I Chapter Fourteen: Leaving Home
February 23, 2525
(Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
We saw the Tiara orbital elevators before we saw Utgard.
The seven elevator strands glittered in the sky, catching the light of the late afternoon sun. They stretched far up into the sky, past the clouds, vanishing into the distance, connecting with the Tiara space station thousands of kilometers above.
We sped north along the Gladsheim Highway, returning to Utgard after our successful defense of the reactor complex.
As we drew nearer to the city, we saw cargo containers, each holding up to two thousand refugees, zipping up the seven elevator strands.
The population of Harvest was going to space before our very eyes.
The skyline of Utgard came into view as the sun began to set.
"Rise and shine, people!" Carrol raised his voice loud enough to wake up anyone who was sleeping. “Thirty minutes to Utgard! Mack reports the evacuation is-”
A horrible groan thundered across the sky, followed by the scream of tearing metal, interrupting whatever Carrol was about to tell us.
We watched in petrified silence as the seventh elevator strand fell gracefully from the sky, breaking into smaller segments as it burned through the atmosphere.
I counted nearly a dozen cargo containers on that elevator.
One segment from the base of the seventh elevator slammed south across the Plains of Ida, less than fifty kilometers away. The ground shook gently as a dense cloud of dust and dirt exploded into the sky.
We made the rest of the trip in silence.
None of us said a word.
Watching twenty-thousand people die in an instant had a subduing effect.
The sun had already set by the time we reached Utgard.
The only sound coming from the capital of Harvest was the wind. No cars roamed the streets, no pedestrians cluttered the sidewalks. Even the billboards were blank, dormant.
All the civilians taking refuge within the Utgard Mall had already boarded their cargo containers and gone up the elevators, making us the last UNSC personnel on Harvest.
Within seventy-two hours of Governor Thune issuing the planet-wide evacuation, Utgard had transformed into a museum exhibit.
I bet there were hundreds of meals sitting on tabletops throughout Harvest, waiting to be eaten by people who were now dead or long gone. Some of those meals might still even be a little warm.
Our JOTUN transported us straight through the Utgard Mall to the loading hub of the number-three elevator, where an empty cargo container waited to receive us.
Once we boarded that container, Harvest was effectively abandoned.
"Alright, everyone inside!" Stisen stood in the cargo container's entrance, waving us on.
As if we might have chosen to stay had Stisen not suggested we board.
The interior of the cargo container was filled with enough rations to keep up to two thousand people fed for a month-long slipspace jump. We might die of boredom during the trip, but we certainly would not starve.
Critchley helped me over to the bulkhead where the wounded seemed to be congregated, awaiting medical attention.
My wounds were starting to hurt again. The biofoam contained anesthetic which dulled the pain, but it only lasted so long. I needed disinfectant, proper field dressings, and lots of drugs.
Doc Healy was on the Tiara with Johnson, so our wounded had to hang tough until we picked up First Platoon.
Once we all boarded our cargo container, it glided along the loading rail to the base of the number-three orbital elevator.
The entire container rattled as it latched onto the elevator strand with docking clamps. When the clamps were secure, the orbital elevator whisked us away into the sky.
I hobbled over to the nearest porthole, peering through the tiny window just in time to see the urban sprawl of Utgard vanish underneath the clouds. Within seconds we’d gained enough altitude for me to see the curvature of the world.
For a moment I forgot we were abandoning our home, likely never to return.
I was five years old, gazing into the night sky, imagining what it would be like to go to space, making a fervent wish that one day I would live the dream.
Gradually the sky faded to a dark navy blue, before giving way to the star-sprinkled void of outer space.
The Plains of Ida grew smaller and smaller, until I could see the entire Edda Supercontinent. The Munin Sea sparkled in the south of Edda, glinting in the light of the setting sun.
I tried to spot Gladsheim, but it was obscured by smoky clouds.
The ascent to the Tiara took thirty minutes.
I think normally the ascent would have taken longer, but Mack likely was rushing us up the elevator express-style.
Eventually, a fluttering in my stomach told me that we were decelerating.
After a minute of slowing down, we finally lurched to a stop.
There was a dull thunk and a hissing noise as the airlock unsealed and slid open, revealing Andersen and the rest of 1/B waiting in the loading corridor beyond, along with eight of First Platoon’s more severely wounded.
“Glad you’re still with us,” Carrol said to 1/B’s squad leader, extending a hand.
Andersen shook the hand, stepping into the container, motioning for his group to follow. “Glad you didn’t forget to stop here.”
As the First Platoon recruits limped into our container, members of Second Platoon helped their wounded over to my bulkhead.
Weaponsfire echoed off the loading corridor’s walls.
A steady trickle of recruits from 1/A and 1/C came down the loading corridor, hurrying into the cargo container. A couple more wounded arrived, each supported and helped along by a squadmate.
Doc Healy finally showed up after the majority of 1/A and 1/C, carrying an unconscious Dass in his arms.
Dass’s back was riddled with plasma burns. If he lived, the next year of his life was going to be hell.
Last to arrive was Jenkins and Staff Sergeant Johnson, both of whom were supporting a heavily-wounded Forsell.
Aliens swarmed into the loading corridor in hot pursuit. Plenty of those insectoid buggers, and the little gray-skinned squeaky fuckers.
"Seal it!" Johnson ordered as he and Wallace heaved Forsell into the container’s airlock. "Seal it! Get us the hell out of here!"
The airlock’s outer doors hissed shut.
As our container resumed its journey up the final stretch of the orbital elevator, I felt us rapidly accelerating, which drove the butterflies in my stomach wild.
There was a final clunk that reverberated through the cargo container as the docking clamps disengaged from the orbital elevator, followed by the smoothest gliding I’ve ever felt.
A propulsion pod waited for us deeper in space, equipped with a faster-than-light drive. If our trajectory was calculated correctly, the container’s momentum would carry it perfectly into the pod’s harness.
If not, then we would drift through the Epsilon Indi System without a slipspace drive until we starved.
Now was the time for a ‘glass half full’ outlook on life.
I could see all of Harvest through the porthole.
Watching home drift away stirred up conflicting emotions.
I’d never felt so small, before.
We felt another bump after several minutes of drifting, followed by the faint mechanical hum of the docking clamps engaging once again.
That must’ve been the propulsion pod. Technically our cargo container was now a freighter.
A faint, omnipresent rushing sound enveloped our container as the propulsion pod's faster-than-light drive fired up, launching us across dimensions into slipspace.
Halogen gas light tubes flickered to life, illuminating the interior of the cargo container.
"We…we made it?" Dempsey was the first to speak, tentative at first, but with growing confidence. "We made it!"
"Fuck…" Billings murmured. “Fuck…”
There was no celebration.
What was there to celebrate?
Not getting slaughtered by aliens is cause for a sigh of relief and a beer, not a celebration.
Healy tended first to Dass and Forsell, who were the most severely wounded. He cleaned their wounds before foaming them up and applying field dressings, stopping the bleeding.
After stabilizing Dass and Forsell, Healy fixed up Byrne as best he could, starting by resetting the Staff Sergeant’s dislocated jaw.
Byrne worked his jaw around a bit, flexing it gently, muttering a few choice oaths under his breath.
"Charming," Healy remarked as he set the Staff Sergeant’s arm in a splint.
Once Byrne’s splint was all finished, Healy came over to me. "Playing with polycrete, Garris?" he asked, surveying my abdominal wounds. “You have half a wall in there.”
“Thought you could use the practice,” I replied.
Healy used long, thin tweezers to carefully remove the polycrete fragments lodged in my abdomen. I was grateful for his gentleness – every time he brushed up against the inside of a wound, I had to clench my teeth and focus all willpower towards not spasming from the pain.
Fortunately the Doc worked quickly, so I didn’t suffer long. When he removed the last of the polycrete, he filled my wounds with some fresh biofoam.
I shuddered as the cool polymer expanded throughout my insides. Until the biofoam settled, it felt like I had a colony of fire-ants crawling around inside me.
Healy noticed my discomfort. "Stings like hell, sure,” he reasoned, bandaging me up, “but it's saved more lives than either of us could ever count. Including yours."
“Thanks, Doc. Now I feel perfect.”
After an hour or so, most of us had fallen asleep. Snores and heavy breathing filled our container. We were tired. None of us had gotten much rest since the disaster at the Botanical Gardens.
I stayed awake, running on reserves of energy I didn’t even know existed.
I sat in front of the porthole, staring out into the nothingness. Slipspace had no visible light, so there was literally nothing out there beyond our little quantum bubble for my eyes to translate into visual information.
That was okay, though. I didn’t need anything to look at. All I needed was time to decompress.
"It gets easier, you know."
I looked up from my reverie.
Byrne had awoken, sitting up in his cot, rubbing the bleariness from his eyes.
“What you’re feeling right now,” clarified Byrne. “It will never go away. But you’ll learn to live alongside it. You’ve heard lots of talk about how noble and courageous it is to go to war and serve the UNSC. I’m telling you right now that’s not true. Any half-brained fuck can go to war. The real question is how many of those half-brained fucks can come back?”
"We did, sir.”
“Surviving isn’t the same as coming back,” said Byrne. “And this wasn’t a war. This was a scuffle.”
"Why are you telling me this?" I asked.
"Everyone else is asleep," Byrne replied. “Those aliens will return, someday. Who knows how many more planets we’ll lose? The UNSC is going to need every soldier it can muster.”
"What could I possibly do? I'm a colonial militiaman without a colony. We failed."
"Your objective was to defend the people of Harvest," Byrne reminded me. "They got off-planet before the aliens fried 'em. You succeeded. There are better ways to serve humanity than as a colonial militiaman.”
"Humanity?" I echoed. "Or the UNSC?"
"They are one and the same," Byrne countered.
"Yes," Byrne replied, no trace of doubt in his voice. "The UNSC, like all governments, has its flaws. But these aliens want our blood, Garris, and the UNSC is our best chance at defeating them. I'm offering you the chance to help. I can have you transferred to the Marine Corps."
"Transferred?" At first I didn't understand what the Irishman was getting at…but then the realization hit me like a wake-up slap. "I can be a marine?"
"That's up to you," Byrne replied. "FLEETCOM will take Harvest back, and you are now one of the few people in the UNSC who has experience dealing with these aliens. We'll need people like you to lead the charge. Think about it."
I pictured it in my mind: Private Garris of the UNSC Marine Corps – battle armor shining, rifle blazing, tearing through hordes of aliens with a storm of bullets.
The mental image almost made me laugh, it was so ridiculous.
"Will I get to kill alien gobshites?" I asked.
“Yes.” Byrne’s eyes lit up with laughter for the first time since I met him. "You will."
"What about training? Do I have to do basic training again?"
“Yes,” Byrne replied. “You’ll train at Camp Needle Point, on Reach. It won’t be easy, but you’ll make it through.”
“I survived you, didn’t I?”
END OF ACT I