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. There really wasn't much of a winter here—Harvest was only a third the size of Earth and most of the other colonies; as such, there weren't any clearly defined seasons. The result was a perpetual warm, moist climate. The "winter" felt like early autumn, autumn and spring both felt like summer, and summer felt like Satan's oven.
Right now, it felt like Satan's oven. Even though the Earth-based UNSC Calendar said it was late December, on Harvest it was in the middle of summer—the height of the growing season.
A fly buzzed through one of the bus's open windows and lighted atop the back of my neck, flitting around in its never-ending search for food. It had probably been flying for a very long time, crossing miles and miles of open ground, searching for something to eat.
I ended its journey with a well-aimed slap, brushing its 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 wasn't a soldier yet—not a real one, anyway. The Harvest Colonial Militia had been created to handle internal security operations on the colony. Almost like the Secret Service of the old days. That was what I was going to be a part of, along withe everyone else on the bus
Harvest is a really laid back colony. It is arguably the breadbasket of the UNSC, or the 'Cornucopia of Epsilon Indi,' as the planetary agricultural operations AI, Mack, liked to call it. It is the seventeenth colony in the UNSC, and probably one of the hardest to get to; the nearest UNSC colony from Harvest was Madrigal, which was several weeks to a month away by slipspace travel.
The point is that nothing out of the ordinary really happens here. Sure, there's always been some measure of violence in the cities, but as colonies went Harvest was pretty crime-free. With that knowledge in mind, when I saw the flier on the streets of Gladsheim advertising the formation of the Harvest Colonial Militia, I went to the nearest recruiting station and volunteered, thinking that being a part of a colonial militia force on a colony where nothing ever happened would entail me to a nice life of quasi-relaxation. And to top it all off, I'd get to shoot a crapload of guns. Life couldn't get any better than that, right?
I slapped off another fly as it tried to go for my eye, but ended up missing and landing on my left cheek. The bus I was on was an older model, not dissimilar to the Mark IV transport JOTUNs used by Harvest's many farmers to transport equipment from Point A to Point B. This bus was essentially the same thing, only it had a makeshift roof welded to the top, and a solid rear, rather than a collapsible metal lattice.
We had all the windows down. It was our best way of combating the heat of southern Edda, where the Colonial Militia's training facility was located. Epsilon Indi, Harvest's sun, hung in the sky, blazing away at anything fortunate enough to be below it. A few white wisps hanging near the western horizon were the only clouds that disrupted the otherwise unbroken blue sky.
The bus I was on was making its way south down the Gladsheim Highway, cutting through an endless sea of rolling hills of wheat, grain, and countless other crops. The whole landscape looked like an ocean when the wind blew through, agitating the tall grass.
There were around seventy other people on the bus with me, crammed uncomfortably into the transport's limited amount of seats. We came from all over Harvest; Gladsheim, Utgard, Asgard, Tigard, Rhelmar, Oëlfurth, and the farmlands that covered most of the Edda supercontinent. We came from all over the planet, all of us brought to the capital of Utgard, located in the center of the continent. There, we were loaded onto this bus. We had made a stop in Gladsheim—the second-largest city on Harvest—and had been heading south along the highway ever since. It was a long drive.
We were going to be the Harvest Colonial Militia.
There were two predominant groups of us—there were the geezers; older gents; forty, fifty-year-olds who had served as part of the Harvest Police Force, or the emergency response/aid services. The rest—like me—were the babies. Young men who, for the most part, had come from Harvest's endless sea of farms. It was about an even split.
I thought it would probably balance out, though; the geezers had some measure of training and weapons experience, being part of the law enforcement agencies, while the babies would have physical strength and stamina, built up from a lifetime of working in the farms.
Me and a few other babies were an exception to this rule, however. I was an orphan. My father had been some sort of businessman, involved with the transportation of the JOTUNs—the machines, run by Mack, which performed a good deal of Harvest's agricultural labor. My mother had left my father soon after I was born…at least, that's what my social worker told me. My father had decided to go on vacation to the Hugin Sea up north…and then some crazy cocksucker who had had too much whiskey to drink decided to get behind the wheel of another car coming in the opposite direction. Both the drunk man and my father were dead before the paramedics reached the crash scene.
I was supposed to be in that car, too, only I had had a stomach virus the day of the vacation, so my father had left me in the care of a babysitter. I had been three years old. Ever since then I had drifted from shelter to shelter, foster home to foster home. None of them had ever been right for me, and I always ended up back on the streets.
Now, I was sixteen years old and on my way to become a militiaman. The social system had been more than happy to hand me off—one less potential troublemaker off the streets. I don't think the recruiters even bothered to check my age; the age cut-off is seventeen, and I am sixteen. I lied to them, told them I was seventeen, and they barely even glanced at my roster. There was that factor, and then there was the fact that recruiters these days knew better than to turn down a young piece of meat who was actually volunteering for active duty. With the Insurrection still raging in the Epsilon Eridanus System, recruitment for the UNSC armed forces was at an all-time low. There were rumors of a draft being brought into play, but nothing had actually happened yet. Regardless, if a young man actually volunteered himself for active duty-if he looked and acted fit, and if he said he was old enough, the recruiters usually looked the other way when the recruits' true ages appeared on their datapads.
Hell, I also figured joining up with the Colonial Militia would probably make sure I never had to get shipped off-planet to fight and die in some other distant world. Sure, I may have been a social misfit these past few years, but I've never stopped loving Harvest. This colony really is a nice place to live.
"Hey, Junior," the man behind me—a tall, muscular, blond-haired man of around twenty—ribbed me in the back of my neck. "What are you doin' here? This party ain't for kids like you who probably don't even have hair on their balls yet."
I snorted with laughter, twisting around to face this man. "Well, the benevolent government of Harvest seems to disagree, otherwise I wouldn't have made it past my recruiter."
"How old are you, kid?"
I shrugged. "Old enough."
"Oh, lay off the kid, Dempsey," the man sitting next to the blonde youth grunted. This man was an older, heavyset fellow with a sweaty face, jet-black hair, and a pencil-thin mustache lining his upper lip. He was one of the former police constables who had joined the militia. I think his name was Carrol. John Carrol, or something like that.
"Both of you, shut up," a third man called out from across the aisle running down the center of the bus.
"Go fuck yourself, Stisen," Carrol grunted, settling back into his seat.
The rest of the bus ride continued in silence. Most of the recruits were sleeping or staring at the passing countryside. When the bus finally pulled to a stop in the gravel lot of a military-grade training compound, most of the recruits were still deep in their thoughts.
When the red-faced, black-haired man in the green-gray fatigues of the UNSC Marine Corps stormed up the bus's entry steps, he was faced with a busload of sleepy, bleary-eyed recruits who had no idea what was about to hit them.
"Get off your sorry asses!" the uniformed man screamed into the faces of the men in the first row of seats, his voice accentuated by a heavy Irish brogue. "You get your sorry asses off this bus, or I will have the whole lot of you pushing 'em out until you start weeping bullets! Move it, move it, MOVE IT!"
I sprang up out of my seat and into the aisle, along with every other recruit who knew what was good for him. At the uniformed man's behest, we quickly filed out of the bus two by two, spilling out onto the gravel lot. We milled about aimlessly, pausing to stretch our cramped muscles and get used to walking around.
That didn't last very long. Another man in uniform was waiting for us outside the bus. This man was tall and dark-skinned. He had a cigarette hanging lazily from the corner of his mouth, its end glowing bright orange as he drew upon it. He was clean-shaven, wearing a green sergeant's cap and reflective golden wraparound sunglasses which obscured his eyes. Like the Irishman on the bus, the dark-skinned man wore green-gray fatigues which had three stripes and a rocker with crossed M6J carbines in the center sewed into the sleeves—the insignia of a UNSC Marine Corps staff sergeant.
I looked more closely at this man. He was definitely a marine, and one who had seen a lot. You could tell just by their look how much they had probably been through. They always had the same grim expression, their eyes usually dull, staring out into space. This guy must have been through a lot. He didn't have the thousand-yard-stare, but he certainly was not laid back. The name stitched into the upper-right section of his uniform read 'Johnson'.
"Form up, form up!" the second sergeant, Johnson, shouted. "Lollygagging time is over, children! Form up into six columns of twelve before Staff Sergeant Byrne and I decide to start frying some greenie farmer-boy brains!" 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 energy.
I instinctively knew that I did not want that sucker coming anywhere near me, so I was one of the first to spring into line. It really wasn't a line at first—people just started lining up behind other people wherever they stood, resulting in a haphazard smattering of recruits all over the lot.
Sergeant Byrne, the staff sergeant who had yelled at us on the bus, clambered down through the transport's double doors and joined us on the gravel lot. He wielded a power baton identical to the one the black sergeant was holding.
Byrne jabbed one kid in the stomach with his baton, sending him sprawling. "How the fuck are you gobshites supposed to safeguard your colony when you don't even know how to form a simple formation? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; we should swap you hopeless duds out with a kindergarten class; six-year-olds could do better than you!"
The two sergeants herded the stragglers into line, jabbing and zapping recruits until we were finally formed up into a reasonable rectangle.
"Everyone face this way and follow Staff Sergeant Byrne to the parade ground!" Johnson barked.
All seventy-two of us simultaneously swiveled around to the left to where Sergeant Byrne was standing.
The Irishman made us march in place for at least ten minutes until he was satisfied that all of us knew our rights from our lefts. After warning to give latrine duty to the men who fell out of step first, the Irishman started marching us forward across the gravel lot. Johnson, the dark-skinned sergeant, brought up the rear, twirling his baton through his fingers, waiting for some poor schmuck in the back to lag behind.
We marched past what looked like an operations building and onto a mown green lawn on the other side. This lawn was surrounded by the various buildings of the compound—the Quonset hut, the armory, the rec center, the two barracks at the south side, the mess hall, etc.
Two flagpoles were erected at one end of the parade field; the higher one bearing the flag of the UNSC, and the shorter one bearing the colonial flag of Harvest.
The two staff sergeants marched us into the center of the parade field and stopped us. We all turned to our right and found ourselves facing the HQ building. We stood there for close to fifteen minutes, sweltering under Epsilon Indi, all of us too scared of what the sergeants would do to us if we dared to break formation.
After those fifteen minutes, the door to the operations building was pushed open from the inside and a third uniformed man stepped out. This man had was dressed similarly to his sergeants, but he also bore the insignia of a UNSC Captain. He had a Sweet William cigar clamped between his teeth. He was well-tanned with salt-and-pepper hair trimmed down to a military buzz-cut. I figured he was a little north of fifty years old, but that did not seem to affect his physical health. He looked like he could take on any one of us single-handed.
That was when my gaze dropped down to his right side. Instead of an arm, there was only an empty sleeve that was pinioned to the side of the Captain's shirt. This man had obviously also seen some action. I forced my gaze away from the Captain's empty right side; I didn't want to be caught staring.
The Captain traded nods with the two sergeants and stepped forward to address us. As he did so, the two sergeants retired behind the Captain, patiently waiting for their turn with us. A fourth man—thin, short, pale, and blond-haired—also emerged from the operations center and stood with the sergeants, exchanging discreet words with them as the Captain spoke. I didn't pay any attention to him; my focus was fixated on the one-armed Captain.
"Gentlemen," the Captain spoke to us, "My name is Captain Ponder, and I am in charge of the Harvest Colonial Militia. I am in charge of you. You are now the property of me and my sergeants. Follow your instructions, never let your guard down, and respect your brothers. If you can do that, you all will pull through this training regimen just fine. We are going to test you—physically and mentally. If you can meet the challenge, if you can conquer it…then I will be proud to make soldiers out of you. It is the job of my sergeants to ensure that this happens. Does anyone have any questions?"
"Yeah," one of the recruits in the row in front of me raised his hand. I could hear the man trying to suppress a snicker. "When do we eat?"
Captain Ponder gave the Irishman a slight nod after hearing the question. Staff Sergeant Byrne unsheathed his power baton and quick-stepped his way over to the smartass recruit who had spoken, delivering a crushing blow to the young man's stomach. As the recruit doubled over in pain, Byrne grasped his collar and hauled him back upright, holding him by the lapels of his shirt.
"You eat when we say you eat," the Irish sergeant growled. "You sleep when we say you sleep, you shit when we say you shit, you piss when we say you piss, and you breathe when we say you breathe; do you understand that, cuntlips? Sound off!"
"Sir…yes, sir…" the kid managed to sputter.
"I said sound off!" Byrne practically screamed into the man's ear.
"Sir, yes sir!" the kid screamed right back.
Sergeant Byrne released the recruit and returned to his place next to Johnson.
"Anymore questions?" Captain Ponder asked innocently. No one raised their hands. Not a peep. The Captain smiled. "Good. I think you're going to have a good time here, gentlemen. I'm going to turn you back over to my sergeants, now. Good luck, and I shall see you bright and early tomorrow morning."
With that, the Captain saluted us, turned on his heel, and vanished back into the operations building, leaving us alone with the staff sergeants and the pale man in the blue fatigues.
Sergeant Johnson stepped forward and pulled out a datapad, probably accessing our files. The dark-skinned sergeant cleared his throat and began calling out names. Whenever someone's name was called, that person would shift uncomfortably; no one knew what would happen if you were chosen.
Johnson called out a total of thirty-six names. Mine wasn't one of them. "If your name was called, then you are in 1st Platoon," he said. "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 your appropriate ranks off to the right! Fall out!"
There were a few brief moments of chaos as we scrambled to join our new units. Once we formed up into our platoon, Sergeant Byrne organized us further into three squads of twelve recruits each. I was in the second squad, Bravo Squad. Our abbreviation was 2/B—the 'B' representing 'Bravo Squad' and the '2' representing '2nd Platoon'. Our designated squad leader was John Carrol, the older constable who had sat behind me on the bus. Dempsey, the blonde kid who had ribbed me on the bus, was also in Bravo Squad.
Stisen, the constable who had told both me and Dempsey to shut up during the busride, became the leader of Alpha Squad, or 2/A, and Habel—a thin, lithe former SWAT operative—was appointed the leader of Charlie Squad, or 2/C.
"I am Staff Sergeant Nolan Byrne," the Irishman finally said to us, addressing us formally. "You all are here to become Harvest Colonial Militia. I am here to ensure that you become the absolute very best I can possible make you. I can guarantee you that you are going to hate me. I am not here for you to love. The road ahead will be a very rough one, but you will finish it. For the next few months, I will be your worst nightmare, but you will thank me for it in the end. Until then, recruits, I bid you all good luck."
When the two sergeants finished talking to us, they introduced the pale man in the blue fatigues, identifying him as Petty Officer First Class Jacob Healy. He was going to be our medic, treating any recruit or other staffer who would get hurt in the days ahead. If there was anyone in this camp who we were going to love during our training, it was going to be him. I had a bad feeling that I was going to be seeing him a lot in the future.
By the time we were finished, Epsilon Indi was already sinking below the western horizon. The shadows of the compound buildings were extenuated to many times their heights as Epsilon Indi sank behind them, striping the parade field with shadows.
"Alright, maggots, fall out and report to your barracks!" Staff Sergeant Byrne called out.
"1st Platoon in the left barrack, 2nd in the right!" Johnson added.
I gladly relaxed, letting my hands fall down to my sides, and turned to the left, following the flow of human beings to the barracks at the south side of the compound. The recruits in Johnson's platoon broke off to the left, ducking into their barracks, while those in my platoon filed into the other one.
Inside, the barracks were filled with bunks. They were two-bunk beds, one bunk fixed on top of another. There were eighteen of these double-bunks lining each wall, each bunk having two footlockers set on the ground at the foot of the bottom ones.
I grabbed the bottom bunk of the fourth bunk down on the left side, but Dempsey pushed me out and took it for himself. "Seniority gets lower bunks, Junior," the blond-haired twenty-year-old sneered.
I refrained from muttering under my breath and instead grabbed the bunk above Dempsey, not willing to give way quite yet. "If I end up wetting my bed at night, you'll be the first to know," I said back to Dempsey. That shut him up.
Staff Sergeant Byrne walked down the 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, deodorant, bodywash and shampoo for showers, and neatly-folded olive-green militia fatigues, along with similarly-colored underwear. Byrne then made all of us strip down to nothing.
"Any of you feel uncomfortable with your balls hanging out for everyone to see?" the Irishman chuckled. "Well, you better start getting used to it; personal space is the first thing you are going to be tossing out the window here."
At Byrne's approval, we slipped into our green-brown pattern boxer shorts and lay down on our bunks for the night.
"Enjoy the night," the Irishman grunted. "Tomorrow, the real deal starts. Good night, ladies." 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. "I said Good Night, Ladies!" he barked, raising his voice to a more dangerous volume.
"Good night, Staff Sergeant!" we all chorused in unison, out of reflex more than anything. I guess that was what it was going to be like in the future; responding to the sergeants' orders out of reflex rather than actually taking time to think about them. It made sense, I guess. In a firefight, you wouldn't have time to descry all the little details of an order when you had bullets flying past your ear.
"That's more like it," Byrne chuckled as he ducked out the door. The lights in the barracks shut off as the door closed.
When the sergeant left, the recruits began to speak. Some muttered to themselves, others groaned and complained, and others made small-talk, laughing with one another. 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 had in mind when I marched into the recruiting station in Gladsheim. I let out a weary sigh as I started to think about the long months ahead. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
As I lay on my bunk, my peace was disturbed by someone jostling my shoulder. I glanced over and came face-to-face with Carrol, my squad leader. "Carrol?" I asked.
"Hey, kid," Carrol said, "You're in my squad from here on out, and I figure it'll be a good idea to start learning everyone's names. I've already gotten most of the other guys, but I don't have yours yet. I'm not gonna call you 'Junior' for the next eight months."
"It's Garris," I replied, reaching down from my bunk to shake Carrol's hand. "Alley Garris."
Welcome back, Halo readers! To start off, I'll probably be splitting my time between this story and another one of mine, so odds are that my updates will be either not as frequent, or irregular. But then again, they have always been irregular, so that's not much of a change. After writing a seventy-chapter Halo story (Good ole' Survivors of Gamma Company) I'm really surprised that I still have the willpower to keep on writing Halo-that last one really drained me. But I guess all I needed was a break and a breath of fresh air.
In Survivors of Gamma Company, I touched upon a possible backstory for Alley Garris when he briefly spoke to Alex about how he had been on Installation 04. He was interrupted before he could actually begin explaining any of his backstory, though, and I never really got back to it later on in the story. Now, he gets the spotlight.
This is going to be a fun story, I think. No more Insurrectionists, no more mysterious splinter groups or unknown aliens with galaxy-dominating plans, and no more Spartans, for now. I'm going back to the good old-school Marines vs. Covenant. I miss those bastards. And I've missed all you bastards, too.