The air was heavy, thick enough to cut with a knife. Moisture hung on the leaves, gathered in every crevice, soaked every strand of hair, every inch of skin. Even the sweat wicking undergarments they wore, the armour lining, their skivvies...nothing helped. Light armour had no cooling system. So they remained still, drenched in their own sweat. This was night patrol in the Amazon. It was hell, but at least it wasn't Tesca Numerosa.
As the full moon cast her silver tears through the leaves of the jungle, it seemed the world was holding its breath. A slight breeze struggled through the canopy, the leaves rustled and swayed gently. Frogs, lizards, and insects...thankfully the Earthborn kind, each skittered and skulked in their own way through the underbrush. Many things moved, if a keen eye knew where to look. But that same keen eye would be hard pressed to see through that dense melange of green and brown, eight Mobile Infantry troopers in light armour, their skin streaked with greasepaint, lying silent on the forest floor. In a loose circle they lay, their rifles trained outward, their eyes and ears, both natural and electronic, peering into the Stygian darkness. Many things in the forest moved. Flores' Furies were as still as tombstones.
Lieutenant Isabelle Flores flicked her eyes to the chronometer on her wrist. They had been sitting here for almost twenty minutes. She panned her eyes back out into the darkness, into the cruel, limitless green in the blue moonlight. They scanned. She listened. She slowly smelled the air, she tasted it on her tongue. In the jungle the senses came alive for those who listened. In the jungle, they meant life or death. Three more minutes, she waited.
Slowly, an arm raised into the night, and gave the signal. Eight men and women rose to their feet, their forms cutting through the blackness at a speed that would render a snail impatient. The lieutenant checked the overlay on her HUD and the compass on her wrist. Another signal from her hand, and Ling took point. Stalking like leopards, Flores' Furies continued on through the darkness. As armoured boots trod carefully among the leaves, the Lieutenant took stock. Four days in the jungle. Six firefights. Confirmed enemy casualties in the triple digits. Two small nests burned out and leveled. The price? Gallons of sweat, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and Lance Corporal Mbanjwa dead. Rhoodie and Cheng carried the body bag. An 'Acceptable Expenditure', as Intel would put it. That didn't mean she had to like it.
The battle for Earth was not quite what she had expected, two years ago in Hawaii. God, it felt like a lifetime. We had won, technically. The Bugs brought in their second wave. Fleet had its guts ripped out trying to stop them in orbit. Carmen won her first Bronze Lion there, and her first ship soon after that. Not bad for the Prom Queen, thought the Lieutenant. For a moment, she smiled. But just for a moment. MI didn't have a picnic either. It rained Bugs that day. It rained bugs for a whole week. Rico's Roughnecks were there, in the thick of it like they always were. She winced as she thought of it, trying to put the details out of her mind. So much blood.
Hawaii. The Bugs just wouldn't stop crawling for Hawaii. She never found out why. The Queen Herself dropped in and set up shop at Mount Kilauea. Mount Killyoulater, they started to call it. To stop the invasion, she had to die. Guess who they called? Big surprise. They dropped us in with the Pathfinders, the MI's spookboys. Every Roughneck ran a Marauder. It was all or nothing. They almost didn't make it out. Then Johnny Rico, crazy loverboy Johnny Rico, went mano y insecto with the Bug Queen at the summit of Mount Killyoulater. Now he was Captain Rico, half a world away somewhere in Hungary. Or what was left of it.
She remembered what it felt like, after the Queen was left simmering in Kilauea's magma chamber and the Federation, MI, Fleet, and civilian alike, had driven the Bugs back into the Pacific. She remembered watching the sun come up on Pahoa Beach. Just him and her, standing on that beach, the breeze in their hair as the rays of the dawn warmed their faces. They were covered in dirt and blood, they stank from sweat, oil, and bug guts. But in that breeze, their hands together...she had never been happier. In that moment, it all seemed perfect. They had won. The war was over. Johnny Rico would drop on a knee and confess his love, pull out a ring, and they would live happily ever after, Heroes of the Federation.
Except, it didn't end that way.
Johnny Rico didn't drop on one knee, and there was no Happily Ever After. Hawaii was only one battle, and for Rico's Roughnecks, the war was far from over. That had been two years ago. Only a few months after, it got worse. She remembered the briefing; Sky Marshal Sanchez himself spoke. Carl was there too, garbed in black now, the long coat and peaked cap that Intel conferred on their best. Their brightest...and coldest. The hard truth, they said, was that Earth was infested. The war would not be over for a very long time. Worse, they were stretched thin. The Bug invasions had eaten up a lot of their best officers, and they desperately needed replacements. They wanted only the best. She remembered how her blood went cold when she realised what that meant. 'We're in this for the species...' Carl had said. So for the good of the Federation and the survival of the Human Race, SICON did the rational thing.
They broke up the Roughnecks.
Rico, Zim, and Flores each got their own squads. Rico quickly made Captain. Doc ended up as Battalion Surgeon for some unit over in China. Carl disappeared into the black bowels of Special Operations. She heard a rumour he made Colonel. Higgins traded in his scout suit and returned to FedNet. His his compiled vidtapes from his time with the Roughnecks were released as 'Mobile Infantryman: A Portrait of Valour'. He won a Heinlein Award. Now he was an anchor for FedNet Nightline. Goss took his discharge and went home. Last Dizz heard, he was still living with his sister. Max was serving under Lieutenant Zim, raising hell and well on his way to Sergeant. Colonel T'Phai went home. Dizz never heard if he found his wife.
Another insect bit. Dizz ignored it. She stopped counting the bites ages ago. She wasn't about to get sloppy so close to the end of the patrol. They crept and crawled for hours, lifetimes. Through every drop of sweat, every fleeting shadow, every silent fear, there was only the jungle. Only each other. She was almost surprised when they were challenged, the sentry bellowing for countersign at the wire. It was a little hilarious. Bugs don't give countersigns. Bugs don't get a pass from automated sentry units that would have cut them to pieces at several hundred metres. She gave the stupid password. 'Whiskey' was the return. It sounded like a good idea.
The shower was God. There was nothing else but hot clean water and the sensation as it bombarded her skin. Grime, paint, and a thousand poisonous feelings seemed to melt away in the steam. Amusing, really. She'd spent the past week in a sauna. Yet this heat only felt good, clean. She was almost indignant when it ended. Stupid ration timers. She stepped from the stall, wrapping herself in a towel, and then realised just how alone she was. Fuck it. She ditched the rough facsimile of cotton and sat on the bunk, still dripping and indifferent. Nothing in this damn place was ever truly dry. Her eyes went to the battered ration crate that pretended to be a nightstand; to the electronic frame that shifted between a dozen digital portraits. She knew them all. The frame cradled in hand, she ran a finger across this smiling, so very distant faces. It was strange. Once they had been dragged all over known space, yet nothing could separate them. Now, all of them together, on the same world, their home world, they had never been more apart. So many memories. Laughter, warmth...napalm. Contact right, ammo up, stand and be recognised. Countersign...
The Lieutenant opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out a bottle.. She cradled it in her hand for a moment, running her fingers over the worn label. With a hint of a smile, she twisted off the cap, running the mouth of the bottle under her nose. The smile widened as the sharp aroma flooded her mind with memories. Even the smell burned. There was the night after they enlisted. They night after they graduated boot. They night they got word of their first deployment and got those stupid matching tattoos. Then there was their first night back on Earth after Pluto and the sweep of the Oort Cloud. There was a a lot to be forgotten...and a lot worth remembering. A thousand little battles and hypersleeps and smiles and tears unshed, and there was Earth again. There was the night they really believed it was over. There was the night after the LT...after Gene Razak died. Then there was the night, a few days before Kilauea, precious leave granted to walking dead. There was a green field and bright stars, and Johnny Rico's stupid grinning face. There was one hand, and then another, and those distant, blazing stars in hypnotised eyes.
She put the bottle back in the drawer. It was better the memories remain happy.