"What size boots you wear?" the old man hacked as he led Nick through the open-air morgue. The old man's hand was already hovering close to the feet of the nearest corpse.
The old man grabbed the corpse's foot, lifted it up, and checked the stamp on the underside.
"Whaddya know. Twelves. Well, one twelve, one eleven and a half."
Coughing wet, brown mucus onto the dirt, the old man unzipped the sides of the boots and pulled them off the corpse. He tied the laces together and tossed them in Nick's general direction -- Nick managed to catch them before they smacked him in the face. He slung the boots over his shoulder and followed the old man through the field of bodies.
"See that desk down there? That's where you wanna go," the old man pointed.
"What do I do when I get there?" Nick asked.
The old man was already heading back towards the front of the morgue area. If he heard Eric's question, he gave no indication -- he was already coughing phleghm on the next poor sucker in line.
A uniformed soldier poked Nick in the side with the barrel of his M4 rifle.
"Move along, shitbird."
Nick nodded and headed in the direction the old man had indicated. He walked through the rows of bodies, trying not to breathe in -- some of them had obviously been in the sun for a couple of days. The closer he got to the desk at the end of the long central row, the more and more bare the bodies became -- first missing boots, then uniforms, then limbs and implants. The ones right next to the desk were barely identifiable as humans anymore.
"ID?" the man behind the desk growled. He was younger than the man who'd thrown boots at Nick, but not by much. He was also a lot fatter, and the stripes on his shoulder identified him as a sergeant.
"Um. . . Nick Morrow."
"No one gives a shit about your name, fuckwad," the fat sergeant sighed, reaching across the desk and grabbing the dog tags hanging from Nick's neck.
"Four Seven Echo, One One Five Three," the sergeant read from the tag. His fat fingers (of which there were only three on his right hand) tapped the number into his computer. Nick couldn't see the screen, but he knew his file had popped up immediately.
"Oooh. Multiple Homicide. Aren't we just the little badass?"
Nick said nothing, and the fat sergeant just shrugged. With one of the fingers on his mangled right hand, the sergeant pointed off to the left.
"See those big-ass tents over there? Go to the one labeled Echo. You wait there until someone tells you where to go. You get me?"
"I got you."
"Sergeant. I got you, sergeant."
The fat sergeant snapped two of his fingers together, and another uniformed soldier appeared. The soldier slammed the butt of his rifle into Nick's stomach, dropping him to the dirt instantly.
"Little tip, convict. Show the proper fucking respect at all times. Get me?"
"I get you, sergeant," Nick coughed.
"Better. Tent Echo, convict. Move!"
It took a little effort, but Nick picked himself up off of the dirt and headed off in the direction of the tents. There were five of them, and each had a large sheet of paper pinned to the front -- A, B, C, D, and E. Nick had no military experience or background, but he wasn't an idiot -- he headed for the large open tent labeled "E," where he could see several people milling around inside.
As he approached Tent E, a uniformed soldier held up one hand to stop him. Not wanting another rifle slammed into various parts of his anatomy, Nick stopped and let the soldier check his dog tags.
"All right. Four Seven Echo. Back right corner of the tent. Find yourself a seat, then sit in it and shut up. Clear?"
Nick had no idea what the two stripes on the man's sleeve meant, but he figured "sir" would be the correct attribution to keep himself from getting hit again.
"Ain't no sir, jackass. Corporal. You'll get it soon enough. Now move along."
Nick nodded and headed for the back right corner of the tent, where there was only one other person waiting. The man was slightly taller than Nick, just under six feet, and thin. He had jet-black, close-cropped hair and green eyes. As soon as Nick got close, the man raised a hand in greeting.
"Hiya, sport. You mind?" the man asked, reaching for Nick's tags.
Nick shrugged, and the man read the numbers from the tag.
"Forty-seven Echo. Right on. Looks like we're in the same unit, pal. What's your name?"
The man stuck out his hand, and Nick shook it.
"Christopher Lee, or as the CO's like to call me, Forty-seven Echo Three-Eleven. Good to meet you, Nick Morrow. You don't look like a Morrow, though. You half-chink or something?"
"Mom was Japanese."
"Japanese. Right. Stick with that if anyone asks. Me, I don't care, but you'd be surprised how some of these convicts got a hate on for the Chinese. So how many you kill?"
"Nobody gets into 47 Echo without at least one body on them -- murder in the second at least. So, how many you do?"
"I was convicted of five."
"Five, eh? That beats me any day of the week. Well, before I got here, anyway. You smoke?"
"It's illegal back home," Christopher corrected, "gotta look at the good in the situation. They don't give a shit about us, so we can get away with pretty much whatever we want, long as we do our jobs."
Christopher pulled a red pack of cigarettes with Chinese writing across it. He pulled out one cigarette for himself, lit it, and offered the pack to Nick, who lit his own smoke.
"How long you been here?"
"Couple of months."
"How many guys in our unit?"
"As of right now? You and me. I don't want to freak you out, or anything, but better you hear it from me now than one of those asshole CO's. I'm all that's left of 47 Echo. After the last mission, well. . ."
Christopher stared past Nick for a good twenty seconds, just smoking his cigarette and looking out at nothing.
"Yeah. I get it," Nick said after it was clear that Christopher wasn't going to elaborate. "So what are we looking at for an assignment?"
Christopher finally looked back at Nick and smirked.
"There are a lot of possibilities, sport. Not one of them good."
Christopher handed over the half-empty pack, and Nick stuck it into the front pocket of his gray jumpsuit.
"You can go ahead and hang onto those. I got plenty more."
"Hey, you could be in a position to save my ass sometime soon. Half a pack of kinda crappy chink smokes isn't any skin off my nose, but you need them -- or anything -- you just let me know."
"Four Seven Echo, Eleven-Fifty-Three!" Nick heard someone yell.
"That's you," Christopher nodded.
"Yeah, I know," Nick smirked. He waved to Christopher and headed in the direction of the voice, which turned out to be a uniformed soldier at least five years younger than he was.
"I'm 1153," Nick told the soldier.
"So you are. Lieutenant Jim Neal, 47 Echo's new CO. We need to get you processed, tagged, and uniformed. 47 Echo 311!" Neal yelled before Nick had a chance to say anything.
Christopher appeared at Nick's side, grinning widely.
"Aw, shit. Jimmy Neal in the house!"
"Lock it up, 311. Take 1153 over to processing. I want him squared away in twenty minutes. Clear?"
Christopher headed out of Tent E, and Nick followed. As they walked, Nick finished off his cigarette and tossed it into the dirt.
"You'll like Lt. Neal. He's a good guy. He ran 22 Bravo -- we worked with them about a month ago. One of the few CO's I wouldn't stab if I had the chance."
"He's a Lieutenant?"
"Was, anyway, when he was in the regular Marines. He did something bad -- wouldn't tell me what -- and they court-martialed his ass down here with the rest of us convicts. A lotta CO's get here that way. Unlike us, though, they do a tour with the prisoners, they get to go back to being citizens."
"Must be nice."
"Well, assuming they live, that is. Neal must've fucked up again somehow to get 47 Echo. Bravo was a safer unit. Echo's. . ."
"Yeah. A suicide squad. I know."
"My court-appointed told me about it when I got sentenced. Offered to appeal. That. . . didn't go so well, obviously."
"Hey, 'least you got a lawyer who gave a shit. Mine actually smiled at my sentencing."
"And yet, here we both are, yeah?"
"Suppose. This's you," Christopher nodded at a low, open tent with a short line outside. All of the men in line were dressed in the same gray jumpsuit as Nick himself -- two uniformed soldiers stood outside with M4 rifles at the ready.
"They really think we're gonna run?" Nick asked Christopher under his breath, nodding at the two guards.
"Happens. Guy gets scared enough, doesn't care that he's in a foreign country in a prison jumpsuit with no money and no transportation. Guy just wants to run. Doesn't want to die out here. Ends up getting shot anyway, but not killed."
"Can't afford to lose a man completely. Shoot him in the leg, patch him up, put him back in a unit. Probably best not to run, y'know? 'Case you were considering it."
"I wasn't. But thanks."
The line was moving along pretty quickly, and Nick was three back from the opening of the tent in a couple of minutes. He could now see what Neal had meant by "tagging" -- a soldier with a paramedic's armband was using a large-bore jet injector on a seated convict in a gray jumpsuit. Another soldier was issuing a uniform to a second convict.
"Yep. GPS, too," Christopher nodded.
"Great," Nick sighed.
"Man, fuck that," the convict in front of them in line muttered without turning around. Even from behind, Nick could tell the man was muscular, covered in tattoos, and at least three heads taller than either Christopher or himself.
"Wonder why they put it in the neck?" Nick wondered aloud.
"Guys lose limbs out here more often than you'd think. They can replace them with bio-prosthetics and get the guy back out in the field, but if a guy takes one to the neck or head, chances are he's done. This way, they only have to implant once," Christopher explained casually.
"FUCK. . . THAT!" the convict in front of them yelled, suddenly rushing at the soldier on the left side of the tent's entrance. He caught the man off-guard, snatching his M4 away and knocking him to the ground.
The convict started firing wildly, pulling the trigger as quickly as he could, probably not realizing that the weapon was an automatic. Most of his shots went wild, sailing through the air harmlessly as convicts and soldiers alike hit the ground. The convict didn't seem to notice -- he was just firing and screaming, slowly backing away from the tent as he did so.
"Motherfuckers! You stay the fuck away from me!" the convict yelled.
Christopher hit the ground like everyone else, but Nick was on the move. The tattooed convict's back was still to him, and Nick realized he had only a second, two at the outside, to shut the guy down. Nick spun fast, his right foot slicing through the air in a wide arc. Nick felt his leg jolt at the knee as his heel slammed into the tattooed convict's skull.
The convict spun around from the force of the impact, turning to face Nick just in time to see the boots in Nick's left hand swinging into his face. As the convict dropped to the ground, Nick kicked the M4 back to the still-stunned soldier who had lost it.
"Jesus Effing Christ! Nice fucking moves, Nick!" Christopher blurted, pulling himself up from the dirt.
"Reaction," Nick said, shrugging.
The paramedic rushed out of the tent, passing the unconscious tattooed convict entirely, running to the side of a dropped soldier bleeding from his gut.
"Well, shit. Hope you liked that guy whose ass you just kicked, pal," Christopher sighed, clapping a hand on Nick's shoulder.
"That's too bad. He shot a soldier -- that just bought him a ticket into our unit, I'm guessing."
"Outstanding," Nick sighed. "Making friends already."