Check your weapon, soldier. And Flabgobbatron guide you.
Mercer checked his watch again. Once again, the digital display showed 0154 hours. He tried to think of anything except his own racing heartbeat and sweaty palms. Without moving his head, he managed a glance across the personnel carrier at the Captain. Her face was the same as ever, stony and unfathomable behind her GI glasses. On a lesser person the slightly magnified eyes imparted by the lenses would have made the wearer look comical, but on the Captain they were just unnerving. Mercer had made the mistake last week of asking his commanding officer if she needed a dispensation to come on this operation because of her missing left hand. She hadn't said a word. Just slowly advanced on him, her eyes locking on him like a cobra, backing him down until he tripped over a foot locker.
More than the entire room laughing at him, Mercer hated the feeling of being a new recruit all over again. He had twenty combat operations, more commendations than that prick Blakely back at Fort Benning and had a Distinguished Marksman Badge. And that was all before the "Classified Anomalous Event" outside of Ghazni. Yet here he was, just another FNG.
He saw the Captain say a couple of words over her shoulder, but he couldn't see at who. The watch mercilessly showed 0202 hours. The personnel carrier hit a dip in the road, and his stomach lurched. The phrase "remains unidentifiable as human" kept blaring in his head like a buzzing red neon sign. All that goddamn report did was ensure that he saw his lunch again this afternoon. Why would anyone even put something like "appropriate tactics unknown" in a report? Useless. Mercer wiped his brow and stuck his hand under his leg. If he couldn't see the hand, he could pretend it wasn't trembling.
Just 29 minutes now.
Mercer now noticed someone sitting next to him. He was too surprised to be grateful for the company.
"So, Mercer, is it? I don't think I've had the pleasure. My name's Rayburn, but you can call me Ray."
Mercer awkwardly accepted Rayburn's handshake with his left hand; it was the least sweaty.
Rayburn settled into the seat next to Mercer and stretched his legs out as far as the personnel carrier would allow. Mercer had seen him around the base a couple of times; he looked more like a farmer than a Mobile Task Force operative with his ropy arm muscles, cornfed physique and tanned, craggy face. He leaned in conspiratorily to Mercer.
"I hear this here's your first op. They sure picked a hell of a date for your first dance, Mercer."
Mercer stared straight ahead, his lips tightening as a fresh bead of sweat rolled down his back.
"Now, I want you to know that the fear? That's normal. I wouldn't want to meet the man who weren't afraid of what's in that building."
Mercer clenched. Rayburn continued.
"You may not suspect it, but even an MTF has got itself a chaplain. Even a rat-bastard outfit like the Repo Men. And son, yer lookin' at him. Now, I ain't sayin' that we ain't comin' back from this rodeo. But I am sayin' that maybe gettin' yourself right with the good lord might not be such a bad idea."
For the first time, Mercer turned to look at Rayburn.
"What, you're serious?"
Rayburn nodded gravely. "Like the man says, 'there ain't no atheists in 173's pen'. And it says in your dossier that you were raised a good 'ol Southern Baptist."
Mercer lowered his head.
Rayburn sagely rubbed his chin, and a weary smile came to his face. "Yep, that's true of a lot of fellers that come to this outfit. Lord knows it's hard to keep the faith when you see yer buddies turned inside out, or when some godforsaken statue is tellin' you your innermost thoughts through a slide-whistle. Most guys? They lose it pretty early. They thought they understood the Lord and his ways, and then they signed up for Foundation detail."
Mercer looked up at Rayburn. "Man, before? I mean, I was scared, but I thought I'd be okay if I just remembered…remembered Jesus, like my mom said. Even when it was bad, it was like, it's been bad before for someone else, and they got through it. And if they didn't, well, they had God. But now? What kind of God does stuff like that? How can you ask that for protection?"
The watch beeped. Fifteen minutes now. Mercer sat up straight.
"What…what do you believe in, Ray?"
Rayburn's eyes twinkled. "I'm gonna let you in on a little secret, Mercer. These guys in here, these so-called hard cases? They ain't as hard as they think. They ain't got the real faith, the battle-tested faith that's gotten men through it since the beginnin'. You know what I believe, Mercer?"
"I believe in Flabgobbatron, the night doorman at the Eau Claire Motel 6 and Harvester of Midget's Souls."
Mercer leaned back, his jaw slackening while he took in Rayburn's response. "Wh…What?"
"Oh yeah, he looks like Yul Brynner, and he sings just like an angel. He told me last night 'Ray, you've got some nerve ordering the special. The soup's the far better deal'. And when he departed in his tuxedo, I knew that everything was gonna be all right."
Rayburn put his hand on Mercer's shoulder. "And son, do you know what the most important part is?"
"Wh..wait…no, what is it?"
Rayburn lowered his voice to a whisper. "I stole your kidney last night and swapped it to the commissary for an issue of Details."
Mercer jerked back. "What the fuck, man?!"
"Heh, that's a joke, son! Though I have been gifted with visions of the future by SCP-2093."
Mercer looked around, seeing if anyone was laughing at him, but no one seemed to notice the conversation. Rayburn smiled at him beatifically. The personnel carrier seemed to be going faster.
"What the hell is wrong with you!?"
Rayburn's expression persisted. "Son, did that conversation go the way you thought it would go?"
Mercer frowned. "…No, no it didn't."
Rayburn grabbed an overhead strap and stood up. "That's right. Think of that when we get in there."
The passengers all lurched upwards as the personnel carrier hit a bump. The Captain began issuing orders to Sergeant Ramirez. Mercer realized that his stomach no longer demanded his constant attention. He held up his right hand in front of his face. Steady like the horizon. Rayburn addressed him over his shoulder as he made his way back to the front of the carrier.
"Check your weapon, soldier. And Flabgobbatron guide you."