*One More Step

Written by J. D. Wiley --- Art by J. D. Wiley

Rex trudged at the back of the line. This was some bullshit.

Thirty pairs of standard issue combat boots sucked through the thick mud ahead of him. They spattered his face with clumps of dirt. Even got some in his mouth. He spat. Being in the back was a bitch.

The fifty-pound rucksack on his shoulders crushed his spine. Damn thing was near folding him in half. His back ached. His feet squished in his socks, cramped and soggy. His whole body was a lump of knots and pulled muscles.

But a twelve-hour march on two hours sleep will do that to you.

This shit separated the men from the boys. The Warhawks from the FIST regulars. Being smaller was no excuse. Every man had to pull the same weight. And Rex would prove he was as strong as all those full-sized assholes if it killed him. Shit. Stronger, even.

But, it was all he could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. One more step. He could make it the rest of the way if he could just take one more fuggin’ step.

Kowalski sucked wind next to him. “Rex,” he huffed, trying his best to whisper.
I cant… I can’t keep carrying all this gear. Help me out.”

Kowalski was a gangly-ass kid, but still a head taller than him. That buck had no business even trying out for the Warhawks. His baggy fatigues and withered posture only made it more obvious.

Rex almost felt bad for him. But he was too busy feeling bad for himself. “Look here, Kowalski. Every man gotta carry his own shit. Understand?”

Kowalski swallowed hard. “I dunno if I can. I feel like I’m dying, man.”

“You ain’t the only one. Shit is supposed to be hard. This ain’t no goddamn… volunteer militia. It’s the mafuggin’ Warhawks. The big time. No pussies allowed. So man up.”

“I’m serious Rex, something don’t feel right. Even this canteen is too damn heavy.” Kowalski pulled the metal jug from around his sunburned neck. “Maybe you could just take it? I know it’s small, but it’s tugging at me something awful.”

“I already told you, I ain’t carrying your shit. Tell you what, if you feeling that bad, why don’t you take a swig? You’ll feel better and it’ll lighten the canteen.”

“I strongly recommend you boys quit your palavering.” It was Sixkiller. A hard-faced kid with greasy black hair. Couldn’t have been more than a couple years older than him. Who the fug was he to tell anybody what to do? Rex planned to find out what “palavering” meant later and whoop his ass accordingly.

“And what if we don’t?” Rex stuck his chin up and mean-mugged the shit out of Sixkiller.

Six smiled at him. Like a wolf with perfect teeth. “Then I surmise the captain will find an inventive way to insert his ten-ton mech’s foot up one, or both, or your asses.”

“It ain’t none of your mafuggin’ business what goes up our asses.” Wait. Shit. Rex worked his jaw and locked eyes with Sixkiller. “Keep running that mouth. You gon’ learn today.”

Six’s black eyes narrowed. “I’m shivering with presentiment.”

Presentiment? Apparently, this asshole helped write the “P” section of the dictionary. Rex clenched the straps of his rucksack until his knuckles turned white. “Keep making up words. See what happens.”

Kowalski slowed a moment, and tilted his head back, and gulped from his canteen. He smiled feebly at Rex, his pale face covered with a sheen of sweat. Then Kowalski fell face first into the mud.

Oh, shit.

He clambered down into the sludge next to Kowalski. His pack tipped him over on his side and he came up caked in muck. Muscles screaming, he hauled Kowalski over onto his back.

“What’s going on back there!?” Captain Tyberius roared from the front of the line.

A towering mech hissed as pistons worked and its powerful legs stamped through the mire. The man inside the cockpit was a fierce statue. “You! Report!” He jabbed a finger at Rex.

Seriously, this was some bullshit.

It took every ounce of strength he could muster to stand up straight with the rucksack weighing him down. Every muscle in his body quivered. But he stood at attention. “He… he passed out, sir.”

“Well, we can’t have that, can we? You’re this man’s friend?”

Rex swallowed. “Yeah. Yes. Sir.” Although, he was reconsidering it just then.

“Good. You,” the captain pointed to Sixkiller, “carry this man’s gear.”

“You,” he pointed back at Rex, “carry your friend.”

“Yes, sir.” Rex hoisted Kowalski over the rucksack on his shoulders and forced a smile at the captain. Holding that fake grin was almost as hard as holding up Kowalski.

“Very good. Now keep up. Only another five miles up the mountain.”

Another five miles? God. Damn. He glared over at Six, and Six glared back. It was all that fancy-vocabulary-having son of a bitch’s fault.

Things couldn’t get any worse now. Then something warm started creeping down his back. The smell of hot piss stung his nose.

Ain’t that about a bitch…

He should’ve just helped that scrawny buck to begin with. If his pack was heavy before, he was under a freight train now. His legs shook, and his knees threatened to buckle at any moment. But he couldn’t fail. Not after he’d come so far.

One more step, he told himself.

He could make it the whole way if he could just take one more fuggin’ step.

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