"Whassa matter, candy ass? Too scared to go trompin' around in some mud?" Pebble was startled to hear that the soldier speaking was a woman, and from the sound of it, she was particularly nasty. She eyed him up and down, like a butcher inspecting a side of meat. "You're cute. The hell're you doin' out here with us?"
"Sheesh, down girl," one of her comrades chuckled, sneering at him. "Don't go jumpin' the help. You're bad enough when we're on leave!"
A few of the soldiers cackled as Pebble felt a hot flush on his cheeks. She was the type of woman he'd always been warned about. Of course he'd encounter one on the several hours-long trip to the base. He simply pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration and looked away, not wanting to participate.
"Aww, you made 'im blush, Tegogo."
"So what's your name, tiger?" The woman, apparently named Tegogo, leaned in with a sly look on her face. She tilted her helmet up to give him a wink, causing him to squirm rather uncomfortably.
"Married," Pebble managed to croak out. Tegogo tilted her head, raising an eyebrow.
"I said, I'm married." Pebble blushed even more after the words left his mouth, and his frustration only increased when the stubborn soldier didn't budge from her position. In fact, he'd never seen someone so unperturbed by information in his life.
"Well I don't see a problem with that. We're all gonna die out here, sugar, might as well make the best of it!" More laughter erupted from the van, until a proper voice, this one tinged by a slight accent, broke into the noise.
"Shut up, the lot of you. Leave him alone."
Pebble glanced to his right to locate the source of the upper-class sounding voice, and his gaze eventually rested on a young man, just a few years younger than he, sitting with a large sniper rifle tilted onto the seat next to him. Angry eyes all stared at the young man as well, but he didn't flinch under their gaze.
"It's bad enough that he's been taken away from family and friends. Now you meatheads have to make him suffer all the way out in these lovely boonies?" He grimaced, clearly unhappy with being in this location as well.
"You'll be next after the Cowardly Lion here, honey," Tegogo snickered and returned to her conversation with her squad mates. Pebble sighed in relief, shifting over on the flat seats to sit near the man who had come to his rescue. The man looked up, curious at the sudden movement, and raised a brow at Pebble.
"Thank you. For what you said," Pebble nodded at him, nervously clutching the strap around his chest.
"Sure," was the first response. A few moments a silence passed as the man adjusted a setting on his rifle's scope. "Soldiers like them aren't the kind you want to get mixed up with. Trust me on that one."
He tilted his head back to catch what little light remained outside, illuminating a pock mark scar on the right side of his face. Pebble recoiled slightly, alarmed by the scar's odd shape. "Got this from a fight with one of them. Thought it was a funny idea to shove a sticky grenade near my head, and a piece of the shrapnel got embedded in my cheek."
" what pleasant people," Pebble said quietly, glancing over his shoulder.
"Only the best and brightest," laughed the man. "Gekiki."
"My name," Gekiki said. "It's Gekiki. What about you?" He leaned back against the side of the van and crossed one leg over the other.
"Oh. Uh Pebble."
Ignoring a snort from the soldiers behind them, Gekiki gave Pebble a curious look. "Pebble?"
"It's a messenger thing." He explained weakly.
"Aw, c'mon. What's your real name?" Gekiki prodded humorously. When Pebble didn't relent and produce another, he laughed and held up his hands in defeat. "All right, all right. Fair enough. I know how it is orders are orders with you folks."
"Right," Pebble nodded ever so slightly. "How much longer till we get to the base?"
"Shouldn't be much farther," Gekiki craned his neck to look out the back of the open van. The ground below them was becoming wetter and wetter, with larger cattails springing up out of the muck in greater quantities. "We crossed into the swamp territory a little while ago, so we're almost there."
Good, Pebble thought. Getting inside a proper tent with some mosquito nets would be the highlight of his night. He was tired of being eaten alive by the ravenous insects, which found all sorts of crevices to bury their way through, despite his cautious dressing earlier that day. No determined bug would be deterred by long sleeves.
The base wasn't much from the outside, looking more like someone had carelessly slopped some camouflage nets and giant swamp leaves together for makeshift shelter. Pebble grimaced at it, hesitating to step from the back of the van onto the wet ground below. He hoped there would be an opportunity to wash all of the sweat and dirt off later- he wasn't keen on smelling like a dead animal on the side of the road.
"Home sweet home," he heard Gekiki say sarcastically behind him. The soldiers had already gone and were trudging through the mire towards the base, but he and Gekiki had remained behind to help collect the remaining supplies with the other messengers and riflemen.
"Home sounds pretty good right about now," Pebble lamented. Gekiki hefted a box of ammunition up from the floor and nudged him with an elbow.
"I know how you feel. Got my sister back home waiting to see if I'll come out of this alive." He gave a half-smile, one side of his face turned up in an amused-looking grin.
"Sister?" Pebble paused, looking down at the ground before taking a box himself. His voiced dropped to a murmur. "I wish that was all I had to worry about."
"Wife, kids, dog- white picket fence?" Gekiki asked. Pebble couldn't help but smile just a little before regaining his worried expression. His comrade donned a similar frown. "You really miss 'em already, huh?"
He nodded, taking another smaller box on top of his load. "Badly. Two little girls, and my wife just had our son not even a month ago "
"Damn." Gekiki inhaled through his teeth. "Sorry, brother. I hope you get out of this sooner than any of those meatheads. How'd you get roped into this, anyway? You're not exactly A-list material. No offense."
"No, I know I'm not." Pebble sighed. "But I'm fit. I might not be able to lift one of those weapons they haul around like wafers, but I got top marks at the academy when it came to speed and endurance. Naturally, they thought I'd make a great messenger."
There was a distinct tone of vitriol in his voice, obviously upset with this disruption in his life. His heart ached to simply return home, but he'd have to serve just like the rest of the unfortunate souls who had found themselves out here in the middle of nowhere. He followed the marksman to the base, idly taking in his surroundings as he walked. To the east there was a large crest of mountainous land, towering far above anything else in the immediate area. No doubt there was somebody set up there as a lookout. Thick trees obscured the rest of the region, and of course, the lovely mud and dirty water that coated the ground. It was a far cry from the clear water of the lake near his home.
"C'mon, Peb," Gekiki jerked his head back in the direction of the base, jarring Pebble from his thoughts. "Let's get this muck off of us and get something in our guts. It'll help."
At the mention of food, his stomach gave a distinct growl as if on cue. Anything edible would be greatly appreciated by this point, as he'd skipped out on breakfast that morning out of anxiety. Whatever was available wasn't going to be five-star quality, but it was something.
Most of the base was underground, concealed by the shoddy buildings on the surface. Hallways were cramped, the bigger personnel shoved right past them, and once or twice Pebble had the misfortune of banging his head against low-hanging girders. Being tall among a group that was noticeably shorter had its downsides.
"Gonna need painkillers by the end of tonight," he mumbled, rubbing his forehead. He'd struck a bolt the last time, which broke the skin and left him with a sharp isolated headache.
"I have some in my bag," Gekiki said offhandedly, ducking into the loud mess hall. The sudden blast of noise made Pebble's ears ring, and he spotted the mouthy female soldier from earlier. He made a mental note to stay far away from her while on the base, as often as he possibly could. A tray full of what vaguely resembled food was shoved into his hands, disrupting his thoughts yet again. Gekiki smirked and pointed to a corner of the room, beckoning for him to follow. At least they had a roof over their heads while they ate. It was thankfully uneventful, but Pebble had the sneaking suspicion that one of these days those soldiers from the van would want to cause a little trouble with him when the commanders were looking the other way.
"Don't think too much about everything tonight. Sleep if you can. You don't have to stick with the schedule the soldiers do, so there's that to be thankful for. We'll be in another part of the base."
"Oh. That's good," Pebble replied absently. Staying away wouldn't be as hard as he thought.
After taking their silent leave from the hall, Gekiki led Pebble down to the southern end of the base, where they began to see more of people that looked like them. Younger men and women, not so scarred and grizzled, all preparing for a night of much-wanted and much-needed shuteye. He idly observed the fact that there were bunk beds in the few rooms at the end of the hall, likely to save space. He hadn't seen a bunk bed in years. Not even his children had them. He couldn't help but smile a tad at the sight of grown men and women squabbling over the top bunk. Gekiki showed no hesitation claiming the top at the end of the room, propping his rifle against the bed's post and hauling his bag up to the top with him. Pebble silently took his spot on the bottom, settling back on his pillow. He still felt grimy from the trip there.
"You'll get a chance to clean up tomorrow morning. Just try to sleep," was all Gekiki had to offer for advice. He'd have to take it for now, as there wasn't much choice. Soon the lights were turned off, and the room went eerily silent.
Getting to actual sleep was fairly difficult, however, even if it was soft and comfortable, and his stomach was pleasantly full. His mind was focused on anything and everything that wasn't right here, right now. Tomorrow was the first day of his official assignment, out in the field with the battle-hardened soldiers, and he wasn't exactly thrilled. With his luck, Tegogo would be in whatever unit he was placed in, and he'd have to deal with her the whole time. He shuddered and turned onto his side, staring blankly at the wall. The absence of his wife's contentedly sleeping face stung, and he forced his eyes shut, waiting for sleep to finally seize him.