Blake couldn't sleep again. He stared with bitter remorse at the clear little bottle of pills on his bedside table. He'd already taken two, and Cohen had told him in that quiet, studious voice of his not to take more than two every twenty four hours. They were supposed to be powerful. Blake was still toying around with the idea of taking a third, perhaps in frustration or perhaps to spite his insomnia, but finally decided against it.
When Cohen told you something about medicine, he meant it. Because he was a genius when it came to such things. That, and he was a Corporal, and Blake was just a Lance Corporal. Blake shifted his gaze from the pills to the cramped quarters he'd been given when he and Echo Squad had come onboard the ship a few days ago. The Valor, it was called. Blake tried not to think about it as he roused himself from bed and flicked on the lights.
Too-bright light flooded the room, forcing him to screw up his eyes. He rubbed at them absently as he stumbled towards the bathroom. He'd managed that awkward kind of half-sleep when a man can be lying in bed, stubbornly trying to sleep one second and, the very next, in the blink of an eye, five hours has abruptly passed. For him, it was about four and a half. He supposed he should be satisfied with that amount.
Blake studied himself in the bathroom mirror. He didn't like what he saw. He was twenty five, but looked ten or fifteen years older. There was a grim certainty in his eyes, a haunted look that spoke of pain and terror. Blake tried to tell himself that the gaunt, hollow look his face had taken on was a result of the insomnia that had started last year. But, deep down, he knew the truth and knew that he was just lying to himself.
The truth of the matter was that Blake had run out of things to care about. First there had been friends and family, but they had all either died or drifted away. Then there was the military, the Corps, the UNSC...but after a few years, he'd lost any and all sense of patriotism, and duty and honor were thin ghosts haunting his psyche. The war had been good, the burning hatred the Covenant and then the Flood imbued him with...
But that was gone now. The war had ended almost seven months ago. The death of the Covenant and the defeat of the Flood was supposed to be a reason to rejoice. It had just left Blake colder than ever. Blake had been in the Marines for two years, joined up at eighteen, before signing on with the ODSTs because it seemed like a good idea. And now here he was, finally able to take the next step, because someone had finally created the next step.
Blake was a Yellowjacket. When the war had ended and humanity managed to get access to a huge Forerunner database of knowledge that the Covenant had been hoarding, a wealth of information was released. One such piece of data was the location of dozens of sites that held the Flood in stasis. Knowing that a Flood outbreak was probably the one thing that really could send humanity and the Elites over the edge and plunging headlong into genuine extinction, the pair decided to start going around and disposing of these sites safely.
The ideal situation was to crack open these sites and installations and sometimes derelict vessels, and kill the Flood while they were still in hibernation. Unfortunately...Flood outbreaks still occurred more often than the UNSC was willing to admit. So, on the down-low, ONI formed the Outbreak Containment Branch, unofficially called the Yellowjackets by the actual members of the OCB for the industrial yellow armor they issued. These squads were made up entirely of ODST volunteers, of which there were plenty.
Blake had joined the Yellowjackets because he honestly couldn't see stopping his life of action. He literally had nothing to go back to. Blake sighed, turned and flipped on the shower. Once it was at the proper temperature, he stripped of what little clothing he had on and slipped in. After a few moments, he was clean, toweled off and pulling himself into his uniform. Blake felt a little bit better, but now felt the urge for an energy drink.
Once he finished dressing, he stepped out, blinking owlishly in the bright lights of the corridor. He rubbed absently at his eyes as he stumbled from the dorms section into the rec room. It was occupied by a handful of members from Echo Squad. Private Barclay sat opposite of PFC Justin. They were arm wrestling. Ryan was cheering them on and Peters sat in the back of the room, smiling into her coffee and reading something.
Barclay was a rifleman in the squad, there for his skill with guns and his tendency to get up close and personal with the enemy...and be able to keep his cool. He was an easygoing man of thirty who smoked and drank in between the hellish missions they ran. The kid he was arm-wrestling, Justin, struck Blake as a maniac. He was young, he'd done a year and a half in the Corps and found that he wanted more. So he'd joined up with the Helljumpers and still had the gall to be enthusiastic and fresh-faced about everything.
Justin loved to laugh and executed every order with glee. He was two years younger than Blake and technically the sniper of the group, though when he couldn't stare down the sights of a scope, he was just as comfortable scouting ahead into dangerous territory. Ryan, who stood to the side, watching them with a nasty grin and his arms folded across his chest, was one of two Corporals. He was good at what he did, great, in fact, but he seemed to enjoy arguing a bit too much. He took every joke too seriously and was always ready for a fight. He'd nearly had his nose busted in a half dozen fights already by other members of Echo Squad.
PFC Peters was the auxiliary medic of the group. She was one of only two women in the squad. She was in her early forties and Blake had a difficult time understanding why she was a Yellowjacket. She was too kind for the job and had taken on the unlikely role of den mother, offering equal parts motherly love and motherly scolding to the men as necessary.
Blake looked around at them all and figured maybe it was best he was awake, everyone else seemed to be. Then again, his sleeping schedule rarely matched everyone else's and he often found himself catching sleep where and when he could find it. He hesitated in the rec room, unsure of where he might be going, then decided maybe the bridge might be most interesting.
"Hey, Blake, you want in on this?" Justin asked, his face slick with sweat.
"Hey, you gotta lose first, kid," Barclay replied. Justin snorted and pressed harder, his muscles bulging. Barclay may have ten years on Justin, but he was even more solidly built.
"Not this time, old man." Barclay chuckled and Blake left them to it. He slipped through to the next corridor and kept going until he found the bridge. The Valor wasn't a very big ship, just large enough to comfortably house Echo Squad and the skeleton crew required to run it. Blake stepped onto the bridge and found the two most competent people in Echo Squad standing in between the pilot and the navigator.
Sergeant Whitley was a grim, battle-hardened veteran who smoked so many cigars he might as well have bought the company that made them. He was tall, well-built and a twenty year man, the last ten of them in the ODSTs. He'd seen more combat than probably all of Echo put together. There was something deeply comforting and terrifying about the man. He was easily six four and had close-cropped hair that had once been black but was now losing its original color to a grim gray. Whitley didn't seem to give a damn.
Lance Corporal Starck should have been a Corporal. The only other woman on the squad, she was compactly built with lean muscle, had the sharpest eyes Blake had ever seen and had very little time for nonsense. She held herself rigidly, even when they were off duty, and her humor was fast and hard, usually wielded to emasculate any man who thought she was easy or weak. They stood and stared at a readout, muttering quietly to each other.
Both turned as soon as Blake entered the bridge.
Whitley offered a grim smile. "Glad you're up, son. It's almost showtime. I was just about to make the announcement...why don't you head for the briefing room?"
Blake nodded and about faced. Starck joined him as he left the bridge and they walked in an awkward silence towards the briefing room. Almost as soon as they reached it, Whitley's gruff voice came over the shipwide comms and informed everyone that it was time for a sit down. The mission was about to commence.
Blake entered first and took his seat, as did Starck. It didn't take long for the others to filter in. Blake studied them as they did. Corporal Cohen was the primary medic, a tall, lean, quiet man who rarely spoke and when he did, it was to offer a startlingly insightful opinion. There was nothing exactly intimidating about the man, but a powerful intellect lurked quietly just beneath the surface of his blue gaze.
PFC Weir was a quiet, young technician who was, by far, the most reclusive of the group. He was awkward and asocial and obviously had a hard time talking to people. Blake thought that it spoke deeply of his bravery that he was not only an ODST but a Yellowjacket. He was young and a certified genius. Despite this, the others, particularly Ryan, had bagged on him something fierce when he'd first joined the squad. Weir reminded Blake of his younger brother, who had died almost a decade ago in a Covenant raid, and the two quickly formed a silent but strong brotherly bond. Weir ended up coming out of his shell...somewhat.
Private DJ seemed to be permanently haunted by a bad mood. He was always gloomy, always puffing away on a cigarette and always pointing out everything that could and probably would go wrong. The others were often loathe to have him around and really, the only thing that kept them tolerating him was the fact that he was their communications technician, and he was really, really good at his job.
Finally, there was Private Caldwell. Caldwell was the newest addition to the team. He'd been shipped in right before they'd gotten onboard the Valor and despite being an ODST, the man was most certainly nervous. Blake knew he'd eventually settle in and the transition would be a lot smoother after a mission together, it always seemed to be. The man's main problem was that he didn't seem to know where he fit in the social hierarchy.
"All right, everyone shut up!" Whitley snapped as he took a seat at the head of the table. The general din of conversation fell away, leaving the room bathed in silence. He grinned around his cigar and began.
"Listen up, because I'm not going to repeat myself. Our mission is a big old ugly bastard of a cruiser called the Erebus. We're heading for a little, middle-o'-nowhere system called the Gates System. Only one habitable planet, and barely at that. There was a Forerunner structure there, and it had Flood in it. The Erebus was sent to first ferry troops and personnel down to the surface, then oversee the operation and, in the event of disaster...contain the situation. Well, things were going great...and then a disaster happened.
"The Flood got out. The Erebus, which had been equipped with plasma cannons for glassing, began containment procedures. The Forerunner facility was burned to glass. Unfortunately, a handful of ships made it through the fire and flames. Out of that handful, a few managed to make it past the Erebus' defenses and get onboard...and the Flood spread through the ship like wildfire. It's our job to get onboard, rescue survivors and either save the ship or blow it to hell. Chances are we're gonna blow that bastard to hell."
A general cheer went up from the squad and Whitley grinned, allowing them the moment of primal joy before quieting them down again.
"Now, this is all standard shit. We're gonna suit up, heading in there and do the Yellowjacket thing. Afterward, I'll take everyone out for a round of drinks, courtesy of the UNSC. Any questions?" There were none. Whitley nodded curtly. "Good. All right, go on, you sons of bitches. Go get dressed up nice and pretty and I'll be down to give you the eye in a few minutes. We'll be in-system not long from now."
And, like they'd done a few dozen times before, the squad stood and filed out of the briefing room and made for the armory. Blake began to feel a little better. He managed to snag an energy drink from the mess hall and down it before stepping into the armory. This is what he lived for now. The thrill of battle, the adrenaline, the sense of fellowship. He popped open his locker and began to pull himself into that distinctive industrial yellow armor. He'd chosen to go with the EOD helmet, as they'd all been allowed to choose.
Something about its style and design appealed to him. He watched the others go about pulling on their own armor. The armory was alive with jokes and voices. Blake smiled quietly and listened to them, happy that they were happy. He tried not to think about the insomnia and the crushing depression that found him between missions. That was for later, not now. He fitted his helmet into place, then went over to the weapons racks.
He selected an M6G for his hip holster, then a battle rifle, as he found it the most effective weapon against the Flood, then filled up his pockets with spare magazines of ammo and a handful of fragmentation grenades. The others did so as well, selecting their own lethal arsenal. As Blake waited for them to finish, he could feel the telltale signs of a ship coming out of slipspace and back into real space.
They had arrived.