I Chapter Two: Second Thoughts
December 24, 2524 (Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
I stood atop of a tall spire of rock in the middle of the sea.
Mammoth waves pounded against my little piece of rock. The blinding wind and rain bit at my face.
Thunder roared as I tried to shield my face. It would not stop; it kept on booming and crashing in a rapid, almost rhythmic beat. It was a maddening thunder, inside my head as much as it was outside of it. No matter what I did to try and block it out, I could still hear it, crashing...
"Junior! Wake the fuck up before the Sarge turns your ass inside-out!" a hazy voice whisper-shouted somewhere out of the raging sky.
I cracked open my eyelids.
Dempsey was gesticulating madly for me to get up out of my bunk.
Staff Sergeant Byrne, clad in a dripping rain poncho, made his way down the aisle in the middle of our barracks, a metal trashcan tucked under his arm. He mercilessly pounded the trashcan with his power baton.
The thunder from my dream had not been thunder at all.
I tumbled out of my bunk and somehow landed on my feet, hurrying out into the aisle to stand at attention.
The patter of rainfall filled the barracks. Lightning flashed through the rain-streaked windows.
"Get up, get up; let's move it, gobshites!" Byrne exclaimed; his Irish brogue thickening as his shouting intensified. "Innie commandoes could've filled you worthless cumbuckets full o' holes five times over in the time it took you to get your patty-asses out of your beds!"
As the Staff Sergeant walked past my bunk, I strained my spine to stand up straighter than humanly possible. Byrne gave me a sidelong glance, eyeing me up. His steely gray eyes seemed to pierce right through me before he moved on and gazed at Dempsey, moving on down the line.
"Fall out and form up outside!" Sergeant Byrne thundered as he made his way back to the barracks doors. "We’re going on a little jog!"
"Sir, we aren't dressed-" one of the older recruits started to say, but Sergeant Byrne quickly thrust his power-baton into the ex-constable's gut, rendering the rest of the recruit's sentence moot.
"My God, you're right!" Byrne gave a mock gasp, sheathing his power baton as he spoke. "None of you are dressed yet! How about that; I nearly made you all go out and run without letting you get dressed. Tell you what…I'm a strong believer in Democracy; I'll put this up to a vote: which one of you sods thinks we should spend the rest of the day in this warm, comfortable building?"
No one raised their hands.
We all wanted to spend the rest of the day inside, obviously, but none of us were willing to take the risk of pissing off the sergeant even more. Byrne looked like a devious bastard, capable of reducing any of us to quibbling mounds of jelly if he so desired.
I didn't want to unleash that, and neither did anyone else.
"Looks like Democracy prevails again," Staff Sergeant Byrne proclaimed triumphantly, kicking open the barracks door, inviting us to step outside. Freezing wind howled through the barracks, carrying stinging droplets of water.
I fell out of formation and hightailed it after my fellow recruits, jogging out of Barracks Two onto the parade field.
Sergeant Johnson was already busy hauling 1st Platoon out of their Barracks One – the whole lot of us converged on the parade ground.
Were it not for the training compound's lights, it would have been impossible to see further than a yard or two into the darkness. It wasn’t even 0400 hours, yet.
The rain soaked us to the bone in less than a minute. The flag ropes flapped against their poles, pinging in the wind. Another lightning bolt streaked across the sky, followed by a deep growl of thunder.
"We're goin' for a little jog, farmer-boys!" Johnson shouted, his voice easily cutting through the roar of the storm. "You will remain in loose formation for the duration of our run! If you get lost along the way, then you better hitch a ride on Helios's sun chariot to get back to camp; I expect all of you in formation on the parade field in time for Reveille!"
Byrne and Johnson pulled flashlights from their belts and clicked them on. They had powerful beams, able to cut through the rainy darkness with ease.
Both sergeants moved to the heads of their platoons and got us all running in step for a few minutes to warm up.
Then we set off.
Johnson's 1st Platoon took the lead, jogging off into the pitch black beyond the camp perimeter, following a semi-prepared trail that cut through the grain fields, only partially illuminated by Johnson's flashlight.
Staff Sergeant Byrne kept us in the compound for another five minutes before he, too, got us moving, taking the same path as 1st Platoon.
I don't know how long we ran. Completely lost track of time. No way to judge distance based on landmarks, either; I couldn't see a damn thing through the darkness and rain.
We ran, and ran, and ran some more, following Sergeant Byrne's bobbing light like lost souls trying to reach the afterlife.
There was no sunrise. The rainclouds were too thick for us to witness Epsilon Indi's grand entrance into today. It didn't start getting bright until long after the sun's actual rise, and even then it was only a dull glow in the east as some of the black clouds began to turn to a shade of dark gray.
I became aware of shapes in the darkness now. The waving fields of wheat and grain had been replaced by trees somewhere along the way. The tall, twisted silhouettes were caught up in a macabre dance, buffeted and thrown about by the fierce storm winds even more than us.
Sometime I would hear the snap of a cracking branch, and I would have a split-second to pray that it did not fall on me before the wind took away that vestige of a thought.
Gradually the stormy sky brightened enough to reveal more of our surroundings, but the rain still obscured my vision.
I could not even feel the rain, anymore; the burning in my lungs, chest, and legs was too great.
Fuck, how much longer is this run gonna last?
Recruits all around me were beginning to get sloppy. It started with a stumble here, or a minor trip-up there, but now recruits were falling into each other and performing painful face-plants into the muddy path in front of them.
The only constant in our sea of misery was that damned light up ahead, bobbing up and down in its never-ending, robotic rhythm. How could the Staff Sergeant possibly go on for this long?
Epsilon Indi eventually brightened the sky just enough to be able to see through the rain just as we reached our destination; a small, secluded beach that was closed in by sheer cliff faces on both sides.
The Munin Sea, spurred on by the storm, vented her fury on those cliff faces, sending wave after wave pounding against their cold, unyielding faces.
We would have been a sight to see, had anyone else been on the beach. Thirty-six mostly-naked men, clad in nothing but their skivvies and boots, half-jogging, half-crawling onto the beach.
1st Platoon was nowhere in sight. They must have gone back on another path, because we never passed them.
Sergeant Byrne made his way over to a cluster of rocks and heaved one of them aside, revealing a dark-green, metallic footlocker which had obviously been placed there ahead of time, in anticipation for this event. The sergeant opened the container and pulled out two bottles of water.
Thirty-six heads, including mine, turned as one towards the Staff Sergeant, utterly mesmerized by the liquid gold in his hands.
Byrne held a pair of Holy Grails.
I was tempted to rush the sergeant and seize the bottles from his hands. Judging by the murmuring from the others, I wasn't alone in that sentiment.
Staff Sergeant Byrne, sensing the shift in our moods, drew his power baton and upped it to its highest intensity; enough juice to knock someone into next week.
"All of you will form up into two lines," he commanded us. "You will each receive a bottle of water, but none of you are to drink from them! That is a direct order! Anyone who tries to cut ahead in line will get a dose of lightning," he warned, waving the baton for emphasis.
I was pretty much shoved to the very back of the line. Being the youngest of the bunch really sucks, sometimes.
John Carrol, my squad leader, was right next to me in the other line. He offered me a weary nod, but had nothing more to give.
The two lines slowly shuffled forward as Byrne handed out the pre-set bottles of water two-by-two. Finally, after what seemed like hours, Carrol and I were the only ones left. Sergeant Byrne handed us our water without a second glance.
I was just starting to work the cap off when Sergeant Byrne suddenly bellowed, "Form up! Two rows, staggered lines!"
Wearily, we all obeyed our orders. We formed two long rows of eighteen recruits each and staggered them so that the men in the second row were right behind the gaps between every two men in the first row.
"Bottles on the ground in front of you!" Byrne bellowed next. When we all dropped our water bottles, the Staff Sergeant walked up and down our rows, carefully looking at each bottle. He passed over me without saying anything, much to my relief.
When he got to Dempsey, however, the story changed. Dempsey must have taken a small drink out of his water bottle right after he received it – the water level in his bottle was noticeably lower than everyone else's.
The Staff Sergeant snatched the bottle up, shaking it in Dempsey's face. "What is this, recruit?" he asked, voice deadly quiet.
Dempsey looked at a loss for words, but he didn't get a chance to say much. Sergeant Byrne slapped him on the back of his head, shouting, "I asked you a question, scrotum-cheeks; what is this?"
"It's…it's a bottle of water, sir," Dempsey panted.
"Incorrect, recruit!" Byrne screeched, seizing Dempsey by the collar and pushing him down to the sand. "Push 'em out until I say stop!"
We all looked on impassively as Dempsey started to perform his push-ups.
"Recruit Dempsey seems to think that this is a water bottle. He is incorrect," Byrne exclaimed, turning to face the rest of us. "This," he held the bottle up high, "is a dead platoon! Were you gobshites ordered to not drink any water?”
"Sir, yes sir!" we all chorused in reply.
Staff Sergeant Byrne shook Dempsey's bottle. The swooshing of the water and the bubbles could be heard by all of us. "Then why do I hear empty space inside Recruit Dempsey’s bottle?"
None of us could answer.
"None of you were supposed to drink from your bottles, none of you; that was my order," Byrne reminded us. "Because Recruit Dempsey has taken a drink from his water, my orders have been disobeyed by all of you!"
The Staff Sergeant went on to order us to pick up our bottles. We complied, holding our bottles out in front of us.
Dempsey faltered, taking a moment to pause in his onslaught of push-ups.
"I don't recall anyone telling you to stop, Jellydick!" Byrne screamed, planting a boot between my squadmate's shoulder blades.
Dempsey groaned with exhaustion and struggled to continue with his punishment while Byrne returned his attention to us. "Caps off!" the Staff Sergeant shouted.
We twisted the caps of our water bottles caps off and waited to drink, staring at the water inside with near-animalistic fervor.
"Now empty your bottles!"
Hold on, what?
I traded a furtive glance with Scotty Lowell, who stood to my left.
Lowell had similar thoughts running through his mind.
"Are you bloody deaf?" Staff Sergeant Byrne activated his power baton. "I said empty your bottles!"
I was the first to turn my bottle upside-down, watching forlornly as the water poured out.
Something died inside me in that moment, seeing so much precious hydration sink away into the sand, never to be drunk by the likes of me.
Dempsey continued to push 'em out, muscles straining against the pressure of Byrne's boot. I didn't know a person could sweat so much. Where was all that water coming from?
Certainly not the bottles...
"If one person disobeys an order that applies to the entire platoon, then the entire platoon has disobeyed that order!" Byrne declared. He lifted his boot from Dempsey's back, allowing my squadmate to get back up.
"Either everyone succeeds, or no one does," the Staff Sergeant continued. "Remember that, gobshites. Now form up and hit the trail! Move! If you are late for Reveille, you will not be eating breakfast!"
We ran all the way back to the training compound. Through the woods, onto the highway, across several miles of farmland. I don't even know how long we’d been out.
Two hours? Three?
Most of us were half-delirious by the time we stumbled through the gates of our training facility.
Reveille began to play from the loudspeakers.
Reserves of energy I didn’t even know I possessed surged through my legs and lungs, propelling me forward even faster.
No way I’m missing out on breakfast.
Doc Healy, the petty officer serving as our medic, awaited us on the parade field. I noticed the expression of barely concealed horror on his face.
We must have looked like shit.
The Doc walked down the steps of the HQ building into the rain, quietly exchanging a few words with Staff Sergeant Byrne.
Byrne waved Healy away like a gnat.
The Doc scowled, but walked off instead of arguing further. He made his way across the greens and ducked into the mess hall.
Reveille came to an end. We stood silently at attention.
The smell of breakfast wafted through the rain, teasing at my nostrils. I went weak at the knees as I smelled it; pancakes, bacon and sausage. I had to spread my feet out a bit to keep myself from swaying.
As I stood there, trying to imagine how well the taste of breakfast would live up to its smell, Captain Ponder emerged from the HQ building. He gave Byrne a quick salute, which the Staff Sergeant crisply returned.
The Captain then turned to us. "Good morning, recruits. Did you enjoy your morning jog?"
"Yes, sir," we all replied with varying amounts of enthusiasm.
Captain Ponder raised an eyebrow. "Staff Sergeant Byrne, your recruits do not sound like they enjoyed their run."
"No, sir, they do not."
"Perhaps we should have them run it again?" Captain Ponder suggested. "To help them appreciate it fully?"
"I don't think twelve kilometers did the trick, Captain," Byrne shrugged. "Perhaps I'll take 'em out onto the highway and run 'em all the way up to the Bifrost and back."
"Let's be sure, first," Ponder smiled lightly, turning back to face us. "Did you enjoy your morning jog, recruits?"
"Sir, yes sir!" we all screamed, throats hoarse.
"Maybe I was wrong, Sergeant," Captain Ponder mused. "You boys hungry?"
“SIR, YES SIR!”
"Well, you've certainly worked for it," Ponder conceded. "However, you are not setting one toe inside of my mess hall until you are nice and dry. Sergeant Byrne, see to it."
"Aye, sir," Byrne replied, saluting the Captain as he stepped forward to retake control of us.
"Have a good day, gentlemen," the Captain nodded to us, turning around and following Doc Healy into the mess hall.
"You worthless lice are not going to enter the dining hall in your underwear," Staff Sergeant Byrne informed us. "Get to your barracks, put on your fatigues, and form back up right here. You will be dismissed for breakfast when I am satisfied that you are ready."
"Sir, yes sir!"
We all broke formation and sprinted across the greens, through the rain, and back into Barracks Two.
We piled in through the door, only to find that all of our footlockers had been opened and overturned, their contents scattered all over the floor.
Our fatigues had been thrown all over the place – on bunks, in the windows, on the ceiling fans; everywhere.
We couldn't just grab any shirt or set of pants and pull them on; all of our fatigues had our names stitched into them. Wearing someone else's fatigues would only incur the Wrath of Byrne.
It took us over ten minutes to sort out everyone's fatigues and get fully clothed, ponchos and all, before we could rush back out onto the parade field.
By the time Sergeant Byrne okayed us and sent us on our way to the mess hall, breakfast was nearly over.
We had two minutes to grab our trays, make a beeline for the food counter, and get loaded up.
First Platoon was already eating. I was faintly aware of them jeering at us as we scrambled to scarf down as much grub as quickly as possible.
I didn't really care, though. All that mattered was getting food and water. I was delirious. Didn't even bother with silverware. I grabbed handfuls of pancake and shoved them down my throat, pausing only to gulp down some water.
Sergeant Johnson stepped into the mess hall, ordering us to fall out and report to the armory.
We all stood up at once and filed out towards the door, leaving our trays for the kitchen staff to clean up. Most of the guys in my platoon were swearing and cursing under their breath, trying to down one last scrap of food before they were torn away from their trays.
I still had half a tray left, but it was too late. I bid the remaining pancake and two sausages a silent farewell.
My stomach still growled with barely sated hunger as we marched back into the cold rain.
Why the fuck did I get onto that bus?