Chapter 2: Chapter 2 Welcome to the Academy
Reach, August 10, 2550
I awoke to the sound of excited chatter and rumbling engines. Rubbing my weary eyes, I looked out one of the cabin windows, and was all of the sudden awake.
We were flying above a beautiful city, situated on the shores of a sea. Tall, elegant skyscrapers pierced the horizon, where the sun had just begun to rise. All of the other cadets were just as mesmerized as I was.
Most of us had grown up away from huge cities like this one, mainly because we’d lived in the Outer Colonies. A few cadets who had lived in the Inner Colonies, like Edward, were used to huge metropolises like this one. Even to me, this city was magnificent. Losantiville had nothing on it.
Rod was staring out as well, his mouth slightly open. When he noticed that I was awake, he quickly shut his mouth and assumed a bored face.
“I’ve seen better,” he explained, when he saw my questioning look.
“Have you now?”
I whipped my head around to look at Edward, who had just called out Rod. His arms were crossed in his lap, and he was looking curiously at Rod.
Rod straightened up slightly. “Why yes, in fact, I have.”
“What have you seen then? What have you seen better than New Alexandria?” Edward inquired, gesturing to the city below.
Rod opened his mouth, then closed it, and finally flushed. “Oh, just shut up,” he mumbled.
I gave a wink to Edward, who nodded in reply, smiling slightly. Now I like him even more, I thought.
New Alexandria, the crown jewel of the planet, was one of the largest cities of the Inner Colony Reach. The metropolis was filled with hard-working men and women, all of whom enjoyed the comfort and relaxation offered by many of the city’s hotels and resorts. Not only was it a center for business and enterprise, but it was also located near Reach’s three space elevators; a huge, tower-like structure used to ferry supplies and sometimes people into space from the surface of a planet. The proximity to these space tethers, as they were sometimes called, resulted in even more people coming to New Alexandria.
The sun had just begun to peek over the horizon, casting an orange light over the city. The many windows on the building below reflected the sunlight, throwing glares of orange into the sky.
I heard Rod whistle beside me. “She sure is beautiful,” he whispered.
I nodded. “You said it.”
Little did I know that we were actually talking about two different things. After a prolonged silence, I looked up to realize that Rod was staring at Miley, not the city. I grinned and shook my head. As I looked down at the beautiful city below, I began to wonder about training. What was really going to happen? Was it as bad as everyone made it sound?
Shortly after Sergeant O’Malley had left the cabin, the cadets had began to talk about what the facility where we would train to be Marines was going to be like. A few people had speculated that it would be like a school; some said it was going to be like a prison.
Basically the same thing, I thought, recalling the years I had spent in school back on Arcadia. I didn’t particularly enjoy school, mainly because none of the other students seemed to care. It created a bad atmosphere, and it rubbed off on me. I still learned a lot of things, but I didn’t have many fond memories.
I was hoping that training wouldn’t be like school again: people goofing off all of the time, not paying attention, bullies running rampant; all of that. It angered me whenever people didn’t take things seriously, especially when it had to do with the war. I respected and looked up to the people who fought in it, and when others just joked and passed it off like it was no big deal, I got pissed off real fast.
So I wasn’t surprised when I got into a fight just as we landed.
When the engines turned off as we touched down on the tarmac of a landing strip just outside New Alexandria, the same automated voice sounded over the speakers.
“Please wait until trained personnel arrive to help you exit the shuttle before leaving the cabin.” Soon after, uniformed officer came into the cabin and began to escort us out of the bay doors. Rod and I were smack dab in the middle of the crowd, shuffling forward unsteadily.
“I guess the UNSC has never really fully grasped the concept of personal space, huh?” Rod grunted as he squeezed between two cadets. I attempted to follow, managing to bruise my shoulder in the process.
“It seems they have a lot of those kinds of problems,” I groaned.
Rod nodded assent. “Yep. First, a slow and painful identification process, and now this: death by amoeba exit formation.”
“Still,” I said, breaking through a clump of people to a space in the crowd, “they’re doing their best. I suppose they can’t exactly focus on crowd control when there’s a war to fight out there.”
“Damn straight,” Rod said with a nod. Then someone called out in a smooth, yet commanding voice.
I turned to see the speaker, and I sighed when I saw him. He was about my height, maybe a bit taller, with brown hair styled in typical pretty-boy fashion. His body language would suggest he was bored, but the expression on his face said otherwise. He was clearly interested in what I had said, just not in the way I would hope. I had sighed because these kinds of people were exactly the kind of people that pissed me off whenever I met them. And this one was no exception.
Rod raised an eyebrow as he beheld the speaker. “Eloquent, my good man,” he drawled, assuming the accent of a pompous upperclassman. “Your outcry truly conveys your obvious intelligence and understanding of the matters being discussed between my compatriot and me.”
The cadet laughed, although there was no warmth in it. “Speak for yourself, compadre. You don’t seem like the schoolboy type to me. You’re more of a . . . garbage man.”
At this Rod stiffened and his face hardened. Clearly this wasn’t the first ‘garbage’ jab he’d heard.
“You better watch your mouth, jackass!” he exclaimed, taking a step towards the cadet. I grabbed his arm and held him back, whispering for him to calm down. Many of the cadets had stopped moving towards the transport vehicles that would take us to our training facility and began to watch what was happening.
Rod calmed down and resumed his laid back demeanour, albeit with a little stiffness.
“Nice little pet you have there,” the cadet said with a thin, cold smile, looking at me and gesturing to Rod. “Do you keep him housetrained?”
I cut Rod off before he could retort. “What’s your problem, jackass? You got something against fighting for humanity?” I asked him, going back to the source of the conflict.
The cadet narrowed his eyes for a second, then relaxed and once again assumed his apathetic facade. “As a matter of fact, I do. In a way.” He took a few steps toward Rod and me, got right up in our faces. “At least fighting for little patriotic cretins like yourselves. I feel sorry for your mothers - except, wait, no, I don’t. Because they are undoubtedly bitc-” Rod again launched himself with a yell at the cadet, and this time I didn’t hold him back. I was too busy doing the same. The guy had insulted my mother. Who was dead. He was going to pay.
I reached the guy first, before Rod, and showed him how I felt by giving him a swift punch to the face. Or I tried to. He ducked out of the way and kicked me in the side, then turned to face Rod, clipping my face with his elbow as he did. My side and cheek burned with pain, but I burned with anger, and I wasn’t going to stop because he’d hurt me. Rod had managed to land a punch in the guy’s gut and now he was whaling on my friend. So I came up behind the cadet and drove my elbow into his back with all the force I could muster. He let out a cry of pain and turned to face me, but with a blur of brown hair, someone stood in front of me. Kim.
“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded. I felt my face go blank with shock. Clearly she hadn’t seen the whole scene. Right?
She took a few steps closer, and suddenly her green eyes looked like poison to me. At least she was a few inches shorter than I was. “I said, what’s wrong with you? We’re here to fight the Covies, not each other, asshole!” Far from feeling ashamed, I felt angry. Hadn’t she heard him insult me? Then Kim turned on the other cadet.
“And you! Insulting people? Do you really need to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong, Mark?” How’d she know this guy’s name?
Now everybody was staring at us, and I felt my face flush with embarrassment. I didn’t know at the time, but Kim was as embarrassed as I felt. I couldn’t tell, though. She turned on her heel and joined Miley, who out of everybody didn’t look surprised.
“Okay, people, there’s nothing to see here!” she said, shooing everybody along. “Go back to walking infuriatingly slow. Or, hey, maybe you could pick up the pace. That wouldn’t be so bad.” There was a faint smattering of laughter, and Miley looked pleased with herself.
As the crowd compacted around me, I was forced to walk with Mark on one side and Rod on the other.
“This isn’t over, jackass,” Mark warned me out of the corner of his mouth. “I’ll get you. Kim was right, you’re an asshole. Oh, and by the way - I saw the way you looked at her. Stay away if you know what’s good for you.”
“No fear of that,” I growled back under my breath. “She called me an asshole, remember?” Mark snorted and forced his way ahead, away from Rod and I.
“Am I really that obvious when I like somebody?” I muttered to Rod. He grinned, despite the black eye blooming on his face.
“Yeah, you kinda are.”
“Fabulous,” I grumbled. I’d rather keep my emotions to myself, I thought. I need to be more careful in the future. I really don’t need to give that Mark guy more ammo to use against me.
We finally reached a large parking lot, where troop-transport Warthogs were lined up, with drivers ready to take us to the training facility. Rod and I crammed into the bed of one of the cars, with four other cadets piling in. I could see Kim and Miley get into a Warthog not too distant from use. For a brief second, we made eye contact. Her expression was hard and showed . . . disappointment? I couldn’t tell for sure. Either way, she shook her head slightly and sat down, her back to me.
As the engine started up and we began to roll out, I leaned my head against the railing of the open-bed back seat and closed my eyes, trying to concentrate. Training was already off to a bad start. Not only did I already make an enemy, but I also managed to piss off the girl who I thought was into me.
“Girl troubles, huh?” asked Rod, leaning over to look at me. I opened my eyes a little to give him a “Oh, really?” sort of look. He grinned anyway.
“Women are hard, man. They’re not easy to figure out. Just when you think you understand them, boom! They’ve changed. Or they just didn’t think the way you thought they did in the first place. Either way, you’re usually wrong about them.”
My eyebrows knitted in curiosity. “Since when have you been an expert on girls, Rod? You were the guy who used, ‘How you doin’?’ as a pickup line. Plus, you’re into Miley.”
Rod suddenly got defensive. “What’s wrong with her, Stark?”
I smiled wryly. “Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Man, forget about girls. You’re almost harder to figure out. I can never get a full read on you, Jason Stark.”
“Consider that a good thing. There’s a lot more to Jason Stark than you would care to know.”
* * *
The training center loomed ahead of us as we drove up the wide, paved, cliff-side road. One we dismounted, we were given a full tour of the compound.
The facility, officially called the New Alexandria Military Academy, was situated on the top of a wide mountain, several miles from the outskirts of New Alexandria. The main structure was a large, pentagon-shaped building planted right in the middle of the compound. Several other smaller buildings were spread around the main structure, like a college campus, with one large path winding from building to building, starting and ending at the center plaza, which was right in the middle of the pentagon. A communications tower was on one of the higher hills, and a huge training field stretched out behind it, going right up to the start of a thick forest at the edge of the compound. All in all, it was an imposing sight indeed. A mixture of solid, simplistic military architecture and graceful elegance combined to make a truly fitting training center.
“What do you think?” muttered Rod as we made our way to the main hall, which was part auditorium, part dining hall. “Prison, school, or gym?”
“All of the above. Minus the prison part. It’s too cool to be a prison,” I responded, glancing into one of the classrooms we walked past. Cadets in training uniform were all sitting around a table that was projecting a 3-D, holographic image of a battlefield from it’s surface, while an instructor pointed and spoke about the projection.
Rod raised his eyebrows. “Pretty dope. I wonder if we’ll get to use those.”
Our tour guide look over her shoulder and motioned for all of us to hurry along. We walked through several more hallways, each sporting it’s share of classrooms and closed doors, which of course sparked our interest. Any closed door in a military facility had to have something interesting behind it. It’s practically a law.
At long last, we arrived in the main hall. When we entered, all of the tables had been moved to the outer perimeter of the room, some against the wall to the left, others to the huge floor-to ceiling window that took up the right side of the hall. A wide stage was situated at the far end, and on it stood several very distinguished looking people in full military dress uniform. One was Sergeant O’Malley, who was lined up shoulder-to-shoulder with other men and women of the same rank. Right smack in the middle of the formation was a decorated woman with short black hair twisted into a bun and a stern expression on her face. A bronze name tag on her uniform, next to a sizable amount of medals, identified her as Commander Moore.
Rod nudged me in the rib. “That’s the commanding officer of this place. I’ve heard she’s not one for jokes, or any sort of joy for that matter,” he said with a serious look.
“Looks like you’re in trouble then.”
“Speak for yourself, amigo. You’re in this with me. If I get in trouble, so will you. It’s the cost of friendship.”
I let out a sigh. “So be it. Just keep your mouth shut when you need to.”
Rod drew a finger across his mouth, like he was zipping it shut. “Consider it done.”
Our tour guide brought us to a stop in front of the stage, making sure we were all arranged in a tight square. Rod and I were in the third row or so, right smack dab in the middle.
Suddenly one of the officers on stage let out a shout.
We all stood straight up, brought our legs together, and snapped our right hands up to our eyebrows in salute. It was a maneuver I had been practicing for years, hoping that one day I’d be able to use it for real. Sure enough, that time had come. And no one in that entire auditorium had anything on my salute. It was quick, precise, and respectful to the nth-degree; a thing of beauty. Rod, glancing out of the corner of his eye at me, moved his hand down a little and stood up a little straighter, mimicking my pose. I could barely keep a grin from spreading across my face. It was nice to be the best at something, even if it was only a salute.
Commander Moore nodded. “At ease.”
We all relaxed, bringing our hands down behind our backs and spreading our legs out slightly in classic parade-rest position. Once again, I had done it the best.
“Welcome, cadets,” Commander Moore said loudly, her voice booming out across the room. It wasn’t necessarily a very feminine voice, but it also wasn’t very masculine. It was almost . . . motherly? No, too stern. Either way, the Commander had already moved on. “Welcome to what will be the most important year of your life. This facility will house for for the next twelve months, and for some of you, even longer. Here, you will learn about military tactics, analyze real-life firefight scenarios, and research great military leaders and their campaigns, all in the fully-functional classrooms we have constructed specifically for those purposes. Outside the classroom, you will all be put through a strict and challenging training program designed to simulate real combat situations, all of which will test your skills as soldiers and leaders.”
All of us we silent as she spoke, a few glancing around to give questioning looks at their comrades.
Rod leaned over ever so slightly in my direction and whispered as quietly as he could, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. “Sounds like heaven. Classwork and intense physical exercise. My kind of party.”
I gave a quick nod in response, not willing to risk detection if I spoke. I most certainly did not want to get in trouble on my first day, at least more so than getting into a fight had gotten me.
Commander Moore looked over all of us for a few seconds, then began to pace.
“This facility has been training cadets and turning them into battle-ready Marines for decades. Due to this, we have a rather important reputation to uphold. All of you are expected to follow any and all rules and orders made by your commanding officers. If you fail to comply, there will be consequences.” With the last word she stopped pacing and turned to look at us again.
I let out a breath. Commander Moore most certainly was not one for joking.
“If you want to last long here, and join your brothers and sisters in arms out on the battlefield, then I suggest you all put on your best attitudes and take everything I’m saying as Gospel. Am I understood?”
“Sir, yes sir!” we all chanted.
“Then welcome to the Academy.”
Commander Moore turned toward our tour guide. “Carry on, Coleman.”
Coleman nodded her head and lead us out of the hall and toward our barracks. As I started to walk out, someone called out my name.
“Stark. A word, please.”
I turned to look at Commander Moore. She had said it.
Rod gave me a nudge. “Go. Don’t want to piss her off, do we?”
With a gulp, I nodded and walked over to the Commander. Without saying a word, she turned and started to walk out the opposite exit. I followed quickly behind, casting glances at the officers still standing on the stage. Sergeant O’Malley narrowed his eyes at me and gave me a weird look, as if to say, You better watch it, Marine.Yep, I thought. He’d totally say that.