I Chapter Six: Competition
January 16, 2525
(Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
I did not breathe a single molecule of air through my nose while I emptied the latrine barrels and scrubbed the floor clean.
This wasn’t fair. I shouldn’t be cleaning this latrine.
Osmo and Thompson from 1/A should be cleaning this latrine.
Unfortunately, by losing in the TTR exercise three days ago, Second Platoon had been slapped with all of First Platoon’s latrine duty for a full week.
So that sucked. Quite a bit.
On the bright side, it was windy today, so the latrine smell did not permeate camp as much.
And on the even brighter side, Byrne and Johnson still had yet to return from whatever clandestine task they were performing for the government. They’d been gone ten days, now.
Ten days is a long time to be without Nolan Byrne.
I think we’re all getting too used to his absence.
I tossed down my sponge, leaving it in the cleaning bucket for the next lucky sod who gets the privilege of scrubbing this latrine.
I circled behind the latrine, pushing the barrel back into the compartment of space underneath the shitter.
With the latrine finished, I went to the washing hut and grabbed a new pair of fatigues, changing out of my smelly ones and washing them.
I’m nipping all probabilities of Byrne returning and smelling shit on my fatigues right here in the bud.
After hanging my washed fatigues to dry, I left the washing hut and walked over to the firing range on the north end of camp, stopping in the armory along the way to retrieve my M6J.
Eight or nine other recruits were already shooting, but there was still plenty of space along the firing line.
I took a spot for myself and shouldered my carbine, squeezing off a round towards the nearest target.
The computer registered a mediocre hit. I hadn’t really taken time to aim. It’d been more a reflex shot than anything else, and the range computer noticed.
I aimed for a more challenging target, took a moment to line up the ironsights, and squeezed the trigger.
Another mediocre hit, unacceptably distant from the bullseye.
This wind was really messing me up.
I noticed, however, the recruit next to me performing consistently better, logging hits of ninety-percent accuracy and higher.
“Hey Forsell,” I said to him. “Mind telling me what your secret is?”
Forsell glanced at me, confused. “Secret?”
“How do you shoot so well? My shots keep going all over.”
Forsell fired another round.
I heard the faint ping of the round striking a titanium bullseye.
"I watch the wind," Forsell replied. “It’s funny you ask – I was just talking to Jenkins about this.”
“Watch the wind? What does that even mean?"
"Your sights are off,” he informed me, firing another round. The bullseye ping came a split-second later. “Here you have to adjust for wind."
"By how much?"
"Not very much," Forsell shrugged. "The wind isn't too bad, today, but it’s shifting around a lot.” He pinched his ironsights and twisted them ever so slightly to the right.
I copied Forsell, adjusting my own ironsights before aiming downrange again.
I chose a distant target for my next shot, aiming directly for the center.
The wind was blowing to the left right now, so I nudged my aim to the right a tiny bit before squeezing the trigger.
I was surprised to hear the ting of the titanium bullseye. Hadn’t honestly been expecting that.
"That's a useful trick…" I murmured, aiming downrange at a new target.
I opened fire.
The round hit somewhere on the target's outer rings. "What the-"
"Wind's changed," Forsell warned me. "You need to readjust."
I licked my index finger and held it up to the air.
The wind had changed, if only a little.
I watched Forsell tweak the ironsights on his carbine and again copied what he did.
My next shot came a bit closer, but not by much.
Hearing my frustrated muttering, Forsell simply said, "It takes a few times to get the hang of it."
For him, maybe.
For me, a 'few times' meant two hours of muttering, swearing, and uncomfortable fidgeting until I finally began to work out the pattern between the wind and the sights.
As the afternoon drew on, I began to notice improvement in my accuracy. I was hearing a lot more tings than I had ever heard before.
Critchley eventually joined Forsell and me on the range, and he noticed my hike in accuracy, too.
"Whatever you're taking, Garris, keep taking it," the SWAT veteran chuckled.
I was nowhere near being able to match Forsell shot for shot by the end of the afternoon, but I was definitely moving in that direction.
We broke for lunch sometime around noon.
After lunch, sharpshooters were allowed to return to the range while Captain Ponder took the rest of the company out to run the Beach.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon getting to know the particulars of my M6J.
When we all heard the sound of Ponder bringing the rest of the company back, we ceased fire and clustered over at the range computer's terminal, where we could see our results.
Critchley was the best shot out of us all, clocking in with a golden ninety-five percent accuracy.
Forsell and Jenkins were neck-in-neck at eighty-nine and ninety.
I had eighty-seven percent, and Werner just barely had me beat at eighty-eight.
An earsplitting whistle screech assaulted our ears
"Vacation's over, gobshites!" howled a voice straight from our nightmares. “Form up on the parade field!”
My heart dropped a little.
Well, it’d been a fun ten days…
The return of Staff Sergeant Byrne sparked more conversation than his disappearance.
I noticed Byrne was walking with a limp.
Whatever 'official business' he and Johnson had been carrying out for the government, it certainly hadn't delivering mail to the outer farms.
I also noticed Staff Sergeant Johnson was still absent. Byrne was alone.
When someone in Second Platoon platoon worked up the cojones to ask Byrne where the hell he had been, the staff sergeant ordered us to push 'em out until we burned through enough 'curiosity calories'.
After seventy or eighty push-ups, Byrne ordered us to cease.
That surprised me, a little. I expected him to put us through the wringer until at least sunset.
"I’m told you gobbets of mucus went and blew the live-fire exercise with Captain Ponder," Byrne said, resuming his one-sided conversation with us. "However, I was also able to see the detailed results of the match. Recruit Garris!"
Time slowed to a crawl.
"Sir!" I replied as loud as I could, swearing my head off inside my mind.
"You were casualty number twenty-four, were you not?"
Byrne cocked a curious eyebrow, regarding me with some level of interest. "Your 'death' cost Second Platoon the match, recruit. Would you mind sharing with everyone exactly how you died?"
"Sir…uh-" I stammered at first.
A ray of hope shone through my mind; could it be that Byrne had it in for someone else?
I quickly swallowed and got my voice back. "I was tagged by someone from Alpha Squad, sir."
"Recruit Garris was taken down by friendly fire. Friendly. Fucking. Fire." Byrne shoved those last three words into our faces. "Of all the moronic, imbecilic ways to cock up a live-fire exercise, you worthless shites decided it would be fun to shoot a teammate. Stisen, your squad’s responsible for the cock-up. You have anything to say?"
"It was a mistake, sir," Stisen replied, his face remaining stony. "They were mingled with First Platoon's forces and discharging their weapons. One of my recruits fired on reflex. It's not an excuse, but it's the reason."
"Goddamn right it's not an excuse," Byrne snarled. "However, I am not going to punish you sods. Not yet. Instead, I will give you a chance to redeem yourselves. Are you grateful for this opportunity, recruits?”
“Thank you, sir!” we shouted.
“Then follow me.”
Byrne's redemption turned out to be a hand-to-hand match at the sandpit, located next to The Fucker.
A wide wooden beam stretched across the sandpit. Two recruits from different platoons would stand on either end of the beam and try to knock each other off-balance with pugil sticks.
“Recruit Worthington!” Byrne shouted. “Recruit Lawson! Get your arses up there!”
Worthington picked up one of the pugil sticks and hopped onto one end of the wooden beam. Opposing him was Lawson from 1/C – First Platoon’s Charlie Squad.
It wasn't much of a contest. Lawson was a large man, but Worthington was a bear.
Lawson jabbed forward with his pugil stick, but Worthington met the blow with his own stick, shoving the smaller man back.
As Lawson teetered on the edge of the wooden beam, Worthington gave him the gentlest of nudges, delicately pushing him off.
Lawson hit the sand.
The whole match hadn't even lasted ten seconds.
Byrne grunted, nodding with approval at Worthington's performance. He then pointed at two more people from each platoon. "Recruit Osmo. Recruit Lowell. You're up next."
Worthington hopped off the edge and into the sand, handing his pugil stick off to Scotty Lowell.
I clenched my mouth to suppress a yawn as Lowell began to spar with Osmo.
If Byrne caught me yawning…well, I didn't want to think about what might happen.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the sandpit.
Carrol managed to knock his opponent into the sand with a sweep to the legs.
Billings, ill-tempered and grouchy as he always was, simply shoved his pugil stick right into his opponent's chest and pushed him into the sand, pleasantries and finesse dispensed with.
Dempsey, however, had gone up against Tillman, one of First Platoon's fastest runners.
The lithe Tillman had dodged and ducked the initial furry of blows directed at him. He then unbalanced Dempsey with a knock to the head and sent him sprawling into the sand.
Several others in my squad were also knocked down, some were triumphant; it was about an even split.
When nearly everyone in the company had already gone, it was finally my turn.
"Recruit Garris! Recruit Andersen!” Byrne barked at us. “Get on that beam!”
Critchley, who had just succeeded in pushing a hapless First Platoon recruit from the beam, tossed me the pugil stick. I caught it, stepping into the sand.
Andersen took the far end of the wooden beam. He was a medium-sized man; not particularly large or muscular, nor was he wiry and fast. All in all, he was perfectly average.
I could live with average.
Andersen attacked first, thrusting his pugil stick towards my face.
Instinctively, I took a step back, evading the blow.
Andersen stumbled a little bit, not expecting his strike to encounter empty air. He grunted and tried again, but I took another step back.
"Take one more step back, shiteface," Byrne warned me. “I dare you. See what happens.”
I took the hint and went on the offensive, striking at Andersen’s helmet.
The First Platoon recruit met my pugil stick aside with his own, circling it around and forcing mine down. The sudden imbalance caused me to teeter on the edge of the beam.
I swore, windmilling my arms to regain balance.
Andersen struck again, and I jerked backwards, which partially restored my balance.
I held my pugil stick like a tightrope walker, allowing the weight of the stick’s padded ends to stabilize my center of gravity.
Andersen aimed a swipe towards my head again, but I was already half-crouching. All I needed to do to avoid the blow was duck a little lower, which I did without thinking.
I felt the air displacement of Andersen's pugil stick whipping through the space where my head had just been.
Before Andersen was even finished swinging, I brought my own pugil stick around, catching Andersen in the back of the knees.
Andersen saw it coming, but it was too late for him to evade. His knees folded, sending him tumbling off the beam and into the sand with a muffled oof.
I hopped off the beam to the sound of my Second Platoon mates cheering.
A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth. It felt good to be praised.
"Nicely done, Garris." Carrol clapped me on the shoulder as I rejoined my squad.
Next up were Jenkins and Stisen.
The 2/A squad leader grunted in thanks as I tossed him the pugil stick, clambering up onto the wooden beam opposite Jenkins from 1/A.
Stisen started the fight with a powerful overhead blow, but Jenkins blocked it with the center of his own stick.
Both men held this stalemate for a few seconds before Stisen gritted his teeth, planted his feet, and heaved.
Jenkins didn't exactly go flying, but he did come close to it. He hit the sand pretty hard. Hard enough to warrant Doc Healy's personal attention.
The medic tapped the side of Jenkins's helmet, asking him basic questions like what today’s date was, how many fingers he was holding up, how to spell 'spaghetti', or the name of the current Governor of Harvest.
Satisfied that Jenkins was all right, Healy helped him back up to his feet, giving Byrne a discreet nod.
"Alright, time to wrap this up!" Byrne barked at us. "Stisen, you stay up there. Forsell, you're up last. Go."
As Jenkins and Forsell swapped gear, Byrne gave a sharp whistle, getting everyone's attention. "Listen up!" he spoke up. "This is the title bout in our little tournament! Loser earns his platoon a week of KP! So let’s see some bloody fighting spirit!"
Our cheers instantly turned to groans. KP meant grueling time spent in the mess hall after every meal, cleaning the uncleanable.
The two recruits grunted, bumping the ends of their pugil sticks together. They hammered away at each other in a flurry of opening blows, some of them too fast for my eyes to follow.
The wooden beam creaked as they moved back and forth.
Stisen finally managed to score a hit, jabbing Forsell in the chin.
The stocky First Platoon recruit staggered back, swinging his pugil stick wildly.
Stisen stepped back lazily, avoiding the blow.
Forsell, meanwhile, lost his balance and was forced to step into the pit.
I cheered loudly for Stisen's success, along with the rest of my platoon.
Byrne, however, didn't seem amused. He seemed to be getting pretty impatient with the whole taking-a-step-backward ploy.
Byrne stepped into the sandpit, walking over to Stisen. "Only thing you get backing up is a boot up your ass. So stop. Messing. Around!" the Staff Sergeant growled, smacking the side of Stisen's helmet with each syllable.
"Yes, Staff Sergeant!" Stisen roared through clenched teeth.
"Alright, you bastards!" Byrne stepped back out of the sandpit. "Kill, kill, kill!"
Again, Stisen and Forsell clashed.
Unlike their first match, when they had engaged with a flurry of blows, this time the two men drove right into each other, each pushing against the other's pugil stick. It was exactly what had happened between Stisen and Jenkins.
The difference here was that Forsell was far stronger than Jenkins.
Stisen immediately recognized what he was up against and pulled away abruptly, causing Forsell to stumble forward.
The 2/A squad leader followed up with a mighty swing towards Forsell's head, but the First Platoon recruit tucked his chin to his shoulder and absorbed the blow.
Stisen clearly hadn't expected Forsell to withstand the hit – his guard was left wide open.
After taking the hit, Forsell struck before Stisen could recover, hitting the ex-constable square in the ribs.
Stisen flew sideways off the beam and into the sand.
Forsell waved his pugil stick in the air in a victory celebration as First Platoon started cheering.
Stisen picked himself up off the ground and climbed back onto the beam, giving a nonchalant shrug as if to say lucky shot.
That solicited a round of boos and jeers from First Platoon.
"You all want to slaver on?" Byrne exclaimed. "Let's hear you count to fifty!"
With a disgruntled sigh, I joined my platoonmates in grinding out our punishment.
As I started pushing them out, I heard the faint hum of a nearby warthog engine, along with the crunch of tires driving over gravel.
It wasn’t easy to sneak a peek while doing push-us, but I did it anyway, watching a warthog pull into the gravel lot at the compound’s entrance.
Byrne glanced the warthog as well. He turned back to us briefly to ensure that none of us had stopped doing our push-ups, and then walked off in the direction of the nearby gravel lot where the warthog had now parked.
I tried to keep looking, but I gave up after a few more seconds and returned to finishing my fifty.
After completing the push-ups, I stood back up and remained at attention, finally able to get a clear glimpse of what was going on.
Staff Sergeant Johnson was back.
He’d just climbed out of the warthog with Captain Ponder. I watched the two Staff Sergeants exchange a firm handshake.
That was surprising. I had never seen Johnson and Byrne exchange friendly gestures in all my time here. We all suspected they hated each other.
Something must have happened.
Byrne turned his attention back toward us, quick-stepping his way across the parade field. "Second Platoon, on your feet!" our Staff Sergeant bellowed. "We are running to the range!"
Good. More lying on the ground shooting.
I like that plan.
Stisen, who was still on the beam with Forsell, pulled off his helmet in irritation. "But who won?" he asked.
Without a moment's hesitation, Forsell swept his pugil stick behind Stisen's knees, knocking the constable back into the sand.
Laughter broke out among members from both platoons.
"Not you, gobshite," Byrne snarled in response to Stisen's inquiry, hauling the stunned constable to his feet. "Platoon! Move out! Double-time!"
Second Platoon squared itself away and followed Byrne to the armory, where we retrieved our weapons and ammunition.
"Any ideas on what's got the sergeants' panties in a bunch?" Omar spoke up, asking the question on everyone’s mind.
"Who gives a flying fuck, Omar?" Billings growled. "We got fuckin' KP for a goddamn week, now. And we still have four days left on the extra latrine duty. Why do we keep fuckin’ losing?”
And with that admonishment, most curious thoughts of the Staff Sergeants' disappearance was gone, replaced with weary acceptance our newly-acquired chores.
Well, nothing to do about it now but take it all out on the range targets.