Chapter 11: Dirty Dancing
Reach, May 12, 2551
A wailing alarm jolted me out of my restless sleep and I sat bolt upright, fear and adrenaline making me alert. I grabbed my uniform and pulled it on, then stumbled out of my room. The rest of Fidelis Squad was gathered around Cody across the room, and I pushed my way through the throng of cadets to them.
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
“I don’t know,” he said briskly. Fear made the rest of us antsy, rash, and nervous. For Cody, his mind cleared and he made quick but good decisions. “The only explanation I can come up with is that we’re under attack, and I’m not waiting around for invaders to get to us. Follow me, Fidelis Squad!” He began leading the way out of the barracks, only to stop short as the intercom burst to life.
“Cadets!” came the familiar bellow of O’Malley’s voice. He sounded strained and anxious, and I instantly became fifty times more nervous. I fidgeted from foot to foot as I listened. “We’re under attack by insurgents, and there are traitors amongst us. Arm yourselves, retrieve your helmets, and attack using stun rounds only. They are human beings, and despite being the bastards that they are, they deserve a trial. Do not hesitate to shoot another cadet or even a superior officer if they are marked as a threat on your HUD. Under no circumstances are you to leave the grounds of the academy. This is the safest place for you to be right now. All squad leaders are temporarily promoted to the rank of Corporal. Now go!” Before O’Malley could cut off the intercom, we heard the sounds of a door crashing in and the cries of battle. My face drained of color, but I shook my head to clear it and look to Cody.
His face was also pale, but it was hard with determination. “Fidelis Squad - follow me!” he cried again, and we fell into parade formation around him as we ran out of the barracks. We retrieved our helmets and assault rifles from our weapons lockers, loading them with stun rounds. All of a sudden, a squad burst into the room. Too late, I checked my HUD - red dots marked each person.
“Hit the deck!” screamed Cody, and I threw myself to ground as the first round of stun rounds whizzed over our heads. “Keep moving - find cover and fire at will!” he yelled. I rolled behind my weapons locker and fired once, twice, taking down two targets. Then something hit me hard from the side - one of them had tackled me. I wrestled with whoever it was, throwing punches. An elbow jabbed me in the side and I hissed in a breath before swinging the butt of my assault rifle and knocking whoever it was unconscious. I scrambled to my feet to find that the scrape was over.
“Report!” came Cody’s voice, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Until I turned and saw him on the ground. He was shaken by fits of coughing, curled into the fetal position. I dropped my knees beside him, taken by terror. He was still recovering.
“Cod- Corporal! Corporal, are you alright?” I asked, not sure of what else to do. He only shook his head as the retches shook his body.
“Ed!” I shouted, turning to look for the rest of our squad. Kim was pushing the inert body of an insurgent off of herself - she gave me a thumbs-up when I shot her a concerned glance. Rod was on his hands and knees, shaking his arm in an effort to get some feeling back into it. Biff was covering the door, and he gave me a nod when he met my gaze. Then I saw Ed lying on the ground, clutching his leg. I ran over to him.
“I’m good,” he gasped, grimacing. “Got hit twice in the leg.” I helped him to his feet and over to Cody. He rummaged in his medical kit and pulled out a bottle of the medicine that Tara had prescribed for Cody.
“Yo, Corp,” Ed said, breaching protocol in an effort to cheer him up. “Have a drink.” Cody cracked a smile and took the bottle, taking a swig in between coughs. Immediately, his breathing steadied and he sighed in relief, sitting up and handing the bottle back to Ed.
“Report!” he repeated.
“Good here,” Kim called, now covering the door with Biff.
“I’ll live,” grumbled Rod, getting to his feet and retrieving his assault rifle. “My left pinkie finger may never be the same, though.” I rolled my eyes, then nodded to Cody in acknowledgement that I was okay. Ed and Biff did the same, and the corporal got to his feet.
“Okay,” he muttered. “What now?” Then, surprisingly, Biff walked up to Cody and gave him a once-over. A half-smile appeared on our leader’s face. “I’m fine, Biff.” He grumbled in disapproval, then shrugged and returned to his position covering the door.
We all turned our open-mouthed gazes on Cody and he shrugged self-consciously. “Biff and I grew up together on Mars. I’ll tell you more about it later, but we’ve had each other’s backs for a very long time.” As one, our squad looked at Biff and he nodded in agreement.
“Oooookay,” Rod muttered. “Back to the insurgent invasion?”
“Right,” Cody said briskly. “We’re going to cut a path through the academy, taking out whatever threat we see. Since we’re not allowed to leave the grounds, our objective is to stun as many insurgents as we see. But don’t play the hero - the priority is still to keep our squad safe. Got it?”
“Yes, sir!” I snapped a salute at Cody. I could have sworn the guy blushed.
“Enough of that, Jason. Let’s get going.”
The next hour passed simply enough. We kicked ass. A few dramatic moments when Kim was discovered in her sniping position, but a little hand-to-hand combat between her and a dude twice her size fixed that. Cody got hit the jaw with the butt of some girl’s assault rifle, but Biff came to his defense and the girl was history. I noticed Rod choke as he realized the girl was in fact Miley, but his face tightened and he stepped over her like it was no big deal. Kim’s face went pale when she noticed the same thing and she bit her lip, clearly upset. She spoke a few words to Cody over a private comms channel and he nodded. Then she dragged Miley out of the middle of the hallway, to a side room where she’d be relatively safe until the fighting was over. The rest of us did nothing. We didn’t help her, nor did we try to stop her. We just let her do her thing.
After about three hours of this shit, the academy-wide intercom crackled to life and Fidelis Squad froze to listen. “Well, cadets,” rumbled O’Malley’s voice. “It’s clear that little to none of my training has gotten through those thick heads. Did it occur to none of you that the alarm went off at precisely four hundred hours? That there are no unfamiliar faces that you’re fighting? That you’re only using stun rounds against so-called insurgents?” I felt incredibly stupid as I realized what he was saying. “Yes, cadets. You dumb bastards are in the middle of your final test. Report to your barracks immediately and get into field uniform, then meet in the mess hall for your debriefing on the calisthenics portion of the test. Those who are severely affected by stun rounds, go to the infirmary. You’ll miss breakfast, but that’s your own fault. Dismissed!”
As soon as the intercom cut off, Kim and Cody shouted in unison, “I knew it!” Biff was showing his rare grin, evidence that he too had figured it out. Ed, Rod, and I exchanged bewildered looks. I felt like a complete and utter dumbass.
“We . . . should probably go back to the barracks,” I muttered to them.
“Agreed, amigo,” Rod said, eyeing Kim, Cody, and Biff as they celebrated their own intelligence. The three of us turned and trudged away.
“Please tell me I wasn’t the only one who didn’t figure out that this whole thing was fake,” muttered Ed under his breath as we sulkily listened to the cheerful chatter of Kim and Cody, who walked behind us.
I grimaced. “I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was too busy trying to stun insurgents.”
“Those three spend too much time thinking,” Rod observed. “We’re the real soldiers. Following orders unquestioningly. Being brain-dead killing machines.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sure, Rod. Whatever you say.”
* * *
“Atten-tion!” We snapped sharp salutes as various officers entered the mess hall, including Sergeant O’Malley and Commander Moore.
“At ease!” barked O’Malley.
I didn’t miss the amused look that Moore shot him. “Welcome,” she said, “to your graduation.” Short and sweet. That’s the UNSC for you.
Moore continued, “We will begin with those who, sadly, did not pass the final test.” She announced a handful of names. There were several intakes of breath, but that’s all the reaction she got.
“Now most of you know that you passed. What you all want to know, I’m sure, are the rankings. You should know that the leader of the squad in first place is permanently promoted to the rank of Corporal. Also, bear in mind that you are ranked by squad, and that these rankings depend not only upon your performance in classes and in your physical fitness, but upon your honor, your bravery, your integrity. These traits are what make humanity worth saving. These traits are what the Covenant do not possess. Never forget to be human. Now, Sergeant O’Malley, would you take over?”
O’Malley stepped forward. “In fifty-sixth place, Horace Squad,” he began. Name after name blurred together as he rattled off a list of squads. I glanced to my left, not moving my head, just my eyes. There stood Cody, Biff, and Rod. And on my left, Kim and Ed.
I remembered my first day here at the academy. My anticipation. My nervousness. Everything. Meeting Rod, who could always put a smile on my face no matter how bad I felt. And Kim, who at first shocked me with her beauty and then shocked me with her strength. Ed, the obnoxious brainiac whose annoyingness had become amusing somehow. Cody, whose determination and maturity I’d come to depend upon, and Biff, with his silent presence always lending strength. I’d spend months with these people, learning who they were and learning who I was. And then there was O’Malley, who’d stripped away everything I thought I was with eighteen hours of pure shit a day. He’d torn me down and I’d built myself back up, stronger and better than I was before.
I realized that most of everything I was right that moment was because of the people around me.
“Third place!” hollered O’Malley, making me jump a bit. “Hellfire Squad!” He paused, and I could hear my own heart pounding. Had he announced our squad yet? I cursed my lack of concentration, working to breathe evenly. In. Out. “Second place!” O’Malley’s voice seemed to reverberate countless times around the mess hall. In. Out. Breathe, Stark. Don’t hope. Hope tears you down.
“Magnus Squad!” I released a huge breath, then sucked another one in, glancing over to where Mark stood. His face was carefully blank, but I detected two emotions in his eyes. Pride. And anger.
Why was it always anger?
Breathe, Stark. SHUT. UP. I’M. BREATHING.
I wasn’t, really.
“And in first place . . .” O’Malley paused again. I hated that bastard. I let my eyes slip closed and gave up on breathing. I held my breath. “FIDELIS SQUAD!”
My eyes shot open and I breathed again. I was rigid with excitement and achievement. O’Malley met my eyes, and - was that pride I saw?
“One more thing before you go off and celebrate,” he said directly to me. Then he looked away, at the whole crowd of cadets. “I’M STILL YOUR GODDAMN SERGEANT!” he roared, and there were several small cries of surprise. “DO NOT THINK I AM NOT THE BASTARD I’VE ALWAYS BEEN!” I let myself smile - just a bit.
Moore stepped forward with a half-smile on her face. I thought she was going to launch into this long spiel about courage and honor, but she just barked, “The dance is in one hour. Dismissed!” And she and the other officers left. There was a brief, tense silence that lasted for a nanosecond after the last officer left - then the hall burst into conversation.
“YES!” shrieked Ed, jumping up and down like a madman.
“TAKE THAT, BASTARDS!” Rod shouted at no one in particular. Biff had a broad smile on his face, and Kim was laughing at Ed and Rod, looking more carefree than I’d ever seen her. I felt a grin spread across my own face as I looked at them.
* * *
I got to my room and shut the door, quickly taking off my combat dress and getting into my formal uniform, which I had never really worn before.
I had a hell of a time doing up all of the buttons, looking in the mirror in my room to make sure all of the pins and little decorative flourishes were straight and tidy. I told myself it didn’t really matter, and that I honestly didn’t care how I looked, but as soon as I thought about Kim I knew I was telling myself lies.
I emerged from my room a few minutes later at the same time as Rod, who I could barely recognize, with his uniform on correctly and his hair in the neatest state I’d ever seen it.
“Um, Rod,” I said. “What did you do to your hair? It’s frightening.”
He looked up at me, clearly distressed. “What? I thought I finally got it down! Is it bad? Do I need to fix it?”
“Whoa, whoa, calm down. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’ve just never seen it so . . . neat,” I told him, grinning as I saw him relax. He must be trying to impress somebody. Ten guesses as to who.
“So are we ready to go, then?” asked Rod, briefly looking around our barracks to check for anyone else. It seemed as if they had already gone to the dance.
I shrugged. “Guess so.”
We headed down our hall, occasionally passing other cadets in their dress uniform. As we got closer to the main hall, I could start to hear the music, which thankfully wasn’t anything slow. Just normal dance beats.
Rod sighed and adjusted his collar as we approached the entrance. “I hope we’re not late or anything.”
I shook my head. “We’ll be fine. We’re right on time.” He gave a grimace of acknowledgement that quickly turned to a blush and a duck of the head as Miley flounced up to us wearing a dark pink dress, her blond hair much more curly than usual. Her face looked like a mask, she was wearing so much makeup, and I found myself a little disgusted by the result. Apparently her getup had the entirely opposite effect on Rod.
Paying my friend no attention, she addressed me. “So, Kim doesn’t know I’m talking to you. But I just want you to know that’s she’s super self-conscious and stuff. But she looks totally hot. Just FYI.” Then she bounced away.
I raised an eyebrow and glanced at Rod. He looked let down. I grinned and nudged him. “Come on, man, you gotta work a little bit harder than that.”
For a split second, I thought he was going to hit me. Dark anger flashed across his face, along with something else I couldn’t quite recognize - jealousy? But then the expression vanished, and I was sure I’d imagined it. “Yeah, sure. Except for you, Lover Boy.”
I shrugged. “How should I know? I just act like myself-”
“-except more awkward-”
“-and boom, girls are falling at my feet,” I joked as I took a step into the hall, trying to subconsciously urge Rod forward. He followed, continuing the conversation.
“One,” he corrected. “One girl is falling at your feet.”
I paused as we entered the darkened hall. “I’ll let you have that one,” I conceded, and he grinned in victory before vanishing into the crowd of cadets.
I scanned the crowd myself. I had to admit, I was extremely nervous to see Kim. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I had no idea what I was going to say, or . . . I was just nervous. I felt totally out of place in this dance. I was about to turn and walk out when a voice called my name.
“Jason?” I turned and there she was. The first thing I noticed were her eyes - seemingly larger and greener than usual because of light makeup application. Then her hair, carefully pinned away from her face with sparkling clips. Then the rest of her, in a knee-length dark green dress and black heels. The sexiest thing about it was the lean muscles visible in her arms and legs. Her eyes met mine, and I knew I was blushing, but I didn’t really care.
“So . . .” She gave a small twirl. “What do you think?”
“Um . . . you look . . . really nice,” I said lamely, mentally slapping myself.
But she laughed. “Well, you don’t look too bad yourself.” We stood there awkwardly, me noticing little things about her - like her dark green nail polish, the little mole on the side of her neck, and a long scratch down the back of her arm that hadn’t quite healed.
I looked around at the rest of the room. It was dim, with a large space cleared in the center that I guess was supposed to be the dance floor. Nobody was out there yet. In the back, there were tables of food. The single girls and guys stood in groups by themselves, while the couples hung out awkwardly. The music was loud, but not too loud, which I appreciated.
“Um . . . do you want to get some food or something?” I suggested. She looked relieved that I’d suggested something.
“Sure,” she agreed, and we made our way over to the tables of food, picking up a few cookies and other treats that usually weren’t allowed in the academy. I devoured about five cookies before I realized that I should probably have better manners. I glanced over at Kim to see her stifling laughter.
“Hungry?” she asked sarcastically, and I gave an embarrassed shrug, brushing crumbs off my lapel.
“They’re good,” I offered self-consciously.
Kim smirked. “Yeah, the lunch ladies must be on break.” She paused, her face thoughtfully amused. “Do you remember what you said that first week-”
“Can’t trust the lunch ladies,” I interrupted, the same memories in my mind. “They all seem nice on the outside, but on the inside, they’re demons.”
The conversation flowed pretty easily after that. Rod drifted in and out of it, along with an auburn-haired girl in a blue dress that I didn’t recognize. Slowly, groups of friends and couples drifted onto the dance floor, some singing along with familiar songs. Rod had a great time make completely unflattering comparisons such as: “That girl looks like a Hunter on drugs.” Pause. “In a dress.” Pause. Kim: “You know, I’m never going to unsee that mental image.” Rod: *grins* “You’re welcome!” Rod’s date and I: *roll eyes*
It only took a few minutes before most people were on the dance floor, their combined gravitational force pulling the rest of us in, even if it was with a tiny bit of reluctance. I was surprised but pleased to see Cody on the dance floor, arm in arm with a pretty black-haired girl in a purple dress. I caught his eye and he gave me a smile and a wink, looking happier than I’d seen him in a long time.
As for Kim and I . . . well, let’s put it this way. On a field day, after doing hundreds of push-ups and laps around the academy, Kim was sexy. Dancing in a dress under flashing colored lights, she was off the charts. I honestly don’t remember what I did. For all I knew, I stood there staring at her. The dancing passed in a blur, and before I knew it, Kim grabbed my hand, pulling me off the dance floor.
“Sorry,” she said breathlessly. Loose strands of hair drifted into her face, and she impatiently brushed them away. “I’m tired of the noise. Can we go somewhere a little quieter?”
“Sure,” I agreed. This was the first time Kim had voluntarily touched me. The times she helped me stand up after being hurt or humiliated, and vice versa, didn’t count. And she didn’t let go. As we made our way to the edges of the crowds, as far away as possible from the speakers, Kim held my hand. And it felt good.
“You’re quite the dancer,” I said, grinning at her. She rolled her eyes, leaning against the wall.
“Please,” she scoffed. “I honestly suck at dancing. Hand-to-hand combat is more my thing.”
“Won’t argue with that,” I said. “Do you remember when you slapped Rod?”
She cracked up at the memory. “Oh my god, the look on your guys’ faces was priceless. He looked like someone had just poured ice water down his pants.”
I grinned at the image. “And me?”
“You? You looked like a cow hit on the head with a shovel.”
I stared at her. “Excuse me?” That set her off into another round of laughter.
When she sobered a little, she continued, “And then you went into this huge speech about how dumb I was being.” She paused, eyes faraway. “Once I realized you were right, I was so embarrassed. I mean, I was acting like Mark had used to act to me.” As she spoke, she unconsciously released my hand and crossed her arms, as if to protect herself. My hand felt suddenly cold, and I closed it in a tight fist.
“What are you trying to say?” I ask, my voice a little harsher than I’d intended it to be.
She looked surprised. “Nothing, really. Just thinking out loud.”
I shook my head almost angrily. “I can’t believe you would say that.” Now her surprise was laced with a little anger.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded. I realized I was angry. A little.
“You are nothing like Mark,” I told her fiercely, grabbing her hand.
“Maybe not,” she answered in a quieter voice. “But I was still being a bitch.”
“You were dealing with some shit. You had the right,” I replied, trying to soften my tone. She made no such effort.
“What, so I could be a bitch because Mark was a dick to me? Yeah, sure, that makes a lot of damn sense!” she retorted angrily. “I’m not trying to make excuses! And you shouldn’t either!”
“It’s not an excuse, it’s a reason. You-”
“You know what? Stop. Just stop,” she said in a low, forceful voice. She paused, and a tinge of guilt traced its way across her face. “I should go.” Pulling her hand out of mine, she stepped around me and began walking towards the exit.
I didn’t want to let her go. But maybe I should. Maybe she needed some time by herself. Then Chris’ voice came back to me: 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.
“Kim!” I called, jogging after her. She’d been walking slowly, shuffling her feet, so I caught her before she vanished into the crowds. She spun around as I reached her, surprised, but not nearly as surprised as the moment after, when I leaned forward and kissed her.
Suddenly all of my anger fell away, all of my doubt and anxiety and confusion vaporized inside of me, turned into steam by the warmth I now felt inside me. The heat grew, blossoming from my chest to fill every part of my body, It clouded up inside my head and made me dizzy, like I could barely breathe. Which made sense, because I couldn’t. Breathing all of the sudden didn’t seem like a necessary function. The only thing that mattered was the person I held in my arms.
At first she was hesitant, taken aback by the sudden motion, but that initial resistance disappeared as she kissed me back, pressing her lips against mine with a passion.
Everyone always describes their first kiss as having no end, a moment where time fell away and didn’t matter. No one could tell you how long they remained in that tight embrace. Except for me. The counting was subliminal, ticking along in the back of my head while the rest of me was caught up in the moment.
I knew that I kissed Kimberly Barrett for exactly 42 seconds.
And it was the best 42 seconds of my life.