A/N: Rewritten! First five chapters fused in one.
Chapter 1: Orca Team
Smells like bacon, burnt human flesh.
As I stare at the smoking car, parked in front of my house, the smell is the only thing my brain notices.
An image, a voice… Just flashes… Fear.
Mum sent me to get Nima's safety blanket. I got the blanket on my shoulder right now. It's pink. It used to be white, but mummy washed it with a pair of socks and the color jumped on the blanket.
There are strange burnt trees in the car, they look like people. One of them is holding the wheel and the other is looking at something, at a much smaller burnt log on the back seat.
What is going on? Where are my parents? Why are they hiding?
A mean voice in my head answers:
This is mum and dad's car, they are dead.
How can they be dead? They were waiting for me to come back, they told me to go get the blanket! Did I take too long? Why are they dead!
There is something in the sky… Bugs, giant bugs spitting blue lava everywhere.
The Covenant. That's what my parents were so afraid of; the Covenants found us!
At school, we played Harvest, the king of the hill, where some pretended to be humans, other covenants attacking the planet, the hill.
I always win. I'm not the biggest, nor the fastest, but I keep coming back until the others don't want to play anymore. Never give up. Dad says it's a family thing, we never give up…
"Life's hard, son," Dad told me this morning, "sometimes, things look hopeless, but they're not, they never are, unless you give up, you will always find a way."
Why am I thinking about that? I need to run away! The covenants will burn the planet, I need to leave!
But leave where? How!
I sit on the grass and hug my knees. I'd like to cry, but that would be giving up, if I give up, things will get hopeless, so I just sit there and wait.
-[Phoenix-Class Colony ship Boris Velkiev]-
-[Medical Bay 7]-
"Christopher? Are you okay?" My name isn't Christopher.
I look up at the nurse, then back out the window. There are stars, more than I can count, some of them are pink, other green… Looks like someone spilled multicolored sand on fresh asphalt.
We are in space. I don't remember how I got here, but I know it was terrifying, and I've been here for a long time, much of which is blurry, like a dream.
Some details come back as I look at the nurse again.
Her name is Carol. She is the only grown up here who likes me. The others don't like that I'm here, they would prefer if I had died with my family. They're soldiers, mostly, no other kids, no parents, no normal peoples. Why am I here anyway?
"Where's my mum?" I whine, hoping to get a different answer than I did last time. Perhaps it was a bad dream too…
Carol sighs. Not a dream. I lean back in my bed and look at the ceiling.
She won't let me leave the room, I was bad the last time they let me out. They took Nima's blanket… Mum will be disappointed, Nima will be cold...
Once again, I want to cry, but tears don't come, so I just shrug.
I loved my family, I miss them, but they are gone, crying will not bring them back. Crying would be like giving up.
Plus, only babies cry.
"Who will I live with now?"
She has a very sad look. Why does it make her sad? I'm not crying, she should be glad!
"I told about you to some friends, they will be meeting you as soon as we reach Earth."
"Who are they?"
She hesitates, "They are good peoples."
She doesn't believe it, even I see that. Why is she lying?
"Now, young man," she begins, checking the bag at the other end of the tube in my arm, "Time to sleep." She put a needle in the tube and I feel very sleepy, all of a sudden. Everything blurs again.
Yeah, I could use some sleep.
Maybe I will forget if I sleep long enough. I wouldn't be so sad then…
-[Phoenix-Class Colony ship Boris Velkiev]-
-[Medical Bay 7]-
Someone shines a light in my eyes. I try to roll away and end up falling off whatever I was on and landing on my face.
The taste of blood feels familiar now, almost reassuring, but it feels like my brain is trying to force its way through my ears…
I feel no need to cry. Who would care? My family is dead.
I get up and spit the blood out. I bit my tongue.
"Well, I suppose he fits the bill." Someone laughs.
The room I'm in is familiar; it's the space ship's infirmary I fell asleep in, but there are other people here , grown ups, six of them, dressed in white. Their eyes are dark, their faces hard, mean.
One of them, an old man, leans next to me.
"Hello, Chris, I am Doctor Patterson, I am here to evaluate you."
"Are you my new family?" I hope he says no, he's creepy.
He picks me up and puts me back on the bed like I weight nothing. He could throw me across the room if he wanted and no one in the room would keep him. They all look bad, angry like anger is the one thing they feel… The room is cold, but not that much. I shiver anyway.
"No, we're doctors, we're here to see if you are healthy."
I wipe some blood from my mouth and shrug. I meant that to look calm, but the shaking made it look awkward.
"What should I do?"
He smiles and nods to the others. They look at me like mum used to look at the bugs I caught and bottled. Not disgusted, but like they really aren't worth her time.
Well, they're not the ones who spend the next half hour being poked, prodded, scanned and stabbed by dozens of machines so far ahead of the curve you couldn't see them with the fuckin' hubble. Dad used to say that about Covenant technology.
The grown ups exchange words like 'Muscular mass', 'Nervous Pathway' and 'Genetic Compatibility' before looking at a lot of scrolling text on a giant projection on the wall.
It's about me, but I only catch bits of it, the bits that use simple words.
They talk about the time I spent home, alone while the Covenant burned everything.
"Three years…" One speaks, almost impressed, "You memory wiped him? Why?"
Carole speaks from a dark corner, "To reduce stress and mental instabilities, he was practically feral when we found him."
Doctor Patterson speaks, but looks straight at me, "Do you have any idea what we will do to this boy, Commander?"
Carole sounds cold, different from when I met her, "Of course; you want him aggressive, not straight up psychotic."
"He survived three years alone in a contested warzone, the things he had do and witness would break even the most hardened of your toy soldiers."
Another, an old woman, points to a line of text, "Multiple plasma injuries? How is that possible?"
Once again, Carole answers, "Indirect hits, I suppose, some of the burns should have been fatal but healed up nicely enough. We fixed the worst of it, he'll retain some sequels, but nothing crippling."
The old man, Patterson, turns to me then, forcing a smile.
"Enough dancing around the issue, he's fit… Chris, I have a question for you."
He looks nervous and excited, like my father when he is… Was about to give me my birthday present.
"What is it?" I ask when I realize he is waiting for an answer.
"Have you ever heard of SPARTANs?"
-[SPARTAN-III Training Facility]-
The room is huge; almost twice as high as my house and five times larger. It's empty too.
The door closes behind me with a very loud bang that echoes twice in the empty room.
There is absolutely nothing in here, no chairs, no table, nobody. The colored stripes on the floor remind me of the school's gym, but there are no windows here, no lights but tiny ones on the walls…
I'm alone in a large, dark, cold, creepy room.
My face starts burning; the scar on my back as well, though my nose, ears and backbone seem to flash-freeze.
Keeping my eyes on the shadows, I slowly back toward the door. Noises replace the deep silence; explosions, laughter, aliens speaking, barking… It's coming from the darkness… They're getting closer!
No, they're not. You are panicking.
I glance around and, of course, the room is still empty. I carefully step out of the light and into the darkness. It's nowhere near dark enough to hide me, let alone giant aliens.
How am I ever going to be a SPARTAN if I'm afraid of the dark? I mean, when they send me to kill covenants I'll just run away the moment someone flick off the light!
I should never have said yes, I'm not strong, I'm not smart, I'm not brave… What am I doing here? There has been a mistake for sure, Spartans are exceptional people, warriors, and I'm just… Me! Any time now someone is going to come in and tell me there has been a mistake, that I will be sent back to school or something.
Behind me the door opens.
Here they come…
I turn around and see only another kid, around my age. He too had his head shaved and is wearing a gray jumpsuit with a name and number on the front.
Mine says Chris-G051.
I wave and he waves back. Only then do I realize I have walked away from the door. I'm almost at the center of the room now.
After some hesitation, he runs up to where I am standing.
"Hey," He extends his hand, "I is Trevor!" He speaks with a funny accent. I immediately like him; Trevor is the kind of person you just know you can trust, mostly because he's not clever enough to fake being your friend, and also because he has enough brains not to be tricked.
"I'm Chris." I answer, shaking his hand. I hope he doesn't notice how shaky and damp mine is…
Trevor is a good head taller than me and his arms are twice as big, so despite being friendly, he does not really make me feel any better about being here…
"You is going be SPARTAN too?" He pipes, happily.
I just nod.
"Aha, it great!" He looks around and his smile disappears. "Where everyone else is?"
"I don't know, maybe…"
The door opens again, this time it's a dark skinned girl, dressed in gray and shaved too, she looks very serious, although not exactly mean.
I wave and Trevor greets her by saying something like 'welcome in the Spartans wannabe club'. He speaks Russian, I understand the general sense of the sentence, but the girl actually answers him.
She says she's not a wannabe anything; She's going to be a Spartan.
I check her name tag; Iona-G117.
Iona sits on the floor next to us without saying anything else and I do the same. I like her too, she makes me feel calm, almost like my mum did.
A few minutes later, just as Trevor gets bored of poking around the room, the door opens again, letting in another girl, this one with almond shaped eyes. My father said they were called… Japs, I think.
Anyway, she's almost as tall as Trevor and doesn't look especially friendly.
At first, she leans on the wall, next to the door, clearly not looking for friends, but Trevor convinces her to sit with us, speaking in an accented English again…
Not sure how he managed that nor that I exactly like it…
As she moves closer, I can see Fal has a bright pink scar on the left cheek, extending like a grin. She notices me staring and snickers.
"Gift from my dad." She drops on her butt just next to me.
Next one to come in is a pale boy with blue eyes so bright I can see them from here.
His smile is as white as his hairs and those tiny blue dots dart around, taking in everything with enthusiasm.
"Oi! I was promised cookies, where are they? I demand cookies!"
Trevor, Iona, Fal and I exchange a puzzled glance.
"Aaahh-I'm just kidding." He finally explains, awkwardly.
He's not comfortable with being here either. Good to see I'm not alone.
His tag almost makes me laugh, though; Bob-123.
Not exactly Spartanish.
Bob cracks a few more jokes before the door opens, making him jump in fright.
The kid on the other side jumps too and starts yelling at Bob in some kind of gibberish like you can hear in Mexican restaurants.
I'm not quite sure if it's a boy or a girl and the name tag, Abejundio-G225, doesn't really help.
Finally s/he calms down and looks at us.
"Por que you all sitting there cabrones? Que pasa? I thought we were going to become soldier aki." She spurts while stomping in the room, flailing her arms around like whips.
Fal expresses our thought pretty well.
"What the fuck did it just say?"
Despite the swear word she uses, she doesn't really sounds mad, just confused. My English teacher warned us not to use expletives as punctuation, only now do I understand what she meant.
Iona talks, and it's in that same gibberish Abju… Abe was speaking when the door opened. That seems to calm the newcomer down as s/he stops stomping around and takes a deep breath.
Abe then turns to Bob.
"Never scare me like that again, hombre, or I'll tear off your gohones."
"Your balls." I explain. Hell even I understood that much.
He cringes and protectively covers his crotch.
That triggers a new outburst and, once again, Iona solves it with a few words.
"She's a girl." Iona calmly puts in after Abe sits next to Trevor and in front of me.
She chats with Iona for a few minutes, earning a word for every seventy she says, before giving up and turning to me.
"How about you?"
"How about me?"
"Who are you?"
"Chris." She facepalms.
"Ah puta madre, nevermind."
The door opens again and a military man in a gray uniform walks in. He looks old, but young at the same time, like a teenager…
"Attention!" He barks, making us all jump in fright.
We look at each other for just a second and Iona tells us to form a line and stand straight. We're all up and straight as sticks anyway…
We do it in almost five seconds the man smiles.
"Well would you look at that… Recruit G11…" He freezes at the last number and strolls up to Iona, reaching her in five steps. The man inspects her and she twitches, but doesn't flinch, like glass cracking but never breaking.
"Some footsteps your following, recruit." He declares after ten seconds.
Iona doesn't miss a beat and barks "I know, sir!"
"How do you know military protocols, recruit?"
"TV, sir!" What kind of TV do these kids watch?
The man's severe face cracks a bit in what seems to be a smile.
"Well, that was… Unexpectedly obvious. Well, now, I am Petty Officer Second Class Curtis, I am in charge of your team for the first part of training, which will begin… Now. Is anyone not ready for this?"
"Good, then, let's get started!"
Chapter 2: Gamma Company
I push myself off the floor again, my arms burning, then drop back down until my nose touches the puddle of sweat, then I push again. This time, my arms are actually shaking.
To my right, Fal is snapping push ups like a machine. In the time I take to do one, she does three.
I really shouldn't be here.
I observe Fal a bit more. She inhales on her way down and exhale when going up… I place my arm just like hers and try to copy the motion.
Up, breathe, down, release.
Up, breathe, down, release.
One, two, three, four.
One, two, three, four.
The pain in my arms and shoulders doesn't go away, but I am too busy breathing to notice it. I am almost in trance with only the numbers 'One, two, three, four,' and just as I think I am going to collapse, Curtis tells us to stop. As he does, I just fall face first on the floor, surrounded by a pool of my own sweat.
Did you know your lower back sweated too? I didn't.
I hear the others do pretty much the same with varying degrees of dignity.
"Well, that's a start!" Curtis gets off the floor –he did just as many push ups as us, never broke a sweat- and lie down on his back, "Now, on your backs and lift those legs up! Come on! One, two!"
I roll out of my sweat, but it takes just a few seconds for the floor to get soaked again.
Why am I here? My arms hurt, I'm hungry, I'm scared… I want to go home…
You don't have a home anymore. Covenants took it from you. War is your home now and here you'll learn how to master it. They'll show you how to make the Covenants pay.
I lift my legs off the floor once, twice… The third time takes some efforts, the fourth is shaky, the fifth is painful and I have no idea how I'll be able to do another one, but Curtis is telling me to, so I do. And another one. And another…
I don't know how many I do, but I'm pretty sure I tore something in my waist. Damn it that hurts!
Pain is good. Makes you stronger. Tells you you're still alive.
"Not too shabby, recruits, but it still SUCKED! Form two rows of three behind me and check your laces! We're going for a little stroll outside the base. No straggler or you'll all have to start over!"
We all get in place quickly, but Iona brings a few quick changes; she puts Trevor and Fal up front, Abe and Bob in the middle and she and I are in the back.
Curtis seems impressed by that, for some reason, but that only lasts a second. I must be the only one to catch it before his face hardens again.
He shows us a few stretches and exercises to do once we stop running and laces up his boots tighter.
I do the same and the others quickly follow.
"Alright, nuggets, forward!" The instructor barks before breaking into a jog that is closer to a sprint for us.
As we leave the huge room, I ask Iona why she placed us like that and she says something about bird flight.
Although having her around is a big relief, that girl gives me the creeps sometimes.
We run through a few empty hallways before finally leaving the building.
I take a few seconds to observe my surroundings.
Horseshoe shaped military structure with dirt roads and peoples shooting somewhere to the left. A sign reads 'Camp Currahee'.
We soon leave the camp, following a path barely large enough for me and Iona to stand side by side. As we enter a thick forest, things don't exactly get better.
Trevor and Fal just give up trying to stay on track and are getting whipped by branches as they run half on the path, half in the forest.
Iona pokes me and nod toward Fal; I nod back and poke Bob in the ribs.
"Huh?" He breathes, looking over his shoulder.
I lift my palm and wave it like someone trying to tell a dog to sit. He takes just a second to understand and nods before slowing his pace a bit.
I need to run through the forest to take his place, but it only lasts a second and Curtis doesn't notice. My lungs do, however, notice the sudden effort, since they start burning and feeling like I was breathing ashes through a straw.
I tap Fal's shoulder and she seems about to punch me for it when I jerk my thumb over my shoulder.
She doesn't get it.
I do the same motion as with Bob, but she still gives me a 'bambi in front of a truck' look.
I guess she's too busy avoiding branches to decode hand signals.
I step aside, running into the branches and she understands just as I get whipped in the forehead by a stick the side of my arm, the one she bumped into a second ago.
Blood drips on my nose, but I keep running and Fal gives me her place next to Trevor, who can finally run somewhat on the path.
"Thanks… b…bro." he sigh, still trying to catch his breath.
Can't say I blame him, my legs are burning too! Running in the soft dirt and through the branches put some strain on me… I try to control my breath, like I did with the push ups, and soon begin muttering "One, Two, Three, Four. One, Two, Three, Four." To pace myself.
Before long, the whole team is humming a four beat tune.
Just like I did, they focus only on the beat; breathing and running on it. For a few seconds, it sounds like a religious chant.
Bob, of course, feels the need to add some lyrics:
"Things hit da shitter.
You're nice an' screwed.
Don't lose yah mood.
Take a breather.
Throw yah hands innnyair.
And run like a hare!"
Trevor openly laughs, Fal snickers, Abe mutters something in her tongue that sounds interestingly close to 'stupid idiot' and I try not to laugh, which is hard when you are out of breath and trying to run straight on a dirt path. In the end, I make a pretty weird choking sound that earns me a frown from Trevor.
"'sup? You ate a fly?"
"Trying… to… breathe." I wheeze.
"Recruits," Curtis barks, "Seriously, shut up!"
Iona barks a "Yes, sir!" and we quickly imitate her.
Despite his severe tone, I'm pretty sure I see a smile on the officer's face… But then, I'm three feet behind him and everything is getting blurred, so I might be seeing things.
We resume humming as Curtis leads us around the forest, suddenly stepping off the path and bringing us in a small, very cold stream.
My boots Squish-squash for the rest of the run and I can't feel the tip of my toes by the time we return to the camp. Note to self; when you breathe vapor from your nose but don't feel cold, you're not turning into a dragon, you're just too busy running to notice it's cold… Don't step in water thinking it'll freshen you up.
Surprise almost makes me trip on my own feet. Then again, exhaustion might be a part of the problem; every time I put my weight on a leg, it wobbles and threatens to just give under me.
But return to camp we do, and I never thought it was possible to be so tired.
Good thing is; it doesn't hurt anymore.
There has to be hundreds of kids slouched on the gravel courtyard, nestled between the horseshoe's arms, and more are coming out from the woods around us, running behind an instructor as well.
"Seems like there is more than just six of us." I point out.
Of course, I earn a "No shit?" from Fal.
Once we reach the courtyard and the rest of the recruits, Curtis tells us to rest here and he'll be back with some water.
Every kid around is just as soaked and tired as us, some are crying and others still struggle to catch their breath. A few vomit and some of these actually cry because of it.
My lungs do burn too and I'm having a few fits of cough, but nothing this bad.
Not sure if my knees just gave in or I mean to fall down, but her, it's as nice a spot as any other! I wipe some blood from my brow. It's mixed with sweat, so it leaves an orange-brown stain on my sleeve.
The others get down next to me, with Iona and Fal sitting Indian style and the others just slumping down on their back.
Even Bob is too tired to say anything.
Someone taps my shoulder and I look up.
It's a severe looking man with dark eyes and gray hairs. Despite looking somewhat old, he seems strong enough to strangle Curtis with one hand.
"You hurt, recruit?"
I shake my head, "J…just a… a scratch, s-sir." Well, the stuttering sure didn't help with the whole 'future super-soldier' feeling I tried to give.
"I can almost see bones trough your scratch, trainee, get it fixed as soon as we're done here." He points to a door with a red cross next to it, to my left, and I nod, cheeks burning from being the only one hurt enough to be scolded about it.
He then stand up straight and introduces himself, somehow managing to be heard over all the noise the other kids are making.
"I am Senior Chief Petty Officer Mendez, I am the one tasked with turning you into Spartans! You already met your teams' instructors; follow what they say and your training will go smoothly, cause trouble and you will earn trouble for your whole team!
If anything goes wrong, you have a question or want to shoot one of your comrades, you come to me or Lieutenant Commander Ambrose, if you want to quit… Well, you can't, so suck it up, Spartans!" He seems about to leave, but stops and adds, "By the way, welcome to camp Currahee."
Chapter 3: Hide and Seek
I step in the infirmary and look around.
Three knocks on the doorframe later, someone tells me to come in.
"Uh… I'm already in."
"Oh! Splendid! Well, then, take a seat!"
There are a few ridiculously high beds with paper covering them, like at the doctor's office, so I jump on one…
The paper tears and slips under me. I end up crashing on the floor with a 'crash-rip' sound. Well that sure feels familiar…
Up until now, I had forgotten about my burns, but the crash just sent waves of pain clean across my chest, reminding me of the star-shaped mark on my back.
The nurse, a young woman with bright red hairs, pokes her head out of an office, to the right and gives me a surprised look before smiling, a genuine smile, not like the men who examined me when I woke up.
"Hey, now! No leaving my infirmary with more holes that you came in with!"
She walks up to me and give me a boost to the examination table.
With all that 'Wannabe Spartan' stuff, I forgot I weighted less than a sack of potatoes…
"So," She begins, checking my cut, "What'd you do? Wrestle a tree?"
"Don't tell me, the tree won?"
"Don't think it ever even knew it was attacked…"
She chuckles and grabs a cloth from a nearby table, soaking it with something from a silver bottle.
"This might sting a little… Or it might cause horrible, agonizing pain to shoot trough your body, you never know."
I think she's insane.
The insane hospital lady rubs the cloth on my cut and it does sting a bit. When it comes close to my nose, I notice the thing smells very strong, like paint thinner…
"Eeesh…" She mutters under her breath, after prodding my face for a few seconds, "We'll have to cicatrize that or it might get infected... Don't worry, it'll only take minute, then you can go back to playing soldier with your friends."
Playing soldier? If she says so.
She puts a tray on the table and turn around, looking for something.
I notice one of those very sharp blades used in surgeries -A Scalpel, I think it's called- in the tray.
There's five of them, actually, thrown on it at random and packed in airtight bags, barely longer than my hand.
I snatch one and hide it in my boot. It came by itself, just a reflex from… Home? Perhaps, sharp objects fascinate me since I woke up and sometimes I do odd things, like squeeze myself under the bed at night or covering my plate whenever someone comes close, as if I'm afraid they'll steal my food.
Why? Three years, they said. I'm not stupid, I know they made me forget that time, but my body remembers and it tells me to do things sometimes.
Crazy lady grabs a weird screwdriver-like thing and gives me the same warning as last time, but the other way around;
"This'll hurt a lot… Or it might just sting a little; hey, I'm no doctor!"
I feel like there are spiders crawling around on my forehead. Not. Pleasant.
"You're not a doctor?"
"I'm a nurse."
"What's the difference?"
"I work for a living… There! All done… Wait, what's that on your shoulder?"
Before I can answer, the woman pushes my jumpsuit's collar out of the way.
"Ow… Plasma burns? Already? Heck, you're, like, the first Spartan I met who got shot at before being a Spartan… Anyway," She picks me up and set me on the floor, "Off you go, Mendez'll have my ass if he thinks I'm keeping you here without reason!"
Before I can answer, she pushes me all the way out the door and closes it behind me.
After a few seconds of hesitation, I jog back to the others, who are sitting in a circle and drinking from green plastic bottles. Water… Damn I'm thirsty!
In the sky, the sun is shining very hard, harder than back home. It hurts my skin a bit.
Just as I sit between Trevor and Fal, Bob tosses me a bottle.
It hits me in the forehead and falls on my lap.
"Careful! I just got that fixed!" I whine, earning a few laughs.
"So, how's the infirmary?" Abe asks, between two sips.
"Don't EVER get hurt." I advise before unscrewing my bottle and downing half of it in one go.
-[SPARTAN-III Training Facility]-
Curtis and the fifty other instructors all sat at the table, Culten had just finished briefing everyone on team Tanto and it was now Eriks' turn.
The former Alpha Company recruit stood and cleared his throat.
"Team Shark is showing much promises; very aggressive, all of them, and strong too, albeit a little lacking in resilience. Each of them is a natural leader and a prime physical specimen fitting the specifications of the S2 program. Recruits G096 and G142 almost immediately started fighting and it took three Marines to separate them. I suggest the team be tracked for SPECWAR group three…"
Curtis snorted and shook his head, earning a hard stare from Mendez.
"Ain't that a bit early for that, Connors? Training just begun, you don't even know if they can shoot straight!"
The other instructor simply shrugged.
Curtis didn't like him; Connors identified himself to his trainee and often left that cloud his judgment. Despite that, he was an excellent teacher, if he thought team Shark good enough for SPECWAR, they likely were.
The next to talk was Team Kukri's instructor:
"Well, I wish I could be as enthusiast; two of my trainees started requesting their mummy during the push ups session and the others kept picking on the smaller one. None of them completed the run and I had to use the cattle prod to motivate them… I hate doing that." The man shook his head, disgusted at the small atrocities humanity had to do for the greater good.
"And I hated being on the receiving end..." Kurt-051 muttered with a grin. That lightened the mood considerably.
"Petty Officer Curtis," Mendez began, leaning forward in his chair, "What about your team?" Mendez seemed interested in Orca squad, since it had, just like Shark, been assembled at the last minute, with Delta Company in mind, but events had thrown them into Gamma instead; a completely different game.
The former Beta Trainee smiled, "Orca is a very well balanced group and already has an emergent leader, Iona.
Very organized and structured, although there is that one , Bob, who's got a knack for cheap jokes… Quite good at it, too, seeing as he's just six.
They also have their resident teddy bear, Trevor, and big sister, Fal. Both fit Halsey's physical specs, although Fal's a little too unstable for my liking; was abused by her father, from her file…" He let no emotion through, but Curtis, like all of them, grew attached to his kids and anyone hurting them, even years before they were his trainees, risked having the living shit kicked out of them if they crossed his path.
"However," He continued, having apparently composed himself in the two seconds breather, "from the looks of it, she's developed an instinctual bond with Chris, the smaller but, in my opinion, hardest member of the team, as well as Iona, treating the other girl as a substitute mother and acting as her second in command…
Finally there's Abejundio, the genius, although that doesn't show yet. From her file, she played violin a year after taking her first step and speaks five languages already."
He noticed the weird looks everyone gave him and his smile vanished.
Kurt talked first, "You know all their names and it's the third day."
"I love my job, what can I say?"
That actually earned him a few chuckles, then the next instructor reported on his team's performance. Nothing as aggressive as Connors, nor as passionate as Curtis, but he still had a high opinion of his recruits.
They were Spartans after all.
-[SPARTAN-III Training Facility]-
"Attention, Orca!" Curtis announces while bursting in our dormitory.
I switch between dream and reality and Fal has to punch me out of it. Fal could punch the sun into going supernova.
"We're going to play a game," Curtis continues, "Hide and Seek. Half the company will be hiding in the woods and the other half will be searching for them. Those who are found will be on bread and water for two weeks, those who can't find anyone as well. If one member of your team is found, the whole team loses. Questions?"
We all jumped out of bed the moment he walked in and now we all hurriedly open our footlockers to grab a clean jumpsuit.
Iona stops just one second to ask which side we're on.
"You'll be hiding."
I always loose at hide and seek; and from the look Trevor gives me, he's not very good at it either…
"You'll have an hour to find a suitable spot and the game will last three hours, after this, you'll head for the slop. Let's hope you'll actually get to eat something else than bread, huh."
I shove my legs in the jumpsuit, quickly followed by my arms, then zip it up, jump in my boots and lace them tightly with a double knot, like Abe showed me.
Once I'm done, I decide to clear out something I find odd.
"Why are you telling us that, sir? Won't the Chief do it?"
Curtis gives me an annoyed stare. He doesn't like when we ask question.
"Mendez said those who actually wake up before the hour is done get extra info."
"So," Iona put in, "our one hour head start is already started?"
"It's more like forty minutes now… And the head start is not mandatory; most teams won't wake up and will only have five minutes after Mendez's 'briefing'. "
Trevor hesitates, "Do we have to attend 'beefing'?"
We all look at each others for exactly three seconds before running out of the barracks.
Iona, Bob and I make it out, but Fal and Trevor try to squeeze in at the same time, knocking each other down and bringing Abe with them. Abe's swearing is practically or soundtrack by now.
"Where to?" I ask the team members still standing.
"How 'bout these caves we saw when we ran yesterday?" Bob offers while helping Trevor up, but Iona thinks it's too obvious.
I grab Fal's collar –She would refuse my help otherwise- and shove the tall girl on her feet. She'll slap me for it as soon as her ears stop ringing.
"Let's go, we'll find something on the way." Iona decides.
For just one second, I wonder who put her in charge, but then I remember that she's the only one who knows what she's doing, so we did.
We run around for thirty-five minutes without finding a suitable spot. Trees are either too dense to be climbable or too thin to hide us.
Iona takes us further away from the camp, orienting herself by the moss that grows on rocks and wind's speed and orientation. That girl scares the shit out of me… Which reminds me I didn't have time to use the bathrooms and, as is always the case when playing hide and seek, my bladder will taunt me the moment I'm hidden.
We encounter another team. They're all as tall as Trevor and look just as mean as Fal.
Five of them are in a large tree and one is cursing at them from the ground.
"Come on, guys! We're a team, help me up!"
"Get lost, Kyle!" One of those in the tree snaps, "Find your own hiding spot!"
Obviously, they didn't listen to their instructor…
We don't have much time, but Trevor insists on inviting 'Kyle' to come with us.
He declines and we resume moving, heading for an almost dried stream.
The others cross it without problem, sinking ankle deep in the mud on the other side, but I trip and fall face first in the stuff.
Everything goes black and I have mud in my ears.
At first, I'm angry, it's no warmer than on day one and now more than my boots are filled with water, but then I realize I can't pull myself up and can't breathe either.
I'm going to drown in mud! How fucking glorious!
The more I struggle, the harder it becomes to move. My lungs were already burning from the run, but now I feel like something is eating me from the inside…
I feel hands grabbing both my arms and get pulled out with a suction sound.
A voice, muffled by the mud in my ears, asks me if I'm alright and I just shake my head, so they tell me to just follow.
I still got mud all over my face and every attempt to wipe my eyes just makes it worst, most likely because I also have shit all over my arms.
Combined with the hand tugging on my collar, I'm just about to do what Bob said on our first day; Throw my hands up and run away.
Then someone throws me in the stream, face first.
It's not deep, but god damn it's cold!
Normally I would have been angry, but now I'm just glad I can see and hear again.
When I look at the team, they are all rolling around in the mud.
"What the shit are you guys doing?" I exclaim, still sitting in the icy water.
Chapter 4: Hide and Seek: Repercussion
"Good? You see me?"
"I couldn't until you opened your mouth." I growl, picking up a handful of mud to cover Trevor's mouth.
"STOP TALKING!" I snap, picking up more mud.
Behind me, I hear Iona chuckle.
"You sure you can find another hiding spot?"
I understand why she's worried, but I'm not burying myself in there. Again.
"Yeah, plus, if I hid here, there would be no one to burry me."
She stops talking and I 'paint' her mouth again.
This is something Abe saw on TV once, native Americans from Earth hid themselves from French soldiers by burying themselves in the sand, leaving only their noses out. She won't tell us how it ended for them though.
The team is not actually completely buried, just halfway, but their uniform, face and arms are covered in mud and they are strewn around in a way that make them look like branches and random junk.
I covered myself in mud too, but that idea's from a movie about ODSTs my parent watched not long ago;
They crashed and didn't have their armor, so they covered themselves in dirt to blend in with the environment.
Also, I think it's fun.
As I get away from the stream and go deeper into the wood, I swat a mosquito out of my face and duck under a dense knot of foliage.
It's strange, how calm you can feel in places like this… I never felt like that when I played hide and seek with my sister, it's serious now, meaningful.
Behind me, I can hear shouting and laughing as the other teams begin searching.
They are still far, but I'm not hidden yet, so I'd better get to it.
Let's see… Trees? Too obvious.
Cave? Same thing.
Ferns and weeds beat my ankles for almost three minutes as I look around for a slope, hole, cavity or anything that could hide me. Nothing.
The mud is starting to dry and is fall off around my knees and shoulders.
I stop, I catch my breath, hands on my knees, for just one second, and, am about to get moving when a twig cracks behind me.
Immediately, I lie down on my belly and toss a few dead leaves on my back. A cheaper version of what the others did.
Footsteps. Getting closer.
Careful not to move, I try to find the source. Can't see much from here, grass hides everything not twice my height.
To my right is a slope, two meters high, approximately. The sound is coming from behind or on top of it.
As in; at spitting distance from this position.
I think I hear two people, but wouldn't bet money on it.
And since I want to eat this morning, I'm not going to go check.
That point, right now, is when it hits me, that I'm actually enjoying this; sneaking around, being invisible, knowing where everyone is when nobody knows where you are… I love it.
The two slowly walk away and I wait until I can't hear them to get up and…
Somewhat a mix between a tree and a cave; a fallen, rotten, hollowed out tree trunk.
It's large, open and pretty obvious, but with my 'camouflage' and if I stay quiet, I'm pretty sure I can pass for a bit of fungus.
I kneel in front of the entrance and peek in.
It's dark, smelly, creepy and there's insects all over.
Footsteps settle the question.
Rotting tree trunk it is!
The thing has only one opening, so I get in backward, trying not to think about rats, raccoons… Grizzly bears… That could live in this place.
Just as I reach the bottom of the trunk, something falls on my head.
I'd say it's a bit of wood, but it scuttles towards my ear, so it's a very big bug, with many legs and a cold body.
I've seen too much movies about aliens eating their victim's brain to just wait and see if it goes off by itself…
The truck cracks as my skull smacks against it, squeezing the bug, but the thing still fidgets, so I slam it one more time, hard enough to see stars and punch a hole in the rotten log.
It's dead, but I will have a nasty bump and now there's insect juice all over the top of my head.
Just then, I hear Fal scream something dangerously close to 'I'll kill your face!".
Looks like we lost.
Now how do I get out of this?
-[SPARTAN-III Training Facility]-
Curtis was pissed. He was not often pissed.
Connors' group, the Sharks or whatever, had been one of the first to be found during the morning's war-game, because they had left one of their own behind, but they blamed it on Team Orca and ratted them out to the other teams.
As brilliant as their camouflage technique had been, and as proud as he was that they had figured that one on their own, he'd have no choice but to put them on bread and water, as promised, giving them a harsh reprimand for hiding so close to the other team.
Oh, he knew life was rarely fair and it wasn't the injustice that irked him.
They were punishing ingenuity and trust of fellow Spartans while encouraging petty conflicts and superiority complexes. Now Orca would think twice about turning their back to other teams and Shark felt like they had the power to make other teams fail.
That didn't sit well with him, neither was the fact that his trainees were treated as just another bunch of under average Spartans.
Indeed, two thirds of them were not Spartan material, just random munchkins plucked off the street, but Curtis had never seen a unit work together so instinctively and efficiently and he would be damned before he left such potential be wasted because a bunch of cocky brats wouldn't play fair.
He busted in Mendez's office and fell face to face with Connors, who smiled smugly before leaving.
What the… What did that bastard tell the chief?
"Petty Officer," Mendez growled, "please close the door. We must talk about your recruits."
I sit between Trevor and Fal, both chewing on dry bread, and look at Iona, sitting in front of me.
"You still got mud on your nose." I state, before taking a sip in my glass.
She growls and rub her face with a towel. We didn't get to take a shower, so we're all still covered in mud.
"How did they find us anyway?" Bob whines, "We were buried, they could have walked on us and would never have noticed!"
Abe and I exchange a glance, then look at the table where the Sharks are.
They are stuck with bread and water too, but that doesn't keep them from giving us those kinds of smiles that make you want to smack someone… Hard… With a rock… A big one…
Abe is looking at me; I'm looking at the plate of a kid, sitting next to us.
Tuna, they're eating tuna. I think it has something to do with today being the first of April… Don't ask me, I don't know.
She follows my gaze and grins.
"You sure it's a good idea?"
"No, but it will be FUN."
Fal wants in on it and the others simply didn't notice anything.
-[SPARTAN-III Training Facility]-
Connors woke up to the complaints and cries of his trainees.
His first thought was about what could make them all wake up in the middle of the night and bitch so much after a day of running in the woods and barely eating at all.
His second was about what the fuck could stink like that.
He got out of his bedroom, in the corner next to the latrine, and glanced around.
"Well, seems classics never die."
Dead fishes, with only the bones left, were hanging from the ceiling on thin ropes all over the room, empty eye sockets and gaping mouths greeting Team Shark.
Some recruits were pulling bits of fish from under their pillows and, in the middle of it all, a poster-sized picture of an orca attacking a great white shark hung from the ceiling. Pretty badass; the shark had jumped to catch a seal, but got intercepted by the much larger orca in midflight.
That's one heck of a lucky seal.
Connors smiled at that, while his trainees scurried around trying to get bits of fish off themselves. The things reeked.
He had to give it to Orca; that was a pretty good one.
He was somewhat glad they gave his own boy a good slap in the face, Shark needed some humility lesson and the rivalry that would ensue would push both group to perform even better. Better yet, Orca had gone for the non-violent route, perhaps that would motivate his own team to use their brain.
Connors walked up to the picture and wondered just where they got it. It was very good quality, color printer, photo paper, 3D picture. The kind of stuff only a computer can do and Trainees did not get access to such computer.
That's when he realized that, considering the team's resources, this was far more than a practical prank; this was practically a kindergarten-styled covert op.
"Come on, Sharks!" He barked, "I want this barrack cleaned up by morning."
That smell will never wash away.
He thought, humorously, while wondering what Shark's answer was going to be..
He just hoped no one would get hurt.
-[SPARTAN-III Training Facility]-
Chief Mendez and Commander Ambrose are both staring at me.
Mendez's office smells like old wood and smoke. It's small too, so the fact there are two fully grown UNSC soldiers in it doesn't help.
"You claim responsibility for what happened in the Shark's barracks?" Mendez asks from behind his desk.
I didn't claim anything and I'm not sure what that means, so I clarify:
"I did it, yes."
"I did it." I repeat, earning strange looks from both officers.
"Chris…" Ambrose begins, stepping away from the wall he was leaning on, "Your psych evaluation makes you out to be resourceful, but it also states that you have no leadership skills and very little sense of initiative. Either someone told you to do it or you did it with someone else."
I stand a little straighter and look him in the eyes
"It was my idea. No one else's."
The two officers look at each other and, after a few seconds, Mendez tells me to go back to my team.
I wonder why I'm not being punished when it clicks in my head.
I spent the whole day yesterday covered in dried mud and insect blood, slept three hours last night, will be eating nothing but bread for the next week and will most probably be dealing with the Sharks' revenge.
Just what could they do to make my life worst?
Chapter 5: War
-[SPARTAN-III Training Facility]-
There is no hot water. Again.
You know, with all this money the UNSC shells trying to make us into SPARTANs, one would expect decent plumbing.
I woke up twenty minutes early this morning, figured I'd take a shower right away then go back to the barracks and wake the others. Not Fal, Trevor wakes Fal, or she punches me and I don't like being punched…
I am a better thing to wake up to than Curtis, that's for sure. Fal tried to slug him once; she's still sore.
In any case, the cold water is kinda ruining my mood and the day's not started yet.
The whole point of getting up early is that there still will be enough hot water.
Well, at least a cold shower lets me clear my brain and think about my new life.
In the last months, my arms have grown bigger and I can run longer, twice as much as the others, actually, although Fal is faster.
That's the same at pretty much everything, I'm the strongest after Trevor, the smartest after Abe, the fastest after Fal, the most sneaky after Bob and the best strategist after Iona… Squad's Jack-Of-All-Trade, Curtis calls me.
He says it's a good thing, that SPARTANs have that big 'Overspecialization' problem that makes it easy to get them out of their comfort zone. Also means I don't have a comfort zone, which is not that good, it means I'm always second pick.
Today, we'll have our first trip at the firing range, so I'll see if I'm the second best shot too.
I close the water –no need for soap or shampoo, it's added to the water. Stupid, but that's UNSC for you.- and fetch a towel from the dispenser, next to the door, before entering the locker room.
Training kicks in; I scan my new environment before doing anything:
Lockers on both sides of the room. Bench in the middle. No windows.
Behind me. Irrelevant, I come from there.
In front of me; the door to the rest of the base. I can smell the god damned bread baking already.
Our 'Bread and water' period ended a month ago, but it still makes me sick.
I put on fresh underwear and a clean jumpsuit and…
The door in front of me opens. The Shark guy, Kyle, comes in.
I nod and go back to getting dressed; slipping socks on and preparing to put my boots too.
"Hey, guys." I greet, when the rest of his team walk in too.
They don't answer and take a few steps in my direction.
This is bad… Well I've followed the same training as them, which means we all know how and where to punch, but they have a good head more than me and are all a lot larger, which brings us back to 'this is bad'.
So bad in fact that it would probably be a good idea to use that scalpel hidden in my boot…
No… They're SPARTANs, the UNSC needs us all, we can't go and kill each other in training! I can make sure they understand attacking another Spartan isn't something wise, though…
The first one lunge at me and I throw my boot in his face, knocking him on his ass. It's natural, not training, we haven't started dueling yet, that'll come next month. This comes from home…
I backhand a human shape trying to flank me, earning a startled yelp.
Next up is Kyle; he maneuvered to the left of the bench while the rest is on the right.
Crude flanking… Damn these guys are dumb!
I move to tackle him, but one of the others uses that distraction to kick me in the knee and punch my nose.
I fall back and hit the wall hard as they approach.
A few blinks later, the stars go away and I use the wall to throw myself at Kyle, shoulder first.
This time I hit, straight in the guts, he stumbles backward, waving his arms trying to restore his balance..
I let Kyle fall and turn to the tallest of the group…
In time to see his fist before it collides with my face. Again.
I hit the lockers, on two meters from where I first hit, and it makes so much noise my ears ring. Or maybe it's the hammering blow that does it.
This time, however, two of them grab my arms and pin me against the lockers while the biggest -his name tag says he's called Adrian-G270- grabs my chin.
"You shouldn't have messed with real Spartans, dumbass." He snarls before punching me in the guts.
I feel like I'm going to puke, but I don't. Then the pain comes.
I didn't know a simple punch could hurt so much.
He punches me again and the pain is much sharper.
I think I felt something break…
With the next punch comes a blinding white light and taste of copper.
The next one actually makes me puke.
Plus, I think I soiled my pants.
The guys release me and I fall to a knee, struggling for breath.
"Gross! Well, he didn't give much fight, I hope the girl does…" One of them comments as they head for the door.
"Wait…" I groan, "What girl?"
Adrian bends in front of me.
"That black bitch, Iona? Your boss. We'll pay her a visit too."
Iona. But why? It's my fault, it was my idea! Why punish her for my mistake.
Because they're assholes and because you are going to let them.
Iona's like a sister, I can count on her and she counts on me, but I just got her into trouble because I wanted revenge.
An image flashes before my eye, corpses, burnt to a crisp in a car, a pink blanket… Nima.
Home comes charging back; It's not over until it's over and it's only over when you give up. Nima died because I took my sweet time fetching her blanket, she died because of me.
History has a way of repeating itself…
…Unless Shark understands the cost for messing with Orca will be high…
I spit some blood and look up. It's all so clear now… Pain don't hurt, it's just a warning signal. Failure hurts, and I can't fail unless I fucking say so.
"No, you won't."
The scar on my back is hurting me for the first time in months, but it's a good kind of pain, sharp and constant, along with the burning sensation in my chest, it makes me feel strong.
I guess that's what some call hate. It burns. My face, hands, legs, my whole body is on fire, I got plasma in my veins and quite frankly, I'm loving it.
"What are you going to…"
My fist connect with his jaw with enough force send him across the room into the opposite locker row.
It's like playing king of the mountain; it's not the strongest one that wins, it's the one that always comes back for more, who never gives up.
He bounces off the lockers and stumble around, blinking. I lunge and block his right hook… With my face. Forehead, more accurately, barely rings a bell in my skull, but it sure cracks some bones in his fist.
My uppercut smashes his chin again and he falls.
Not dramatically, by falling to his knees first or sissy-like, with his hand to his fore head, but timber style; one second he's up, the next he's down.
I turn to the others and smile. They are too shocked to react.
"The real Spartans got fucked!" I spit before grabbing my boots and shoving past the Sharks.
No one stops me.
…Shit, I'll have to go to the infirmary.
"I'm going to kill all of them!" Fal fumes, stomping around the barracks.
She already scared Trevor and Bob into silence –they are both sitting in their beds as far away from her as possible- and seems just about to scare off Abe and Curtis.
Me, I'm holding an ice pack and towel to my nose and sitting on my bunk.
"No, you won't recruit." The instructor snaps, "I will."
We all laugh at that and Curtis steps next to me.
"You went to the Chop Shop?"
"Yes, sir." I answer with a short nod.
That causes a new stream of blood to stain the towel. Note to self; catching a stronger, bigger opponent's punch with your face will leave marks. Don't.
"Good," He turns to the others. "Listen now, I know you want revenge, it's natural and a good thing, but it won't hurt Shark. Not enough, anyway."
We all listen to him very closely after that statement.
"They want to become SPECWAR operators and they have a pretty damn good shot at it, except there is only room for one team in that program; if one of the other teams that qualifies for it actually beats them… Well, that would fuck their day a thousand fold."
Iona is the first to catch up.
"We are the other team?"
"Of course you are!" Curtis laughs, "You might suck, but you suck much less that these other losers!
I won't lie to you, this is long term revenge, stripping them of their dream, and you'll have to work twice harder, twice as much, but I know you can do it, let them waste time on payback."
I remove the towel from my face.
"But sir, they fit Halsey's genetic and physical profile, we're just… Us!"
He doesn't miss a beat and answers in a decisive voice, "That didn't keep you from kicking Adrian's ass, did it?"
I exchange a glance with the others, Fal is smiling proudly, Iona just nods and Trevor and Bob are trying to stay the hell away from Fal.
Abe went back to reading a book whose title is too complex for my brain to even register it.
SPARTAN training is supposed to be the hardest in the world and Curtis is offering to make it even harder. I'm not sure we can do it or even survive it, but I wouldn't mind trying.
Of course, the decision isn't mine.
As if she knows, Iona crosses her arms and gives one last sharp nod before turning to Fal, who's still smiling –she didn't understand a thing and given her personality, would most probably agree if she did-, then Bob, who gives a thumbs up, Trevor just folds his arms behind his head and lounge on the bed while Abe mutters something along the line of 'If we're going to be broken into tiny bits before being rebuilt from the ground up, might as well make it count.'
Well, seems like we somehow managed to make the toughest training in the universe even harder… This will hurt.
-[SPARTAN-III Training Facility]-
The Quarter Master gave us all an M6D pistol and an M7 SMG. Apparently, we couldn't handle anything bigger and, quite frankly, I'm glad Fal didn't get that shotgun she was eyeing…
Right now, We're in chronological order in separate firing lanes. I'm first, Iona is in the lane to my right, Bob's in the next one, then Trevor, Abby and Fal.
Curtis checks us all to make sure we have our ear and eye protections –Fal took hers off and gets chewed- then tells us how to use the guns.
First, the pistols have a switch on the side called the safety, we must always keep the safety on when we're not firing and never point our gun at something we don't wanna see explode.
Second, we must hold the gun with both hands, one on the handle and the other over the first. The first one must try to push the barrel down and the second try to push it up. It helps with recoil, whatever recoil is.
Third, there are three glowing bits on the top of the gun. One at the tip and the others at the rear. We must line up these dots so the form a line and keep the center dot on the target.
Finally, we must grab that metal bar on the table, the clip or magazine, and slip it in the grip, then pull hard on the top part of the gun, the slide, until it 'slides' back.
"Fifty one, you're on! Prep your weapon but DO NOT fire!" he then barks.
I pick up the gun, check the safety, insert a clip and pull on the slide.
It resists at first, so I pull harder and manage to bring it all the way back after the third try, although it was pretty hard. I hope I don't have to do it every time.
Then, Curtis tells me to place my feet in a L shape and to aim at the target. I lift the gun and aim down the sights, but, apparently, it's not a good idea to press the weapon against your cheek.
"Hold it at arm's length, like this, then bring it halfway back… Good. Now line up you shot, take a deep breath and squeeze the trigger as you release it. Understand?"
I nod and look at the target, a black Elite silhouette, then at the glowing green dots on my gun, then back at the target.
I flick the safety off and…
I yelp in surprise and almost drop the weapon. This thing is loud!
I try to find the hole in my target, but there doesn't seem to be one.
"Good, recruit. Now put the safety back on and wait for instructions. One-one-seven! Your turn!"
None of us hit the target, but we all make it out alive, so it's not so bad, although Curtis decides to make us shoot the M7s later.
After that we get our first chemistry class; Abby's excited, Fal wants to die and Trevor hopes they'll show us how to make bombs. Trevor likes bomb way too much for it to be healthy…