Chapter 1: Sign Me Up
Mars, August 9, 2550
My foot bounced up and down as I stood in line, ready to hand in my ID so I could receive my validation papers. It was the day after my seventeenth birthday; I was finally old enough to enlist. After an agonizing year of sitting around doing nothing, having Chris go off and join the Marines, and staying at my neighbor’s house in Losantiville, I was ready to go. Ready for training, ready for action, ready for anything.
Except for standing in lines. I was not too thrilled about that.
“I cannot believe this,” I groaned, glancing at my watch for the hundredth time and checking my ID to make sure everything was correct.
The guy in front of me turned around to grin at me. He had short, spiky black hair and dark skin, probably someone of Hispanic descent. “They’ve been doing this stuff for centuries, and they still haven’t come up with a more efficient way to check credentials and get people onto shuttles,” he joked.
I smirked. “So much for ‘military intelligence”, huh?” One of the security guards gave me a dirty look, causing the guy in front of me to quickly hide his smile and assume a serious face.
“Hey man,” he whispered, nudging me in the ribs. “what do you think you’re doing? This is no place to joke around. This is serious, dude.” He gave me a wink, and I was put at ease.
“What’s your name?” I asked. He flashed me his ID, which must’ve been a bit out of date, as it showed him with long black hair that stuck up all over his head, and a slightly manic grin.
“Miguel Rodriguez, amigo. Everyone calls me Rod, though. No respect for the name, huh?”
“I guess not,” I said with grin, extending my hand for him to shake. “I’m Jason Stark.”
He took it with a firm grip and shook. Then someone up at the front moved off to head to the shuttle, and we all took a step forward.
Rod continued talking. “So what’s your deal? Why’re you enlisting?” he asked, a curious gleam in his eye.
I shifted uncomfortably on my feet. “Well, uh, I lost my home on Arcadia a while back when it was glassed. My mother didn’t make it.” At this Rod looked genuinely somber.
At least he’s not rude, I thought. “My older brother and I moved here to Mars looking for an easy job, and we found it working at the factory downtown. He enlisted soon after we got here, though. He felt like he needed to join as soon as possible. Same with me.”
Rod nodded. “I know what you mean. My cousins were killed on Harvest. I knew that when I was old enough, there ain't no place I was goin’ except the Marines. So here I am. ready to fight some Covies.”
“Next,” the lady at the front desk called with a slight English accent. Rod turned around to look at her and realized it was his turn.
“Quit your yapping, sir, and move on up,” she said, eyeing Rod with annoyance. “You’re holding up the line.”
Rod took a couple steps up and gave the lady his ID. As it was being verified, I looked around the large station we were in. It hadn’t changed much since I had come here with Chris. Same high-vaulted ceilings, same shuttles, and basically the same people.
I spotted a campaign poster on the wall to my right. It showed a Marine with his trusty MA5 Assault Rifle on the top of a hill, firing down into hordes of Covenant forces. In the background, other UNSC forces were depicted performing great acts of heroism; dragging a fallen comrade, knifing an enemy, and blasting away from a turret-mounted Warthog. All if the Marines’ faces showed the same characteristics I expected: stoic, brave, hardened faces of truly awe-inspiring men and women. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be just like those Marines on the poster when I joined.
“OY! Young man!”
I was jolted out of my reverie by the shout of the woman at the desk. Her face was red with anger.
“Get a bloody move on! We don’t have all day!”
Blushing with embarrassment, since everyone within twenty yards was now staring at me, I moved forward to hand the woman my papers.
She glanced up as she took them. “You youngsters ought to start paying attention, or you’re going to have a very rude awakening when you get to your training.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, firmly, taking back my papers after she had checked them. I could see Rod out of the corner of my eye, off to the right near the entrance to the shuttle lines. He was grinning devilishly. Smiling slightly, I joined him at the entrance, and we continued walking.
“See what I mean, amigo? Everyone here is so serious. No room for joking around,” he jibed. Right after he opened his mouth, two girls walked out of the bustling crowd in front of us, heading for the restrooms. One of them, a light blonde, whispered to her brunette friend as they strolled, glancing in our direction and laughing. The other looked at us with a smirk, seeming to find something about us amusing. Rod followed them with his eyes right until they neared us, when he stuck his hand in his pocket and assumed some sort of cool-guy attitude.
“How you doin’?” he asked as the girls approached. The blonde responded immediately, ignoring Rod’s question.
“You guys are so dumb, I mean, really! Is it so hard to pay attention?” The brunette smirked a little, but elbowed her friend, muttering to her under her breath. The blonde sighed. “Fine, that was a little rude. I’m Miley. This is Kim.” She stuck out her hand to shake, which we both did. Kim hung back, not offering any words, watching me with a slight frown. Almost like she recognized me from somewhere.
“So, laaaadies,” drawled Rod. “What brings you here?” Miley rolled her eyes.
“Same reason as you, dummy. Kill some Covies, yeah?” At this, Kim smiled directly at me, making me forget to breathe. It wasn’t a particularly cute smile, but it was genuine and warm. Then I noticed her eyes - a strange, entrancing shade of green. I shook out of my daze, realizing that Miley had just asked me a question.
She laughed. “I was in the middle of asking you how you thought you were going to make it through training with the attention span of a sparrow, but I suppose you just answered my question. And we’ve gotta go, but thanks a lot, guys, this has been an enlightening chat.” She grabbed Kim’s elbow and steered her away. But I noticed the brunette casting another curious look at me over her shoulder with those incredible eyes.
Rod ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up. “I think they liked us. Don’t you?”
I shrugged, still watching Kim. Rod followed my gaze and grinned, bumping into me with his shoulder. “Ah, you like her, don’t you? And so a tragic love story begins . . .” he trailed off in a dramatic tone.
“Tragic? Who said anything about tragic?” I demanded, before realizing that he had manipulated me into admitting that I liked her.
And judging by his widening grin, he knew it. “Oh, just shut up, Rod.”
* * *
“Take off in 2 minutes. Please secure all loose carry-on luggage in the overhead compartments, and make sure all seat belts are properly tightened and locked.”
The automated voice sounded through the loudspeakers in the large cabin of the shuttle, the slight monotone obviously belonging to the ship’s onboard AI, or Artificial Intelligence. I checked by seat belt and then looked over to where Rod was sitting next to me. His belt was loose at the place where the straps crossed over his chest to form an “x”, and he was lying back in his chair with his eyes closed, snoring loudly.
I rolled my eyes and sighed, with a slight smile. Idiot.
As I glanced around the cabin of the shuttle, I took in all of the faces that surrounded me. I was sitting on the right hand side of the craft, in the middle of a row of individual seats, with the back of my chair against the wall. Another two rows divided the cabin in half, the chairs sitting back to back, so that one row faced me and the other faced the row on the left side of the shuttle. Looking down the lines, I saw a few people that I had spotted amidst the tumult of the station, including Kim and Miley. They were sitting in the row facing me, a few chairs down to my left. As Kim buckled her seat belt, her gaze met mine, and I was again looking into those brilliant green eyes. Her lips curled into that smile she had given me back in the station.
Suddenly I realized I was staring, and I snapped my head forward and pretended to look at the safety diagrams on the tops of the overhead compartments. I heard a faint laugh down the cabin, and Rod stirred beside me.
He glanced at my flushed face and then at Kim and Miley, and put on his manic grin.
“I told you, man, you’re totally into her,” he said matter-of-factly as the shuttle lifted off.
“And I told you: shut up,” I retorted. Thankfully, he did just that, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before he brought it up again. Then I noticed Miley giving Rod a flirtatious wink. His response was just as shy as mine - he ducked his head and gave her a hesitant smile. She laughed and turned away, striking up a conversation with Kim.
I tsked at Rod. “All that big talk, man, and that’s how you flirt with a girl? Nice going.”
“Hey, it’s not like you did better!” he said, shoving into me good-naturedly.
“I was performing evasive maneuvers!” I protested. “While you looked like you were afraid of her!”
“I wasn’t afraid of her! Girls love insecure guys,” Rod babbled.
“Yeah, sure,” I grinned. “You looked like you were checking out your feet or something.” I mocked his stance, dramatically ducking my head.
“Shut up, Stark. I’m gonna kick your ass in training.”
“Yeah, yeah, good luck with that.” At this point, the shuttle began exiting the atmosphere, cutting off any attempt Rod had made at a retort. I gazed open-mouthed out the window as a pitch-black sky appeared, dotted with brilliant stars. Behind us, Mars loomed, a rusty red color, looking old but strong. I felt a pang of sadness at leaving it. The Red Planet had only been my home for six months, but it’d been a good home.
I shook my head. No more thinking like that, I told myself. I’ve got to get focused. I’m going to be training soon, and there will be no time to think about home . . .
Just then a large, muscular man in military dress uniform walked into the cabin, the door closing behind him with a hiss and a clang. His brown hair was beginning to gray, but that didn’t seem to suggest that he was getting old. On the contrary; he looked ready to go toe-to-toe with anything the Covenant could throw at him. He was an imposing figure alright. Everyone had stopped talking and given him their full attention as soon as he entered.
“So you’re the new batch of recruits, huh?” he said, his deep, rough voice cutting through the silence. Not exactly cutting it like a knife; a knife would be too elegant.
We all nodded and muttered assent.
He leaned forward a bit, like he was straining to hear what we had said. “What was that? I can’t hear you, maggots!”
“Sir, yes sir!” we chorused.
“Sir yes sir my ass!” he bellowed. “I am Sergeant O’Malley, but you will call me ‘sir’ or ‘Sergeant’ only’. You will respond to my questions and commands promptly and vigorously from now on. If you fail to do so, I will have you say it a hundred times as I send you running laps around the training complex! Am I understood?” With this last tidbit, he looked right at Rod, who had been slouching in his seat before and was now sitting up straight at attention. I resisted to urge to laugh; Rod looked as scared as hell.
“Sir, yes sir!”
“Good. You’re not as dense as I had hoped,” he said, his comment causing many of the recruits in the shuttle to assume confused faces. Sergeant O’Malley sighed.
“Something unclear, cadets?” He looked around the cabin, searching for someone to call on. His gaze landed on a skinny boy who sat across from Rod.
“You, string-bean,” barked Sergeant O’Malley. “What’s the problem?”
The boy responded immediately, his voice level and confident.
“We were just wondering, sir, why exactly you would want us to be dense. That’s all sir,” he said. I had to give the kid props. He wasn’t intimidated by the grizzled Sergeant one bit. He spoke with an intelligence that didn’t give way to smartassness, but rather asserted him as an intellectual. I liked him.
The Sergeant, hearing the boy’s response, narrowed his eyes. “What’s your name, cadet?” he asked.
“Edward Worthing, sir. Age 17. Lived on Earth most of my life, sir, but my family moved to Mars only a little while ago.” Edward took a breath and was about to continue when the Sergeant cut him off.
“I asked for your name, not your life story, cadet!”
Edward flushed, but still retained his confidence.
“This kid is good,” Rod whispered to me out of the corner of his mouth.
I nodded, but dared not to open my mouth. Sergeant O’Malley gave us all a sweeping look, then continued,”
“To answer your question, Worthing, I was hoping you’d all be a bit dimmer because it’s more fun that way.” That didn’t sound too great. O’Malley grinned as he saw our faces. “It's more fun to kick you around and make you work your ass off when you're dumber, because then you don’t understand why. And I like to keep you on your toes.”
The silence seemed to thicken as the sergeant finished. Giving us all one last look, he turned around and walked toward the door. In the doorway, he paused, then looked over his shoulder at us.
“Prepare yourself, cadets,” he growled. “You’re in for a world of pain and suffering.”
With that final cheerful warning, Sergeant O’Malley left.
Rod let out a breath as the cabin slowly began to fill with conversation. “Well . . .” he sighed. “I don’t know about you, but I am brimming over with enthusiasm and confidence.”
“Nailed it,” I said in reply. “That is exactly how I feel right now.”
Then I leaned my head back against my seat, closing my eyes and attempting to drift off to sleep.
“Not really much else you can do, huh?” whispered Rod, nudging me a bit in the side. “I think I’ll follow your example for now, amigo. But when we get to training, I’ll be the one setting the example. You’ll see.”
I grinned as I began to drift off. “I’m sure I will.”Then the blissful serenity of sleep engulfed me, and I was silent. I dreamed that I was drifting through the stars . . . beautifully green stars . . .