I Chapter Three: Merry Christmas
December 25, 2524
(Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
This is my rifle. There
are many like it, but this one is mine.
My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life.
My rifle, without me, is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.
I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than the enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me.
I went over and over the words of the Rifleman's Creed in my mind as I stepped into the armory.
Had to have the whole damn thing memorized by tonight. It was going to be our evening prayer, spoken every night before bed.
Anyone who screwed up the words would get Byrne's personal attention, and rule number one of surviving in this place is to never, ever be the object of Staff Sergeant Byrne's personal attention.
I shuffled forward in line to the weapons counter.
Staff Sergeant Johnson, who had taken up the post behind the counter, gave me a quick glance, cross-referenced my name in his datapad, and handed me an M6J carbine, butt-first.
I accepted the weapon, holding it against my chest. A handful of other recruits received M6Js as well, but the majority of the platoon was given MA5 assault rifles.
We were not wearing any type of armor with a magnetic weapons strip running down the back, so our rifles had leather straps which we could use to sling over our shoulders.
We also received helmets and ammunition for our rifles, as well as standard-issue canteens to carry our water.
Once squared away, Byrne led us back into the barracks for basic weapons instruction while Johnson took his platoon onto the Gladsheim Highway for an afternoon march.
We all sat down on top of our footlockers. I lay my carbine on the ground beside me and listened to Byrne as he started to speak.
"This," the Staff Sergeant held up an assault rifle of his own, turning it around for all of us to see, "is a standard-issue UNSC military-grade MA5 assault rifle, series B. And this," Byrne held up a carbine in his other hand, "is an M6-variant carbine, series J. You are going to learn all there is to learn about your weapon. These rifles are going to be your friends, fuck-buddies, and Gods for the duration of your service in the armed forces."
I gave my carbine a curious sidelong glance as Byrne spoke.
Could that hunk of metal really end up becoming everything Byrne said it would?
I doubted it. What could possibly happen on Harvest that would require extensive use of weapons?
Still, Byrne wanted us to become close to our weapons, and failing to do so would incur his wrath, so I had no problem with complying. If we didn't fear the consequences of not getting close to our weapons, then, damn it all, we were going to fear him.
"All of you have either the MA5 or the M6J," Byrne continued. "This was based on the firearms live-ammo test you underwent with your recruiters! If you have the M6J, it is because you actually seem to know a thing or two about aiming. If you have an MA5, it is because you probably didn't know one end of the rifle from the other.”
I thought I did an okay job when I shot the targets at the recruiting office, but nothing special, especially considering I’d never fired a gun before in my life.
"Your rifles are extensions of yourselves, but they are also tools," Byrne instructed us. He pulled a chair over and sat down in front of the barracks entrance so that everyone could see him. "And tools require maintenance, careful supervision. You must master your rifles, both inside and out."
Staff Sergeant Byrne lay his MA5 and the M6J onto the floor and field-stripped them.
For the next half-hour or so, the Staff Sergeant showed us all of the interlocking pieces and parts that made up the rifle. He took the rifles apart and put them back together again in less than half a minute. To him it was as routine as breathing.
"You there, Critchley," Byrne pointed to one of the older men in the far end of the barracks. "You served in Utgard SWAT?"
"Yes, sir," Critchley promptly replied. "Eight years."
"Demonstrate for everyone exactly how to clear a jam," Byrne ordered the older man.
"Yes, sir." Critchley rose to his feet and stepped into the aisle. As the SWAT veteran started to go through the process of clearing a weapons jam, I noticed Dempsey give a slight yawn from the corner of my eye.
“Are we boring you, recruit?” Byrne asked with a quiet fury. He'd noticed the yawn, too.
Dempsey swore under his breath, catching his yawn too late. "No, sir," he replied in a resigned tone.
"Did you get enough sleep last night?"
"Then why do you feel the sudden urge to sabotage my training at every step and turn? I thought you would have learned your lesson on the beach when you cost yourself and your fellow recruits their much-deserved water."
Byrne quick-stepped his way down the aisle to Dempsey. I made myself as small as possible as the Staff Sergeant stepped past me.
He reached down and seized Dempsey's rifle, manipulating the loading bolt and pulling the trigger. The weapon gave a dull, off-sounding snick. "Your rifle has just jammed!" he snapped. "Clear it!"
"I said clear it!"
"Yes, sir!" Dempsey set to work, his hands a frantic blur as he began to clear the weapon jam in his MA5, trying to remember what Critchley had just shown him.
I thought he was doing a good job. Then Staff Sergeant Byrne started hitting him.
Byrne slapped Dempsey up the back of his head, ruining his concentration. "I ordered you to un-jam your weapon, recruit; do you have short-term memory loss? Have you forgotten your orders already?"
"Sir, no sir!" Dempsey sputtered, still fumbling with his rifle.
"Then why isn't your rifle ready to fire, recruit? Your unit is getting overrun and shot every second you waste making a jackass out of yourself!" Byrne bellowed, smacking Dempsey’s head a second time.
"Sir, I-" Dempsey stammered, "Sir, I can't do it if you-"
"If I what?" Byrne interrupted, delivering a third slap. "You can't clear a weapons block while getting slapped on that morass you call a head? Is that too distracting? Well, is it?"
Dempsey mumbled something in the affirmative.
“I can’t hear you, recruit!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
"Then how in the name of Christ's Holy Left Testicle are you going to clear a weapons jam when you have grenades going off in your ear?" Byrne snapped. "Distractions are everywhere in battle. If you can’t focus through them, you die. Then the people depending on you have to make do with one less rifle."
Dempsey said nothing.
Byrne grunted and stopped smacking the young recruit. He then turned to me. I looked into his stormy gray eyes and, for a moment, it felt like time slowed to a crawl.
I know that sounds dramatic, but if you actually knew this man…
Staff Sergeant Byrne pointed to me. "You.”
I was petrified. All I could manage was a quiet, "…sir?"
“Have you lost your voice, shiteface?”
“No, sir!” I yelled.
"Clear your friend's weapon jam," he ordered me.
"Yes, sir!" I stood up and stepped over to Dempsey. I grabbed his MA5 and worked the firing bolt mechanism in the way Critchley demonstrated. At first, the bolt refused to give, but after a second try it slid forward with a smooth click.
"Nicely done, shiteface," Byrne said to me. "For a first attempt. You'll do better next time, though; it isn't hard to improve on utter garbage. With a few months’ practice, you just might be on par with a quadruple amputee."
I kept my face blank and expressionless and replied, "Thank you, sir!"
We spent an hour disassembling and reassembling our rifles, taking them apart and putting them back together over and over and over again. I guess that was what was going to be the key to learning this: sheer, brutal, raw repetition.
"Again!" Byrne would bark every time we successfully completed a cycle. “Again!”
We did this well into the afternoon. The sun was sinking westward when Byrne ordered us to put our rifles down and change out of our fatigues into PT gear.
Byrne took us onto the parade field and unleashed hell.
Push-ups for eternity, then sit-ups for a second eternity. Then back to push-ups.
Sweat poured from our faces as we switched over to jumping-jacks.
After what felt like hours of exercising under the amber glare of the late afternoon sun, Byrne seemed to take pity on us. “Alright, that’s enough!” he shouted. “Form up!”
Once we were in formation, the Staff Sergeant marched us off the parade field, across the gravel lot, and through the training facility’s gates. We followed the dirt path away from the facility’s entrance for about three kilometers until we reached the Gladsheim Highway – a long line of asphalt stretching from one horizon to the other.
“Take a good hard look at this road, recruits,” said Byrne. "Tomorrow you will be running it. About face!”
Everyone immediately spun around one-eighty degrees.
We marched the three kilometers back to the training facility.
When we got back, we had about five seconds to take a breather before Byrne had us back on the parade field doing those goddamned push-ups again.
Recruits were sweating, groaning, and swearing all around me.
I clamped my mouth shut before I got carried away.
"Holding up alright, Garris?" John Carrol asked me from behind.
My squad leader didn’t even seem fazed by the intensive workout, the invincible fuck.
"Surviving, sir," I grunted as I completed my latest push-up.
"Platoon, rest!" Byrne finally barked after the thirtieth push-up combo. We staggered back to our feet, swaying and panting in the summer heat.
It felt odd that it had been cold and stormy only yesterday, but today it was sweltering and cloudless. That’s weather, for you, in the South of Edda.
"Any of you heathens know what today happens to be?" Byrne asked us after we finished. Before anyone had the chance to reply, Byrne continued to speak. "Time for a little sermon, to get you all into the spirit of things. Now, I'm paraphrasing a little, but this is the general story. One day, the Judeo-Christian God decided to pay a visit to Earth. He shagged a woman named Mary, who then gave birth to Jesus Christ. That day was today. December 25th. Merry Christmas."
I think most of us were stunned at Byrne's rabid blasphemy, but none of us dared show it.
Personally, I cared more about the historical inaccuracy. Christ wasn't born in December.
"Alright, Christmas sermon is over," Byrne concluded. "Captain Ponder has seen fit to grace you sacks of muck with a proper dinner befitting Christmas of '24. However, I will not have the lot of you tromping in through the mess hall looking and smelling like you do right now. Fall out and report to the showers."
"Yes, sir!" we said in unison.
I never remember a shower feeling so good. Not all of us had taken one yesterday, and we were paying dearly for it.
I think Byrne had made that first shower optional to force those of us who hadn't showered to realize just how important our hygiene would be in the days ahead, mostly by making us feel miserable without it for twenty-four hours.
The bathhouse had no sense of privacy. The shower room was one large square space lined with shower heads. No stalls, no curtains.
As Sergeant Byrne said: personal space was the first thing to go flying out the window.
Within ten minutes everyone finished showering and changed, reassembling on the parade field. Johnson and Byrne inspected us briefly before dismissing us. We broke formation and trickled into the mess hall, brimming with excitement over the Christmas dinner promised by the Staff Sergeants.
The mess hall staff had prepared roast turkey for dinner, along with stuffing and mashed potatoes. It smelled like every existing concept of heaven blended together.
I knew the food would never get any better than this, and the Staff Sergeants would not give us eternity to fully enjoy it, so I dug right in with gusto.
We were burping and slapping our bellies within minutes.
I washed everything down with a nice drink of water and relaxed for a second, feeling as content as I would ever feel for a long time.
As I reached for more turkey, the doors to the mess hall suddenly slammed open.
Byrne and Johnson strode in, clad in their usual sergeant's garb, shouting at the top of their lungs.
"Drop everything and fall out!" Johnson bellowed, unsheathing his power baton and upping the setting until the blue crackles of electricity were visible to the naked eye.
"We're running the Beach, cumbuckets!” screamed Byrne. “Twelve kilometers of heavenly cardio-respiratory endurance! Let's move, let's move, let's move! Oh," he added with a leer, "and Merry Christmas."
We stood as one and filed out of the mess hall, muttering and cursing under our breaths, damning those sergeants to every imaginable hell with every fiber of our collective being.
The sergeants sent us forward on the path to the Beach, the same route we had taken yesterday morning, through the rain.
Only this time we were running on overly full stomachs.
First came the coughing fits. Then recruits started retching their dinners onto their shoes as they ran. Those who had been stuffing their faces since the moment they got their trays had it the worst.
I did not throw up, but I came perilously close.
I glanced to my left at John Carrol. He did not seem the least bit affected by his churning stomach. How the freak does he do that?
"I swear to God…" Dempsey muttered from behind me, interspersing words with coughs and gags as he tried to keep his protesting dinner down. "I’m gonna kill Byrne. Someday I’m gonna kill him."
I didn't reply. I just kept on running, focusing on keeping my own dinner tucked safely away in my stomach.
I hated throwing up.