The UH-1 Iroquois used to be top tier, back during the Vietnam war. It remained in use until 2025, undergoing tons of upgrade, but never losing its giant dragonfly silhouette. They didn't survive the war, no aircraft can go two hundred years without maintenance, but their design documents and spare parts, mothballed in Fort Bannister, did. It's hard to put an aircraft together without power tools, but not impossible.

All four aircrafts are warmed up and undergoing last minute checks. Mine is A-72, a black craft with red stripes on the tail. A gunship. It's got two sentry bots worth of ordnance hanging under its belly. I ask the crew chief for a departure time and she gives me a once over behind thick sunglasses.

"You the new Lance?" She doesn't await my answer, instead going back to tightening the bolts on her RGR-14 rocket pod. "We're running light today, gun run on the mall and passenger transport… That's you."

I didn't ask their schedule… Ah, I see what she means. "I'll be kitted out in five." She nods and I jog off to the armory, the camp's only permanent structure, and hand over my orders to the Quartermaster.

He says nothing, checking the stamps with the one eye he's still got, before handing the documents back with a two-fingered hand. "Lance Corp', that's EP-3," He speaks, leaning against the counter, obviously sick of having to drone off the obvious, "SOB Certs…" He gives me a once over, same as the crew chief had, and decide that part is believable. "On the paper, that don' mean shit 'nymore, but outta respect, we'll give you one extra EP."

I nod curtly, chest puffed slightly with pride. "Much obliged."

"You're deploying in a buffer zone, crossfire all the way, that bumps you to EP-5. Anything past that, you'll need to pay caps, cool?"

EP-5 is plenty, so I nod. "Cool."

EP stands for Equipment Priority. Level one is what you get in boots, gets you non-lethal weapons, personal grooming appliances, .22 training rifle and basic survival gear.

Level two is the average for a private, nets you everything EP-1s get, plus lethal weapons, grenades and body armor.

Level three is granted to specialists; heavy gunners, grenadiers, snipers, NCOs and EOD experts, and grants them access to the tools of their trade.

Street creds for my old outfit, the 1st Special Operations Brigade, got me EP-4, which basically lets you grab spare gear to outfit your team, since you're supposed to be a sergeant or a commando at that point.

EP-5 lets me pick high-tech equipment, laser weapons, electronics, hand-crafted post-war weapons. Of course, there's no laser weapons left in here, nothing overly expensive, or the QM wouldn't have taken this kind of liberty. We're undergoing a very large deployment and he's already been robbed blind of everything shiny.

"Just give me that Stoner and a bulldog, standard kit." The Stoner is also a Vietnam era design, replicated using the R91 platform and improved with modern component, whilst the bulldog is a double action .44 magnum revolver… That's it, really, design's been the same for as long as man can remember, In Colt we trust, goes the old saying.

I slip on the full plates he hands me, but turn down the right-side shoulder pads. That's where the butt of my rifle rests, I need to feel its heartbeat in combat, it tells me more than any visual inspection can.

The man nods when I tell him that. He runs a quick radio check on my helmet hardware, "Left. Right." and I give him one thumb up.

I don't strap my revolver to the armor's greaves, like everyone tends to do, instead tucking its holster in the combat webbing over my stomach, so I can swiftly take a hand off my primary and pull it out.

The suit, eight different kinds of batteries to keep all my electronics lit up, four ballsack mags to keep my Stoner fed and supplies to keep me fed, I'm packing sixty pounds of stuff.

I weight a hundred and eighty, give or take, so the UH-1 gunship has to take off with two-hundred and forty pounds of something that's not ordnance, which the pilot isn't happy about. He bitches about us overfed grunts, rattles off all the LGMs, RPGs and LRKs (Liquid Ressource Kegs) he could be hauling instead of me…

"Pound for pound, I'm deadlier than anything you could strap to this bird." I finally tell him, as we pass the PNR. He looks back, quickly, and trained eyes immediately spot the 1SOB tattoo on my exposed bicep. He takes in my gear, tries to substract how young I look to the conclusion, but fails because I'm halfway to thirty, allowing for a solid decade of potential military expertise.

"Copy that, sir." Is the last I hear of him.

The crew chief taps her helmet and her voice buzzes in my ear, with a second-and and half delay. "First time CoWaring?"

Conventional Warfare. Talon Company offers many services. I started SAR, Search and Rescue, due to my experience with aircrafts, then got moved to SAD, Seek and Destroy, until our Spec Ops Brigade was disbanded and re-assigned, three months ago, to make way for the Hunter-Killer squads, or hitmen.

Long story short… "I worked with regulars before, this is first drop as one of them, though."

"Hey, I know the whole esprit de corps thing says you're not better than your buddies down there, and I know a fly-girl calling grunts stupid is as cliché as it gets…" She grins behind thick aviator shades, " But I've met the kids; cookie-cutter roughnecks, illiterate, can't count further than their fingers and toes." Her pause suggests that number tends to vary.

"Thanks for the pep talk, Chief."

"Look, kid, what I'm getting at is you're going to be bigger than most of them, faster and smarter too, 'cause you've been fed properly growing up. It shows. And you're trained, clean and sharp. That shows too. Once you step off that helo, you'll be a wolf in a kennel, either you assert dominance, chain of command be damned, or the pack will rip you to pieces, like they did the last guy… Kid called Malone?"

"Malcolm." He was near Evergreen Mills, on patrol. His ID badge must have been defective because, she tells me, he had his leg blown off by an IFF mine. He died of bloodloss after a day. They still haven't bothered to recover his body.

We touch down at the Capitol building. Only reason we can get this close to the mall is we've struck a cease-fire with the Brotherhood. On the rooftop, the squad I'm assigned to is waiting.

Unshaved, rowdy, dirty, rough. I love them already. All are bigger than me, one by a full foot. I turn to glare at the crew chief, who shrugs and punches the helo's ceiling twice to tell her pilot I'm off. The Huey is off and out of here in seconds, picking up speed for an attack run.

None of them salute me. I don't care, I'm a lance, nobody salutes lances, unless they're being ironic.

I go up to the biggest, meanest of them, who's still about a year younger than I am, and present a hand for shaking. Two sentences are pre-thought and ready to deploy depending on his reaction to my gesture of friendship. First one, I'll introduce myself as J-C, the new assistant team leader, and ask them where I can take a shit around here. That's if we're cool.

He doesn't shake my hand, so we're not cool. "Where's Sergeant Tanner?"

There's eight of them, lounging around behind sandbags strewn around the roof, one of them, on the far corner, doesn't look up from the precision rifle he's nursing, but asks, "Which half?"

The big guy smiles. "Well," I continue, "who's the new team leader?"

The sniper answers me again, "S'pose you're it, boss."

"Who's the platoon commander here?" I push, still glaring at the giant in front of me, refusing to let his smug smile ruffle my feathers. The same guy with the rifle goes to answer, but I silence him with a grunt. "Something wrong with you, soldier?" I ask, now an inch from the big guy's face, "I asked you a question."

His voice is deep and loud, imposing. "Oh, I hear is some pussy calling for its mama. Why don't'cha take the next ride back to Banny?" I see him try to come up with a smart way to end that sentence. I'm way ahead of him.

"Son, there's a time to talk about pussies," I sneer, sizing him up in the same way the Quartermaster had, "-and believe me, you're gonna need some help on that subject- and there's a time to soldier. We all know there's never been any love between our branches."

The sniper breaks apart the power packs of his weapon, down to the fusion chamber's shielding, something that normally takes a full workbench and protection gear, cleans it and snaps it back together in the time it takes him to say "That's an understatement."

I go to answer something smug, but the big guy moves faster than I thought him capable of, and hits me right in the kill-zone. I'm saved only by reflexes honed by never-ending drills.

I catch his wrist with my elbow, realize he's harder than a steel rod, too solid to knock off balance. I don't know what happens next, my brain rolls through the motion without my assent. Like the big guy and I are on rails, our trajectories pre-ordained.

He kicks me in the stomach, but finds my knee already rising to divert his, then it keeps rising, and I spin mid-air, leaping off my feet of my own accord, one leg outstretched like an horizontal stripper, wrapping myself around this tree-trunk of an arm…

We end up on the floor, I've got my legs in a 4 shape around his arm and am sitting on his back, twisting his arm until his left wrist is level with his right shoulder and I can feel ribs shiver with the strain.

The man screams like a cat being skinned alive. A human arm isn't meant to bend this far.

One of the other soldiers tackles me off his buddy. I cushion the first few blows and two more squad members join in to kick and stomp at me. Keep your joints mobile, keep your fingers away from blows. Cover your head and ribs.

I bite, I kick crotches, I spit, twist ankles, elbow toes, catch fingers and savagely bend them out of shape. This is a battle of attrition. Three of them, one of me.

They're in rags, barely worth being called uniforms, I'm in full battle plates. Beating them into submission isn't as much of a feat as people are soon going to make it out to be.

Disabling all of them in five seconds, from the ground, with my bare hands and no fatality, however, is sure to be something I'll brag about when I've had too much to drink.

They go down, moaning and whimpering, but conscious. Pain is useless if it ain't teaching a lesson. I wipe some blood off my lip and look around at the four squad members remaining. No other contenders.

This is something I've done twice before, training militias, only I was assistant instructor, not the drill sergeant himself. I still learned all I could from watching Thompson beat up raiders and scavvers into a decent fighting force.

What would Career Sergeant Kyle Thompson do about these four? Assaulting an officer is a crime, the sentence is death, but a Lance isn't really an officer, barely a non-com.

I let this slip, though, it's gonna ruin discipline… But these are mean sons-of-bitches, soldiers have to be, I went in there and shoved, they shoved back, as they've been taught, as I want them to keep on doing.

I have them line up against a sandbag wall. No broken bones that I can see. One dislocated shoulder, but the big guy handles it on his own, with nothing but a grunt.

"The sentence for hitting an NCO is death." I call, standing straight, three steps back, out of reach, "Would any of you like to invoke a field court-martial?"

No reply. "Good, 'cause that one's on me, it's a bit on you; If your gonna assault a superior officer, go all in, dead men don't testify. But it's mostly on me; as an officer, you're not supposed to let your men get the chance to hit you." I'm about to lose them. Short speeches, these guys have the attention span of Geckos on Jet.

"I fucked up and you guys paid for it, let's forget that ever happened." That gets their interest. I read their name tags. Big guy is Ferra, R. Private First Class.

I call his name and he groans, "Uniform untidy in; four particulars. Three hours extra duty. Squad laundry." I bark. Those four particulars are drops of my blood.

Second in line is Pvt. Hannigan, Timothy. "Physical condition; unsatisfactory. Recreational privileges rescinded, two extra hours daily PT for a week."

"But… We don't have a gym…" He bitches. I ignore him. He's bitching, not glaring and plotting revenge, this is good.

Next soldier is Pvt. Smith, Jack. A lot of wastelanders are assigned random names when they join up. "Uniform untidy in… Jesus, kid, just burn that thing and request a new one."

He turns red. He's young, easily influenced. Gotta make sure I'm the one influencing him. "It's the only one I've got, stores are empty.

"I'll lend you one of my spares. Three hours extra duty, setting up PT facilities with help from Hannigan, then oversee his PT. He weasels out, you'll share his punishment."

Hannigan's eyes perk with anger. Pack instinct; fuck up and get yourself in trouble, eh, not that big a deal. Get the pack in trouble, you risk being torn apart…

Shit, I am a wolf in a kennel.

Last one is a she. She's as tall as I am, her arms as thick, but her shoulders aren't as broad. She's the one who tackled me off Ferra.

"Private Second Class Kerner, Suzan…" Let's face it, there's a hundred disciplinary articles I could quote here, we all know I'm picking ones at random, I may as well just make them up. "Facial hairs poorly groomed. Three hours extra duty. Assist platoon HQ with administrative duties." It should be funny, yet the air suddenly feels very cold.

She clicks her heels and barks, "This trooper cannot read, Lance Corporal!" She doesn't salute, doesn't sass… This is not her giving me lip, she's genuinely eager to see some military discipline applied to this crew. That seems to get the attention of her teammates as well, but clearly she thinks her illiteracy is what earned her these glances. She goes as red as Smith has.

"Find a tutor. Offer ten caps per lesson, payable by me at the end of every week."

I look around, nobody meets my eyes. All illiterate. "Ditto for all of you. I expect you to be able to recite the alphabet at this time next week. Failure to meet that deadline will result in additional extra duty. This goes for the entire squad." I shout that last part. They all look very much sobered up now.

I rubbed their nose in it, like you do a bad puppy. Forced them to see their flaws, pointed out their poor hygiene, lack of education, shoddy training and then, most humiliating of all, I cut them some slack.

It's easy to lose perspective of social norms in combat. They had. Then I landed, looking soft and weak. They reacted on pure instinct; An alpha, transplanted in a new pack, will always start as omega and never make it to alpha. But now I've reminded them they're people, soldiers, bound by rules and part of a social order.

And then I've showed them how low they hand in that society.

Like any wild animals, they'll simmer down, fearing another beating, but soon their lumps will heal, their spirit soar again and then, that leash I'm trying to put them on will feel real short and there will be another incident.

They'll question the source of my authority, especially since I'm just a lance, wonder what's the worse I can inflict on them and how I, alone, can possibly enforce any sort of disciplinary measure. Before then, I need to have them do something right, to reward them, so they imprint the concept that it's a lot more pleasant to just follow orders.

"Get to it!" I unstrap my armor, drop all my gear off near the sniper and turn to the four soldiers who remain standing. The sniper's name is Maksim Makarov, he's a Specialist, same pay grade as I am, but not as high up on the hierarchy. "Specialist Makarov will be going over all your weapons, hand them over to him."

He's not happy about it. Later today, we'll meet in the showers and punch it out, doesn't matter who wins that fight, probably won't be me, 'cause once he's got it out of his system, Makarov is going to fall in like everyone else, felling silly that he made such a big deal of this.

But for now, he stows his rifle in a foam-lined hard case and leaves his corner to go collect everyone's weapons. "The rest of you…" I motion to the collapsed sandbag bunkers, loose junk fences and rusted gun emplacements. "I want these fortifications brought back to specifications before sundown, let's bounce, people!"

I get in there with them. The chief was right, they're weak. I can haul a sandbag on each shoulder with ease, whereas they need to split the weight of one between two of them, each holding a corner of the bag, that is, until they see me haul them like they're pillows. Then, pride kicks in and they set to hauling the bags, one by one, on their own. An hour in, we've made good progress. I pick a bright eyed trooper and send him to pull the barricades apart and re-build them.

I have him repeat the operation three times, until he gets it right.

His name is Carpenter, which is an irony he is not oblivious to.