This was a mistake. He'd thought he'd had it all figured out. This was gonna be easy. Hell, he'd gone through worse south of the border during the incursion into Juarez. The things he saw there, the things he'd had to do to make it out of that godforsaken city on the border of hell just to survive made him think nothing could shake his nerves ever again. He'd gone through hell and made it back out alive when so many others didn't. Compared to that, this was gonna be easy, he thought. He was wrong.
The moment the captain walked out onto the parade field with those two hulking big wolves prowling at his side. Armstrong had never been so close to one of them before. Sure, he'd seen pictures of them. Seen them in movies and on TV just like everyone else, but this was different. This was up close and personal. Far to close. This was a mistake. A big one. Just by the way everyone else in the formation was looking, he wasn't the only one thinking that either.
“Alright Marines,” the captain said. “Time to make a choice.”
The pair of wolves slowly moved forward. They circled the formation from opposite sides. Their muzzles lifted up slightly in the air taking scents of the men and women in front of them. God they were monstrous looking, he thought. What were they looking for? Were they trying to scent out fear? Trying to see who was afraid of them. If that was it, Armstrong was pretty sure he could have saved them all the effort. There wasn't a Marine on the deck that wasn't seriously rethinking their life choices right about now.
“While Sergeants Barnes and Defoe size you all up,” the captain continued. “It's best you all start thinking long and hard about how you came to be here. And try not running. Barnes and Defoe may be Marines, but they're wolves too. They might be unable to control their baser instincts. And let me tell you, no matter how fast you think you are, they're faster. You're just meat to them.”
Armstrong believed it. The way the wolves were looking at them, it wasn't the way a human looked at another person. Least not a sane one anyway. God they were close. Close enough that he could feel the heat of their breath along his arms. It was a struggle to stand still and not bolt off as fast as he could in the opposite direction. Like the Captain said, they were faster than he was, and by the looks of those jaws and those teeth, he didn't want to think about what might happen when they caught him.
“Think real hard,” the captain said. “There ain't no going back after this. Why are you here?”
It was a good question. Why was he here, Armstrong thought to himself. He'd had a good career so far hadn't he. The Corps was his home. There wasn't a reason to change it all. No reason to start all over again. Was there? Why was he here? Why was he even thinking about doing this?
Then the images came. All those men and women torn to pieces right in front of him. Men and women, Marines he couldn't save. Those things out there had killed them all. Ripped them apart like they were just pieces of meat. There wasn't anything he could do about it. Now here he was, thinking about becoming one of them. Was this really a good idea?
When the two massive wolves finished their circle of the formation, they made their way back to the captain. They flanked him. One on each side. Their eyes sweeping from left to right over the formation. Watching. Waiting.
“There's no going back Marines,” the captain said. “Once you choose this path, you are committing yourself to sacrificing everything for your country. You give up your citizenship, your rights, hell even your very life. You give it all up and give it to the Corps.”
The captain motioned to the two wolves at his sides.
“Look at them,” he said. “Sergeants Barnes and Defoe have served this country for twenty years. They have been in combat all over the world. They've both bled time and time again for a country that doesn't even consider them Americans, or even human anymore. You know what they have to look forward to when they get out? Nothing.”
The captain ran his eyes over the formation. Making sure his words were sinking in. That the Marines in front of him grasped what he was saying. They had to.
“The very people who these two Marines have fought their whole lives to defend,” the captain continued. “Well, they only see monsters when they look at them. Animals who all it's gonna take is one wrong move, and they'll be gunned down on the streets without mercy. Like animals. The Constitution doesn't apply to them. The Bill of Rights doesn't apply to them. They ain't human no more. They have no rights.”
The captains words were having an effect. Armstrong could see it. The restless shifting in place. The furtive looks to the left and the right. Second thoughts.
“You won't have any either,” the captain continued. “All you'll maybe have to look forward to, if you live that long, is maybe hitching up with some vampire in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, maybe New Orleans. No one else will want you around. All you'll have is the men and women around you right now. Well, those who stay anyway. Your pack. Marines who you'll live with, fight with, and die for. For the rest of your lives, this is your family. Chances are, your own families won't want nothing to do with you after this. Some will. Most don't.”
That part didn't bother Armstrong. He wasn't close to what was left of his family anyway. Besides, his family, his real family had mostly been killed across the border in Juarez. They might not have been blood, but they were still family.
Yeah, he thought, that was why he was here. Sad as it was, he wasn't here for patriotism. Some misguided love of country. He wasn't even here for the Corps. No, he was here for those that he couldn't save. The men and women whose faces were going to probably haunt him for the rest of his life. He wasn't going to let that happen again. Not ever. He wasn't going to have to watch and be unable to do anything. Not again.
“It's a hard choice,” the captain said. “I couldn't do it. Some of you won't be able too either. But one thing's for certain. It's a hard life, and most of you won't survive. The ones who do will have to carry on the memory of the fallen. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
He said nothing for a few minutes. The captain just stood there. Waiting and watching like the two wolves at his side. He gave the order. At first no one moved. Then one by one, two by two, and then a whole mass turned and took themselves out of the formation.
There weren't any words spoken. Just looks of sadness and defeat. A few tears, but not many. There were maybe fifty or sixty left standing when it was all said and done. Armstrong looked around cautiously at the men and women who had chosen not only to be Marines, but who had chosen to go through this next step and become something far and above what any of them had ever really considered.
Armstrong felt compelled to look at one of the wolves. Was it Barnes or Defoe? He couldn't tell. Either way, he knew he had to look in the thing's eyes. He had to see, to make sure there was still something human in there. No matter how faint.
The wolf looked up at him, and when their eyes met, Armstrong saw and felt a determination in those eyes. Something that was both inviting him to join the wolf, and at the same time daring him too. If he had the courage. If he had the strength.
“Blouses off, and form two lines,” the captain said sharply. “And get ready. This is really gonna hurt.”