Chapter 5: Field of Pain
Reach, September 9, 2550
“Alright, listen up, cadets!”
Sergeant O’Malley’s voice blasted through the air, immediately silencing everyone gathered outside under the hot, bright sun. It was a perfect day for absolute torture, or at least that’s how Kim had put it at breakfast.
Our entire class was gathered out on the huge field of the Academy. We were all dressed in khaki cargo pants and black t-shirts that had the letters “NAMA” or “New Alexandria Military Academy” printed on them in white. I’d spent the morning trying to figure out how Kim could look beautiful in crappy military clothes. This was also the first time I’d seen her with her hair up in a ponytail, and it made her green eyes appear even larger and prettier. And more dangerous. That didn’t mean that I was afraid of her; she was on my team, after all. Plus, I think that we may even be friends now . . . were we?
My thoughts were interrupted by the sergeant. “This morning marks the beginning of your time in pure hell! From now on, when you are on this field, you will be in pain at all times! If you are not physically exerting yourself beyond your pitiful human limits, then you have no place here, or anywhere else in the Academy! Am I understood?”
“Sir, yes sir!”
O’Malley nodded slowly. “Good. Divide up by squad. Two single file lines. Move!” We did as he said, separating into our squads and then splitting from there into two lines. Cody and I were at the front of our lines.
“Now . . .” O’Malley said, pacing up and down in front of us, looking each of the cadets at the front of their line straight in the eye. He didn’t say anything for a while, letting his word hang in the air. Then he got to me. He narrowed his eyes, recognizing my face. He remained silent, and so did I, staring straight at him. Neither of us flinched, until his face hardened in preparation for a furious shout.
“DROP AND GIVE ME FIFTY!” he bellowed, screaming, into my face, then looking at everyone else, indicating that was an order for all of us. Without hesitating, we all dropped into push-up position.
O’Malley kept pacing. “Count ‘em out loud so I can hear with my old ears!”
“One!” we all shouted as we went down for the first push-up. “Two! Three! Four!” I had been doing push-ups since I was eight, and I could do a lot more than fifty, even if I was outside in the hot sun.
As soon as we finished, O’Malley signaled for us to stand up. As we did, I noticed a few of the cadets already sweating up a storm, panting like they had just run a marathon. I shook my head. They’re out.
O’Malley barked another order.
“Now do it again! Drop down for half-a-hundred!” With a collective moan, we all did it again, our muscles weakened and stiff from the brief period of relaxation the sergeant had granted us. I realized as I started the second round of exercise that O’Malley had done that on purpose; giving us a brief moment of respite before making us do it all over again, just to make it even harder and more painful than before. I grimaced in pain and frustration. That son of a-
“Get up, cadets!” yelled O’Malley. “Run a lap around the field. Don’t even think about cutting through any of the corners; you’ll be out of here before you can even begin to beg for mercy.”
I stood up, glancing at Cody, who inclined his head towards the edge of the field.
“We better get running, Jason. Wouldn’t want to incur the wrath of O’Malley, now would we?”
I shook my head and got running. Kim, Ed, Rod, Biff, and Cody all pulled up beside me, and we ran as a group, leading the line of cadets around the field.
It was going well until Mark showed up. Halfway around the yard, he broke away from his squad and ran up beside Cody to come and have a chat.
I kept my gaze straight ahead, noticing his shape in my peripheral.
“So what’s up, guys?” he asked nonchalantly, as if we were his best buddies.
Rod, of course, responded. “The sky, smart one. Do you even use those eyes of yours for anything except staring up your own ass?”
Ed snickered, then took a heavy breath. He didn’t seem to have much experience with exercise.
Kim smiled. “Nice one, Rod.”
“I try my best, Kim.”
“You’re all extremely hilarious,” Mark commented, taking even, solid breaths as he ran.
Great, I thought. He’s an athlete too.
Noticing my sour expression, Mark made a cooing sound, like he was consoling a hurt child. “Aw, what’s the matter, Stark? Not one for jogging?”
“Not with pricks like you,” I responded through gritted teeth. “I’d rather you leave.”
“And I’d rather you get that sad expression off of your face, Stark.” Without missing a step, Mark ran sideways to wedge between Rod and me.
“How about a little race? You know, to cheer you up?” he asked, giving me his usual cold smile.
I glanced at Kim, who was shaking her head. Don’t humor him, her expression seemed to say. Just ignore him!
Slowing down slightly to a more comfortable pace, I turned my head back to Mark
“Sure. Why not?”
Mark’s smile widened. “Then let’s begin.” He broke into a fierce sprint, pumping his arms as he ran. I followed a split second afterwards.
There wasn’t much more left to run, which was good, because it meant that all I needed to worry about was running as fast as I could. Pacing myself wasn’t a problem.
Mark maintained a steady sprint, only a yard ahead of me. Realizing that we were closing in on the end of the field’s edge, right back where we had started, I put on a burst of speed.
Come on! I urged myself. You can’t let him beat you! I ran as hard as I could, closing the gap between Mark and me. Soon we were neck-in-neck. I glanced over at him, and he glanced over at me. He had a look of fierce determination in his eyes. I could tell he was putting everything he had into trying to pull ahead. Mark was good; but I was better.
I began to rocket forward on pure adrenaline. I could see Mark’s face fall as he realized I was going to win. I flashed him a smile. A defiant scowl dominated his features, and then suddenly a grin. Just as I was trying to figure out why exactly he looked so pleased, Mark keeled over, hitting the ground hard and rolling to the side.
I looked over my shoulder, confused. What the -
I froze and looked back in front of me. O’Malley was walking towards me, a look of furiosity etched in every line of his face.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” he bellowed, getting right up in my face.
I swallowed. “Just having a race, sir.”
O’Malley’s face was red. “Did I tell you to race, or did I tell you to RUN A LAP?”
“Run a lap, sir.”
“Damn right I did!” He looked over my shoulder, a look of disgust on his face. I turned to see several of Mark’s squadmates helping him off the ground. Mark looked like he was in serious pain, limping and holding his head at the same time. The sergeant turned back to me.
“Not only did you disobey a simple order, you also cheated while doing it!”
My face went slack in disbelief. I didn’t do a damn thing!
“Sir, I didn’t-” I started, but O’Malley cut me off with a stare.
“I don’t want to hear your petty excuse. Run another lap, double time!”
“RUN THE GODDAMN LAP, CADET!”
I let my arms fall to my side in defeat. I started to jog, then looked over at my squad. Cody was shaking his head, and Rod looked crestfallen. Biff looked stoic, as usual. But Kim . . . was nowhere to be seen. As I was looking back, I found Mark. He looked back, too, his face grimaced in pain. Just as I was about to look away, he suddenly lost all signs of agony and . . . smiled.
I let out a breath, cursing. That slimy little son of a bitch. I pushed myself harder, making myself run faster on pure fury. Why is it always me? Faster. Arms pumping, legs straining. Well, he’s left me no choice. Even faster. I saw a few of the cadets looking at me in disbelief. I was almost done with the lap, in way less time than it had taken them. I will out-perform him in everything he does. I will be the best damn Marine this Academy has ever seen, or die trying. I joined the rest of the cadets, minus Kim. Where was she? I stepped up beside Rod as O’Malley lectured us about the evils of cheating.
“Where’s Kim?” I muttered out the corner of my mouth. He was staring at the sergeant with a look of intense concentration, but the slight tilt of his head in my direction let me know he was listening.
“Sent to Moore’s office. Don’t know why. O’Malley told her right after you began your second lap. Can’t be good news.” I inclined my head ever so slightly in acknowledgement, then began the next set of exercises that O’Malley ordered. I did them all methodically, involved enough to not get yelled at, but still really distracted. When Kim returned, her face was pale, and she looked more vulnerable than I’d ever seen her before.
“What took you so long, Cadet?” bellowed the sergeant right in her face. She looked down at her feet and whispered a few words to her shoes. Instantly, there was a change in his expression. He looked almost guilty about his rough treatment, and sympathetic. He gave Kim a rough pat on the shoulder, then sent her off to join us in our exercises. She began doing push-ups with perfect form beside me, still looking like she was in shock about something. And sad. There was a deep, aching sadness in her that I didn’t understand.
“What is it, Kim?” I muttered, out of breath. I was shocked to see a tear drip down her face.
“Just . . . Just some news from home,” Kim whispered shakily, sounding broken and lost. I didn’t press her. Kim took a deep breath and did five more push-ups before she continued. “My planet’s been glassed. My entire family, my friends, everybody I know . . . they’re all dead.”
I didn’t know what to say. I knew how she felt, but she was worse off than I was. A few of my friends had escaped the glassing of Arcadia. And Chris. I was sure that I would’ve gone insane if Chris hadn’t been there for me, even when he was in training. But Kim . . . she was alone. Completely and utterly alone.
But if my interpretation of her touchiness the last night was true, then her family hadn’t really been family at all. She’d been alone even before the destruction - the glassing just made it certain. And yet, family, no matter un-family-like the family was, was still family. And she’d lost them.
“I’m . . . sorry,” I said, out-of-breath, as we began sit-ups. She shook her head, dashing her tears away angrily.
“It’s not your fault. Let’s just do the training, okay?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
* * *
After the several hours of training and exercise, it was time for lunch. It was probably my favorite meal of the day, only because it meant that I was a bit more than halfway through the day. But this particular lunch wasn’t exactly the happiest. Kim didn’t talk at all, just sitting and picking at her food. The rest of us didn’t really know what to say, or if we should even say anything at all.
After conversing solely through facial expressions and eyebrow raising, Ed decided he’d try and talk.
He cleared his throat, but didn’t get any farther than that.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Kim said, not even looking at Ed, whose mouth was open, about to speak. He closed it, giving us all a look. I tried.
We sat in silence amidst the din of the hall, seeming to be the only squad that wasn’t in full conversation. I felt horrible. I made my squad look stupid by racing Mark, and then I didn’t even attempt to make Kim feel better. I had Chris when we lost our parents, but Kim has no one. I felt that even if I tried to be there, I’d mess it up.
Why the hell am I so freaking stupid?! I yelled at myself. I stood up with my tray, a bit more forcefully than I’d like, knocking over Rod’s cup. Everyone gave me a confused look.
“Sorry,” I muttered, still fuming. I walked over to the trash, dumping my food and turning to walk out, but Mark was all of the sudden standing in my way.
“What do you want?” I asked him, attempting to calm down and resist the urge to punch him right then and there.
He shrugged, looking as if he didn’t understand my meaning. “I don’t want anything! I just came back from a talk with Commander Moore.” Damn it. “She wants to see you, by the way.”
“Great,” I replied. “Glad to hear it. Can’t wait.” Shoving past him, I started to walk towards the door.
“Hey, Stark,” I heard Mark say behind me. I stopped in my tracks, keeping my back to him. “What’s wrong with Kim? She seems upset.”
I took in a deep breath, remembering Commander Moore’s warning about expelling me if I got into a fight again.
“Stark? Did you hear me? Is Kim upset because of you?” The whole hall suddenly got extremely quiet.
I took a deep, deep breath. Just ignore him.
“What did you say to her Stark? Did you make your move or something?” Scattered snickering.
Ignore him . . . I started to walk, still not looking back.
“You want to know how I won her over?” I stopped once again, and this time I turned around. Everyone’s eyes were on me. Mark was only ten steps away. Ten steps from a solid beating . . . .
“Well, Stark? You want to know?” Mark was smiling again. God I hate that stupid-ass grin.
I glanced at Kim, who was now looking away from her food at right at me. But she was emotionless. Not a single expression was on her face, save the blank one she gave me now. I sighed. Guess she wants me to make this decision on my own.
I gave Mark a hard stare. “How’d you do it, Mark?”
He smile widened. “You see, I took my -”
“That’s enough, cadet!”
I spun around to see Commander Moore standing in the doorway, clearly unhappy to see me in here and not in her office. I glanced back at Mark. His smile was gone, and he looked a bit paler than usual.
“Yes ma’am,” he said, his voice even and level. The commander raised an eyebrow, and in that single look told Mark to go sit down. Then she turned to me.
“I think I asked for you to come to my office, Mr. Stark.”
I nodded. Commander Moore turned and walked out of the hall, signaling for everyone to return to their conversations. I followed her out and into the long hallway. My hand was still closed in a fist, shaking in anger. Although the adrenaline rush I had had briefly felt before I almost punched Mark had gone, the seething rage had not. I stared at Moore’s back as we walked, passing several cadets in the hall. They gave me strange looks, as if they were shocked that I was going to the Commander’s office.
Why do they care? I wondered. They don’t know who I am . . .
Finally we arrived at Moore’s office, the door opening and closing behind us with a heavy thud. For the second time, I sat in the chair opposite her desk. I was reminded of what had occurred the last time I was here.
She knew about my father . . . did Chris tell her? And if he did why? These questions suddenly flooded my mind as I took my seat.
“Hopefully this will be the last time you sit in that chair, Mr. Stark,” Commander Moore said as she took her own seat. I shrugged.
“I can’t make any promises, ma’am.”
“Don’t talk back to me, Stark,” she scolded. “And I think you can, actually.”
I shook my head. “No, I really can’t. It was taking every ounce of my self-restraint to not walk up and punch that sorry son of a -”
“Stark!” I closed my mouth, disappointed that I wasn’t able to finish my sentence. I really wanted to.
The commander took a breath, glancing down at the papers in her desk. “I saw that, cadet. And I know why you want to fight back.”
“Then you know that I have to! If I don’t, then-” I began to protest, but Commander Moore cut me off once again.
“And I also know that if I hadn’t intervened, you would have fought back. And do you know where that would’ve gotten you?” she asked, leaning forward in her chair and looking straight at me. I swallowed.
“Yes, expelled.” Commander Moore leaned back in her chair, suddenly looking very tired. Her face seemed to have more lines on it, and her eyes didn’t look nearly as bright and alive as they had before. This was how she really felt.
It was strange how some people seemed to be able to put up a mask so easily, hiding their true feelings from everyone around them.
It’s not just Moore, I realized. Mark, Kim, O’Malley; they all seem to have a mask . . . Do I? And what does it take for the mask to slip off?
I sat in silence, not sure whether or not I was dismissed. But soon the Commander sat up again.
“Do you know why your brother did so well here?” she asked me, glancing to several plaques on the wall to her right. I followed her gaze, searching the names engraved on the brass before I found my brother’s. Chris Stark.
That’s why those cadets looked at me so weirdly, I realized, thinking back to the trainees that had passed me in the hall only a few minutes ago. They know who I am because of Chris. And who wouldn’t? Chris was a legend around here. I was proud that my brother was held in such high regard, but at the same time I couldn’t help but wish that I wouldn’t constantly be living in his shadow.
I can’t always be compared to him. I’ve got to make a name for myself . . .
I looked back to Moore, who continued.
“It wasn’t because he was the strongest. Or the smartest. Although he was certainly up there, in those regards.” I nodded. Commander Moore almost smiled, and not for the first time, I was sure that she really wanted me to do well. She actually wanted me to succeed.
Moore stood up, and I did the same, coming to the conclusion that our conversation was nearing its end. She gestured towards the door, and as I walked towards it, she left me with one final piece of advice.
“Chris did so well here because he really believed. He believed in this academy, he believed in his squadmates, and most importantly, he believed in himself.” I paused as I went through the doorway and into the main hallway, lingering for a second with a question on my mind.
“What was Chris’s squad like? Ma’am?” I asked. Once again, Commander Moore almost smiled.
“Very much like yours, actually.”
I narrowed my eyebrows in questioning. “Was that on purpose?”
Moore turned away, striding back into her office. For a second I thought she was just going to ignore me, but then she responded with a quick look over her shoulder.
“Maybe.” The door closed with a hiss.