Chapter 4: . . . Twists and Turns
Reach, August 21, 2550
“So, can anyone tell me why the Battle of Thermopylae was so important, even though all of the 300 Spartans died?” Sergeant Dunmore, our Military History teacher, looked around the room, which was shaped like a miniature auditorium, with several rows of ascending benches in the back and a large holotable in the center of the room. His eyes settled on Edward, who, for the hundredth time, was raising his hand to answer the question.
Dunmore sighed. “Mr. Worthing, you have already answered most of the questions. Could you please give other students the chance to contribute?”
Ed lowered his hand with a roll of his eyes. Mr. Dunmore, nodding appreciatively, then pointed to a cadet from Drisco Squad.
I was sitting in between Ed and Rod. Like the Sergeant had said, Ed had been answering most of the questions that he had asked. Rod, on the other hand, was content to mess around on his school-provided tablet for the entire length of the class. Strictly speaking, they were for “educational purposes only”. Strictly speaking.
I glanced at Ed, who was busy shaking his head at what the cadet was saying, even though the Sergeant seemed pleased with the answer. I gave Ed a puzzled look.
Noticing my questioning glance, Ed turned to explain, whispering so that he wouldn’t be noticed.
“Even though what that guy is saying is technically correct, it’s not the best answer you could come up with.”
I was still befuddled. “Well, why wasn’t his good enough?”
Ed let out a breath, like he was about to explain something long and tedious. Damn it.
“You see, I believe that when you do something, you should be putting in 100% effort. No matter what it is you’re actually doing. Giving a ‘satisfactory’ answer is just not good enough. If you’re bothering to answer or do whatever it is you’re doing at all, then why not just do it to the best of your ability?” he said, looking at me and Rod, who had just begin to listen in.
Rod shook his head with a smile. “Overkill isn’t always the best approach, amigo. And that’s coming from me. Sometimes, it’s just better to not have to put in the effort.”
Ed leaned closer, a perfectly serious expression on his face. “I believe overkill is always necessary, Rodriguez.”
Rod snorted. “Not with girls, Mr. Worthing. There’s no telling what could happen if you go overkill on the ladies!”
The classroom went dead silent. Everyone turned to stare at Rod, who, realizing that he had just shouted that, proceeded to attempt to shrink to the size of a mouse, unsuccessfully of course. Cody put his hands in his head, Biff sighed, Kim looked like she was going to murder someone, and Ed and I were trying to resist laughing our asses off.
Mr. Dunmore cleared his throat, giving Rod the worst teacher-stare of all time.
“Very, very intriguing outburst, Mr. . . . .?”
“Rodriguez,” Rod squeaked.
“Would you be interested in telling the class what you and Mr. Worthing spoke of?”
“Um, well . . .” Rod still sounded like a mouse. He cleared his throat, attempting to regain his composure, with limited success.
"I'd rather not say."
Mr. Dunmore nodded, as if expecting this.
“In that case, please repeat to me Mr. Kendrick’s answer regarding the Battle of Thermopylae.” At Rod’s blank look, Mr. Dunmore half-smirked. “Surely you were paying attention? You don’t expect to become a Marine without paying attention, do you?”
“No, sir. The thing is . . .” Rod began, clearly thinking hard. “The thing is, I don’t approve of Mr. Kendrick’s answer.” Mr. Dunmore frowned thunderously.
“Oh? And why not?”
“You see, sir, while what he was saying was technically correct, sir, it wasn’t the best answer he could have come up with. Sir, my actions just now make me appear to be a hypocrite, sir, but I do believe that if you’re bothering to answer at all, sir, you should put in 100% or more of your effort. Sir.” I tried to suppress a smile. Rod didn’t seem to have noticed his overuse of the word ‘sir’ in his nervousness.
Mr. Dunmore looked thoughtful for a moment, then, at last, nodded his head. “You raise a fair point. All the same, in the future, I expect you, Mr. Rodriguez, and you, Mr. Worthing, to pay more attention. Am I understood?”
“Sir, yes sir!” cried Rod and Ed in unison.
“Good. Now, the Battle of Thermopylae . . .”
Rod slouched back in his seat with a heavy breath. He gave me a tired look, as if to say; This is going to be harder than I thought.
* * *
When class let out, it was off to Tactics in 3 minutes. Walking down the hallway, Rod and I were talking about what had happened in class, when Kim ran up to us.
“Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh shit,” Rod muttered. He was right. Kim looked calm, but that was what made me nervous.
She gave us a smile, and we returned the gesture, grinning up to our ears. Then without warning, she pulled back her hand and slapped Rod hard in the face.
“What the HELL was that?” she yelled as he reared back, a bright red handprint on his face. He grimaced in pain, stumbling into me in shock.
“Geez, woman! Everyone makes mistakes!” he protested, raising his hand to ward off another sudden attack.
But it didn’t come. Kim just stood there, her arms folded across her chest.
“Look, I’m sorry for hitting you, but you deserved it. Making our squad look like a bunch of fools isn’t exactly a rewarding enterprise.” She shook her head and began to walk away, but I grabbed her arm as she passed.
She looked at me with those green eyes, although they didn’t seem like the ones I had looked into at the recruiting station.
“Let go of me,” she snarled, ripping her arm free of my grasp. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
I narrowed my eyes slightly. “I’m not afraid of you,” I said softly. And I wasn’t. She was a cadet, a fellow human. The only thing I needed to fear was the Covenant.
She cocked her head slightly, raising an eyebrow. “Oh real-”
“Yes, really!” I interrupted, causing her to shut her mouth in surprise. Without waiting for her to retaliate, I continued.
“Look, we’re all on the same team here. Literally. We’re a squad, which means we need to work together, and that can’t be done when we’re busy hitting each other,” I said, giving Kim a look. Then I turned to Rod. “But we also have to keep our mouths shut sometimes, too.” He lowered his head acknowledgement. Looking back to Kim, I pointed across the all at Mark and his squad, who were busy chattering on their way to their next class.
“You see them? They’re the people we need to be worried about. Not each other. If we want to be good, or even be the best, then we do need to shape up, Kim. You’ve got that right. But it we also need to stick together. Sitting by yourself, away from the rest of us, or constantly making your displeasure with us apparent to everyone around isn’t helping.”
Kim pursed her lips, searching my face for any sign that I was joking around. She didn’t find anything.
“You know what?” she said, taking a step closer to me. I held my ground. Holding in a breath, I let her talk.
“You’re right, Jason Stark. For once.” She said the last two words in a whisper. She looked at Rod, who seemed to be frozen in disbelief, then turned to walk down the hallway.
“Come on, let’s go. We’ve got a minute left to get to class,” she said over her shoulder. Rod and I exchanged glances, then followed close behind her. Rod raised his eyebrows at me, his eyes darting from Kim to me. His meaning was clear. I gave him a shove, and he grinned. As he regained his footing, I heard loud footsteps behind me. I turned to see who it was, and immediately my mood fell.
“Hey, Stark,” Mark said, his usual cold smile on his face, approaching me swiftly. I stopped walking, and so did Kim and Rod once they realized that I had. Rod let out a sigh, but I couldn’t tell what Kim was doing, since she was behind me, and I was making sure to face Mark without looking away. He stopped once he had caught up to us.
“Couldn’t help but overhearing your little conversation with my girlfriend,” he said, his smile widening when he saw my confused expression.
“Wait, Kim’s your-” I started, but Kim shoved past me, cutting me off with a single look.
“We’ve been over this, Mark,” she said through gritted teeth, giving him a hard stare. “I’m done with you. Ever since you beat up that boy in-”
“Oh, please,” Mark laughed. “He had it coming to him when he tried to hit on you.”
“He just complimented my hair!”
“And so I roughed him up a little.”
“You broke his arm! And gave him a concussion!” At this, Rod winced.
“Whoa, sounds like someone’s got anger issues,” he muttered.
Mark stepped past Kim, all signs of his genial facade gone. “Shut your mouth, Rodriguez. We don’t want a repeat of earlier today, now do we?”
Rod leaned back, as if recoiling from Mark’s breath. “Well, I seem to recall that Jason and I gave you a pretty bad beating, so I’m actually not to worried about another round.”
Mark opened his mouth to retort when Kim stepped in between them. “Mark, step away. Now.” He backed up, his eyes suddenly a little worried. I would’ve been, too. Kim looked far angrier than she’d ever been with Rod and me. She advanced on him, looking like she was about to beat the crap out of the guy, but in unison, Rod and I caught her arms.
“Come on, Kim,” I said with a glance at Mark. “Let’s go to class.”
For a moment, I was sure she was going to refuse. Then, “Fine,” she snapped, flipping her hair out of her face and stalking off without a backward glance. Rod had no such reservations; he gave Mark a superior smirk as we hurried after her.
Once we caught up, I noticed Kim taking deep breaths, clearly trying to calm herself. “Thanks, guys,” she said, and Rod and I exchanged startled looks. “It would’ve been bad if I’d tried to fight him. He would’ve kicked my ass.”
“Nah,” I said, and Rod nodded his agreement. “Did you see his face? He was freaking terrified. You’ve got one hell of a death stare, Ms . . .?” I realized suddenly I didn’t know her last name. Weird.
“Barrett,” she finished with a small smile. “My full name is Kimberly Barrett.”
“Well, then, Ms. Barrett,” Rod said in a playful teacher-like voice. “As my colleague was saying, you gave that dickhead one hell of a death stare. Quite impressive, considering he’s your ex-”
“Shut up, Rodriguez,” Kim interrupted suddenly, but she was smiling. “I’ll still beat you up.”
* * *
The first few days of training were pretty much the same. Wake up, get in dress uniform, eat breakfast, go to classes, eat lunch, go to classes, eat dinner, enjoy evening break, go to sleep. Rinse, wash, and repeat. It became a standard routine, relatively uninterrupted by scrapes with Mark. That was what the cadets at the academy called little skirmishes or face-offs: scrapes. It was one of the many little bits of slang we all picked up during our time there.
Several weeks went by, and in that time I finally got to watch the video log Chris had sent me. It wasn’t anything too extraordinary; just the usual “Hey, how you doing?” kind of deal. But it was good enough for me. Chris had said that he’d try to send a log once every month at least, but I understood, with his busy schedule and all, that he couldn’t make any promises. After watching his, I decided I’d make some of my own.
I sat down at my holodesk and turned on the camera that was built into the wall above my desk. A little green light winked into existence by the lense, and I began to record.
“Hey Chris. I thought that since you started making some of these, I’d return the favor. You know, just to pass the time . . .” I trailed off, not really knowing how to continue. It was my first time really making a video log, and it felt kind of weird just talking to myself. But I kept going nonetheless. “So I guess we’re supposed to start physical training a week from now, at least according to Rod. Oh, right, you don’t know who that is . . . he’s one of my squadmates. Along with several others. Biff, Ed, Cody, and Kim. Cody’s our squad leader. We don’t really have a name yet. I guess we just haven’t had the time to talk about it.” I was starting to run out of things to say, so I just ended it.
“Yeah, so I guess I’ll just end it here. Not really much else to say. See you later, bro.” I shut off the camera and quickly sent the file to Chris’s holodesk, all the way on the other side of the planet. I leaned back in my chair, glancing at the clock on the desk. It was just about 8:00, right after lunch. Lights out was in an hour.
“So what’re you doing?”
I spun around in my chair to see Kim standing in my doorway. I hadn’t even heard the door open.
I cleared my throat once. “Oh . . . I was just recording a little video log.” I elaborated once I saw Kim’s curious expression. “My older brother Chris, just got into the officer’s academy in-”
“Yes, I know where that is,” Kim interrupted impatiently, leaning against the doorframe. I raised a single eyebrow, and she rolled her eyes. “Sorry. Please continue.”
“That’s more like it,” I said softly. Before she could retort, I kept talking. “Anyway, he decided that we should keep in touch, so he started making some video logs to send me. Just to keep me posted about what was going on over there. So I decided I’d make some too.”
Kim cocked her head slightly. “Is that it?” I nodded.
“Pretty much, yeah. Life isn’t too interesting over there . . . or over here, really.”
She straightened up, pushing herself off of the wall. “I disagree.”
“Oh, really? What’s so exciting about taking a whole bunch of boring classes?” I asked, gesturing towards the schedule I had pulled up in my desk.
Kim shrugged. “It’s more exciting than life back home.”
That got my attention. Maybe I’ll finally learn a bit about her. That’s good . . . right?
“So . . . what was life like ‘back home’?” I asked, putting air quotes around the last part. Kim swallowed, shifting her feet like she was uncomfortable talking about it. She reached up and twisted a bit of her hair around her finger unconsciously.
“I’d . . . rather not talk about it right now. It’s kind of a . . . touchy subject.” The atmosphere was suddenly tense, but I didn’t want to let it go.
“Hey, I told you about Chris.” Kim shook her head.
“Maybe later, Jason. Not now.” She turned, walking out of the room, still playing with her hair. I relaxed against the back of my chair, letting out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Women, I thought, shaking my head. Why does everything have to be so dramatic with them?
Just then Rod entered. I sighed.
“Is someone organizing a party in my room or something?”
Rod assumed a quizzical expression. I rolled my eyes. “Everyone’s confused when they walk in, too.” This didn’t help Rod. “Kim was here,” I explained, and that seemed to clear it up for him.
“So how’d that go?” he asked.
I rubbed my face with my hand, tired and utterly devoid of energy after answering all these questions. “I’m actually not sure. She came in asking what I was doing, I explained, we discussed how exciting it is here, she didn’t want to talk about her home life, and then she left.”
Rod narrowed his eyes. “You know everything you just said there?”
“Yeah . . .”
“It made no sense.” I let out a long breath and slouched even farther down my chair.
“Terrific.” As Rod turned to leave, he held up a finger, like he just remembered something.
“Oh, by the way, physical training starts tomorrow.” I sat bolt upright, almost falling out of my chair.
“What?!” I yelled. “I thought it started next week!” Rod shrugged.
“Apparently O’Malley is having it moved up to tomorrow. He sure loves making us all hate him.”
I nodded, standing up and walking over to my bed. “He’s a shoo-in for Bastard of the Month.”
Rod shook his head as he walked out the door. “Don’t forget our dear friend Mark.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I mumbled as I took off my uniform. Once I was out of it, I fell onto my bed and was out cold in less than a minute.
Who knew talking could be so tiring . . .