Chapter 6: Fidelis Squad
Reach, September 17, 2550
“Wake up, buttercup!”
I slowly opened my eyes, staring at the dark ceiling of my room. Who’s shouting?
“I said wake up!” The lights flicked on and I let out a yell, diving under my covers, away from the blinding rays of pain.
“Jesus, man, what the hell are you doing?” I screamed, peeking out from my protective blanket for a split second to see who was at the door. It was Rod. No shit, Sherlock, I thought with an inward sigh. Who else would it be?
Rod walked over and pulled my covers off. I shivered as my skin was exposed to the cold air.
“We got to get moving. Today’s a field day, remember?” said Rod, who, surprisingly, didn’t have a stupid grin glued to his face. Then I realized what he had said, and any tiny bit of happiness inside of me died.
“Oh no,” I groaned. “Damn field day. All the more reason to sleep in.” I tried to take my covers from Rod, but he was adamant.
“Not unless you want to run an extra 5 laps. Around the entire academy.”
I shot bolt upright. “Did O’Malley really say that?”
I got up . . . . and crumpled to the floor in a heap. “I can’t do this, man.” I moaned, putting an arm over my head.
Rod shook his head and walked out of the room. “Whatever, man.”
Realizing that I really, really did not want to run an extra 5 laps, I got up and stretched.
“Running, hand-to-hand combat, running, fighting, obstacle course, running, fighting. You got a full day ahead of you, Jason Stark,” I muttered to myself.
“Don’t forget about the running part,” I heard someone say behind me. I turned around and saw Kim. In a tank top and shorts. Really short shorts. Are those even following dress code?
I cleared my throat and quickly shifted my gaze from her thighs to her face. “Oh, yeah, I hear there’s going to be a lot of that today.” Kim grinned, which warmed me up. Not just because she looked . . . great, per say, but because it was the first time she had actually looked happy in a long time. After the news of her family’s death, she had gone back to her old self, never interacting with the rest of the squad and never looking anything but depressed. Now, it looked like nice Kim was back. Cool Kim. Awesome Kim. Sexy Kim.
I mentally kicked myself and grimaced. Shut up, Stark!
Kim raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”
“Oh, no, nothing’s wrong,” I assured her, leaning on one hand against the wall. “Everything’s cool. Well, as cool as it can be on a day like today. A field day. Which is what today is, by the way.” Smooth, idiot.
Kim gave me an amused look and waved. “See you at breakfast, Jason.” I waved back as she walked off. “See you . . .”
When she was out of sight, I smacked a hand to my face. “Well that went brilliantly, Stark. Another 10 points for you.”
“I heard that,” yelled Kim.
I froze and groaned. “Damn . . . it.” I walked over to my dresser and pulled out my field shirt and shorts. “Another great start to what will most likely be a great day!”
* * *
Although talking while running isn’t exactly the most efficient (or less painfull thing to do, I found myself doing it anyway. The rest of my squad and I were discussing what our team name should be while we finished up the final lap of “Sarge’s Hell of Intense Training” run, or the SHIT run for short. So far, it was living up to its name, and it was only the first time we had done it. We would have to do it twice more over the course of the day, in between bouts of hand-to-hand combat training and an obstacle course. Whoopdee fuckin’ doo.
“So we’re officially ruling out Awesome Squad?” asked Cody in between huge gulps of air. Ed nodded, squeezing his eyes shut for a second to focus on breathing. “Yeah, it’s a stupid name.” Rod jogged up beside him and gave him a hurt look.
“Hey, it took me all morning to come up with!”
“You sure it didn’t take you longer? It’s a pretty intelligent name, probably required a lot of thought,” I joked, pulling up beside Kim and Biff, who had pretty much remained silent the entire time. Kim looked like she was trying to think, so I left her alone.
Cody cut back in the conversation. “Listen, we don’t want to sound pretentious. I’m sure Mark’s squad will have that covered. Our name should be something honorable.” We all grunted assent. We reached the main courtyard of the academy, weaving in between the prone forms of lounging students and benches. As we approached the fountain in the center of the courtyard, which had a statue of a Greek spartan on it, Kim snapped her fingers.
“I got it!” she exclaimed. “Fidelis Squad!” We all gave her confused looks, and she sighed in disappointment. “Really? You guys don’t know Latin?”
“Just tell us what it means, for Christ’s sake!” Rod pleaded. “We’re running a marathon here!” Kim rolled her eyes.
“It means ‘loyal’, simply translated.” She gave us an expectant look, trying to gauge our level of approval. “Do you guys like it?”
I pondered it for a second, but before I could respond, Biff spoke up.
“I like it. It sounds honorable, like Cody said it should be. And he is our squad leader.” Cody looked genuinely pleased with himself, as did Kim. Rod shot a shocked look at me.
Did he just speak? he mouthed. I shrugged. Apparently, yes.
“Then it’s settled,” Ed announced. “We’re Fidelis Squad.” A brief moment of completeness followed his words, as we all realized that we now had a name. It seemed like for the first time, we were a team.
“Fabulous,” Rod panted. “But when does this thing end?” I tried to laugh, but I didn’t have enough air in my lungs. Cody pointed up ahead, towards a hill right outside the courtyard. “That’s the finish line!”
“Oh thank God,” I cried. “Any more and I’ll probably die.” Kim shook her head.
I reached the hill with the rest of my squad and the other cadets and fell to the ground, lying on my back and breathing in huge amounts of air to my screaming lungs. Ah, I thought. It feels so good to not be-
“Alright cadets, get off your backsides!”
I groaned. Damn O’Malley to hell!
Reluctantly, I picked myself up off the ground, leaning on my knees to continue catching my breath. O’Malley stood before all of us, arms crossed and feet spread apart in a steady, firm stance.
“Ah, yes,” Rod grunted beside me, standing up to his full height. “Fightin’ time.”
I stood up as well, stretching my arms and legs to keep them from cramping. “Wonder how we’ll do this . . .”
O’Malley waited until everyone had stood up and was facing him before continuing.
“This here is the next portion of your training,” he told us, sweeping his arm behind him towards several long rows of large exercise mats. “You will be learning how to effectively and efficiently disarm and take down an enemy using only your body. This is not about fighting,” he said, putting emphasis on the last word and glaring at Rod. “This is about defending yourself. Ask any martial artist and he will tell you that yes, there is a difference.”
Kim nodded, totally absorbing what O’Malley was saying. She looked like she was ready to kick some major ass, either in “self-defense” or not. I feel bad for whoever has to fight her, I told myself. Unless it’s Mark. In which case, I hope he gets wrecked.
“Are there any questions?” O’Malley shouted, looking over all of us for a raised hand. No one obliged. He nodded. “Good. You all seem to be learning after all. Now let’s begin.” He turned and walked toward the mats, and we all followed him.
“There are enough mats here for two people per mat. Partner up.”
I looked to Rod, who nodded, and we walked over and claimed a mat in the center of the hill. Kim found Miley to partner with, who almost looked scared. I looked around to see who Mark was partnered with, but I couldn’t find him amidst the mass of cadets.
So much for trying to gauge his skill level.
“The first thing you should know is a proper stance!” bellowed O’Malley. “Face your partner and spread your legs out a shoulder width apart. Yes, like that. Good. Now raise your hands up to your chest. Dominant hand back, other hand forward.” I followed his instructions until I had assumed the complete proper fighting stance. Rod had done it well too, and he narrowed his eyes as he faced me. I grinned and did the same.
O’Malley continued. “You have to keep your knees bent. If you don’t, you’ll be too stiff, and your opponent will easily knock you over. Bradley’s got it, right over here. Knees bent, feet spread, hands up.” The sergeant rose out of the position to walk among us, checking and correcting our stances. When we all looked ready, he began to teach us the basics of UNSC hand-to-hand combat.
He told us that even though it sounded stupid, this was an art, not a science. “When you’re out in the shit in the middle of a firefight, when you’re so in the shit that you’re not sure what’s actually shit and what isn’t, when you’re so covered in shit that you become the shit, do you want to have to recollect the exact moves and stances of combat? Hell no! Everything needs to be natural. It needs to be ingrained in you. It needs to be you. It needs to be you more than the shit is you. And that is not science. That’s art. It’s the art of war, cadets.”
He showed us how to engage the enemy with our bodies without getting shot to hell. How to disarm an opponent. Where to punch and kick so that it will immobilize our opponent and leave them stunned in pain. When to strike and when to retreat. How to block an oncoming attack and then how to turn the situation to your advantage.
Soon we were sweating and panting more than we had when we were running. O’Malley ran us through drill after drill after drill until we could barely stand. Then he had us rest . . . and do it all over again.
We didn’t actually fight each other yet, though. “That’s for later,” O’Malley explained. Right now, it’s about time for some more running!”
“Shit!” one of the cadets yelled.
O’Malley rounded on him and gave him a hard, slightly insane stare. “Exactly! SHIT!”
A few cadets laughed at the pun, but most of us just groaned as we all stood up and began our second round of running.
* * *
It was time for the obstacle course. A huge, sprawling mass of metal walls, ramps, ladders, pits of mud, cargo nets, rope climbs, and thorn bush runs. The monster of a course had been constructed when the academy was first built, although it was smaller than it was now. The tradition was that every year since, a new portion had been built to add on to the course. No one knew what had been constructed this year, although it probably wasn’t pretty. Or maybe it was . . . in a sinister sort of way.
This was one of the few training events that actually required that each squad select two members to represent their team in order to compete. How well the cadets did was reflected in points awarded to the cadet and their teammates. The obstacle course wasn’t the only event that did this; capture the flag, shooting, squad readiness and squad attentiveness were all things that gave points to squads. The Squad Leaderboards had recently been created to rank the top teams. So far, Fidelis Squad was doing well, but Mark’s squad was beating us, holding the top spot.
O’Malley gathered us at the entrance to the course, which was a large archway split in half, one side for each squadmate.
“Now you must select your two members that will compete!” he barked, quieting down the excited mass of cadets with his booming voice. “I suggest that you pick your fastest, most agile squadmates for this task.”
“No shit,” Rod muttered. “So who are we sending?”
I shrugged and looked at Cody, who was glancing around at all of us, sizing us up.
He bit his lip, thinking hard. “If we want to select our fastest runners, that would be Kim and me.” We all nodded. Rod opened his mouth to say something, but Cody held up his hand.
“But that’s not all. I’m not very limber, or agile. I can sprint fine on flat ground, but while having to vault over walls and climb? No way. That’s not me.”
Biff nodded slowly. “A good leader understands his weaknesses.”
Cody blushed for a second. “Thanks, Biff.”
I stared nervously at my feet. Kim was definitely going to be one of our contestants. While she wasn’t as strong as us guys, she could do as many or more push-ups as us because of her light weight. She was fast, had great stamina, and could certainly handle anything the course threw at her. Because, of course, of her determination. Or stubbornness. However you wanted to put it.
At least, let’s hope anything, I thought to myself. While I wasn’t our fastest, I was pretty nimble. I hadn’t exactly inherited Chris’ broader frame, leaving me much slimmer than him. This being said, I had a sneaking suspicion about who Cody was going to ask to be our second contestant.
“I think Jason should be our number two.”
Yeah . . . no.
I looked up at everybody’s faces, and took a step back. “No. No way. I’m not doing this.”
Ed frowned. “Why not? You’re pretty fast. And you’re definitely the most nimble out of all of us, save Kim.” I still shook my head.
“Look, I know that I’m one of the most fit for the job, but I’ll just . . . I’ll just end up . . .”
“What?” Kim asked.
“I’ll probably just fuck it up, like always!” I yelled, making her recoil. She gave me an incredulous look.
“Why the hell would you think that?”
Rod intervened before I could respond. “Kim, leave him alone! And Jason, chill, man. You are the best for the task and you’re going to have to do it. You want to beat Mark’s squad, right?” I nodded, and Rod put a hand on my shoulder. “Then do it.”
“Alright, time’s up! Send up your selected cadets!” O’Malley ordered.
Kim walked up without hesitation, not even glancing back to see if I was coming or not.
I can’t show weakness around her, I told myself. Especially not now. God knows she barely shows it. If not for the way she looked that day when Sarge told her that her planet had been glassed, I would’ve thought that she had none at all. Without me telling them to, my feet carried me forward to stand next to Kim at the starting line. She flashed me a grin.
“Knew you’d come through,” she told me, kneeling on the ground in the starting position.
“How?” I asked, kneeling beside her. Her smile widened.
“Some things you just know.” As O’Malley fired the starting gun, my only thought was, How does she believe in me even before I believe in myself?
Then there was nothing else I could focus on except the course. Kim darted into the left corridor, and I took the right. I took and corner and immediately sank into dense, gooey mud that reached up to my waist. Gritting my teeth, I fought through it, aiming for a thick rope at the end of the pit. The rope looked easy enough to climb, but when I grabbed it, I realized that it had been slimed with some sort of grease, making it slippery and hard to grip. But I dug in my nails and climbed, pulling myself out of the mud that tried to cling to me.
I pulled myself onto the metal platform that the rope was attached to and continued along my course. I sprinted along the platform, careful to avoid the railing-less edge, and leapt from the end of the first platform to a second. Thanking God that I wasn’t afraid of heights, I continued acting like a billy goat until I reached a ladder, which I shimmied down as fast as I could.
I was faced with a realistic rock wall, complete with mist that drifted from the ceiling to make the rock slick. My heart sank. Nimble though I was, climbing never had been my thing. I was better at . . . scrambling. Or better yet, avoiding the obstacle completely. Nevertheless, I grabbed ahold of the slippery rock and hoisted myself. Surprisingly, I encountered little difficulty until something in the rock stabbed out and sucker-punched me in the gut. I gasped in shock as, simultaneously, my body jerked at the blow. Both my feet and my right hand slipped the rock and I dangled by the left hand, trying to catch my breath while clinging desperately to my handhold.
Ah shit, I thought. Come on, Stark, haul yourself up!
I really didn’t want to fall the 30 feet to the ground. Gritting my teeth, I swung out with my right hand, trying to reclaim some sort of grip. My palm scraped against the jagged stone and I sucked in a breath as it cut gashes. My left hand was about to give out - now or never. I swung again and managed to grab a small handhold with the tips of my fingers. I adjusted my grip and breathed again as I found footholds. I scrambled up the rock face, and sighed in relief as I pulled myself onto the top. The sight that greeted me as I stood almost made me cry. I wasn’t yet halfway through.
“Oh my god,” I sighed as I looked below me. A small pool of water sat directly beneath me, at the base of the rock wall.
Dive, dive, dive, I told myself. And I jumped.
Quickly I assumed a pencil dive position, clamping my legs together and crossing my arms over my chest. I managed to squeeze my eyes shut right before I hit the water.
My body spasmed as I was submerged in the coldest liquid I had ever felt, which was strange because I couldn’t feel anything. My arms shot upwards and my feet did little flutter kicks as I desperately searched the edge of the pool.
Holy SHIT this is cold!
My numb fingers found a metal rung, wrapping around it but not feeling it. I pulled myself out, spitting out water in huge mouthfuls and shaking uncontrollably as I sank to the ground. Standing up was not an option: I was just too cold. Too numb.
Come on! I urged myself. Just get up! What would Kim think of you?
I groaned, hating myself for bringing Kim into this. Why can’t I just rest here?
Because this is being timed! And losing to Mark cannot happen!
No buts! Pull yourself together and get on with it!
I punched the metal floor, which brought feeling back into my hand, along with a huge amount of pain. I jumped up and began to rub myself vigorously, looking around for my next obstacle. I saw a narrow corridor in front of me, and I ran towards it, not even waiting to make sure it was-
THUNK! A metal pole shot out of the wall at foot level, tripping me and sending me falling to the ground. I landed flat on my face, like an idiot.
“Goddamn!” I yelped as I stood up feeling my face and continuing to run. My nose was bleeding, and my chin was scraped badly.
“Could’ve been worse,” I muttered to myself, just as another pole shot out of the other wall, this time at stomach level. My eyes widened as I dodged it awkwardly, sidestepping and barely managing to keep myself upright.
Now shut up and focus on NOT failing, I encouraged myself.
The hall seemed to stretch on forever as I continued to dodge, duck, jump, and weave my way around the poles that viciously attacked me. I got hit a few more times in the arm and the leg, leaving behind nasty bruises and small gashes. Sweat began to obstruct my vision as it fell into my eyes, which made them sting, like I had gotten a wave of saltwater thrown in them. Nevertheless, I ran onwards.
Just as it seemed that the hallway would never end, I made out a break in the usual white-gray wall that surrounded me. Up ahead it looked like the course spread out into a wider area, and, thank god, seemed to contain no more damned poles. I allowed myself a sigh of relief as soon as I cleared the final pole, one that came out at chest level. Thinking quickly, I dropped to my knees, using my remaining momentum to propel myself forward in a knee-slide underneath the pole.
I slid to stop a few feet into the next room, which was indeed larger than the hall. A lot larger.
The room was wide, but long, not exactly square. The same high walls marked the perimeter, and the same cold floor was at my feet. On the other end of the room, I could see a door; one that lead straight outside, and I could hear people talking excitedly from it. This was the last obstacle. I stood there for a second, only a second, as I took it all in, waiting for something to pop out at me. A pit, a wall, a maze - something.
I frowned. Absolutely nothing was happening. I took a tentative step forward, then another, then another . . . but the room remained still.
Something’s up, I thought, beginning to run for the other side of the room. Something’s going to happen, and it’s probably going to fuck me up.
And something did. Right as I got about halfway down the room, I heard a scraping sound. I looked up to my right and saw that a row of panels near the top of the wall were sliding back, with small black mechanisms popping out of the holes left behind. The same was happening to my left.
Just as I figured out what was happening, a gunshot rang through the room, reverberating off of the metal walls. A searing pain entered my upper arm, causing me to gasp and stumble in pain.
“Guns?!” I shouted in disbelief, not comprehending why the fuck I was being shot at with live rounds in training. I kept running, reaching over to my arms and expecting to feel warm, sticky blood gushing from a bullet hole. It was sticky, but it wasn’t warm, and it wasn’t blood. That much I could tell, but I wasn’t ready to do a full examination while I was being shot at.
More of the guns began to fire, peppering the ground around me with tiny explosions of whatever it was they were shooting. I dodged incoming shots and ran in zigzags, but I was still being hit in the chest, legs, arms, and back. Every wound stung, but after the initial pain faded, a numb feeling overcame the spot where the bullets hit. It was so powerful that I found myself moving slower and slower with each step, lurching more than running.
I looked around desperately for some sort of cover, but there was none. Just a long, empty room with a door at the end. I ran as fast as I could, trying to block out the stings and overcome the numbness.
The door drew closer and closer, and soon I was on autopilot, looking straight ahead at my destination as my mind just went blank. Soon everything felt numb, and no thoughts entered or left my empty mind.
I threw myself through the doorway with my last ounce of strength, flying a few feet through the air and then landing on the grass, past the finish line. I heard people shouting and clapping, and I felt someone shaking me as I laid there motionless. But my vision was blurry, and I could feel myself losing consciousness, until I finally drifted off.