Section I: Baptism


Chapter One: Diving In Headfirst

1500 hours, December 23, 2524 (Military Calendar) \
Harvest, Epsilon Indi System

It was a hot day, today.

Nothing new, really. Every day was a hot day on Harvest. We don't really have much of a winter here.

Harvest was only a third the size of Earth, and we orbited around our sun very quickly, causing our seasons to rocket by and blend seamlessly into each other. The result was a perpetual warm, moist climate. Most of winter felt like a cool autumn day, most of autumn and spring felt like summer, and most of summer felt like Satan's oven.

Don't let the Earth-based UNSC Calendar fool you into thinking it was truly December on Harvest. It was useful for Humanity's efforts towards collective timekeeping, and for the organizing of historical events, but we on Harvest followed the rhythms of our own sun, our own world. We divided our short local years into seasonal months, each lasting seventy-one days, and right now we were approaching our midsummer. The height of the growing season.

A fly buzzed through one of the bus's open windows and landed on the back of my neck. I was the latest chapter in the story of this fly's eternal search for food.

I ended its story with a well-aimed slap, brushing the fly's still-twitching corpse off my neck and onto the ground. Served the little bastard right. He picked the wrong soldier to mess with.

Okay, so maybe I'm not a soldier yet. But I'm going to be. If I don't die of heatstroke first.

When I first saw recruitment fliers on the streets and sidewalks of Gladsheim, fliers which advertised the benefits of volunteering to join the Harvest Colonial Militia, I thought it was all a big joke. Why the hell did Harvest need a militia? We're one of the quietest Colonies in the UNSC, not to mention one of the most remote. The nearest colony to Harvest would be Madrigal, which was nearly a month away by slipspace travel. Nothing out of the ordinary happens here. Everyone's either a farmer, or working in the cities to avoid becoming a farmer. Or homeless like me.

I wasn't ashamed of it. No one ever adopted me. Such was life. My childhood, adolescence, and early teen years taught me that the foster care system was where dreams went to slowly die. Six months ago, I got myself legally emancipated, left the foster care system without looking back, and that was that. No one ever came looking for me. Since then, thanks to universal basic income, I've managed to survive. Enough credits were deposited into my bank account by the federal government each month to help me afford food when I needed it, but not enough for me to afford housing, and the law sometimes made it tricky for homeless people to apply for jobs.

The only jobs available to me were in the factories, or farmhand work out in the countryside. The prospect of spending the rest of my life working in a tractor factory made me want to shoot myself. On the other hand, spending the rest of my life on a farm, shoveling animal shit until I slipped and fell in it, made me want to shoot myself twice. Slowly but surely, Harvest was going to drive me mad. But what could I do? The stars were beyond my reach.

Until, that is, I found the Harvest Colonial Militia fliers, and suddenly everything seemed so perfectly clear. The Colonial Militia would provide me with a home and three meals per day, all free of charge. And then, perhaps someday, it would carry me away from Harvest to a place where interesting things happen.

I'd briefly considered joining the UNSC Marine Corps, but ultimately decided against it. Joining the marines would certainly get me off-world quickly, but with the Insurrection still raging in the Outer Colonies, joining the military seemed a surefire way for me to get shot. Or blown up. And I like having an intact body. At least the Harvest Militia would remain on Harvest, where nothing ever happens. I would even be paid for my service. I could let those payments accumulate along with my universal basic income, and by the time I was finished with the Harvest Militia, perhaps I could afford passage to Reach, or maybe even Earth. Someplace new and exciting.

Another fly landed on my cheek. I tried to slap it off, but it escaped at the last moment.

I'd just smacked myself for nothing, much to the amusement of the sandy-haired twenty-year-old sitting in the seat behind me, who smirked and snickered. Whatever. He was free to laugh and be an asshole.

The flies kept getting into the bus because we had all the windows down. No air conditioning. Keeping the windows up would surely have given us all heatstroke.

The sun hung in the sky, blazing away at anything unfortunate enough to be caught beneath it without shade. A few white wisps hanging near the western horizon were the only clouds that disrupted the otherwise unbroken blue sky.

Our bus rumbled along the Gladsheim Highway, cutting south through the Plains of Ida - an endless sea of wheat, grain, and countless other crops. Harvest is essentially a big farm dressed up as a planet. The vast majority of our land was very arable, and consequently cultivated into farmland. We were the breadbasket of the UNSC. You'd be hard pressed to name a single UNSC Colony that hasn't begun importing something grown in Harvest's golden soil. The fields imitated the ocean, rippling beautifully as the wind breathed across the plains.

I wasn't alone.

Seventy-two people had been crammed uncomfortably into this bus's limited number of seats. We came from all over Harvest. There were some older folks from the cities, folks in their forties and early fifties, who were probably former police or firefighters. I'm not sure what else would justify recruiters allowing folks that old into the militia. Unless recruitment numbers were dismal.

Most of the others on this bus were younger. Late teens, early twenties. Many of them were from the farms of the heartland, no doubt drawn to the Harvest Militia by the possibility of getting to do something less boring with their lives than working a field until senility set in.

Perhaps I'm oversimplifying. I honestly don't know why anyone else is here. Farming might be very interesting, for all I know.

But somehow I doubt it.

I was easily the youngest person on this bus. We were going to be the Harvest Colonial Militia.

"Hey." The sandy-haired twenty-year-old sitting behind me nudged the back of my seat. "Who let you on this bus? Do you even have pubes, yet?"

I frowned, turning around. "The benevolent government of Harvest seems to think so, otherwise I wouldn't have made it past my recruiter."

"How old are you, Junior?"

I shrugged. "Old enough."

"Lay off the kid, Dempsey," grunted the middle-aged mustachioed man who was sitting next to me.

"All of you, shut up," a gruff voice hollered from the front of the bus.

"Fuck yourself, Stisen," the guy sitting next to me fired back.

The rest of the bus ride continued in silence. We gazed lazily at the passing countryside, allowing our minds to wander off into a pleasant alpha state. When the bus finally pulled to a stop in the gravel lot of a military-grade training compound, most of us had nodded off into a tentative sleep.

It was the last moment of peace many of us would experience for a long time.

"GET OFF YOUR SORRY ARSES!"

My eyes flew open to one of the scariest fucking things I've ever seen: a beet-faced UNSC Marine Corps sergeant freshly emerged from the bowels of hell, storming up the bus's center aisle, screaming at the top of his lungs, spittle flying from his mouth.

The name 'Byrne' was emblazoned on his fatigues.

"Get your sorry arses off this bus," threatened Sergeant Byrne, "or you'll run PT until your tears start crying tears of their own! Move it, move it, MOVE IT!"

Everyone sprang up from their seats in nearly perfect unison, shocked into action.

I shuffled into the bus aisle, joining the flow of recruits spilling out onto the gravel lot. For the briefest of moments, we paused to stretch our muscles and adjust to standing after a long time spent sitting down. I nudged the toes of my shoes through the gravel, making little hills and valleys.

That didn't last very long.

Another sergeant arrived on the gravel lot, cigarette smoldering lazily from the corner of his mouth. The name on his fatigues read 'Johnson'.

"Form up, form up!" the second sergeant, Johnson, shouted. "Playtime is over, children! Form up into six columns of twelve before Staff Sergeant Byrne and I decide to start frying you!" To back his threat up, Johnson drew a metal baton from his belt and flicked an unseen switch, causing the baton to hum and vibrate with electricity.

I did not want that sucker coming anywhere near me, so I very quickly sprung into formation. If you could even call it a formation. Our lines were nowhere near straight, and over half of us were still shuffling into position. One recruit, who seemed rather slow, wasn't even facing the same direction as everyone else - he was angled diagonally to the left.

Staff Sergeant Byrne's boots crunched on the gravel as he crossed the parking lot to join Johnson, wielding an identical power baton. He immediately jabbed the recruit who was facing the wrong direction in the stomach, sending the recruit sprawling onto the ground. "Up! Get up!" Byrne screamed at the recruit, who scrambled back onto his feet while trying not to collapse again. "How are you gobshites supposed to protect Harvest when you can't even form straight lines?! You are all wastes of time and space, and you ought to be traded out for a kindergarten class. Six-year-olds could do better than you, and in half the time!"

"Everyone face this way!" Johnson barked.

All seventy-two of us turned to our left and faced the Sergeants directly. They ordered us to begin marching in place, and they kept us at it for at least ten minutes until they were satisfied that we knew our rights from our lefts.

After warning to give latrine duty to the recruits who fell out of step first, Byrne started marching us forward across the gravel lot. Johnson brought up the rear, twirling his baton through his fingers, waiting for some poor schmuck in the back to lag behind.

We marched onto a mown green parade field in the center of the training facility. The mess hall was on the north side of the parade field, the two barracks buildings on the south side. At the narrower western end of the parade field was the infirmary, and I had a disheartening feeling that someday I'd know what the infirmary's interior looked like.

Two flagpoles stood at the eastern end of the parade field. The taller flagpole bore the flag of the United Earth Government, and the shorter one bore Harvest's colonial flag. Behind the two flagpoles was a short building with a veranda and a COM relay mounted on the roof. If this training compound had any kind of HQ building, I'd bet that was it.

The Sergeants marched us into the center of the parade field, then ordered us to halt and turn to our right. We stood ramrod straight and perfectly still, sweltering under the blazing sun, staring at the two flags. The Sergeants stood at attention in front of us, closely inspecting us, waiting for infractions to be made. We were careful to keep good posture. No one wanted to get zapped.

The door of the HQ building opened. Emerging from inside was a well-tanned man with salt-and-pepper hair trimmed down to a military buzz, clad in military fatigues like the Sergeants. I figured he was a little north of fifty years old, but somehow I knew he could probably kill me without breaking a sweat. The double-bars of a Captain in the UNSC Marine Corps were displayed on his cap, glinting in the sunlight.

The Captain's right sleeve was pinioned to his uniform.

I forced my gaze away from the Captain's empty right sleeve. I didn't want to be caught staring, although I still couldn't help but wonder how he'd lost his arm. Had he been shot? Caught in an explosion?

Was I making the right choice, here? Should I be pursuing this kind of work?

The Captain walked past the flagpoles and joined the Sergeants, exchanging hushed words before stepping forward to address us.

The Sergeants retired behind the Captain, standing at ease.

"Recruits." The Captain smiled at us. "I am Captain Ponder. According to the forms you signed before climbing onto that bus, you are now my property. Follow your orders, respect your fellow recruits, and by the end of our time together I will be proud to call you soldiers. Does anyone have any questions?"

One of the recruits from the row in front of me, a teenager not much older than me, raised his hand. "Yeah. I gotta question. When can we go to the bathroom? It's been a real long bus ride, and the bus had no bathroom, and I need to take a piss like you wouldn't believe."

Captain Ponder glanced over to Staff Sergeant Byrne.

"How about right now, gobshite?" Byrne unsheathed his power baton and quick-stepped his way over to the outspokenly full-bladdered recruit, delivering a powerful jolt of electricity right underneath the teen's navel. As the recruit convulsed from the shock, Byrne seized him by the collar and held him up upright.

After a few seconds, the recruit's pants grew wet and the air smelled like piss.

Byrne released the recruit and returned to his place next to Johnson.

"Any more questions?" Captain Ponder asked innocently. No one raised their hands. Not a peep. The Captain's smile widened. "Good. I'm going to turn you back over to my sergeants, now. Best of luck to all, and I shall see you bright and early tomorrow morning. Sleep well, recruits."

The Captain saluted us, turned on his heel, and vanished back into the HQ building, leaving us alone with the Sergeants.

Johnson stepped forward with a datapad and began calling out our names. Whenever someone's name was called, they would shift uncomfortably. No one knew if it was good or bad to be chosen. Thirty-six names in all were called out, but mine wasn't one of them.

"If your name was called, then you are in 1st Platoon with me!" Johnson yelled. "Form up in three rows of twelve over to the left! If your name was not called, then you are in 2nd Platoon with Staff Sergeant Byrne! Form up in identical ranks over to the right! Fall out!"

There were several brief moments of chaos as we scrambled to reorganize into our new units. Once we formed up into our platoon, Sergeant Byrne organized us further into three squads of twelve recruits each. I stood towards the middle of the formation, landing me in the second of our three squads, designated Bravo.

"I am Staff Sergeant Nolan Byrne," the red-faced sergeant announced, introducing himself for the first time. "You all are here to become the Harvest Colonial Militia. Captain Ponder is here to ensure you become capable fighters. I am here to make you flabby fucks curse the day you chose to climb onto that bus. Who here has previous military or law enforcement experience?"

The older recruits raised their hands. Mine stayed down. I've had some experience running from law enforcement, but that's clearly not what Byrne was driving at.

Byrne swept his gaze across our ranks, surveying his candidates. "You, you, and you," he pointed to three of the older recruits who'd risen their hands, one from each squad.

I noticed the chosen recruit from my squad was the guy who'd sat next to me on the bus, who'd gotten Dempsey to lay off me, for which I was grateful.

"Congratulations," continued Byrne, "you are hereby designated squad leaders until you royally fuck up. Questions?" He tapped a quiet rhythm on the grip of his power baton.

No one raised their hands, this time.

"You gobshites are learning," Byrne remarked.

The sun began to touch the western horizon, casting long shadows across the parade field.

"Reveille is played before dawn. You are expected to be dressed in your fatigues and assembled on the parade grounds in your respective units before the music ends. I suggest you sleep while you can. Second Platoon bunks in Barracks Two. If any of you dumb fucks walk into Barracks One, you will be shipped back to Utgard tonight," Staff Sergeant Byrne declared. "Fall out!"

I gladly relaxed, letting my hands fall to my sides. I turned left, following the human flow to the barracks at the south side of the compound, double-checking to make sure I wasn't about to walk into Barracks One.

That would be humiliating. I'd be that guy everyone talks about who didn't even make it to the first night.

Bunk beds filled the interior of Barracks Two. There were eighteen of these double-bunks lining each wall, each bunk having two footlockers set on the ground in front.

I grabbed the first empty bunk I found. Just as I was about to climb in, however, a firm grip closed around my arm, yanking me back out into the aisle.

It was Dempsey, who'd sat behind me on the bus. "Seniority gets the lower bunk, Junior," he sneered, tossing his duffel onto what should have been my bunk.

God, I wanted to give him the verbal lashing of his lifetime, but the words just didn't come. So instead, I muttered under my breath and grabbed the upper bunk. "If I wet my bed at night, you'll be the first to know," I told Dempsey.

That shut him up.

Staff Sergeant Byrne walked down the central aisle that ran between the bunks on either side of the barracks, instructing us to open our footlockers. Inside was a razor and mirror, a toothbrush and toothpaste, some shower shit, and neatly-folded olive-green militia fatigues, along with gray underwear.

Byrne then made all of us strip down to nothing. "Any of you feel uncomfortable?" The staff sergeant chuckled. "Well, get used to it. Personal space is the first thing you are going to be tossing out the window here."

We quickly changed into our new underwear and fatigues before Byrne ordered us into bed for the night.

"Enjoy the night," grunted Byrne. "Tomorrow, you'll wish tonight never ended. Good night, gobshites." The Staff Sergeant turned and took a few paces towards the open door, but when no one replied to his 'good night' he halted and turned back around and raised his voice to a more dangerous volume: "I said Good Night, Gobshites!"

"Good night, Staff Sergeant!" we all chorused in unison, out of reflex more than anything else.

Byrne exited, shutting off the lights on his way out. Once he was gone, the others began to speak again. Some muttered to themselves, groaned, or complained, a few sniffled and cried quietly, and the rest made small-talk. The older recruits were even capable of laughter. I kept quiet, content to lay back on my bunk and listen to everyone else. I rested with my hands behind my head, not bothering to pull up the covers.

This was definitely not what I had in mind when I strolled into the Gladsheim recruiting station with a Harvest Militia flier. I could feel the weight of what was sure to be a taxing future. I don't think I'm in great shape. This was going to hurt.

What have I gotten myself into?

Someone jostled my shoulder, shaking me from my thoughts. I glanced over and came face-to-face with the guy who'd sat next to me on the bus, who Byrne had chosen to serve as a squad leader. "Hello…?" I half-greeted, half-asked.

"John Carrol." The ex-constable extended a hand. "You're in Bravo Squad, right? I'm your squad leader. I've already gotten most of the others' names, but I don't have yours yet. I'm sure as hell not calling you 'Junior' for eight months."

I shook Carrol's hand. "Alley Garris."