundreds of them up with a single thrust of his entrenching tool, their combined weight causing him to struggle slightly as he brought the small collapsable shovel above a small pit where a steaming pile of fresh human excrement laid in state. He tilted the tool slightly, pouring his cargo of sand into the crude, hastily-dug hole to cover it up, making sure to stamp it twice with a swift boot for solid measure, and stood up straight, shovel resting against his shoulder. One sigh followed, as his eyes scanned his former toilet and gradually moved their way up into the distance.
Delta’s triple threat, as he’d come to call them, were ferociously baking any mercenary in sight at this afternoon hour, marking his second day out on Nauru. He wiped his brow of any stray sweat, then proceeded back into base.
The look on the gate guard’s face when he asked him if he could go outside the wire to “take a dump” could only be described as a mixture of utter bewilderment and confusion, although after an explanation he was let through with a stern “be quick”.
His issue was largely with the small, yellow stalls, each made out of low-quality polymers that melted a bit under prolonged direct exposure to harsh sunlight. On top of that, the scarcity of these “porta-johns”, as they were so often referred to as by the indigenous mercenaries, led to an inevitable overcrowding which in turn led to less than desirable environments to use the bathroom in due to considerable buildup of old excrement and urine, not to mention the native species of insects that swarmed only around these portable chemical toilets.
In the meantime, Tal had re-entered the forward operating base, still a bit surprised at how quickly his lunch and dinner of synth gel had passed through him, and plotted a smooth course back into his box to escape the sun.