Chapter 7: Things Are Looking Up
Reach, September 17, 2550
My eyes opened slowly, gradually letting in light as I began to wake up, and then promptly snapped shut as way too much light blasted it’s way into my head. I began the process again, this time turning over to try and block out some of the -
THUD! I fell off whatever I was laying on, instantly opening my eyes and shooting out my arms reflexively as I slammed into the ground. I was about to cry out in pain, except I felt none.
Still numb, I realized. Damn bullets still haven’t worn off, whatever they were.
I heard someone gasp and feet running over to me. Groaning, I pushed myself up and tried to stand, but ended up falling over again, grabbing the side of my cot, which is what I had been laying on, to steady myself.
“Careful,” said a tender voice from behind. A hand touched my shoulder and another wrapped around my back to help lift me up. I stood up slowly, my legs shaking still relying on the stranger and the wall to keep me upright.
“Just take it easy,” the stranger said again, and I realized that it wasn’t a stranger; it was Kim, I turned around to face her but did it too quickly, once again sending me stumbling to the ground. Kim caught me with a grunt and hauled me up again, leaning me against the wall.
“I said take it easy, smart one,” she sighed, letting go of my shoulders as I regained balance enough to stand up on my own. I realized as she let go that my heart had been beating faster when she was touching me.
Stop! I told myself. Don’t think like that. She was just helping you. And although that was true, that didn’t mean I wasn’t a little doubtful. Or was it hopeful?
I shrugged. “Never was an fast learner.” I looked around me and figured out that I was in a nurse’s office, in the medical bay. It seemed to be filled with fairly standard stuff, except there was no nurse.
Now that I was facing Kim, I could see that she was as fucked up as I was. I couldn’t feel any of my wounds, but I knew they were there. Her face and arms were marked with scrapes and bruises, with a particularly nasty cut on her shoulder. Small welts covered her exposed skin, probably the result of the bullets that had hit us in the last hallway.
I raised an eyebrow. “You’ve looked better.” She laughed slightly.
“I would say the same to you, but honestly, I think the inconceivable amount of welts on you will speak for themselves. Eventually.”
“So you know that I can’t feel anything?” I asked, and she nodded.
“Mainly because I feel the same way,” she explained. I opened my mouth to ask her another question, but she cut me off.
“Before you ask, they were stun rounds. The things that were hitting us in the last room. They sting like hell when they hit you and then numb you up so you can’t feel anything.”
I frowned, confused. “Why would numbing us -”
“Because we only got hit with weak ones,” Kim said, cutting me off again before I could finish my sentence. I closed my mouth in annoyance, apparently making some sort of face, because Kim made one back.
“They’re the rounds we’ll all be shooting during capture the flag and our combat simulations.” She walked over to another cot and sat down. “Except then, they’ll be more powerful. A few shots should completely stun you.”
I sighed, looking up and down my body at all of the welts I had accumulated, realizing as I did so that my shirt was off.
I felt my cheeks flush as I looked back to Kim, who was just sitting there like this was completely normal “Um, where’s the uh . . .”
“The nurse?” she finished, and I nodded. She hopped off of her cot and walked over to the door, glancing out of the glass pane in the center. “She left to go get something. I brought you here after you passed out, and she told me to take your shirt off -” She took my shirt off? “- and lay you on the cot. She said she’d be back in a few minutes.” I nodded slowly, only half listening to Kim as I looked around desperately for my shirt. Kim turned back to me, and I stopped looking, returning my attention to her. She raised an eyebrow.
I assumed a confused expression. “What? Oh, um, no, not really. I was just wondering if you had my . . . “ I trailed off as Kim walked over to a table and lifted up my shirt.
“Ah, yes, that,” I said, catching the shirt in midair as Kim tossed it to me. I quickly pulled it over my head.
“It’s not like I haven’t seen a guy without his shirt on before,” she laughed as I popped my head through the shirt hole. I raised an eyebrow.
“Oh really?” She cocked her head slightly.
“Please, of course I have.”
I shrugged and slowly inched my way off my cot. “Well sorry for not assuming that you’ve . . . you know . . .”
Now it was Kim’s turn to look confused. “What? Oh, geez, no, not like that! No, I just meant that I . . . Well, I did have two brothers.”
She rolled her eyes. “Stop being such a child, Stark. You could’ve at least acted normal.”
I shook my head as I made my way over to the table. “No, I was the one acting normal. I didn’t exactly feel very comfortable being alone in a room with a girl, half-naked.”
Kim laughed. “Well when you say it like that, it just sounds -”
She was cut off by the sound of the door opening. We both looked up to see the nurse walk in. She was an older woman, and waddled in with a holotablet in her hand.
“Ah, you’re up!” she exclaimed brightly as she saw me. I half-smiled and opened my mouth to speak, but she continued. “You two having fun in here?”
Both Kim and I began to protest, talking over the other. “What? No!” “Not like that!”
The nurse swatted a hand as she walked over to me, quieting us down. “Oh hush now, I didn’t mean like that! You young ones, always taking everything so seriously!”
I glanced over at Kim, who rolled her eyes. I nodded assent as the nurse began to administer a basic check-up.
“You got pretty banged up out there. The obstacle course has a habit of doing that to cadets, even after their first time through.”
My eyes widened. “The first time through? You mean we have to do it again?” The nurse nodded.
“Of course! You’ll probably keep doing it once every week or so until your final assessment at the end of the year. It’s part of the daily work out.” I groaned as she typed something in on her tablet. “I’ll probably be seeing more of all of you in the upcoming weeks. Thank god I’m not the only one here.”
She told me that the numbness would wear off in a few hours, and that when it did I should take a dose of the medicine that she then gave me.
“You’ll hurt, but don’t take too much,” she warned. “Good luck!”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll be needing it.”
* * *
“This here, cadets, is the MA5 Individual Combat Weapon System. It is the standard issue assault rifle for all UNSC forces, and has been so for many, many years.” Sergeant O’Malley held the gun up in the air so we could all see. It was finally time to begin the shooting portion of our training, something that Rod and I had been looking forward to for a long while. Our entire class was gathered at the shooting range, which was basically a sectioned off portion of the training field near the forest border. We all were facing O’Malley, whose back was to a large, open rectangular pavilion with a concrete floor. Rod was standing beside me, and when he laid eyes on the gun that O’Malley held up, a huge grin spread over his face. He nudged me in the ribs.
“Can’t wait to get my hands on one of those,” he said excitedly, barely holding himself together. I laughed.
“Geez, Rod, calm down. It’s just a gun, after all.” Rod nodded.
“This is the gun you will begin training with today,” O’Malley continued, holding the weapon close to his chest as if reluctant to hand it over. “Divide into squads.”
We all followed his command, assuming our normal positions among our squadmates.
O’Malley paced back and forth, laying the gun over his shoulder. “The squad currently leading in points will shoot first. That would be Magnus Squad.” I glanced over at Mark’s squad. Mark was their squad leader, and he stood proudly in front of his squad as their name was called. He shot me a smug look.
Rod nudged me again. “Magnus? What the hell -”
“It means ‘great’ in Latin,” Kim interjected, sticking her head between Rod’s and mine. “Mighty, powerful; that sort of stuff.” Rod snorted.
“Looks like they’ve developed a bit of an ego.”
She shrugged. “They are in first place.”
“That’s no reason to get all uppity on us!” he protested. I rolled my eyes. “It’s kind of the only reason.”
“At least we picked a humble name,” Rod said, quickly lowering his voice as O’Malley continued, giving instructions to Magnus Squad on how to handle the firearms.
I nodded. “I’m actually kind of proud of it.”
O’Malley’s booming voice silenced me immediately. “Alright, Fidelis Squad next!”
I perked my head up, realizing he had called our squad up. Cody looked over his shoulder at all of us, nodded, and walked forward to the front of the crowd. O’Malley lead us over to the long table that bore the six assault rifles, and gestured for us to pick them up. We lined up along the firing line, each of us a few feet apart.
“First rule of firearms safety: keep your gun pointed in a safe direction,” he instructed. “Safe directions include the ground, up in the air, and downrange. Point your firearm any other place and I will personally arrange your room in hell after I kick you so hard you fly into space.” He pointed his own gun down at the ground. We followed suit, holding the gun with two hands at turning it at an angle so that the muzzle pointed at the concrete slab we were standing on.
“Second rule: keep your little grubby finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire!” At this, we all moved our fingers off of the trigger, except for Kim, whose finger had remained on the grip the entire time. Hmph.
“Third rule: keep your gun unloaded until you are ready to fire.” O’Malley placed his gun down and held up a clip of ammunition. “7.62x51mm ammunition. 32 rounds per magazine.” He passed out the clips, one for each of us.
“This rifle is a bullpup design, so it is fed from behind the trigger.” O’Malley lifted his gun up so that the muzzle was pointed up at the roof, exposing a slot just behind the grip where the magazine was pushed into. We loaded our guns and then pointed them downrange at the metal targets that stood twenty-five yards away.
O’Malley then put down his gun and walked up to Cody, who was closest to him. “Hold the gun up with two hands and push the stock firmly into your shoulder, just like that.” He walked down the line, correcting our stances and grips, until we were ready.
“On my mark, fire. You’ll feel a bit of a kick then. Or perhaps a bit more than a bit. Those of you who keep the stock against your shoulder will get rocked a bit. Those of you who push it away from yourself will get the shit kicked out of you.” Rod let out a quiet laugh. Instantly, O’Malley rounded on him.
“YOU THINK THAT’S FUNNY, CADET?!” he shouted right into Rod’s face. Rod looked taken aback, but he still had a trace of a smile on his face.
“Um, a bit. Sir.”
“AND WHY WOULD THAT BE?”
“Surely the kick can’t be that bad. Right?” O’Malley’s face twisted into a knowing grin. I didn’t like that grin. I wanted to beg Rod to shut up for once, but he wouldn't have have listened even if I did.
“Why don’t you demonstrate then, cadet?” Rod grinned, pushing the stock against his shoulder and aiming at the target. He breathed in. He breathed out. Then he squeezed the trigger.
But he pushed the rifle away from himself. I suppose if you know it’s going to kick, you want it to be as far from yourself as possible. The rifle gave a deafening BANG and hit Rod hard in the shoulder. Down he went, right onto his ass. The look on his face was utterly priceless. In fact, the only ones who refrained from laughing were Cody and Kim. Cody offered Rod his hand with a sympathetic smile, and Rod grinned sheepishly up at him.
“Now let that be a lesson to you!” bellowed O’Malley. “ON MY MARK!” Instantly, we turned and aimed at the metal targets twenty-five yards away. I was in between Kim and Cody, but not paying attention to either of them. For once. I was entirely focused on the rifle. I knew where I wanted the shot to go. I knew how it would get there. In theory, it would, right?
“FIRE!” The air was suddenly full of loud BANGs, mine among them. Then several THUDs as people fell from the force of the kick. The rifle slammed back into my shoulder, hard, but I kept my stance flexible and it rocked me, nothing more. Of course, Rod fell over again, and so did Ed, looking rather hilarious with his bemused expression.
Once the air was still again, O’Malley ordered us to place the rifles on the floor next to us. Not taking any chances, I suppose.
He walked to the targets. Most people had missed. He came to Mark, who had actually hit it, and gave him a nod of approval. Cody had hit it too. A nod for him. I held my breath as he approached my target, my stomach clenching in anticipation. Then O’Malley turned and nodded at me. I let a small smile drift onto my face, a smile of pride, then watched the sergeant with interest as he approached Kim’s target.
O’Malley stood there.
Then he turned to Kim. “Cadet!” he shouted, and Kim flinched almost imperceptibly. “Have you handled a firearm before joining the Marines?”
“No, sir,” she answered with confidence, raising her chin. “This was my first time holding a weapon of any kind.” O’Malley stared at her now. It had become an uncomfortable silence by the time he opened his mouth again, and when he did, Kim’s face tensed, as if she was preparing for a lecture. A very loud lecture.
“You have the makings of one of the best sharpshooters this academy has ever seen, Kimberly Barrett,” he finished almost gently, to everybody’s surprise.
Kim blushed very faintly. “Thank you, sir.”
“BUT AS FOR THE REST OF YOU,” he shouted. “YOU CALL YOURSELVES CADETS?!” And after that it was business as usual. But just after the lesson, I jogged over to Kim’s target. And stared just like O’Malley.
The bullet mark was dead center.
I stared after Kim as she left the room, chatting happily with Rod. It seemed like there was a lot more to her than I’d previously realized.
* * *
I knew trouble was coming when Mark came over during mess hour, flanked by two other cadets of the Magnus Squad. He stood over Kim, who sat at the end of the table, casting a shadow over her. She looked up, her face angry already.
“Something on your mind, Mark? Spit it out, then.” Her words sounded almost resigned, like she knew that he was going to do something.
“How did you do it?” His voice was very, very quiet, and that scared me far more than yelling and insults did.
“Do what?” Kim challenged, standing. She was a full head shorter than Mark. The mess hall was dead silent as people noticed the faceoff.
“Cheat,” Mark answered softly. “I know you don’t have a good enough arm to hit that target, much less hit it dead center. You’re too weak.” He feinted towards her, as if he was going to hit her, and she flinched. That made him laugh softly.
I realized that when the two of them had been together, he’d hit her.
“You don’t know a thing about me,” Kim hissed in a low, deadly voice. Mark wasn’t put off by the death stare this time. He was too angry. And he had backup.
“How did you do it?” he demanded, louder.
“I didn’t cheat, you idiot!” she shouted, rising onto her toes to get into his face.
Face twisted with rage, Mark backhanded Kim across the face, making her fall hard into the table with the force of it. Her face hit the edge of the table, and there was an audible snap before her nose started gushing blood. That jolted me into action. I jumped up from my seat and ran to where Kim lay sprawled on the floor, pinching her nose. I sensed the rest of my squad forming a protective wall in between Mark and us.
“Kim,” I said urgently. “Kim, are you okay?”
“Fine,” she answered shortly, and that one word was so full of outrage that I shivered. I reached out a hand to help her up, but she shrugged me off, standing herself. She pushed in between Rod and Cody until she was right in front of Mark again.
“You want me to tell this whole hall what this is about?” Kim cried. She didn’t wait for an answer. “You were this little, insignificant boy back home, so you beat up on your girlfriend - on me - to make yourself feel better. And it did! I was afraid of you, and that made you feel powerful. You think you’re so great? You’re still a little, pathetic, insignificant boy, Marcus Jonathan Tybalt! I am not afraid of you anymore, and I never will be. You have lost. So shut the fucking hell up!” The hall rang with her words, and I was shocked to see her green eyes glimmering with a liquid that looked suspiciously like tears. She looked pretty badass with her nose still pouring blood and black eyes blooming on her face.
I don’t know who started it, but someone started clapping. Soon the hall was filled with all the cadets - except Magnus Squad - were standing there, applauding, with idiotic grins on our faces. Kim was smiling slightly, too, but it looked like she was in a lot of pain.
“Come on,” I said, tugging on her arm. “Let’s get you to the infirmary.”
* * *
“Yep, she’s broken her nose,” the nurse said, moving away from Kim after applying a small brace to her nose, which caused her to groan.
“This is going to be great,” she grumbled. “Just great. Going through training with a broken bone! What could be better?”
Ed, who had helped me take Kim to the infirmary, cleared his throat a bit. “Actually, it’s cartilage. Not bone.” Kim gave him the death stare, silencing him, and then turned to me.
“What’s the next thing we’re doing with O’Malley?”
I thought for a second before answering. “I think he said it was capture the flag.”
“Shit,” Kim swore under her breath. The nurse, the same one we had met with after the obstacle course, rolled her eyes.
“Must you be so vulgar, young lady?” Kim didn’t respond. The nurse gave me a look, which confused me.
“You should make sure she stops it,” she told me, picking up a clipboard and scribbling something on it quickly. I glanced at Kim, who was raising an eyebrow, as if to say, Try and make me. Then the nurse handed me a small container of pills. “And make sure she takes these every night to relieve the pain.”
I laughed nervously. “Um, I’m not really in any position to-”
The nurse huffed. “I would think that a poor girl’s boyfriend would at least want the best for her!” My face flushed instantly, and I could see that Kim’s did too.
“Oh, um, she’s not my-” I stopped, fumbling with the words in my embarrassment. “What I mean is, I’m not her, uh, boyfriend. We’re not together, actually. At all.” The nurse chuckled, turning to leave.
“Well, then, that better get fixed soon.” And with that, she left.
I sighed, not daring to look at Kim. Ed was standing in the corner, his body shaking from controlled laughter. I shook my head, and shoved the container of pills at him.
“You’re our squad’s medic; you give her the pills every night.” Ed nodded, his body finally still, except for the twitching smile glued to his face.
“Yes sir,” Ed quipped, giving me a mock-salute and then leaving the same way the nurse had. I turned back to Kim, whose face was still red. I could feel my cheeks burning, so I knew mine was too. Stupid body always betraying my emotions.
Neither of us said a word for a while, until Kim stood up, and to my surprise looked slightly offended. “Why didn’t you want to give me the pills?” she demanded, and I took a step back, even more confused than before.
“Wait, what? I just thought that-”
“You don’t have to be such a kid about it!” she snapped, temper flaring for a moment. I shrank back, hurt. What the hell?
Kim’s face flushed red again, suddenly looking embarrassed again, and then strode out of the room in a huff.
“Girls!” I exploded, kicking the edge of a cot hard. “What the hell? One second they’re all embarrassed, the next they’re pleased, and then they’re ready to kick the shit out of you! What’s she really mad about? Is it seriously pills? Such a stupid thing to be mad about!” I stormed around the infirmary, my face thunderous, for a few minutes before flopping down on a cot, my arm thrown across my face to block out the light.“I hate my life,” I muttered.