Chapter 3: Ups and Downs . . .
Reach, August 10, 2550
In a few minutes, I was sitting in Commander Moore’s office. She sat behind a small, black desk that seemed too small for the workspace of the leader of a military academy. On the wall above her, letters carved out of a smooth, gray stone spelled out “New Alexandria Military Academy”.
I sat down in a chair in front of the desk, facing the Commander. She was quiet for a while, simply studying me. Then at last, just as I was beginning to worry that I had overlooked some minute protocol, she spoke.
“Mr. Stark, I was informed by Sergeant O’Malley that you got into a small fight with another cadet before arriving here at the academy. Is this true?”
I cleared my throat before answering. “Yes ma’am.” I opened my mouth to say something else, but then thought otherwise and closed it.
Commander Moore raised an eyebrow. “Do you have something else to say, cadet?”
“Um, yes ma’am, if I may. How did Sergeant O’Malley come to learn of this? He travelled here with some of the other officers by a different route than the rest of us.”
At this the Commander sighed. “That is none of your concern, cadet.”
It was Mark, then, I decided.
“I was told that you and your friend, Mr. Rodriguez, attacked him without warning or provocation,” she continued.
Now it was my turn to sigh. “I’m sorry, Commander, but that is complete and utter bull-” I stopped when I realized who I was speaking to. Commander Moore looked thoroughly unimpressed. “Um, what I meant to say is that that is not what I believe to have happened.”
Commander Moore leaned a bit closer to me, speaking softly. “And what do you believed to have happened, Mr. Stark?”
I could tell that she really didn’t care what I thought had happened, but I said it anyway. “The cadet that I fought with had insulted my friend, ma’am. And my mother.”
I expected the Commander to blow off the last claim, but instead she just nodded with a look of . . . understanding?
“Your mother died on Arcadia during the second Covenant attack, correct?”
“And your father left you at an early age?”
At this I was puzzled. How did she know that? Even if she had actually bothered to do a full background check on me, which I doubted, she wouldn’t have found that much information on my father. Like she had said, my father left us when I was just a toddler. I don’t have many memories of him, and Chris and my mother didn’t like to talk about it. I barely knew anything about him myself, except his name. Aidan Stark. But how did Commander Moore know . . . ? And did I dare ask?
“Um, yes, ma’am. May I ask how you know?” I asked tentatively.
“No, you may not,” she answered firmly.
Well, okay then.
“Now,” Commander Moore continued. “I understand your provocation, but you may not fight other cadets. If I learn of any more altercation between you and any other trainee, you will be expelled from the academy. No second chances. Am I clear?”
“Very well. There is an official outside waiting to escort you to the barracks. Dismissed.” I stood up without a word and turned to go.
“Oh, and Stark?”
“Yes, ma’am?” I asked, turning back towards her.
She paused for just a fraction of a second. “I’ll be watching your progress. Dismissed.”
* * *
“Well that’s creepy,” Rod remarked as I recounted her last words to me, safe in the barracks. “It’s like the military version of ‘You’d better watch out, jackass.’”
“Eloquently put, Mr. Miguel Rodriguez, well done,” I snorted, rolling my eyes. “It wasn’t like that,” I added. “It was almost like . . . like she’d be looking out for me.”
“Attention’s gone to your head, bro,” he said, rolling his eyes too. “She’s Commander.”
“As in not allowed to show favoritism?” I mused.
Rod raised his voice. “As in fucking terrifying, man!”
I laughed. “All right, all right, keep your pants on.”
We were sitting inside my room, which was a small little area, complete with a bed built into the wall, like a large shelf, a holodesk, and a few stools. I had just taken off my dress uniform and switched into my casual attire when Rod had walked in.
“So where’s your room?” I asked.
Rod jerked his head towards the left wall. “Right next to yours. Great placing on the part of the officers, right?”
Just then my door slid open, and Kim stepped in. She looked like she had just taken a shower; her hair was still damp, and little streams of water occasionally ran down her face. I could smell her shampoo . . . It was like -
“Hey! I’m talking to you!”
I snapped out of my daze, realizing that Kim had been talking to me. Rod looked at me with a mocking expression, and I shot him a look that told him to shut it.
Looking back to Kim, I assumed as much dignity as I had left. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
She pursed her lips. “I was saying that since you two are in my squad, I expect you to shape up, or else you’ll get your asses whooped, compliments of yours truly. I’ve been waiting years to get into this academy and I do not want to get dragged down or worse, expelled, because of a couple of dipshits.”
Rod stopped mid-yawn and gave Kim a hurt look. “Wait, you mean . . . us? Pleeeease. We’re the least of your worries.”
“No, that would be whether the mess hall’s food is edible,” I chimed in.
“Can’t trust those lunch ladies, man. They seem all nice on the outside, but on the inside, they’re demons.”
“Actually, most of them seem pretty bitchy on the outside too. You know, with the low income and all.”
“The times, man. Such desperate times.”
“SHUT UP!” Kim yelled, giving both Rod and me a start.
Kim seemed thoroughly pissed. “You just proved my point. Try to get it through your thick heads that I expect better of you. Got it?”
“Yes ma’am!” Rod said with a sarcastic salute. She gave him the stinkiest stink eye of all time and then left.
I let out a breath. “She and Commander Moore would be the best of friends. Did you hear the way she talked to us?”
“Pretty sure I did. Unless she blew out my eardrums with all of her yelling.” Rod stood up to leave, shaking his head and chuckling. “Some girlfriend you have, amigo.”
“Oh, she’s not my girlfriend,” I retorted. “She’s made that abundantly clear.”
Rod said something as he went out the door, but I didn’t hear it. I was too busy thinking about what Kim had said. About shaping up. Moore had implied the same thing.
I guess it’s wise to heed their advice, I brooded. If more people are saying than just Sergeant O’Malley, then it must be an issue. I thought about Chris, who had graduated from this academy right before I was able to join up. He sent me a video log, telling me how that even though he wanted to come home to celebrate, he had to move on to officer’s school. He had received such high marks on his assessments at this academy that he was recommended to immediately go into officer’s school. He hadn’t sent me one since, presumably because he was just getting into the swing of things over on the other side of the planet. But I was sure he’d send me one once he got the chance.
I glanced at my watch. Only an hour until lunch.
I sighed, utterly bored. Nothing else to do but sleep.
And so I did.
* * *
When I woke up, Rod told me he had gone hunting for some information. He told me all about the staff, what each person did and what they were like. He also explained the squad system.
Apparently, the group, or “class” of cadets we had arrived with, about 60 people, were divided into squads of around 6 cadets. As of now, all we did as a group was live in our barracks together. Later on in the month, we would begin to compete against each other in the physical training portion of our time at the academy. Out of the ten squads, only half would manage to graduate and become Marines. So there definitely was wisdom in what Kim had said.
Rod also said that the top squad at the end of the year would be able to transition out of the academy, instead of having to go through another year of training, like most cadets did. They also received honors and commendations that would apparently have some sort of benefit when they were out in the shit as real soldiers.
“I didn’t exactly get clarification on that,” he admitted. Rod had talked to the older cadets, the ones who were in their second year. According to them, the “honors and commendations” were somewhat of a secret to those who didn’t receive them, so no one really knew what they entitled. Rumor had it that the top squad would be able to use brand-new, prototype weaponry and equipment in the battlefield. But no one really knew for sure, of course.
The conversation ended at lunch. As it turned out, the mess hall’s food was edible, and actually not too bad. The servers were still grumpy, of course.
Our entire class was on one half of the mess hall, with our first-year staff and most of the officers in the other half. Squads weren’t required to sit in their squads, but most did anyway. This was really the first time I had seen the people I’d be working with for the next year in one place.
Kim and Rod were there, of course. A new face was Biff, a large guy of African-American lineage. He was definitely one of the tallest people in our class, and even taller than some of the officers. Despite his size, he was quite quiet. He had barely spoken, and when he had it was just to ask someone if they had any ketchup.
The other new face was actually not a new one at all - it was Ed. He had given me a vigorous handshake when we sat down and proceeded to tell me everything there was to know about the holo-systems in the facility, which apparently fascinated him. He seemed to take a special interest in the medical equipment.
The last member of the squad was our squad leader: Cody. My first impression of Cody was that he was another pompous prick, just like Mark. But when I actually talked to him, I was completely and utterly wrong. Although he seemed to hold himself high, it wasn’t quite with conceit. Just dignity. Respect. Humility. Everything you’d want in a leader. He was firm in his beliefs but still understanding and cooperative. Overall, he was just a really cool guy.
So that was our squad. Kim, Biff, Cody, Rod, and me. I almost felt bad for Kim, being the only girl in a squad of guys, but somehow I was under the impression that she could hold her own with us. And that she would perform as well, if not better, than us. Still, she was friendless, with Miley in another squad. That had to be lonely.
I looked over at Kim, sitting alone at the end of the table. She picked at her food, her mind clearly far away. Her face was more open than I’d ever seen it, and she looked really lonely. And sad. But maybe that was just me creating the reality that I imagined.
Just then, she caught me looking at her and gave me an angry scowl. She stood, picking up her still-full tray, and dumped it in the trash, stalking out of the mess hall.
“Dude,” Rod said, his mouth full of food. “What’d you do to piss her off now?”
“I think that’s her default setting,” I grumbled back. “‘Pissed off.’”
He laughed, spraying half-chewed food across the table. Cody gave him a half-amused, half-disgusted look and followed Kim’s example (though without the pointless rage), dumping his tray and leaving the hall.
“So where do we go after this?” I asked Rod. He shrugged.
“You expect me to listen to instructions? Mí? Come on, you should know me better by now.”
“Go back to the barracks. Your schedule was sent to your holodesk. Your first class starts in ten minutes. If you’re not at your class on time, you’re out of here.” The information came from Biff, who then left the mess as well. I looked at Rod in disbelief.
“If we’re not at our first class on time, we’re expelled?”
He shrugged again. “Commander’s orders. Guess she’s starting to weed out the delinquents early.”
I let out a tired sigh. “No rest for the weary, I suppose.”
“We’ve only been here for half a day, and you’re already tired?” Rod asked half-jokingly.
I glanced at the table Mark was sitting at. He was laughing at a joke one of his squadmates had just made. When he saw me looking at him, he gave me a hateful glare and made a not-so-nice gesture at me.
“You don’t know that half of it,” I grumbled.
Rod shot me a curious glance. “Why is it that you’ve already made so many enemies? Moore, O’Malley, Mark, Kim; they all hate your guts. I’m kind of jealous.”
I raised my eyebrows at this. “What? You actually want people to hate you?”
He shook his head, smiling like he knew something I didn’t “Nah man. I just want a good reason to fight. Fighting ain’t nearly as satisfying when you don’t have something to fight for. When someone hates you, and they insult you and put you down, fighting them seems a lot more justified. If you’re just fighting them for the sake of violence, that’s stupid. Downright stupid.”
As he talked, I realized that he was being serious. This wasn’t a gimmick. This was one of those moments where I really valued Rod as a friend. Sure, he was funny, and made life seem more interesting, but in the end, he was more than that. He was sincere.
As we approached the barracks, Rod kept talking. “I’m willing to bet that most of the people here aren’t here for the right reason. Guys like Mark. They’re not here to fight. They’re here to kill. And that’s messed up. Really, really messed up. When you’re just going through all of this training for glory, you need a reality check. But if you have a reason throw a punch or shoot a gun, and that reason is grounded in morality and justice, then God bless you. Because that’s why we fight. And we sure need a lot more soldiers fighting for what’s right.”
Without saying another word, Rod went into his room and sat down at his holodesk. Taking a hint that the conversation was over, I walked over to my door and opened it.
There’s certainly a lot more to Miguel Rodriguez than meets the eye, I reflected. I wonder what other words of wisdom he’s got stored up inside that wacky head of his. I sat down at my desk and started it up. The first thing I noticed was that Chris had sent me a video log. I glanced at the thumbnail. He was sitting in a room similar to mine, except slightly bigger and with a real bed. I grinned.
Officer perks. I was about to open it when I heard a bell ring.
I cursed when I realized what it meant. Lunch period was over. I quickly scrolled through my home screen until I got to my schedule. I opened the file and glanced down at the middle.
“Period after lunch . . . Military History, Room 7A,” I said hurriedly to myself. I looked at the time it started. Only three minutes from now. And judging by the map of the academy to the right of the schedule, Room 7A was a good ways away from my squad’s barracks.
I quickly closed down the desk and ran out the door. I saw Kim and Cody run out of the door together, which for some reason sent a jab of pain to my chest.
Geez Stark, I told myself, realizing that I had just had a pang of jealousy. Pull yourself together. Stay focused and forget about Kim.
Rod was waiting at the exit to the barracks, his seriousness from a few minutes ago vanished, replaced with his usual grin.
“Come on, Jason! We don’t want to be expelled on the first day, now do we?”
I shook my head. “Most certainly not. Let’s go.”
As we ran down the hallway, I asked Rod, “So what squad are we having Military History with?”
“Some squad of a bunch of people we don’t know. I think they’re called Drisco Squad.” He said the last part with a laugh.
I followed suit. “What kind of a name is that?”
Rod shrugged. “Beats me.”
“Wait, what’s our squad name?”
“We don’t have one yet. At any time in the next week, we’re supposed to work with our squadmates to come up with a name. But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, our squad isn’t so big on the whole “teamwork” thing quite yet.”
I sighed. Which was something I was doing a lot of these days, unfortunately. Things will get better, I assured myself. Things will get better . . .