I Chapter Four: Blood, Sweat, and Guts
January 5, 2525
(Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
We’ll get up in the morning to the risin’ sun!
Killin’ Innie bastards is how we have fun!
Staff Sergeant Byrne called out the cadence at a steady rhythm, keeping it in time with our pace. Every time he hollered a new line of cadence, we had to repeat it back at full volume.
Droppin’ from the sky straight into Hell!
Devil went ‘n gave us all a grand farewell!
We jogged down the Gladsheim Highway in tight formation, four columns of nine – all of us focusing on keeping in time with everyone else, remembering the verses of the PT chant, and ignoring the sweltering heat from the sun.
Hit the dirt, punch out, grab your MA5B!
Time to kill some Innie bastards for the UNSC!
This was no ordinary PT run. This time, we were lugging weapons, ammunition, and supplies. And yes, in case you were wondering, it fucking sucked.
Seriously. Why the fuck did I get on that bus?
Finally, after spending the entire morning out on the Gladsheim Highway, we stumbled back through the gates of our training facility, careful to make sure we stumbled perfectly in time with each other.
None of us wanted Byrne to decide on a whim to make us run the highway again.
"Company, wheel right!" Byrne barked as he led us back into the gravel lot of the militia training compound.
First Platoon ran alongside us. Ordinarily they would operate on their own schedule, but today Staff Sergeant Johnson was with Captain Ponder in Utgard. Governor Thune had invited them to the Solstice Celebration – arguably the most popular holiday on Harvest.
It had been Ponder’s choice which Staff Sergeant to bring, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to bring Nolan Byrne.
As a result, First Platoon found themselves at Byrne’s mercy for the day.
We passed by the HQ building where Captain Ponder resided and walked out onto the parade grounds, veering to the right without breaking formation. It was a simple maneuver that was nearly second nature by now.
Days of relentless parade drills before dinner and the retiring of the flags, as well as Byrne's punishments for anyone who messed up, had driven the fine art of marching deep into our minds.
Byrne walked us across the parade field, past the Quonset hut, straight into the firing range.
The range was located on the north end of the compound, opposite the barracks.
It was not an actual structure or building; it was an open stretch of land that extended out to the wheat fields hugging the compound's outer perimeter. Targets were set up at carefully-measured distances from the designated firing line.
"This range is supervised by the range computer, which has a wireless connection to each of your weapons," Byrne said to us. "It will log your hits and your misses, calculate your accuracy, and then it will deduce you how worthless you are to me. You will break into your squads and take a portion of the firing range. We'll be here until dinner, so get comfy."
A week ago, one of us might have asked, "What about lunch, sir?"
No one asked that today. Had we asked, we probably would have lost all lunches for the next week.
My stomach growled quietly.
“Sorry, buddy…” I patted my stomach. “Not yet.”
"Bravo, down center!" John Carrol hollered, waving for me and my squadmates to take the center portion of our half of the firing range. The ex-constable wiped a film of sweat off of his forehead and stood at our position on the firing line.
Alpha Squad and Charlie Squad took the two portions on either side of us.
The three squads of First Platoon deployed across the remaining half of the range.
Byrne had been drilling us on how to fire our weapons with accuracy for about a week now. This time, however, he seemed inclined to step back and allow the squad leaders to run today’s live-fire exercise.
"Load a magazine of live ammo into your weapon and take up a position on the firing line," Carrol instructed us.
As we fumbled with our ammunition, our squad leader showed us how to properly slot the magazine into our weapons.
I reached into my rifle bag and grabbed a magazine of live ammo, pushing it up into my carbine's chamber, making sure I remembered to slide the loading bolt forward to lock it in place.
"The range computer will log the performance of your weapons individually," Carrol informed us, "so it is alright to have two people shooting at the same target. I would encourage all of you to aim for different distances every time you take a shot."
"Positions on the firing line!" Byrne shouted. "Let's see what you pukes are capable of."
I went prone, lying in the grass on my stomach. I went through all of the procedures pertaining to my M6J carbine through my head as I positioned the rifle in front of me and sighted it downrange. Dempsey and Omar, another member of Bravo Squad, were on either side of me, both of them fumbling with their MA5 assault rifles.
I thumbed off my M6J's safety and curled my finger around the trigger, bringing the carbine tight against my shoulder and gazing through the ironsights.
"Commence firing!" Byrne ordered.
A sharp wave of staccato pops rippled forth from the firing line as everyone fired off their first shots at the same time. It sounded like popping bubble-wrap. After that first volley, however, the noise deteriorated into the normal, constant clatter of a rifle range in use.
I readjusted my aim and fired off another shot at the closest target. I heard the metallic ping as the round zinged off the set-up. I scored a good hit; not quite a bull's-eye, but pretty close.
I got my breath under control and aimed downrange again, trying for a more distant target. I emptied the remainder of the eighteen-round mag in the carbine's semi-auto single-shot mode.
When my carbine clacked empty, I ejected the magazine and replaced it with a fresh one.
"That was damn near a sharpshooter's performance, Garris," Carrol said to me, clapping me on the shoulder. "Keep it up."
Though I was grateful for the compliment, I knew I wasn't the best shot in the platoon.
Critchley and Werner both had me beat by a wide margin.
Still, being third-best is no small feat.
Have I finally found something I’m actually good at?
I really enjoyed our time spent at the shooting range. Why? Because, ultimately, all we’re doing is chilling out on the ground for several hours, peering down a set of ironsights.
Yeah, I know that sounds kinda boring, but it sure as fuck beats running the Beach.
I could do this all day long.
“Rifles down, gobshites!” the piercing tones of Nolan Byrne echoed across the range, disrupting the otherwise peaceful late afternoon shooting sesh. “Stand at attention!”
God damn it. He probably heard me thinking.
I scrambled up to my feet, standing up straight, carbine down by my side.
“I trust you’ve grown nice and comfy, spending all afternoon getting flabby on the ground while missing your targets,” continued Byrne. “Return your weapons to the armory, then form up on the parade field. Fall out!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
After depositing our rifles in the armory, we hurried over to the parade field in the center of camp.
As the last of us got into place, Staff Sergeant Byrne checked his watch. The corners of his mouth deepened into a scowl. “Eight minutes, thirteen seconds,” he snarled, not trying very hard to hide his disgust. “It took you soggy hemorrhoids eight minutes and thirteen seconds to stow your gear and form up. Did you stop for coffee and donuts along the way?”
“Sir, no sir!” all seventy-two of us shouted.
“I don’t believe you!” Byrne snapped. “You gobshites are lying to my face. And when gobshites lie to my face, I bloody well punish them! About-face!”
We spun in place, turning one-eighty degrees.
Byrne made his way through our ranks and commanded us to march after him, keeping in tight formation.
We followed the Staff Sergeant to the southern end of the training facility, which none of us had yet explored.
There were no buildings in the southern part of camp. Instead, the open space was filled with what appeared to be a diabolical obstacle course.
First came a long run of monkey bars suspended over a mud pit.
If I fell into that muck, Byrne would never allow me to set foot inside the mess hall for dinner until I’d scrubbed out every last mote of mud from my fatigues.
A thirty-foot-tall wooden wall waited on the far side of the mud pit, a pair of nylon ropes dangling from the top.
After the wall came a stretch of interlocked tires. We would have to run through as fast as possible while stepping into each individual tire, all without getting tripped up and faceplanting.
For the final obstacle, the Staff Sergeants dug a long gully, wide enough for three or four men to crawl side by side. It was full of small ditches and miniature hills – would’ve been too nice of the sergeants to give us a flat surface to crawl across.
And just to make sure none of us got the idea to poke our heads up, the sergeants had strung barbed wire across the surface.
A small wooden sign had been hammered into the ground at the starting line of the obstacle course. It read, “The Fucker”.
“Welcome to my dear friend The Fucker, you lying gobshites!” Byrne smiled a smile of pure evil. “The Fucker will be meting out your punishment. Second Platoon will go first. You all have precisely eight minutes and thirteen seconds to complete all parts of the course. Fail to meet this challenge, and I will revoke your dinner privileges for the evening. Stisen, your squad is up. Carrol, your squad is on deck.”
“Alpha Squad to the starting line!” Stisen barked. “Form up by twos!”
At Stisen’s command, the twelve recruits of 2/A – short for Alpha Squad, Second Platoon, for those of you unfamiliar with our abbreviations – advanced to the starting line, splitting into two columns of six.
Staff Sergeant Byrne looked at his watch, then gave Stisen a nod.
“Follow me, Alpha!” howled Stisen, leading the charge onto the first run of monkey bars.
"This is a platoon exercise!" Byrne thundered as Alpha swung itself across the bars. "If your entire platoon does not cross the finish line within the allotted time, then your entire platoon has failed! Personal space was the first thing to go out the window here; lone-wolves will be the second! You are not supersoldiers. If you do not stick together and watch each other’s backs, you'll be attending your own funeral in a box!"
By now, Stisen had reached the top of the wall with Alpha Squad’s forerunners.
Carrol and Hadley were the first two of my squadmates in line. They waited at the starting line for Byrne’s go-ahead.
The moment the final pair of Alpha recruits reached the halfway point on the monkey bars, the Staff Sergeant gave another nod.
“Move it, Bravo!” Carrol bellowed, seizing the monkey bars alongside Hadley, swinging from bar to bar, traversing the mud pit as swiftly as possible.
Billings and Omar, next in line, followed suit as Carrol and Hadley neared the half-way mark.
Dempsey and I were paired up towards the rear of Bravo. Rosen and Worthington were behind us, and behind them were Davis and Feldman from Charlie Squad.
Gradually, the rest of my squad went down the bars until suddenly the only thing separating Dempsey and me from the mud pit was absolutely nothing.
When Ricketts and Kaczynski, who were in front of us, reached the halfway mark, it was our turn.
I leaped for the monkey bars.
For a brief, terrifying moment, I was afraid that I was losing my grip on the first bar, but I clamped my hands around the metal and stopped myself from sliding.
I swung back to gain momentum, then forward, stretching out with my right hand and managed to grasp the next bar. Before I could get comfortable on the second bar, I was already swinging towards the third.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
I was faintly aware of Dempsey huffing and puffing next to me as he made his own progress. Couldn’t pay any closer attention, though; I was on a roll, and a lapse in concentration would result in a mud bath.
The final monkey bar was made of wood, not metal, so I instantly knew when I reached the end.
I dropped down to the ground, careful to avoid the edge of the mud pit. Dempsey dropped next to me barely a heartbeat later.
We hit the wall together, each grabbing our own rope. Climbing was never a passion of mine, and it showed. Two-thirds of the way up, the muscles in my shoulders and arms were screaming obscenities.
I powered through my discomfort the rest of the way to the top, wrapping my fingers around the lip of the wall. As I let go of the rope to pull myself over the wall, my grip slipped.
For a horrible, horrible moment I hung in midair, unconnected to anything solid.
A steel grip suddenly wrapped around my upper left arm, saving my sorry ass from plummeting back to the ground.
“Jesus, you’re lighter than helium,” Dempsey remarked, effortlessly hauling me up the rest of the way.
“Thank you,” I replied, breathless.
“I’ve picked up feathers that weigh more than you.”
“You've made your point. Let’s get down this wall.”
We slid down the ropes on the opposite side of the wall just as Rosen and Worthington neared the top.
As we hit the tires I wondered how much time had already passed. Had to have been at least five minutes, it felt like. Maybe four?
God damn it, I am not going hungry tonight.
Dempsey tripped about halfway through the tires, but I managed to catch him by the elbow before he went all the way down.
I flicked a glance over my shoulder to see if Byrne had noticed, but the Staff Sergeant was busy yelling at a Charlie Squad recruit who had nearly fallen into the mud pit on the first bar.
Demspey lucked out this time. He muttered a thank you and got right back to it.
We made it through the rest of the tires without any trouble.
Next came the gully. Dempsey and I hit the dirt and shimmied under the barbed wire, careful to keep our heads down.
It was possible to look forward, but very uncomfortable. I found it easier to keep my eyes on the ground in front of me – kept me from worrying too much about how much further we had to go versus how much time we had left before Byrne took away dinner.
After five meters we reached the gully’s first hump, crawled over the obstruction, slid down into the ditch on the other side, and landed in something wet and slimy.
I looked around, realized what we’d just crawled into.
Traces of bile surged up my esophagus. I had to take a deep breath and focus to keep more puke from following.
The next few meters of the gully were littered with animal insides. Livers, stomachs, lungs, hearts, and about a dozen other organs I never knew even existed. Some of the intestines hung from the barbed wire, coiling in grotesque piles on the dirt.
I tried to avoid crawling over the innards. My attempts were met with miserable failure.
"I'm gonna kill that fucker…" Dempsey muttered, fantasizing over the dozens of different ways he wanted to bring Byrne’s life to a spectacular end. “This is it. Gonna fuckin’ kill him.”
I didn’t say a damn thing. So long as I’m crawling through guts, my mouth is staying the fuck closed.
We made our way out of the gully, grimy and swearing. My fatigues were a mess, splattered with visceral fluid and blood.
I was surprised to find the rest of Bravo Squad waiting for us, shouting encouragements.
Worthington and Rosen emerged from the gully right behind us.
“Form up, Bravo!” Carrol ordered.
We organized ourselves into a double-file line as we sprinted along the dirt path which looped back around to The Fucker’s starting line, passing Staff Sergeant Byrne as a group.
Alpha Squad was already here, looking as nauseous as we were. Within the next minute, Charlie Squad joined us. Second Platoon had conquered The Fucker.
Staff Sergeant Byrne noted the time on his watch.
First Platoon went through the obstacle course after us. The experience was probably a bit worse for them – they got to see us return covered in blood, sweat and guts, knowing what they were about to get themselves into.
At least I didn’t see it coming.
After First Platoon finished, Byrne rounded everyone up and ordered us back to formation on the parade field.
The sun hung low in the sky. We could hear each other’s stomachs growling.
“First Platoon! You completed your punishment in seven minutes, thirty-three seconds,” announced Byrne. “Second Platoon! You clocked in at seven minutes, twenty-four seconds. Both platoons have fallen within the time allotment.”
Cheers erupted from our ranks.
I didn’t make any noise, though I couldn’t help but smile and pump my fist into the air a couple times.
Hey, it felt nice to know we wouldn’t go hungry.
“I don’t know what you gobshites think you’re celebrating,” chuckled Byrne, his evil smile returning. “Your dinner privileges for today are revoked.”
This is not happening.
This is not real.
“Did you honestly believe I would allow you into the mess hall with innards on your fatigues?” continued the Staff Sergeant. “Fall out and report to the washing hut! If I see even a speck of grime on your fatigues tomorrow morning, you will lose breakfast privileges as well.”
Fuck you, Nolan Byrne.