I Chapter One: Diving in Headfirst
Act I: Baptism
1500 hours, December 23,
2524 (Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
It was a hot day, today.
Nothing new, really; every day was a hot day on Harvest. We don’t really have much of a winter, here.
Harvest was only a third the size of Earth and most of the other colonies, causing the seasons to rocket by and blend seamlessly into each other. The result was a perpetual warm, moist climate.
The "winter" felt like early autumn, autumn and spring both felt like summer, and summer felt like Satan's oven.
Right now, it felt like Satan's oven. Even though the Earth-based UNSC Calendar said it was late December, on Harvest it was in the middle of summer—the height of the growing season.
A fly buzzed through one of the bus's open windows and lighted atop the back of my neck, flitting around in its never-ending search for food. It had probably been flying for a very long time, crossing miles and miles of open ground, searching for something to eat.
I ended its journey with a well-aimed slap, brushing its still-twitching corpse off my neck and onto the ground. Served the little bastard right; he picked the wrong soldier to mess with.
Okay, so maybe I’m not a soldier yet.
But I’m going to be.
The Harvest Colonial Militia had been created to handle internal security operations on the colony. Whatever the hell that means. With the Insurrection still raging in the Outer Colonies, it would probably entail a lot of standing guard outside important buildings, hoping not to get blown up.
Sounds like fun, right?
Why join a paramilitary force, then, during such unrestful times?
Harvest was a laid back colony.
It was the breadbasket of the UNSC, with most of its landmass having been cultivated as farmland. It is the seventeenth colony in the UNSC, and probably one of the hardest to get to; the nearest colony was Madrigal, nearly a month away by slipspace travel.
Nothing out of the ordinary really happens here.
Sure, there's crime in the cities, but even the criminals on Harvest were low-key.
In Gladsheim, my home before I was scooped up by social services, most of the criminals were homeless people just trying to get by.
I certainly didn’t want to end up like that.
Fortunately, I would not have to. The Colonial Militia would provide me with a home and three meals per day, all free of charge.
Another fly landed on my cheek.
I tried to slap it off, but it escaped at the last moment. I’d just smacked myself for nothing.
The flies kept getting into the bus because we had all the windows down. It was our best way of combating the heat of southern Edda.
The sun hung in the sky, blazing away at anything unfortunate enough to be caught beneath it without shade. A few white wisps hanging near the western horizon were the only clouds that disrupted the otherwise unbroken blue sky.
The bus rumbled south down the Gladsheim Highway, cutting through an endless sea of wheat, grain, and countless other crops. The whole landscape imitated the ocean when the wind blew through, rippling the tall grass.
Roughly seventy people shared the bus with me, crammed uncomfortably into the transport's limited amount of seats.
We came from all over Harvest; Gladsheim, Utgard, Asgard, Tigard, Rhelmar, Oëlfurth, and even the rural farmlands sprawled across the Edda supercontinent’s interior.
We were going to be the Harvest Colonial Militia.
There were two predominant groups of us.
The Geezers were forty, fifty-year-olds who had served as part of the Harvest Police Force, or the emergency response/aid services. They had some measure of experience under their belts.
The rest of us—myself included—were the Babies. Young men who, for the most part, had come from the farmlands or the impoverished inner city jungle. It was about an even split.
"Hey," said the twenty-year-old sitting behind me. "Who let someone like you on this bus? Do you even have pubes, yet?”
I frowned, turning around. "The benevolent government of Harvest seems to think so, otherwise I wouldn't have made it past my recruiter."
"How old are you, Junior?"
I shrugged. "Old enough."
"Lay off the kid, Dempsey," the middle-aged man sharing the seat behind me with my antagonist grunted. He was an older guy, probably somewhere in his thirties or early forties.
"Both of you, shut up," a gruff voice hollered from the front of the bus.
"Fuck yourself, Stisen," the guy next to Dempsey fired back, settling into his seat.
The rest of the bus ride continued in silence. We stared at the countryside as it zipped past. When the bus finally pulled to a stop in the gravel lot of a military-grade training compound, most of us had nodded off into a tentative sleep.
It was the last moment of peace many of us would experience for a long time.
"GET OFF YOUR SORRY ARSES!"
My eyes flew open to one of the scariest fucking things I’ve ever seen – a red-faced sergeant dressed in UNSC Marine Corps fatigues was storming up the bus’s center aisle, screaming at the top of his lungs, spittle flying from his mouth.
The name ‘Byrne’ was emblazoned on his fatigues.
"Get your sorry arses off this bus, or you’ll run PT until you start weeping fifty-cal bullets! Move it, move it, MOVE IT!"
Everyone sprang up from their seats in nearly perfect unison, shocked into action.
I shuffled into the aisle. At the uniformed man's behest, we quickly filed out of the bus two by two, spilling out onto the gravel lot. We milled about aimlessly, pausing to stretch our cramped muscles and get used to walking around.
That didn't last very long.
Another sergeant waited for us outside the bus, cigarette smoldering lazily from the corner of his mouth, its end glowing bright orange as he drew upon it. The name on his fatigues read ‘Johnson’.
"Form up, form up!" the second sergeant, Johnson, shouted. "Playtime is over, children! Form up into six columns of twelve before Staff Sergeant Byrne and I decide to start frying some greenie farmer-boy brains!" To back his threat up, Johnson drew a metal baton from his belt and flicked an unseen switch, causing the baton to hum and vibrate with energy.
I did not want that sucker coming anywhere near me, so I was one of the first to spring into line.
If you could even call it a 'line'. It certainly was not straight, and over half of us were still shuffling into a spot.
Staff Sergeant Byrne clambered down through the transport's double doors and joined us on the gravel lot. He wielded a power baton identical to Johnson's.
Byrne jabbed one kid in the stomach with his baton, sending him sprawling. "How are you gobshites supposed to safeguard your colony when you don't even know how to form straight lines? Jesus Mary Fuck; we should trade you wastes of time and space with a kindergarten class; six-year-olds could do better than you, and in half the time!"
The two sergeants herded the stragglers into line, jabbing and zapping recruits until we were finally formed up into a reasonable rectangle.
"Everyone face this way and follow Staff Sergeant Byrne to the parade ground!" Johnson barked.
All seventy-two of us simultaneously swiveled around to the left to where Sergeant Byrne was standing.
Byrne made us march in place for at least ten minutes until he was satisfied that all of us knew our rights from our lefts.
After warning to give latrine duty to the men who fell out of step first, Byrne started marching us forward across the gravel lot. Johnson brought up the rear, twirling his baton through his fingers, waiting for some poor schmuck in the back to lag behind.
We marched onto a mown green parade field in the center of the training facility. Surrounding us were all the buildings of the compound—the Quonset hut, the armory, the rec center, the two barracks at the south side, the mess hall, etc.
Two flagpoles stood at one end of the parade field; the higher one bearing the flag of the UNSC, and the shorter one bearing the colonial flag of Harvest.
The two staff sergeants marched us into the center of the parade field and stopped us. We all turned to our right and found ourselves facing the HQ building. We stood ramrod straight and perfectly still, sweltering under the blazing sun, none of us brave enough to learn what the sergeants would do if we dared break formation.
The staff sergeants stood at attention in front of us, closely inspecting to see if anyone was slouching.
We endured fifteen minutes of this before the door to the HQ building finally opened.
A uniformed officer emerged from inside. He was well-tanned with salt-and-pepper hair trimmed down to a military buzz-cut. I figured he was a little north of fifty years old, but that did not seem to affect his physical health. He looked like he could take on any one of us single-handed.
The double-bars of a UNSC Captain were displayed on his cap, glinting in the sunlight.
The Captain’s right sleeve was pinioned to his uniform. The arm supposed to be within the sleeve was jarringly absent. This man had obviously also seen some action.
I forced my gaze away from the Captain's empty right sleeve; I didn't want to be caught staring.
The Captain traded nods with the two sergeants and stepped forward to address us.
The two sergeants retired behind the Captain, standing at ease.
"Gentlemen.” The Captain smiled at us. “I am Captain Ponder. According to the forms you signed before climbing onto that bus, you are now my property. Follow your orders, respect your fellow recruits, and by the end of our time together I will be proud to call you soldiers. Does anyone have any questions?"
One of the recruits from the row in front of me raised his hand. “Yeah. I gotta question.” I could hear the man trying to suppress a snicker. "Can I go to the bathroom?"
Captain Ponder glanced over to his sergeants.
Byrne unsheathed his power baton and quick-stepped his way over to the smartass recruit, delivering a powerful jolt of electricity to his diaphragm. As the recruit convulsed from the shock, Byrne seized him by the collar and held him up upright.
After a few seconds, the recruit’s pants grew wet and the air smelled like piss.
Sergeant Byrne released the recruit and returned to his place next to Johnson.
"Any more questions?" Captain Ponder asked innocently. No one raised their hands. Not a peep. The Captain’s smile widened. "Good. I'm going to turn you back over to my sergeants, now. Best of luck to all, and I shall see you bright and early tomorrow morning. I think we’ll have a wonderful time together."
The Captain saluted us, turned on his heel, and vanished back into the HQ building, leaving us alone with the staff sergeants and the pale man in the blue fatigues.
Sergeant Johnson stepped forward and pulled out a datapad, probably accessing our files. He cleared his throat and began calling out names. Whenever someone's name was called, that person would shift uncomfortably; no one knew what would happen if they were chosen.
Johnson called out a total of thirty-six names. Mine wasn't one of them. "If your name was called, then you are in 1st Platoon with me!" he yelled. "Form up in three rows of twelve over to the left! If your name was not called, then you are in 2nd Platoon with Staff Sergeant Byrne! Form up in your appropriate ranks off to the right! Fall out!"
There were a few brief moments of chaos as we scrambled to join our new units.
Once we formed up into our platoon, Sergeant Byrne organized us further into three squads of twelve recruits each.
I stood towards the middle of the formation, landing me in the second of our three squads, designated ‘Bravo’.
"I am Staff Sergeant Nolan Byrne," the red-faced sergeant announced. "You all are here to become the Harvest Colonial Militia. Captain Ponder is here to ensure you become capable fighters. I am here to make you flabby fucks curse the day you chose to climb onto that bus. Who here has previous military and law enforcement experience?"
Several of us raised our hands. Mine stayed down.
Byrne swept his gaze across our ranks, surveying his candidates. “You, you, and you,” he pointed to three older ex-constables, one from each squad.
I noticed the chosen man from my squad was the guy who’d sat next to Dempsey on the bus. He’d gotten Dempsey to lay off me, which I was grateful for. Wouldn’t mind working with him in the future.
“Congratulations,” continued Byrne. “You are hereby designated squad leaders until you royally fuck everything up. Questions?” he tapped a quiet rhythm against his power baton.
No raised hands, this time.
“You gobshites are learning,” Byrne remarked.
The sun began to sink beneath the western horizon, casting long shadows across the parade field.
"Reveille is played before dawn. You are expected to be dressed in your fatigues and assembled on the parade grounds in your respective units before the music ends. I suggest you sleep while you can. Second Platoon bunks in Barracks Two. If any of you dumb fucks walk into Barracks One, you will be shipped back to Utgard tonight," Staff Sergeant Byrne declared. “Fall out!”
I gladly relaxed, letting my hands fall to my sides. I turned left, following the human flow to the barracks at the south side of the compound, double-checking to make sure I wasn’t about to walk into Barracks One.
That would be humiliating. I’d be that guy everyone talks about who didn’t even make it to the first night.
Bunk beds filled the interior of Barracks Two. There were eighteen of these double-bunks lining each wall, each bunk having two footlockers set on the ground in front.
I grabbed the first empty bunk I found. Just as I was about to climb in, however, a firm grip closed around my arm, yanking me back out into the aisle.
It was Dempsey – that douche who’d sat behind me on the bus. "Seniority gets the lower bunk, Junior," he sneered, tossing his duffel onto what should have been my bunk.
God, I wanted to give him the verbal lashing of his lifetime, but the words just didn’t come. So instead, I muttered under my breath and grabbed the upper bunk. "If I wet my bed at night, you'll be the first to know," I told Dempsey.
That shut him up.
Staff Sergeant Byrne walked down the central aisle that ran between the bunks on either side of the barracks, instructing us to open our footlockers. Inside was a razor and mirror, a toothbrush and toothpaste, some shower shit, and neatly-folded olive-green militia fatigues, along with gray underwear.
Byrne then made all of us strip down to nothing.
"Any of you feel uncomfortable with your balls hanging out for everyone to see?" the Irishman chuckled. "Well, you better start getting used to it; personal space is the first thing you are going to be tossing out the window here."
At Byrne's approval, we slipped into our green-brown pattern boxer shorts and lay down on our bunks for the night.
"Enjoy the night," the Irishman grunted. "Tomorrow, you’ll wish tonight never ended. Good night, gobshites." The Staff Sergeant turned and took a few paces towards the open door, but when no one replied to his 'good night' he halted and turned back around. "I said Good Night, Gobshites!" he barked, raising his voice to a more dangerous volume.
"Good night, Staff Sergeant!" we all chorused in unison, out of reflex more than anything else.
"That's more like it," Byrne chuckled as he ducked out the door. The lights in the barracks shut off as the door closed.
I guess this was going to be life; responding to commands without even thinking about them. Becoming trained dogs. It made sense, I guess. Not much time to descry all the little nuances of an order with bullets whizzing past your head.
When the sergeant left, the recruits began to speak. Some muttered to themselves, others groaned and complained, and the rest made small-talk, laughing with one another. I kept quiet, content to lay back on my bunk and listen to everyone else. I rested with my hands behind my head, not bothering to pull up the covers.
This was definitely not what I had in mind when I strolled into the recruiting station in Gladsheim. As I thought about the coming months, they seemed to stretch longer and longer into what was certain to be a taxing future. I don’t think I’m in great shape.
What the hell have I gotten myself into?
Someone jostled my shoulder, shaking me from my thoughts. I glanced over and came face-to-face with the older guy who’d sat next to Dempsey on the bus. "Hello…?" I half-greeted, half-asked.
“John Carrol.” The ex-constable extended a hand. "You’re in Bravo Squad, right? I’m your squad leader. I've already gotten most of the others’ names, but I don't have yours yet. I'm sure as hell not calling you 'Junior' for eight months."
I shook Carrol’s hand. "Alley Garris."