Another cry of “gas gas gas” sent the Marines scrambling back into their MOPP suits, huddling beneath their Humvees and cami nets to wait for the all clear. Except Reporter, who stumbled drunkenly around in his suit, obviously cinched too tightly around his crotch, until he collapsed helplessly in the sand like a turtle turned on its shell. Garza elbowed Doc Bryan and pointed out at the Reporter floundering in the sand and snorted audibly through his gas mask. Doc Bryan rolled his eyes and made a “follow me” gesture. Garza rolled amiably to his feet and came out from under cover to stand over the Reporter, Colbert joining them momentarily.
Reporter reached out to them for help and pointed at his crotch yelling incoherently behind his mask and Garza pulled out his multi-tool and obliged, popping the strap and rendering the suit basically useless. Fortunately, Gunny Wynn hollered all clear a moment later.
Garza took off his Kevlar and stripped off his gas mask and grinned.
“I just performed testicle surgery on the Reporter,” he cheerfully announced, showing Colbert the piece of web strapping he had pulled off of the man’s MOPP suit.
The Reporter pulled off his gas mask, gasping for air and swiping away the chewing tobacco running down his chin.
“I forgot to spit out my tobacco, so I had to swallow it,” he said. “And this suit is too small. That strap was crushing my nuts.”
Doc Bryan shook his head, “Reporter, you are possibly the biggest fuck up I have encountered.”
Colbert started to speak when Captain America sprinted into the middle of the circle of Humvees looking more panicked than usual.
“Who the fuck called that all clear?” He demanded. “Jesus Christ, who called that all clear?”
Colbert looked at him in confusion. “It was Gunny Wynn, what is-?”
At that moment, an explosion close enough to spray them with sand and rocks and knock a couple of guys off their turrets went off at Brad’s nine o’clock. And then another at his three, this one close enough to knock them all off their feet and Brad smelled a weird, sickly sweet smell that was almost certainly some kind of chemical weapon. He heard Captain America screaming, his voice modulating up in pitch in a way it should not have been able to and as he went down, Brad attributed this to the gas causing his synapses to misfire.
When he opened his eyes again, his head still rang from the proximity of the explosion and the encampment was calmer than he would have expected. He heard unfamiliar voices mixing with familiar ones as Marines moved around, checking equipment and chattering at one another and he sat up and tried to get to his feet but a firm hand pushed him back down.
“Lay the fuck down, Colbert, I’m not done checking you out.”
The features of the person that hovered over him were shadowed by the intensity of the sun behind their head, and the words sounded like something Bryan would have said, but the voice was definitely that of a woman. Maybe being angry all the time was prerequisite for being a corpsman. Brad obeyed and dropped back down into the sand and held still while his eyelids were pried open and a flashlight shined into each one. The corpsman popped the clips on his flack vest and unzipped the front of his MOPP and ran her hands up his sides and over his belly. She paused occasionally to press down, studying his face for indications of pain, finally sitting back on her heels and putting her hands on her knees.
“Can I get up, now?” Brad asked, his voice sounding off to his ears. He cleared his throat and tried again. “What the fuck happened?”
The corpsman shook her head and stood up, offering a hand up to Brad. “I'm not sure,” she pulled Brad to his feet. “There were a couple of explosions and then,” she gestured at herself.
“I don’t understand,” she looked all right to Brad. Kind of rangy and tall for a woman, but he didn’t see any wounds or melting flesh or anything like that. In fact, aside from his weird sounding voice, he felt all right for someone who’d almost been killed by a bomb and exposed to some kind of chemical weapon. But maybe he’d been lucky. If POGs were here taking care of wounded soldiers, it must have been pretty serious. “How many casualties?”
She looked at him critically for a moment as though unsure how to proceed and Brad took the opportunity to look at the name printed on her undershirt. It said Bryan and she wasn’t wearing a bra. He squinted at her face.
“None,” she said finally. “A few cuts and bruises and couple of the guys are shook up, but everyone’s okay.”
“Tim never told me he had a sister serving with him.”
She sighed and a look of vague discomfort crossed her face, “I don’t have a sister, Brad.”
Brad stared at her mutely. He was about to demand why she’d answered him with such a bizarre non sequitur when she opened her mouth try again. She was saved the trouble when Ray ducked out from under one of the cami nets and caught sight of Brad.
“Holy fuck, Brad, you’ve got tits!”
Startled, Brad looked down automatically and saw that he did and was suddenly weirdly grateful that he hadn’t chosen to go naked under his MOPP. His legs folded underneath him and sat dazedly in the sand looking up at the tall, rangy woman who, he realized suddenly, was almost certainly Timothy Bryan. Bryan crouched down next to him and pushed his Kevlar back off his forehead.
“Jesus Christ, Tim, what the fuck?”
“Well, there’s us,” Bryan said, counting them off on his fingers. “Beaver Hunt, Captain America, Garza, Trombley, Stafford, Sixta, Reyes, Casey Kasem, Jacks, Wynn and Lilley.”
Brad scrubbed his hands over his eyes and started laughing. The wrong sound of it made him laugh even harder until tears were running down his face.
Ray crunched over to him and knelt in the sand.
“Hey, buddy, are you okay?” He asked, genuine concern in his voice.
Brad wiped his face and looked Ray squarely in the eye, “why, Ray? Do you have some kind of solution to this that doesn’t involve moonshine and sister-fucking?”
A relieved smile spread across Ray’s face, “well, Brad, I’ve always found that drinking solved all my problems. I don’t have a sister, though. Maybe I could fuck yours instead.”
Brad swiped at him and he dodged, falling backwards in the sand and laughing that weird Ripped Fuel driven laugh he had. And Brad smiled in spite of himself.
Doc Bryan shook his head, “fuckin A.” He said, looking back towards the victors parked nearby. Rudy, beautiful as ever, had stripped out of his MOPP, though blessedly still wearing his skivvies and undershirt, and was frustratedly running through forms, looking off balance and out of practice compared to the last time Doc had seen him do it. Pappy watched him absently until he flopped down in the sand, sweaty and exasperated.
“It ain’t no use, Pap,” he said. “My balance is all wrong. I feel like I can’t get my feet under me.”
Pappy had no homily for a time like this; he just pursed his lips and patted Rudy’s shoulder.
“Got damnit! Reyes!” Sixta trundled up looking like Pappy’s high school librarian and somehow scarier for it.
“Sorry Rudy,” he muttered and ducked away behind his Humvee.
Rudy scrambled to his feet, “yes, Sergeant Major.”
“What in the goddamn fuck are you doin out of yer MOPP, Devil Dog?”
“I’m sorry sir, Doc Bryan had me take it off to-”
“Put yer fuckin uniform back on, Sergeant!” He turned to face the Marines drifting aimlessly about the encampment and put his fists on his stout hips, “and you mens best unfuck yerselves ricky tick, the battalion commander will addresses you in five mikes! And don’t think I ain’t noticed that you goddamn hippie Elvises ain’t shaved yet!” He swept his eyes around the circle of Humvees one last time before turning and stomping off the way he’d come.
Jacks reflexively started digging in his pack for his razor before realizing he wouldn’t have to worry about that part of the grooming standard anymore, zipping it closed and throwing against the side of the Humvee.
“Of all the fucked up things that coulda happened,” he massaged his temples.
“It’s not so bad, my Manimal,” Rudy said as he struggled back into his MOPP suit.
“Easy for you to say,” Garza said, trying fruitlessly to readjust his glasses, now a shade too wide for his face. “You make a pretty hot chick, Jacks is one ugly motherfucker no matter what.”
“You know what, Garza-?”
“It’s time, gents,” Gunny Wynn’s mild voice halted any further argument. Even with softer features, he still looked basically like himself and still radiated the calm authority that made the men respect him. “C’mon Garza, let’s move.”
Garza sighed and slipped his glasses back on and trudged back to where battalion had set up shop near the POGs and supply trucks that had caught up with them in the chaos. He planted himself in the sand next to Chaffin who kept looking at him out of the corner of his eye like he was a skittish animal.
“You lookin at my tits, Chaffin?” He asked, dryly.
Chaffin looked awkwardly away, “n-no.” He stammered.
“You sure? Maybe you oughtta, get it outta your system.” He started unzipping the front of his MOPP.
“Don’t!” Chaffin reached out and grabbed Garza’s hand, halting the descent of the zipper. He realized what he was doing a moment later and pulled away like he had been burned. “Just fuckin don’t, okay?”
“Jesus, I was just joking.” Garza said, sullenly.
Chaffin didn’t respond.
Sixta called the battalion to attention and the men snapped to. The tension and uncertainty in the air made them twitchier than they’d be under normal circumstances and Godfather took pity on them.
“Gentlemen, you can take a seat,” Godfather paused while the Marines situated themselves. “I have spoken with Regimental Headquarters and the decision has been made to carry out this mission as planned with no change to personnel. Now, I want you men to keep in mind that you are all still Recon, with the same training and the same skills you had before. The-” he paused, groping for a word. “Changes some of you have been through do not erase that fact. I will tolerate no disrespect within the ranks, I expect you all to obey orders from your superior officers as you would under any other circumstances. We don’t know how this is going to shake out, so there will be additional…” he paused. “Supplies added to the supply trucks that should take care of any eventuality.”
“Supplies? What supplies?” Trombley asked, softly.
Bryan sighed, “women have periods, you nit.”
Trombly nodded, still looking confused but didn’t ask any more questions. He seemed to be distracted by the jiggle of his own breasts as he moved. Bryan rolled his eyes.
“There will be no fraternization,” Godfather continued. “I expect all of you to follow regs in the same way you always have.”
Espera nudged Brad. “Who’d be desperate enough to fuck one of these ugly motherfuckers?” Brad gave him a hard look. “Present company excepted, of course.” Espera amended quickly and Brad smirked behind his hand. Chaffin looked more uncomfortable than ever.
“Are there any questions?”
Encino Man awkwardly raised his hand. “What about the grooming standard?” He asked.
“That remains in effect for those of you who it still applies to,” Godfather said and Sixta nodded in approval.
“Don’t think I won’t be watchin you.” He said.
Lilly raised his hand. “Will those of us who…” He cleared his throat, unable to put words to it. “Will-will we be required to maintain the high and tight?”
Godfather frowned. This was not a question he had thought to put to Regimental and he wasn’t quite sure of the regs regarding female hair in the Corps.
“As long as it doesn’t interfere with your combat readiness, those of you affected by the gas agent may allow your hair to grow out,” he said, finally, looking out at the sea of Marines. “Unless there’s anything else, gentlemen,” Godfather said. “It’s time. We are Oscar Mike in 20.”
The men scattered, their Gunnery Sergeants and Lieutenants trailing behind. Nate looked up at Wynn.
“Are we really gonna be able to do this, Mike?” He asked.
Mike shrugged one slim shoulder, “Marines make do, Nate.”
Ray settled himself behind the wheel of his Humvee and looked at his passengers.
“Holy shit,” he exclaimed. “I got a fuckin harem in here!”
“Shut up, Ray.” Brad said.
“What’s a harem?” Trombley asked.
The Reporter started to speak. “It’s a-”
“All of you! Shut the fuck up.”
Everyone did. At least until Ray started loudly singing about all of the hoes he had in different area codes. Brad sighed. This was going to be a long invasion.