I Chapter Eight: Movie Night
February 9, 2525
(Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System
Captain Ponder asked the cooks to whip up something special for us tonight, in celebration of our close victory over Byrne and Johnson at the reactor.
The dinner was legit, this time – Byrne and Johnson did not barrel in halfway through and make us run the Beach.
Christmas was long behind us.
The mess hall was filled with chatter and laughter. We were all in high spirits.
Those of us who survived the exercise eagerly filled in all the gaps for those who did not.
"I don't even remember getting knocked out," Dempsey was saying. "One moment I'm shooting at Johnson, the next I'm waking up in Doc Healy's infirmary."
"Well, you got plastered right in the forehead," Omar reminded him. "You were probably out before you even felt the impact."
"What about Junior, over there?" Billings grunted, motioning towards me with his head. "Never came back after Carrol told you to check the east fence. Where the hell were you?"
"Got caught under fire by Byrne with our Charlie Squad," I answered in between bites. "Tried to take him out from the tower, ended up losing an arm and both legs. Didn’t matter, in the end – someone else got Byrne."
"Yeah, I heard Byrne got hit," Kaczynski said. "Anyone know who managed to pop him?"
"It was Osmo," Carrol replied. “One of Dass’s 1/A recruits.”
"Well, he didn't really get him," Ricketts argued, twirling his fork between two fingers. "He accidentally hit the tire Byrne was hiding behind and the splatter from the TTR got the Sarge. It was luck."
"Luck got us a pretty nice dinner,” I pointed out, shoveling another forkful of potatoes into my mouth.
Throughout the entire meal, I began to notice that Ponder, Johnson, and Byrne were not joining in the festivities.
I mean, sure, I guess that’s to be expected. It would be awkward for drill instructors to get all buddy-buddy with the men whose lives they were reshaping, but still…they looked ill at ease.
A shrug put all my worries to rest.
Whatever bothered them did not bother me thanks to the bliss of ignorance.
"So, I don't know about any of you guys, but have you ever wondered why the hell we're getting trained like freakin' marines?" Dempsey spoke up after a few minutes of idle conversation. "I mean, come on! This is Harvest. Nothing happens here. What are the Innies gonna do? Attack our cornfields?"
"They've always pushed us hard, but ever since the Sarges got back from their vacation they've been pushing us into overdrive," Davis agreed.
I was about to say something to add into the conversation, but just as I opened my mouth, the lights in the mess hall dimmed.
Within two seconds the entire mess hall fell eerily silent.
"Good evening, recruits," Captain Ponder greeted us, rising from his chair and standing in front of the kitchen window in the rear of the mess hall.
"Good evening, sir," we chorused.
"You threw up a good defense at the reactor complex, today, recruits," Ponder began. "Some of you showed true initiative and quick thinking out there. None of you completely lost your head, either. A month and a half ago, when you first arrived, you would never have been able to do anywhere near as well as you did today."
The Captain's words filled us all with a fiery pride. We had accomplished something.
Sure, the sergeants nearly wiped us all out, and we’d won only through a lucky splatter-shot…but those were just details. We still won. Victory was everything.
"Staff Sergeants Johnson and Byrne were absent for eleven days, back in January, as I'm sure all of you remember," Ponder continued. "I believe it's time I explained to you what they were doing."
Murmurs whispered through the mess hall.
We’d spent more than our fair share of time speculating on what the Staff Sergeants had been up to. We never expected the Captain to actually tell us.
"The nature of Byrne and Johnson's mission was, and still is, highly, highly classified. However, recent events have prompted me to reveal the truth," Captain Ponder declared, pausing briefly to clear his throat. "The truth is quite simple, really. Hostile extraterrestrials have found Harvest. Our job, as the Harvest Colonial Militia, is to deal with this situation until help arrives from the UNSC."
No one moved. This was a whole new level of silence. We sat stiller than statues.
In hindsight, I think it was a miracle that none of us stood up, marched out of the room, and never came back.
Before any of us could, however, Stisen stood up and broke the silence. "We the only ones who know, sir?" the ex-constable asked.
Captain Ponder nodded. "Just about.”
"Can we tell our families?"
Stisen sucked in a breath through clenched teeth, taking a moment to regained composure. "You want us to lie," the 2/A squad leader hissed, glancing at everyone else in the mess hall before returning his accusing glare to the Captain. "Like you've been lying to us."
A vein pulsed in Staff Sergeant Byrne's temple. He started to rise from his seat, but Ponder held up a hand.
"If we'd told you the truth—that we were expecting aliens, not insurrectionists—would it have made a difference?” Ponder asked calmly. “Would you have refused to serve?"
Absolutely yes, I would have refused to serve.
"Your friends and family aren't in any less danger," Ponder continued. "You're the only protection they've got. We've trained you. You're ready."
"For what, sir? Exactly?" Dass was the next to speak up.
Captain Ponder gave Doc Healy a discreet nod.
The medic, who had been standing behind us by the entrance, unnoticed, closed the doors to the mess hall, killed the fluorescent lights, and powered up the wall-mounted video display.
"I'll tell you everything we know," the Captain assured us.
We all watched as the projector revealed footage from Johnson’s helmet camera.
The footage showed a view of what looked like the main hold of a civilian freighter.
Johnson's camera was pointed at the far bulkhead, where a cascade of sparks showered to the floor as something tried to burn through from the other side.
A section of the bulkhead crashed to the floor with a resounding clang.
Beyond the circular hole was an umbilical that seemed to lead into another ship.
My breath caught in my throat as I saw four figures float through the umbilical and into the freighter hold.
They were not Innies.
The four creatures looked like reptiles…bird-like lizards without tails, or…something.
Their faces were long, elongated, with avian beaks. They had red eyes and tough orange hides. They were smaller creatures, though they seemed to walk hunched over to an extent.
Three of the aliens tumbled through the umbilical and hurried into the hold, fanning out to secure the area, armed with long cutlasses made from some kind of glowing crystal.
The fourth alien remained in the hole of the umbilical and seemed to be giving orders to the other three. It was armed with a small, C-shaped pistol that glowed uninvitingly.
We watched through the helmet cam as Johnson raised his BR55 and squeezed off several shots in the direction of the fourth alien.
The rifle's kickback in the zero-gravity environment sent Johnson spinning away, his shots going wide.
The first round did, however, slice across the alien leader's neck. Its mouth opened in a silent screech as it turned and fled back into the umbilical.
The other three aliens launched themselves at Johnson, flying across the weightless room.
Johnson readjusted his aim towards the lead alien, but Byrne shot it first.
The wounded alien was sent spinning off to the right by the force of the bullet, globules of bluish-purple blood trailing slowly through the air.
One of the remaining two aliens slammed into Johnson, slashing at the Staff Sergeant with its crystal cutlass.
We watched, transfixed, as Johnson blocked the slash with the barrel of his battle rifle.
I noticed the cutlass was actually glowing with an inner pink fire – the damn thing was energized.
Johnson grappled with the alien, jamming his M6 pistol under the creature's chin and pulling the trigger three times.
The alien's head blew apart, painting the inside of its helmet with violet gore.
I realized I was holding my breath.
Staff Sergeant Byrne grappled with the third alien. Neither could gain advantage over the other until Byrne’s guard slipped, allowing the alien to stab the Staff Sergeant in the thigh with its energy knife.
The alien flailed its arms, trying to push itself away from Byrne, but the Staff Sergeant would not let it go.
The alien’s weapon had begun to pulse with light, growing brighter and brighter.
The two Staff Sergeants exchanged hurried words.
Byrne yanked the energy knife from his leg, plunging it into the third alien’s gut before kicking the reptilian creature away.
The knife exploded, sending pieces of the third alien floating across the chamber.
Johnson looked at first alien, wounded by Byrne at the beginning of the skirmish.
Though it had been hit in its weapon arm, the first alien managed to keep hold of its cutlass. It looked like it was about to throw its weapon.
Johnson raised his pistol and emptied the entire magazine into the creature's torso, pulping the extraterrestrial with high-caliber slugs.
The video feed ended as Johnson turned to inspect the umbilical, cutting to a frame of an alien ship blowing up in a fiery haze, and then falling apart into static.
Doc Healy turned off the projector and flipped the lights on.
I realized I was still holding my breath and immediately inhaled, allowing a torrent of air to rush back into my lungs.
"This is what your sergeants were doing in their absence," Captain Ponder said to us. "Yesterday, Sif – the AI who runs the Tiara space station – detected another ping entering this star system. These aliens, whoever they are, are back. And they've brought a much bigger ship. I know many of you are scared. If you are not, then you are a fool. But these aliens can be killed; they are not invincible. They will be landing in the Gardens tomorrow."
That got my attention.
The Harvest Botanical Gardens were the second-largest park on the planet, following the Utgard Mall. I had memories of visiting with my dad, before the crash.
"Where do we come in, sir?" asked Carrol.
"You recruits have been trained to be the best we can possibly make you," Ponder said to us. "Tomorrow, we shall join Governor Thune at the Gardens. When the extraterrestrials meet with him, we will be providing security. But your purpose has become far, far more important than being a security detail."
Ponder leaned forward and looked us all square in the eye. "You are all that stands between the people of Harvest and these aliens, should they turn hostile,” he declared. “I hope you realize just how important you have become. Now get a good night's rest. I'm going to need you all in peak condition tomorrow. Dismissed!"
I rose from my seat without a sound, followed my squadmates out of the mess hall.
I exchanged a sidelong glance with Dempsey as we made our way across the parade field to the barracks.
Dempsey gave a faint chuckle and beautifully summed up what we were all thinking and feeling: “Fuck."