Chapter 1: Alone
I tucked away the note pad as fast as I could and stared back at Gunnery Sergeant Smith.
"What the piss is wrong with you?!" The NCOIC barked.
"Sir, just reviewing the pre-mission brief!" I had to yell at the top of my lungs back to the Gunny. The wind outside the open hatch was like a freight train. Lungs had to compete with the vacuum-like draft for air. Of course, the pre-mission brief had already been uploaded to each of our HUDs in case anyone was late or drowsy during the real brief less than an hour ago.
"Bullshit! You're writing haikus and shit." A jesting smile spread across his face for an almost imperceptible instant.
I smiled and once again placed my attention out the rear hold, unable to help myself from staring at the Spartan-II next to it.
"Gotta love the Gunny." said a voice nearby. "Great guy."
I looked over to the Marine sitting adjacent to me.
"You'll get a hard time from him being the FNG, but he's cool. You'll see."
I smiled, not knowing any other way to reply.
"Haven't seen good old trees and ink in years." He said. "Keeping a diary there?"
"Something like that."
"You a writer or something?"
"You could say that. Started when I joined back in twenty-five fifty."
"Corps make you introspective like so many others?"
"Eh, I don't know. When I wasn't running missions or training for missions, well, wasn't much doing anything. You know how it goes. This helps me stay sane and out of trouble during the hurry-up-and-waits. People know me as Shakespeare. My real name is Blake Penington. Private Penington if you want to keep it in context."
He nodded, looked away.
A very bright flash stole every occupant's attention for a fraction of a second. Eyes darted to the rear, staring far off out the hatch. It was extremely distant, in fact below the horizon aft of us. Whatever was out there, it likely no longer existed. The birefringence from a blast of such magnitude extended high into an altostratus sheet of cloud cover, adding overt clarity to the night. Without a sound, the plume of light softly waned and dark took over again.
All eyes went to where they were before.
We hadn't touched down yet. Actually, we were a long ways away from it. I rememebred the map in the briefing room prior to launch. With our average velocity, I estimated about twenty klicks before we hit dirt. Lima Company was running alternate QRF tonight.
"I heard about you, the writer. What are you writing about this time?"
"Just some poem to pass the time."
"Can I see it?"
"Sure, I guess."
I handed it over and he read:
Alone, she sits
Weapons, her only friend
I hope that she'll live
Live through this day
Soon, maybe, she'll mend
We fly into chaos
Seeking the foe
Never to rest in this War
We share one mind
We're going to fight
When will it be no more?
The skies are red
Red like our wrath
We will never surrender!
We pray for the day
When we can rejoice
This we long to remember
For these days are cursed
These days are strange
Why should it be this way?
They brought us no peace
Only the sword
Colonies burned away
They killed her brothers
Killed her sisters
Killing all that she knew
She's fought since then
Biting more than could chew
Tough as nails
Rough as sails
Spartan, she stands alone
But weak at the core
Battered from war
I hope she finds a home
The ship will pitch
The ship will roll
The ship will descend into the fray
I start to wonder
I start to pray
Praying this won't be her last day
I can't see her face
Though, she's just like me
Faster, stronger, different
Becometh a hero
Feeleth no fear
She's angry, tired, distant
A draft then swirls
Into the hold
The battle is now at hand
We start our descent
Into the dirt
Here, she makes her stand
I hope that she'll live
Live through this day
I hope that she will survive
To see that this life
Is not blood and tears
She can feel alive
Without any particular expression, he handed it back to me, saying, "Intense, brother."
"Yeah, that's kind of what I was going for."
"It's nice work. Reads like something you'd see in a war journal. I think I know who this is about, too. It's about her, isn't it? Yeah, I saw you eyeballing that green armor."
"So, I guess prime QRF is in some deep shit." I said, speaking loudly over the engines' drone. "Hopefully that wasn't them back there."
"Doubt it." he replied. "Whenever we're mobilized, it's probably just the bastards' usual hit-and-run. You could set your watch by their strategy and truthfully it's a little mundane. The only thing that changes is the location. Per usual, we'll score a few kills on the perimeter before we can get the chance to assault the main force and after we respond another cluster of 'em will pop up elsewhere, blow some shit up, then disappear. They do this at night. Always at night. They're pussies." He shrugged. "Keeps us busy, I guess."
I nodded. Just an acknowledgement signal. But I strongly felt we were headed to battle this night despite the humdrum routine the more experienced Marines had settled into. Strangely, some of the best ideas came to me right before firefights. I guess it was the brain on overdrive, the adrenaline racing throughout the body giving me that elusive, creative spark I rarely knew of. I would enjoy it for now, but when I hit dirt the good side of it goes away. It's where my other writs come into play. The vivid, violent ones that people knew me for. The one I just wrote was special, though. I wouldn't share it again.
I became aware of the same Marine glancing my direction again, seeming to scrutinize me every few seconds.
"Is there anything wrong with my loadout?"
"No, you're alright. Everything seems rigged correctly. But you do seem unusually at ease tonight."
I propped my rifle on the deck and rested my hands over the muzzle, straightening my posture. "Why's that?"
He cracked a mellow smile. "You're one of the few motionless bodies in this bloodtray."
"Well, all this gear and body armor is killing my back. The less I move, the less I think about it." I shrugged lightly.
"You don't know it yet, but most of the Marines your age are scared shitless. Just takes time to see it. But you pull off composure like a ten-year veteran. What's the secret?"
I shrugged. "No secret. I just daydream a lot, maybe too much."
"You must really have a deathwish. Last guy I saw not paying attention was sent home covered in plasma burns."
"Well, in my old unit the others thought that same thing you did from time to time. Thought I was either crazy, depressed or just pretending to be one of the two because I never squirmed before things got real. They called me The Introvert. That was until they discovered I was writing all the time. Told them I preferred Shakespeare."
"Well, lucky you, then. Some here crack jokes to ease the tension, sometimes on each other, but mostly on her. The other, more hardcore folks rehearse Jujitsu in case it comes to that. Others strip and clean their rifles until it could probably pass a depot-level magnaflux inspection. Everyone has their ways, but now you're the newcomer, just some FNG from another world. You know what that means."
"Means everyone's got a hard-on for me, wants to find out what makes me tick until I'm either KIA or some other FNG comes along and steals the spotlight."
"Yep, and it's bad enough you're the current FNG, but you're the FNG whose reputation already precedes him among the higher-ups. Guess you made a name for yourself in training. That means twice-as-tall hard-on for you."
"And probably twice as hard. Well, I suppose some of the junior NCOs and lower enlisted will pay particular attention to me for a while."
He nodded. "Just hope they don't resent your cool head or you'll never get a moment's peace after combat."
"Why is that bad? I assumed it was a good thing for someone to have thick skin in the Marine Corps."
"It is. But there is such a thing as having too thick a skin. You'll get attention that way as well. Just my opinion, but that's one of the reasons Amy was alienated from the beginning."
"What do you mean?" I asked, looking in her direction, "And what other reasons?"
From what I gathered, she sat alone all the time as if invisible to her commrades, always staring out the open rear hatch and into the world we passed by. She was like me, a ghost in her own shell, her gaze locked solid onto the tent of sweeping foliage below as if swept up in a vivid memory herself.
"I think she'd rather it be this way anyways," he said, "and let's just say she's not a real talker to begin with. She'd rather just look and think, like you. The Gunny keeps the hatch open for her every drop. They have some sort of understanding."
All I could see from my seat was blackness with the occasional flash of distant bombardment. It was the only stable reference for the horizon, the eerie pulses of light and chaos far beyond somehow comforting to a distant observer.
He sighed and reluctantly elaborated. "Gunny and a select few here know about her past and it ain't pretty. Some people in Lima Company probably wouldn't handle it the right way, so he keeps the fraternization level at a low. No one really makes casual conversation with her, and it's certainly not condoned. But make no mistake, Shakespeare, once the bullets and the plasma start flying they'll never lose sight of that gold visor. She's the best asset in any ground engagement and she'll keep you alive."
"And other than that, she's off limits."
"Yeah, that's the running trend in this unit."
"She deserves friends too. Hell, she's a hero."
"Yeah, but it's for good reason."
I nodded while mulling over his words. He spoke them with subtle conviction, and I sensed they were true. I couldn't help but feel sympathy towards her and a disdain towards them, the War, the whole galaxy. The universe finds ways of tempering you into something you weren't.
Nevertheless, I admired her. I sensed her plight and felt her courage.
But I could never be her. She is superhuman. She is a Spartan.
And though every man, woman, and child passionately hates the Covenant, I couldn't possibly know the true measure of her rage...
"Corporal, I still don't think I understand fully. I question the Gunny's reasoning on this one. I mean, why isolate her if she's so effective? Couldn't we all gain something from her experience?"
"Well, you're a Marine just like the rest of us." he said rhetorically, carelessly fastening a carabiner to his primary weapon. The spring-loaded metal slapped shut with a clack louder than anything that instant. "So, you know that Section Two will tell people what they want to hear. Civilians think the War isn't getting any closer to them. People of Earth think we're winning. They think we're winning because of Spartans. They know they'll never die, but Amy knows differently."
"She prefers not to get close to anyone these days, and I can't say I'd blame her."
Of course, I thought. She's lost friends in combat. Understandable.
"But everyone's lost someone out there."
"True," he said, "but she's lost a little more than that, Shakespeare. Beta Hydrii was her homeworld. They glassed it about a decade ago."
I looked back to her. Five klicks out and she starts her weapon's final inspection.