Sergeant Bayton reached out with slow malice and snatched the C-14 from Private Berry's hands.
"You don't get this back until you can fire it like a big boy, Private."
"No offense, Sarge," said Private Kell Daws, still kneeling from the lucky shot at his leg, "but Berry has the self-preservation of a moth in a campfire factory, and those grenades are just beautiful when they go off. It ain't his fault."
"I'm glad you think so, because you've just volunteered to help him scrub the people off this hallway."
The fourth marine raised a mechanical hand. Something dripped.
Private Caston Gage raised his visor just in time before he lunged against the wall and threw up.
Berry raised a hand.
"Do I have to clean that up too, Sarge?"
"Attention, all squad members," Kell said with mock gravity into his helmet communicator. "Priority transmission. Private Gage has expelled creep, and may be infested."
Sergeant Bayton sighed and rolled his eyes at the merciless heavens.
* * *
Once the grounds were cleared, the marines ditched their armor and began the long process of readying the upper levels of the academy for habitation. Ten hours passed. The entrance corridor was cleaned to the sergeant's somewhat unfair standards. The long mess hall on the second floor received some further attention. And Caston still hadn't lived his moment of weakness down.
"It ate a hole in the neosteel," Kell swore. "It was dis-gusting. I had to cover my eyes with a pancreas—"
"Because you're an expert on anatomy, hayseed," said Private Vallen Wolfe from the kitchen. He was the only one anybody trusted to cook.
"I had to cover my eyes with what was probably a pancreas," Kell said, showing Vallen his favorite finger.
The marine recruits (lovingly nicknamed "Meatbag Squadron" by Sergeant Bayton) had been sent down to the deserted planet to garrison within the abandoned academy and spend a few weeks playing war games in the abandoned skyscrapers and broken storefronts. Bayton had been delighted to find an actual opportunity for war.
The marines were green recruits, but the suits were heavily armored, equipped with heads-up displays that handled targeting and threat detection, and did most of the aiming. The pirates had never had a chance.
"We are goddamn warrior kings," declared Private Hanna Saul, slapping the side of the door as she came in.
"Queen in your case," Berry said cheerfully. He was the youngest of them all, and a former xenobiology major, of all things. He'd entered the Corps to pay for the rest of his schooling.
"Thank you," Hanna said, lighting a foul cigar. "I forgot until you reminded me."
"No smoking in the damn mess hall!" Vallen roared from behind the steaming pot.
"Hold on," Kell said, as Hanna stalked back the way she came, and insolently held her cigar out the doorway while staring wide-eyed at Vallen. "I'm worried we're wandering from the topic at hand."
Fingers around the barrel of a Bosun FN92 rifle sniper rifle, Caston glared up at Kell.
"We kicked the hell out of those pirates," Kell said innocently, and then mouthed "What?" at Caston.
"Suits did most of the work," Private Dax Damen said, ducking under Hanna's cigar. The pirates' inept tinkering and Berry's grenade had ravaged two of the three lifts. Dax had spent the last six hours restarting the generators, repairing the electrical systems, and trying to unlock the academy's tangled security network.
"These suits are junk," Vallen said. "The 5-4 Armored Infantry model my family modified is—"
"Whoa, hang on," Kell said. "Your family is the Wolfe in Wolfe Industries? Did you know that, Hanna?"
"Oh, yeah," Hanna said. "I think I remember hearing that the other five hundred times he brought it up."
"Ha," said Vallen, but he was smiling.
"I've never heard this," Caston said, relieved that the currents of mockery had parted around him.
"Probably because you were busy throwing up," Kell said.
"Vallen so admires Mengsk—" Hanna began.
"Emperor Mengsk," Dax corrected from the corner.
"—His Grace, His Lordship, the Eternal Emperor Mengsk the First," Hanna said, genuflecting, "that he's decided to likewise abandon his wealth and join the common men—"
"And women," Berry said helpfully.
"Thank you, Berry," Hanna said. "I forgot again. Common men and women, all right, and make a name for himself on the field of battle. Next, if he's done his homework, he'll sacrifice an entire planet so that he can rise... to... Hi, Sarge!"
"Don't stop talking treason on my account, Private Saul," Sergeant Bayton said as entered the circle of light from the shadows in the long depths of the mess hall. Even out of his suit, he was a big man, with a scar splitting the stubble over his scalp.
"She was just making a joke, Sarge," Kell said, the smile wiped off his face.
"Don't you think you've defended enough people today?" Bayton said, raising an eyebrow. "And hell, what do I care? She's a lifer, same as me. That earns her some grumbling privileges, so long as she exercises some damn restraint about where she uses them."
He held her eyes for a long, grim moment. She nodded. Bayton sniffed the air.
"Smells right glorious in here. You're an angel of mercy, Private Wolfe. Where are our medic and Private Drumar?" A horrified expression crossed his face. "Not together, I hope."
"No," Caston said. "I saw Private Drumar heading up to the observation deck. I think Corporal Sawn is in her room."
"I don't like her," said Dax, and the marines turned in surprised unison. Dax rarely voiced opinions. He'd been resoced for some unspecified crime after his conscription, and it was generally accepted that there wasn't much Dax left in there. "She talks to us like we're already dead."
"If I were her, I wouldn't like you either," Bayton said, recovering first. "Flying recruits around. Being woken up every time one of you delicate lilies bangs an elbow. Private Gage, go check on our wayward marine. No skipping meals in this outfit!"
Reflecting that speaking to Bayton about anything was a good way to get volunteered, Caston went, shouldering his FN92 along the way.