Time: The Clone Wars
Characters: Clone OCs
Summary: Popper exasperates the rest of his squad.
Popper was the first to reach the rendezvous point. He wheezed, swiveling to take in the tall triangular trees looming over him like viridian monoliths, and wondered how he had gotten separated from the rest of his squad. It must have been in the melee that had left him bruised and tired. His scratched armor gave him shame. "Mortigh won't like this," he grunted. "He's just made Sergeant and likes to throw his weight around." He swung a search on his Life Form Indicator; nothing sentient. A nearby stream gurgled a welcome and a rising fish dimpled the water as Popper staked eight perimeter sensors and crumbled some leaf litter for a fire. Darkness looked about to set in and the alluring mountain half a klick away was tipped with gold when the other five members of his squad showed up.
"Thought you'd have dinner ready for us by now," sneered Fargo.
"Did you bring the rations or do we need to draw lots to eat each other?" countered Popper. Fargo's temper hadn't gotten any better since their last mission. Popper hoped the congenial surroundings of this place would smooth out the man's rough edges, because the last time Popper had cracked a joke to break the tension, Fargo had nearly had apoplexy.
"Not that rations are anything like what we had on Zeltros, but here you go." Fargo plopped down the sealed bag in front of Popper before stalking away to vanish behind a tree. It had taken a long hike to get here.
Mortigh flung down his own pack and cupped his hands over the fire. "Get warm, all of you. No telling what's happening next. Delune, keep the water pack far from this fire. Scuttlebutt, see if our outbound comms are working again. Why the kriff they all failed in our buckets I'll never know. Bill, you're first watch tonight, I'm next, Popper, you're graveyard stretch. Stay sharp, Dagger Squad." Mortigh glanced around at their bivouac. "Most likely the Generals will catch up to us tomorrow, if not tonight, but if they don't show up by first light, we'll drill on that flat stretch by the creek. Got to keep in shape."
Popper clipped the bag's seals, poked around inside and pulled out a plastoid packet marked "Meals, Not Ready To Eat." "Nerfburgers? Since when do we rate nerfburgers?"
Scuttlebutt groaned. "Popper, I swear, if this is another of your jokes - "
"No, no! Look!" They crowded around. "There's fixings for the burgers, and bubblezap we can reconstitute with our water and these little fizz pills, and check this out: fluffbuns."
"Give 'em here." Mortigh bit the covering and the inrushing air puffed up the buns in nothing flat. There was an appetizing greasy glaze on them, too.
Delune crowed, "On the run an hour ago, and now a feast. I tell you, this is the life." He spun when Fargo rejoined the group. "Guess what? We have a balance in the Force!"
"Too funny by half, Delune. Just because I dropped the ordnance pack somewhere along the run here - "
Popper choked and nearly cut himself on the snap-out grill for the nerfburgers. "You lost our ammo?" No wonder Fargo had been crabby.
"Listen, you - "
"Cut it out, you two. I'm all right with the situation, so why shouldn't you be?" Mortigh didn't manhandle them, but he stood, arms akimbo, the picture of GAR authority. "We'll give the Generals a heads up on our sitch as soon as Scuttlebutt fixes the comms, they'll contact the cruiser and we'll restock when we get picked up. So cool it." The sun dipped behind the mountain then and shadows dropped like soft camouflage nets from the trees, shrouding the little vale in restful gray. The evening breeze picked up as they turned to their tasks.
"Time to watch, Bill."
Bill smacked his lips over the last of his pudding pack. "On my way, Sarge. I picked out a good spot by that tarla tree over there. Warm up my fartsack by the fire, but not too close, will you? Don't let it burn, I'm going to sleep for a week in it." He walked as softly as he always did on his way out beyond the fire's ring of light. Somewhere a nightbird trilled a pretty tremolo.
"Hear him, a week." Popper could feel himself decompress. Maybe they could spend a week here. He wouldn't mind. "Hey, Sarge, think we'll be here long?"
Mortigh looked up from cleaning his deece. "Don't know. If I did, I'd tell you. It's called a 'rendezvous' for a reason, you know." He sighted down the gleaming weapon's barrel. "That means we wait for whoever knows our rendezvous coordinates. We wait until it's not prudent to wait anymore." He rolled up the cleaning rag and stashed it tidily in his pack, placed the pack and the weapon within arm's length by his sleeping bag, and crawled inside the thermal envelope. "Scuttlebutt, top priority on fixing the outbound comm relays tomorrow. Lights out, brothers." Their fire had dwindled to gleaming coals inside the rock ring. The lammaswood smoke perfumed the crisp night air, drifting away from Popper's nose after teasing it with fragrance.
Popper took stock of the only squad he had ever known. Fargo lay quietly some meters from the fire, his mood back to neutral after their head-butting. Popper knew he wasn't asleep yet because he still lay on his back, and Fargo always slept on his left side. Delune and Scuttlebutt buddied up as usual, helmets and armor piled together beside their heads, sleeping bags a whisper apart. They chatted until their yawns broke up their conversation and then they snored as one. Mortigh kept his bed a short way from the group, as he'd taken to doing after his promotion some time back, a Kamino month ago, Popper remembered. Kamino, where all their preparation for days like this had come from. There was a sense of completion, of rightness, tonight. Popper stared at the diminishing coals. "This is the life," he thought.
"What do you mean, 'sure is', Fargo?"
"You said, 'This is the life,' and I agreed with you." A coal hissed as Fargo turned over onto his left side, getting ready to sack out.
"I didn't say it, I thought it." Was Fargo heating up for an argument again? Popper didn't have the energy to think up a joke to defuse a cranky clone, and anyway, how could Fargo be out of sorts, after their delicious meal in this peaceful setting?
"You said, 'This is the life.' What, are you thinking out loud now? Pretty soon you'll be going around telling yourself jokes and laughing because you haven't heard them before."
"No more bubblezap for either of you if I hear any more chatter. Knock it off and grab some rest." Mortigh's rumble was softer than it should have been. Fargo grunted and shifted closer to the fading warmth.
Popper lay awake, thinking. What if he had said that out loud? Talking out loud to himself could put a severe crimp in his social life, though come to think of it, he didn't have much of a social life in the first place. What if Fargo were right and he didn't know if he spoke his thoughts or not? He'd be mustered out or put back of the lines for treatment. He'd be reassigned to another squad, maybe. I'd better not have any more thoughts, thought Popper, and he turned off his mind, careful not to think anymore. It wouldn't do to give Fargo ammunition for a feud, if he wanted to start one. Popper jumped when Mortigh poked him for graveyard watch. He hadn't known he had fallen asleep.
The Generals didn't arrive by midmorning, either, so Mortigh drilled them all until they streamed sweat. He kept them at it until they marched as one multi-legged dangerous beast and when they split up for their specialties, each man's task melded into the next one's. Scuttlebutt faked receiving orders, Delune scouted the terrain, Fargo played at setting up his short-range mortar, Mortigh commanded them to take their objective, Bill led the charge while cracking jokes with Popper who galloped one step behind him, and so it went until lunch break.
Scuttlebutt chewed despondently on his ration bar. "It's like a frequency surge killed those outbound comms, Sarge. It's like every frequency in the galaxy hit them at once, they couldn't process all of it and they fried. There's no replacement relays for anything that basic in my pack." He frowned. "They're not supposed to fail."
"So we're on our own out here, until the Generals arrive. They don't need any relays to find us." Mortigh stretched his leg out in the way the medics said he could when his cremaster muscle had completely healed. He chewed, saying nothing more.
Popper picked up his self-assigned role as morale officer. "So, I've been thinking."
"That right? I didn't hear anything." Fargo crumpled his ration bar packet and made to toss it away, but caught himself at Mortigh's look. He crammed it into his boot, instead.
"I repeat, I've been thinking and if we dial down the tension on our cable launchers and use these unnecessary ammo clips for hooks, we ought to be able to catch us some fish." To Popper's surprise, Fargo kept quiet at the dig.
Scuttlebutt nodded. "A plan, the man has a plan. What do you think, Sarge? And don't say fish will remind you of Kamino."
"Aw, I haven't thought of Kamino in hours. Sure, Popper, take the afternoon to make the gear and when the sun starts to set and the hatch comes out, you'll have a chance of catching something."
"The hatch is flying bugs, isn't it." Bill scowled. "I don't like bugs, but they like me plenty. I'll pass. These ration bars are better tasting than last mission's, you notice?"
"Mmmm, you're right, Bill." Popper finished his off. "Someone upranks must have had to eat one on a bet." He pointed to the creek's bank, awash in midday light. Today was sunnier than yesterday. "There's not a place to stand like a quay, but those rocks midstream are spaced well enough apart that we can stand and cast out the cables."
"Supposed to sit on the bank, so's your shadow doesn't scare the fish off. Anybody knows that." There it was, there it was. It had simply taken Fargo a moment to come up with a riposte.
Popper thought hard. "Fargo, pier pressure isn't enough to make you shut your yap, is it."
"Awwww, stang - "
"Ouch, my ears!"
"Bad Popper! Go to your bunk!"
"You think you're so f-"
"Stow it, you men. Get to work on the mission. And Fargo?"
"When you wade out to the rocks, swish your feet around a little. They can use the attention."
Popper lost it. Two days into their rendezvous, and already his squad had gotten off two good ones! This bivouac was looking better and better.
That night, Bill cleaned the catch, eight good-sized pan fish. He tossed the innards and heads back into the creek, windmilling one arm to ward off the swarming midges. "Some places, bugs eat me alive, but not here. They flit away before lighting. Funny thing, worlds like this," he said to Mortigh back at their campfire. Mortigh pulled another packet of oil from the bottom of the rations rucksack, a puzzled look on his face as he rummaged inside. He hauled out two sorts of round vegetables, too.
"Hand over the oil packet, Sarge. Good job it wasn't crushed in our mad dash here." Bill stopped himself. "Say, wasn't our briefing for a wasteland terrain? And didn't we get issued sunscreen for a brown sun?"
Mortigh unshipped the fold-out frying pan from its pocket on the back of the rucksack. He shrugged, a movement that the fire's shadows exaggerated into a wild fandango against the enshrouding trees of the deep forest. "I may be a sergeant now, but the Big High Command doesn't tell me everything about redeployment. What I do know is that we hold our position until relief comes. The Generals will show up soon, you'll see. Now fry up that mess of fish while I shred these protatoes that I found and we'll add this bit of Zeltros onion, too."
It took less time than anyone thought to have a tasty meal ready. Everyone hunkered down by the fire, swilling their bubblezap, munching and reminiscing and feeling pleasantly tired.
"Remember how Domino Squad nearly didn't make it through training?" Scuttlebutt's voice was subdued. "And then they did. There's hope for everyone, brothers."
"Makes you feel really alive when you pass. I never felt so good as when I knew I was ready to leave Kamino." Mortigh glanced around. "Out here, with you lot, is the best."
Popper couldn't let this sober observation stand. "Oh, come on, Mort, we knew you when. You were raw material like the rest of us, and it was just the wound you got that let you make Sergeant and turned you all serious."
Bill picked up the thread. "Yeah, yeah, remember how you flew up into the air when you got hit? Screamed like a youngling. I thought it was a siren."
The squad's mood changed back to what it should always be. "Never, I never did, I was practicing for the choir that the Generals said we ought to form. The Jedi want us to have something to focus on for when we muster out. A 'life goal for after the war,' I think General Kenobi called it." When the laughter died down, Mortigh added, "I miss his weekly lectures. I think General Skywalker takes up more of his time now. They're always off sparring or strategizing or something together."
"Hevy thought the same. I haven't talked with him in a while." Popper flipped a native berry that the Indicator said was safe to eat into his mouth. "Good old Hevy. Haven't seen him lately, either."
Delune snorted. "Good reason for that, Popper. Domino Squad ran into big trouble and Hevy bought it."
Popper sat up. "Hevy's dead?"
"So I heard."
"Poor old Hevy," Popper sighed. "He wouldn't have dropped the ordnance pack."
"I'll let that pass," Fargo said. "I'm feeling mellow tonight. So, Delune, was it quick for Hevy?"
Scuttlebutt broke in. "I heard it was. The best way to go, really."
A twig snapped in the forest. Mortigh swung the Life Form Indicator around. "Nothing out there. Rapid temperature changes can make branches crack and fall down. It was like that on Endor, remember. And Popper, we haven't needed ordnance other than what's in our packs, so lay off Fargo. Besides" - Mortigh munched a mouthful of berries - "mebbe wr's ofer. We'd neffer knowwit."
"Maybe the war's over and no one knows our position. Maybe we're lost out here." Bill plucked at his eyebrows in that nervous habit he had, then paused, looking in the direction of the far-off mountain whose snowy top he'd admired in the daylight. "But you know? It's a nice place to bivouac. If we have another day here, I might have to climb me a mountain."
"I knew you were going to say that, Bill."
"Oh, Scuttlebutt, you did not know what Bill was going to say."
"Oh, Delune, yes, I did."
"Well, men, what I just realized is that no matter which side of the fire we sit on, the smoke never gets into anyone's eyes." Mortigh motioned to the squad in a sweep of one broad arm. "And I don't remember nerfburgers or vegetables or bubblezap being in our rations pack, and I packed it." The fire crackled merrily as a fish splashed in the unseen creek. It took no longer than a second for the moon to crest the surrounding trees and bathe the little clearing in pale strokes of silver.
Fargo said thoughtfully, "What I noticed by the creek bank is that there aren't tracks of any sort in the mud. Brothers, we are supposed to leave tracks."
Popper burst out laughing. "Dagger Squad, you are all too much. The reason we know what we're each going to say next is because we've heard it all a thousand times before. Fargo dropped the ordnance pack because he made a mistake, and there's a reason for all that other stuff, too. Here comes Hevy."