Chapter 9: Little Things . . . And Big Stuff Too
Reach, May 10, 2551
“Hey Chris,” I started, pausing for a second to gather my thoughts as I sat in front of my holodesk. It had been a while since Chris’s last message, 2 weeks or so, but I assumed he was just busy. Again.
“So, I know you’re probably busy at the moment, and I’m not even sure if you’ll get a chance to watch this, but I really need to ask a question,” I stopped again, looking down at my hands, which were folded on my desk.
“How did you get through your year in the academy? I mean, you had to have had some problems, right? People who hated you? Maybe wanted you dead?”
I sighed, trying to focus on what I wanted to say. Ever since my fight with Mark, everyone had started acting weird around me. They weren’t exactly scared, just . . . almost in awe. Like they actually respected me. Respect wasn’t something I had felt from anyone since I got into training.
Fidelis Squad was doing better though. Probably because I wasn’t screwing everyone up anymore. I found myself able to focus when I needed to, during combat exercises and training routines. Classes weren’t as dreadful, although they still were a bit boring. But I was actually enjoying combat training; like really, really enjoying it.
Being on the shooting range calmed me down, helped me focus. Hand-to-hand combat training let me take out all of my frustrations without actually hurting anybody, which is a nice change of pace. And the obstacle course made me more aware, agile, and confident than ever before. It still hurt like hell, and I wasn’t breezing through it exactly, but it felt like something I could use to hone my abilities rather than something I had to torture myself with.
Magnus Squad was still ahead on the leaderboards, just managing to stay in first place by mere points. They were just too aggressive in training exercises like capture the flag and combat simulations for any other squad to handle. They weren’t reckless, like Mark was when I fought him. They channeled their power through actual tactical plans that seemed to be working, most created by Mark. He seemed to have learned something from our fight after all. Shame.
All of this flashed through my mind in a couple seconds as I sat in my room.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is . . .” I hesitated before continuing. What was I trying to say?
I cleared my throat. “Is it worth it? Is all of this training really worth it?” I knew Chris wasn’t actually out fighting yet, but I knew he would be soon. Being in officer school, he probably heard more about the battles we were waging with the Covenant more than I did.
“Ever since mom died, all I’ve ever wanted is to be out there on the front lines, fighting the Covies. It’s the only thing that’s kept me from ditching this damned academy and going back home,” I said, choking slightly on the last word. Losantiville wasn’t my home. My home was gone.
They burned it, I reminded myself. They burned my home and they murdered my mother.
But can I do this?
To my surprise, I received an answer from Chris mere minutes after I sent the video log. Clearly he’d been on his holodesk when it received my message.
The image on my brother appeared on my screen. His face was stressed and exhausted, but he wore a smile for me. “Hey, kid,” he said. He was in the habit of calling me kid. I couldn’t say I liked it. “Straight to the point. I’ve been where you are. I get how you’re feeling. Judging by the look you’re getting on your face, I bet there’s not only a guy who wants you dead, but also a girl you’re into. Like I said - been there. Done that. And kid, I haven’t even been out in the field yet. I might be digging my own grave right now. But I’m hoping and praying it’s worth it, because, ah . . .” He took a deep breath, looking upset. “They killed Mom. You know that. And just recently, they killed my best friend, Kyle. You never met him, but you guys would’ve gotten along.” His face darkened, growing harder and harder as he continued, managing, incredibly, to keep his voice level. “He didn’t go on to officer’s school, he just went straight out onto the field, and the Covies killed him. So let me tell you, if this isn’t worth it, then we might as well shoot ourselves now, because there’s nothing else to live for. We need to stop the Covenant from killing any more innocent people.” Chris slumped back into his chair. His eyes teared up, but he took a deep breath and dashed them away. “Keep at it, Jason. You’ll be okay.”
With that, the video feed cut off. I realized my mouth was hanging open and shut it with a snap. I sat back in my chair, dropping my head into my hands. How much could our family lose? First Dad. Then Mom. Now Chris’ best friend?
“I’m sorry,” said a soft voice from my doorway. I jerked around so fast that my chair tipped over and spilled me onto the floor. Kim suppressed a smile as she ran over to help me up.
“Sorry, sorry, are you okay?” she asked, grabbing my hand and helping me stand up. Once I did, we were only a few inches apart, a fact that was not lost on her or me. She blushed, dropped my hand and stepping away.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I answered as my voice cracked. I steadied my breathing before continuing. “Were you spying on me?”
“When you say it like that, it sounds so messed up,” she muttered, so quietly I barely heard it.
“Nothing! I- no, I wasn’t- I was just- Yeah, I was spying,” she sighed, her face flushed with embarrassment.
“Um . . . why?” I was taken aback.
“Well, I wasn’t spying, necessarily. I was just walking past your room and when I saw you were watching a video log, I stopped and listened.” She sounded nervous. Awkward. I remembered what Tara said about her being afraid of me and wondered if that was why.
I rolled my eyes. “So you weren’t spying, you were eavesdropping.”
Kim frowned, irritated. “You know what, I’ll just go.”
She turned to walk out of the room, but I grabbed her arm. “No!” She looked at me, eyebrows raised. “I mean, I was about to send him a message in return,” I amended, releasing her arm immediately. “You want to talk to him with me?” A weird offer, but why not?
“Uh, sure.” I offered the chair to her, but she shook her head.
“That’s okay, you can sit. I’ll kneel.” I opened my mouth to argue, but she gave me a look.
“Please, Stark. I’m not a ‘lady’ - you don’t need to treat me like one.” I closed my mouth and just started recording.
“Hey, Chris. Um, this is Kim Barrett. She’s on my squad.” Kim waved at the camera with a smile.
“Hi, Jason’s brother.” I grinned at her and she grinned back. I turned back to the camera.
“Anyway, so I’m really sorry about . . . you know. If you want to talk about it, go ahead. I’ll listen. It might make you feel better.” I’d run out of things to say. “Um,” I addressed Kim. “You want to say something to him?” She grinned at the camera.
“Your brother’s annoying, Chris.”
I rolled my eyes. “Thanks for that input, Kim. Chris, thanks for the advice and everything. See you.” I shut off the recording and sent the video. Then I turned to Kim.
“Annoying?” I demanded playfully. She smiled, nudging me with her shoulder.
“Well, you are.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “Well, so are you.”
She held up her hands in surrender. “I never said I wasn’t, I’m just saying that you are.”
“Hey, I’m not as annoying as some people.”
“Well, yeah, I know that. At least you’re not all depressed anymore. What was up with that, by the way?” Her green eyes were openly curious, but I felt myself shrinking back. I didn’t want to explain. I wasn’t ready.
Luckily, at that very moment my holodesk beeped with a reply from Chris. I opened the file, and I saw his grinning face.
“Hi, Jason. Hey, Kim. You’re beautiful. My girlfriend, Rebecca, always says that girls love compliments, the little things, so I shall say it again. Kim, you’re beautiful.” I looked at her, and her face was glowing with happiness. Compliments do something strange to girls. “And yes. Jason is annoying. You’re smart, too.”
“Told you so!” Kim exclaimed.
“Oh, just shut up,” I grumbled teasingly.
“So, let’s just throw everything on the table here. Jason takes forever to get around to this sort of thing, so I’m doing doing him a favor even though he’s going to hate me for this.” A dread started building in my gut. I thought I knew what he was going to say, and I really didn’t want him to say it. “So, Kim, I’m sorry if this puts you in an awkward position, but I’m just going to tell you that Jason likes you. If you know what I mean.” I was so going to kill him. Kim was very pointedly not looking at me, and her cheeks were red.
“Anyway, Jason, you said I should talk about what happened with Kyle. Maybe that’s true, but I can’t right now. Sorry, kid. And I am sorry about probably embarrassing the crap out of you, but trust me, it’s better to just throw everything on the table because we’re living in a universe where you could die at any moment. You don’t want to die with regrets, Jason. Nice meeting you, Kim.” Then Chris’ face vanished.
“Heard that!” Rodriguez said triumphantly from the doorway.
“Is there no privacy?” I demanded. “You’re spying on me, too?”
Unlike Kim, Rod had no problems admitting everything. “Yep,” he said cheerfully. “This is just too funny. I shall save my commentary for tomorrow, seeing as light’s out is in-” He checked his watch. “-two minutes. You’d better get to your room, Kim. Doors lock at light’s out, and you don’t want to get trapped in Jason’s room.” I knew what Rod was thinking, and judging by her embarrassed and irritated expression, Kim did too.
“Yeah, I’d better go,” she agreed, standing. “Nice meeting your brother, Jason. See you guys tomorrow.” With that, she just walked out.
“Is she indifferent?” I muttered to myself as I watched her walk away. Rod heard and he gave me a cheeky wink.
“Nah, she’s just embarrassed as shit.” With another grin, he left, too.
“Jackass,” I said under my breath.
“Heard that too!”
* * *
“Jason, move your ass back here! You’re too close!”
I sighed as I heard Cody yell at me through the comm unit in my helmet. I was taking cover behind a tree as rounds whizzed past me on every side, tearing up the trunk and shredding leaves into little pieces of green. The enemy had a solid position behind a line of boulders and fallen trees a good ways ahead of me, granting them the ability to unleash a torrent of rifle fire without the fear of losing a man.
Except they wouldn’t really “lose” anyone, seeing as we were using stun rounds, and they weren’t really the “enemy,” seeing as this was just Capture the Flag. With guns.
Cody, Kim, and I had been sent out to actually capture the other team’s flag, while the rest of Fidelis Squad stayed behind to guard our own. It was only logical that Cody would want to help capture it. Being the squad leader, he would want to make sure we did it right. Kim was here since she was our best marksman. I was here because Cody picked me, probably since I was fast and agile. I assumed he was going to have me carry the flag, which wasn’t a prospect I was totally opposed to; I just didn’t want to screw it up.
The other team, Magnus Squad, no surprise, had another advantage; they had more people. Judging by the amount of fire we were under, it was safe to assume that they had kept four men back to defend, and three ahead to steal our flag. We had stumbled across the four defenders as we advanced into their territory, not yet knowing of their strategy.
The forest we were fighting in was thick with trees and dotted with huge rocks, providing ideal cover for each squad. The flags for each team had been placed at the back of the squad’s territory, in the middle of a small clearing surrounded by a natural ring of stone. It wasn’t a terribly tall wall, but it would be difficult for someone to get in, let alone get out with a flag in one hand.
“Jason! I said fall back! We need a plan!” Cody’s voice once again filled my helmet, barely audible over the sound of gun fire. I glanced back to where he was taking cover, behind a rock a few yards behind me to my right. Kim was at his side, peeking out from behind her cover to get a couple shots off with her Designated Marksman Rifle before once again ducking back to avoid being shot herself. Cody motioned for me to dash back to them.
“Start running! Kim will cover you!”
I nodded, waiting until Kim moved to fire before sprinting over to them. I heard a shout from behind me as the defenders realized I was out in the open. Stun rounds tore through the air around me, one narrowly avoiding the left side of my helmet, causing me to jerk to the side. Cody quickly scrambled out of the way to give me room behind the rock as I came barrelling in.
“Get anyone?” I asked, breathing rapidly. Kim shook her head, a scowl on her dirt-smeared face.
“They’re too well protected. That fallen tree on the left over there lets them shoot out of the branches while still giving them cover. We won’t be able to get past them unless we force them away from there.” Cody nodded in assent.
“And there’s no way to do that, because if we try to flank them by coming around the left, trying to get behind the tree, their marksman will pick us off since there’s virtually no cover over there,” he added, looking at me with a somber expression. “They’ve really planned this out quite well.”
I shook my head. “No plan is foolproof. There’s got to be something we can use to our advantage . . .” I trailed off, briefly sticking by head out over the rock to survey their cover. A single shot from their marksman went off, forcing me to duck down, but not before I had spotted something.
“There’s a beehive,” I offered, continuing with my explanation as I saw Kim and Cody’s confused expressions. “There’s a hive hanging from a branch that extends right over their cover behind the fallen tree.” I quickly took another look. “The branch is starting to rot and the tree is old, so if we could blast it off -”
“- the hive would fall down and the bees would make them move,” Kim finished, catching onto my plan. She gave me a weird look, like she was . . . surprised? No, more like impressed. Or turned on.
Really? Turned on by a simple plan about a bee hive? Jason, you’re stupid.
Cody nodded. “That could work. Good idea, Jason.” Before I could even accept my compliment, Cody had already started giving orders. I wasn’t hurt, just intrigued by his level of maturity. He was the same age as all of us, and yet he seemed so much older, so much more adult-like. He took command and made sure everything got done the way it needed to get done. Definitely the way a squad leader would-
“Jason! Did you hear me? I need you to be the one to shoot off the limb.”
I nodded hurriedly to Cody’s order. “Yes, I heard you.”
“Good. On my mark, you’re going to fall back a bit and stand up to shoot at the branch. Aim for the base of it, so that the whole limb falls off. That, combined with the bees, will get them moving out from behind the tree. There’s a small gap between the end of the tree and their boulder, where they’ll run for cover, so Kim will try to pick off as many of them as she can as they run past the gap. As soon as you start shooting, I’m going to move over to the right, towards the boulder. You’re going to go to the left around the tree as soon as the branch falls. We’ll flank them from each side, then get them when they’re grouped up behind the boulder. Got it?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Cody grinned slightly. “Great. Avoid the bees, too.” He turned from me, facing Kim.
“You ready?” A nod from Kim. “Then on my mark . . . Now!”
The command had just left his mouth when I stood up and moved back, the branch with the beehive coming into view just above the top of the rock, a good distance away. I aimed for the base of the limb and held down the trigger of my assault rifle, unleashing a furious stream of stun rounds.
The bullets made an incredible noise as they hit the branch, pieces of wood flying off in every direction and raining down on the huddled defenders. The noise and the spray of wood might’ve been a distraction enough, but just in case, I kept the barrel of my rifle pointed at the branch, finally sawing it off with a tremendous crack.
I didn’t stop to watch it fall. I was already moving, running around to the left side of the fallen tree. I heard cries as the beehive exploded on the ground, and more yells when Kim pegged a man he ran for cover. I glanced back and saw her face, tight with determination. Then, skilled as I was, I clipped a tree and stumbled forward. Rather than falling on my face like an idiot, I threw out my hands and rolled forward, coming up on one knee to fire at the remaining two defenders. They were out before they knew what was happening. Cody's smile was triumphant as he waved us onwards, just lowering his rifle after taking out the last defender.
“Push forward to get the flag! The other three,” he said, motioning towards the fallen, groaning soldiers, numb from stun rounds, “should be at our base, so we shouldn’t meet any more resistance.” I nodded, starting to move towards the rocky formation surrounding the flag as Cody gesture back for Kim to move up.
I approached the wall and paused, scanning the craggy surface for good handholds and footholds. The wall was about eight feet high; not much of a climb, but it would certainly pose an issue for any invaders attempting to scale it quickly. Cody and Kim caught up with me as I stood there.
“I’ll wait out here and keep an eye out for anyone that may wander back,” Kim informed us. She glanced at Cody. “You can go over and help Jason get back over. It may require two to trade off climbing and holding the flag.”
Cody opened his mouth to say something, looking a bit taken aback, but then closed it quickly and nodded. “Right. Keep going, Jason.”
Attaching my rifle to my back, I began my ascent, reaching up with my right hand, then my left, pulling myself up until both my feet were on the wall as well. It wasn’t totally vertical, especially near the top, where it angled off to a flat surface. With one more movement I was able to position my arms across the top of the wall and pull the rest of my body onto it. There was just enough space for me to crouch there, looking down at the inside of the clearing.
The flag stood up straight in the center of the field on a small, circular base plate. The flag itself was blue, with the NAMA emblem spread across the face, rippling in the slight breeze that wafted across the clearing.
Cody pulled himself up next to me with a grunt, sighing as he crouched down. “There it is,” he whispered. He gave me a pat on the shoulder. “Let’s get it and then hightail it out of here before the enemy arrives.”
We dropped down into the circle and jogged to the flag. Cody motioned for me to get the flag as he checked his motion tracker.
“Why would they come back here?” I asked him, shouldering my rifle and picking up the flag. “The enemy, I mean. Don’t you think Biff, Rod, and Ed would’ve been able to hold them?”
Cody shrugged. “I’m not sure. I would certainly hope that they’re still there, fighting to get our flag, but I have a feeling they’ve gotten it. Or at least that they’re close.” I quickly glanced at Cody as I held the flag, and noticed that he was . . . nervous. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, biting his lip and looking around. Realizing I was just standing there, he impatiently urged me to get a move on.
I clutched the flag with both hands as we approached the wall again. Cody started up before me, and when he reached the top, he turned for the flag. I handed it to him and climbed up myself, dropping down on the outside to take it back from him.
We ran back to Kim, who immediately started running back towards our base.
“We’ve got to go, now!” she yelled back to us as we plunged once again into the thick forest. “I just heard from Ed over the comm, he said they couldn’t hold the flag much longer.”
I quickly checked my motion tracker, as we ran, mimicking Cody’s response to Kim’s warning. “Is anyone down?” I asked.
Kim nodded. “Rod is, and Biff’s already taken a hit, but he’s still shooting.”
Just then my comm buzzed with chatter. Cody signaled for us to stop.
“This is Ed!” the comm crackled. “The enemy has the flag; they’ve taken out Biff and me. I can barely move, so I’m not sure how long I can keep up this u-” The transmission suddenly cut off.
“Ed?” Cody yelled through the comm. “Ed, are you there?” Nothing.
“He’s succumbed to the stun rounds,” Kim guessed, raising her rifle slightly. “The cadets with the flag will be coming back to their base, fast. I don’t know if they got a message from their teammates about us, but I’m sure they’ll be coming fast anyway.”
“There’s no doubt about it,” Cody followed up. “They’ll probably be coming through this way . . .” He looked back at his tracker, but all of ours remained blank. I could tell just from the look on his face that Cody was desperately trying to come up with a plan, the nervousness I noticed before becoming even more apparent. His leg was bouncing up and down, almost imperceptibly, and he kept adjusting his grip on his rifle. Kim and I exchanged quick looks, nervously waiting for an order.
“I guess we could . . . we could . . . ah damn it, I don’t know!” he cursed, shaking his head. “I don’t know what to do!”
Kim took a step towards him. “Hey, it’s fine. You can’t always expect yourself to have a plan. Sometimes it just -”
“But I’m supposed to be the goddamn leader!” he spat through clenched teeth.
“Look, it’s no big deal, we’ll just-”
“How can I be a leader if I can’t always have a plan, huh? What happens when we’re out on the battlefield, in the middle of a full-scale military operation? That’s a pretty big deal, Kim!”
I took a step toward Cody as well, moving the flag from one hand to the other.
“Cody, this isn’t the time to argue about this! The enemy has our flag, and if we don’t get moving, we’re going to get taken out. So let’s calm down and think of a plan toge-”
My sentence was interrupted as stun round hit me in the shoulder, jerking my body to the left as the sting penetrated my armor.
“Enemy fire, take cover!” Kim cried, bringing her rifle up to her shoulder and moving to take position behind a tree. Cody grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into cover as well. My arm spasmed wildly as the stun round took effect, and I gritted my teeth, latching onto my wrist with my other hand.
“I can’t shoot,” I grunted through my teeth. “My arm’s messed up.” Cody nodded acknowledgement, his face tense, clearly thinking hard. But apparently today was not his day, judging by his frustrated expression. Kim peered around her tree, taking shots at the enemy. I heard a cry as she found a mark, and a brief look of pride flashed across her face.
An idea occurred to me. “We’re going to have to split up,” I told Cody. “We’re too big of a target together. If we separate, they’ll have to choose who to hunt or split up themselves. Either way it’s a better deal for the group.”
He gave a short, curt nod and took over. “Kim, I want you to go left. Keep shooting as you run - take out as many of them as you can, but don’t play the hero. Get back to base.” She gave Cody a thumbs-up from her position. “Jason, you-” he began, but was cut off by an idea. “Take the flag and run for it. You’re the fastest. Kim will cover you.”
“And what about you, Cody?” Kim said, ducking behind the trunk of her tree to take cover from the hail of gunfire.
“You guys need a distraction to get out of here,” he answered grimly. My mouth fell open, but before I could protest, his face hardened with resolve and he leaped out from behind our cover, shouting, “GO!” I froze for half a second, then my instinct kicked in and I dove to the right, opposite of where Kim was heading, half-concealing the flag behind my body as I ran. One man turned to take aim at me, only for Kim to shoot him in the back. I spotted a particularly dense patch of undergrowth and pretended to fall to cover my taking cover in it. The enemy apparently believed my ruse and turned their full attention on Kim and Cody. Peering through the leaves, I saw Cody spasm as one, two, three shots hit his torso. His cry echoed through the radio, and I winced. Stun rounds they might be, but they still hurt like hell.
Once I was sure the coast was clear, I ventured out of the undergrowth and made a mad dash for our base. I heard a few cries of alarm and heard a few shots whizz by me, but none touched me.
I just focused on running as fast as possible, weaving in between trees to block the stun rounds. One well-placed shot to the back and I would be down, and we would lose to Mark. I could hear a few of the attackers following me, crashing through the vegetation and shooting madly at me.
There was a sharp drop-off as the forest took a small dive into a lower section. I hurtled over the edge, running at full speed, not wanting to risk slowing down. The ground came rushing up to meet me, and I cushioned our greeting with a small roll, which sort of turned into a slide at the end, but I’m sure it looked badass anyway. And that’s obviously where the points are going.
I let out a triumphant shout as I crossed over into our territory. As my foot crossed the boundary, a bell rang loudly, signifying our victory. Rod ran up to me, yelling incomprehensibly, and jumped on my back, crowing with elation. Kim followed at a slower pace, supporting a groaning Ed with a huge smile on her face. Biff limped behind, his face tight with pain, but also with a grin.
I laughed as Rod shrieked in my ear. “WE WON! WE WON! WE BEAT MARK AND HIS BASTARDS! WE WON!” I handed him the flag with a grin, and he ran a victory lap around our squad. Ed looked around, his brow furrowed.
“Where’s Cody?” he asked, and I frowned.
“He stayed behind to be a distraction.”
“So . . .” Ed began, trailing off.
“We should go get him, right?” asked Rod, walking up to us after finishing his lap. “He probably got hit enough to knock him out. He’s definitely not going anywhere.”
Kim pointed towards where she had come from. “I think I know where he went down.”
We all followed Kim back through the forest, occasionally passing a moaning cadet that bore marks of her handiwork. It took us a while to find Cody, but when we did, we all stopped dead in our tracks. Ed ran over to his limp body, turning it over from its face-down position so that we could see Cody’s face. I let out a gasp and ran forward next to Ed. Everyone else was frozen in shock, horror, and fury.Because Cody’s face was covered in blood.