―You want us to ride the skids?" Eric asked, stepping up onto the flanged wings under the cockpit that the Hornet sat on.
There was barely room for one person to ride the sides, it seemed to me.
―Hey, UNSC Marines ride the skids all the time," Allison said as she opened the cockpit and clambered in. ―Combat insertion. Training. You name it."
That sealed it.
But who was going to pair up on a skid?
Eric, Felicia, and I squared off with a fast round of paper-rock-scissors, which Felicia and I lost.
Eric walked to the other side of the Hornet. ―See you on the other side!"
I made a show of allowing Felicia to get on the skid first, and she shoved herself against the skin of the Hornet. There was a bit of a recess behind the cockpit where the skid joined it.
―It's nice that they standardized the controls," Allison said, flipping switches as the engines kicked on behind us. I watched the sequence from my position just behind her, until it suddenly dawned on me what she meant.
―Wait," I protested. ―You haven't flown one of these?"
―It's straightforward. You got your stick, your collective throttle, yadda yadda. We've been doing this ever since we invented VTOLs." The Hornet jerked upward, and I crouched, wondering if I should jump now.
But I didn't, and I had to let go of the lip as Allison yanked the glass down and sealed the cockpit shut.
―You getting ideas there?" Felicia asked as I shoved up against her, grabbing for handholds on the Hornet.
She laughed, then swore as the Hornet tilted.
I thought I could hear Eric whooping from the other side as the Hornet climbed up over the trees and headed toward the bright lights of Elysium City.
The target was a flip music club on the outskirts. Allison flew in low over a residential area, then flared out over the parking lot, dropping us to the ground with a thump.
Felicia and I tumbled off the skid, our knees somewhat shaky as we gratefully staggered on solid ground.
Eric also stumbled around the Hornet, laughing wildly. ―I hope we're stuck on idiot duty by the UNSC forever!"
―Come on." We offered Allison a hand out of the cockpit.
We bounced inside to the raucous beat of flip music. Allison struck out with me and Felicia for the bar.
―Hey, how are you going to account for taking the Hornet?" Felicia asked as we waited for drinks.
―Training," Allison shouted over the music. ―NCO'll sign me off."
I laughed. ―Does he even know it's a lost cause?"
Allison grabbed her drink. ―Sweetie, if you don't tell him I'm not into men, I certainly won't, and this little arrangement," she waved her glass at the club and pulsating lights and dancing crowd,
―this can keep going."
She danced her way off into the crowd as I paid. ―Keep the tab open, I'm covering whatever she drinks," I told the bartender.
―You're not going after her?" I asked Felicia, who'd dragged Allison into our group.
―She's not my type." Felicia grinned. ―Now find me a dirt-pounding Marine gal, and we'll talk."
―I don't have time to be your wingman," I grunted.
Felicia shook her head. ―You'd make a crap one. All the gals we meet think you're a Harvest hick."
―What, and you aren't?" I was a little bit annoyed by the barb.
―I'm an Utgard girl, city born and bred. It's in the blood. The other city girls can sniff it. Plus, you have no sense of style."
―Oh, screw you! Now you're just trying to piss me off."
―Yeah, guilty. I wouldn't do it if you weren't so damn touchy about it." Felicia pressed her drink in my hand. ―Hey. Keep an eye on this, I need to visit the girls' room."
I followed her part of the way to stand in the hallway with a drink in each hand as hordes of people shoved past me.
When Felicia came back out I handed her her drink, and we turned back to leave the hallway.
That's when the Insurrectionist bomb exploded. A concussive wave of heat, light, and pressure threw me back down the hallway.
For a moment, I lay on the carpet, staring blurrily at the ceiling, and then a second explosion brought the entire building down on top of us, trapping me in the debris.
ODSTS DUGus out.
Most of the civilians out dancing, however, had died. Allison was found with a piece of rebar through her skull. Eric was in a coma and getting ferried out to Reach for better medical care.
Felicia and I both had been packed with biofoam, and then moved to a field hospital set up on the edge of the debris.
We were too doped up on painkillers to do much more than lie in bed for the first half day while medics kept an eye on us. I had a concussion, broken ribs, burns, a skull fracture, and ached in places I didn't know I had.
Felicia reported, from two beds over, the same.
―Standing in that hallway saved your lives," an ODST medic said. ―You're damn lucky."
I didn't feel lucky.
Particularly when the ONI agents showed up.
They questioned us about what we were doing at the club: how we got there, whether we had
contacts with Insurrectionists.
There were a lot of questions about where our allegiances lay. Many of them asked over and over again.
In the end, they eventually let us be, but not before telling us that the club had been singled out because it was a favored spot for CMA Marines during weekend leave.
I had a lot of time to think, lying there on the bed healing.
―They're saying they're going to be shutting down the CMA's involvement with TREBUCHET," I
told Felicia, sitting on the edge of her bed once I'd healed enough to walk. ―There are rumors that the CMA will be shut down completely. Or at least that the UNSC is fighting to get the CMA
―And then what comes next?" I asked. ―Even if it lives, the CMA is a dead end. What kind of career will I have if I stay with them? I think I'm going to leave for the UNSC."
―Career? Why the hell would you want a career?" Felicia snorted. ―You'll never see Harvest again if you switch to the UNSC. No telling where they'd send you. You have a chance to go home now."
―I could care less about ever seeing Harvest again," I said.
―It's where you came from. Where your dad has land."
―It's just dirt, Felicia. Dirt. It doesn't mean anything. Why the hell do you care? Are you going back to Utgard?"
―Yes." She surprised me there. I hadn't known that. I'd thought her just as interested as me in wanting to get away. ―I didn't choose to enlist, remember."
―I'd always thought your story about the governor's daughter was just that . . . a story. Did you really have to join to skip jail in Harvest?"
―No. No, that was bullshit. My dad forced me to join," she said. ―After I stole an MLX and went out joyriding. After the governor incident. Told me it was time to grow up."
―So you'd go back to Utgard?"
―In a moment, if they discharged me. They might even rotate us back, if they're no longer going to use us here." She pulled her knees up under her chin. ―What's the bug up your ass about leaving the CMA?"
I rubbed my forehead. ―I have bits of human bone embedded in me, from whoever was wearing
that bomb before they triggered it. Permanently now. And that ONI guy who talked to us, he said the explosives were CMA-issued. Maybe even from our own base. That's not a civil disagreement, it's madness
―The UNSC could stop it in a moment by leaving," Felicia said. ―Is it really your problem?"
―Maybe. Maybe not. But maybe the rebels get even worse. Kill more civilians. Then who are they really doing this for? The civilians they're getting killed?"
―Or maybe the UNSC keeps overreacting and causing the Outer Colonies to not want any part of all this," Felicia said gently. ―A million casualties now, caught in the crossfire, since TREBUCHET
started. No one's going to ignore that. The civilians will keep cheering the rebels on."
―I know. And maybe we're always destined to be splintering and fighting, without some greater cause. But I'm applying to the ODSTs."
―You've got to be kidding? Are you suicidal now?"
―I'm joining as soon as I'm cleared."
Felicia sighed. ―Then I'm coming, too. We'll sign up together."
―Why the hell would you want to do that?"
―We've had each other's backs for months now. Eric's in a coma. Allison's dead. You want me to rotate back to Harvest and sit on my hands alone? Screw that. You're going to need someone to cover your ass; you're going to be fresh meat to all those tough-assed ODSTs out there."
―Seriously, Felicia . . ." I turned to look at her.
―Shut up about it already, Gage. You're the closest thing I have to a brother. You're a poor excuse for one, but I consider you one nonetheless. Deal with it."
―I want to go after the bastards that did this to us."
―I know. You're a sentimental, honorable dirt farmer who needs a hell of a lot more cynicism in your life. Of course you want to go after them."
―Harvest will always be there when we're done," I said.
ORDERS ARRIVEDbefore we were discharged, proving my instincts correct. We were to be
folded into the UNSC or offered an honorable discharge and a ticket back to our home world of choice.
I tried one last time to convince Felicia out of applying to the ODST, but she told me to shove it and shut up.
The recruiter's office was in chaos when we showed up with our papers. Several older sergeants were huddled around screens and pumping fists.
―What's going on?" Felicia asked.
―We got that bastard, Watts!" they said.
― Robert Watts?" I was shocked. Watts had led the Insurrectionists all throughout the Outer Colonies from deep in the asteroid belts of this system for so long, it sounded improbable. ―Who got him?
―No clue. But the ONI propaganda machine is kicking into overdrive declaring him caught." The sergeant collected himself and grabbed our papers. ―It's a good day to be a Marine! Bad day to be an Innie."
With Watts captured, I wondered how strong the rebel movements would remain.
―Raw meat for the ODST grinder, huh?" the grizzled sergeant grunted. ―If you thought Colonial boot camp was tough, you're about to get dismantled. Then we'll see if you can manage to put yourselves back together."
I laughed, but the ODST recruiters didn't laugh back. They were dead serious. They knew what was around the corner for the two of us, and the smiles on their lips were like the smiles of wolves.
ODST BOOTcamp was where I learned how to kill someone with my pinky.
Among other things.
But first they stripped us of our rank.
―Think coming in from the CMA means jack to us?" an officer commented when I presented the
fact. ―You'll have to actually earn your rank here."
Then they started running us. I'd kept track of Felicia up to that point; we'd even had a chance to compare notes at mess, eating together.
But there was quickly little time for that; too exhausted, too busy trying to survive.
For three weeks I ran, did push-ups, and blitzed through obstacle courses as fast as I could. They took us through slush, artificial snow, and live gunfire-simulated battle. Got on our bellies and crawled through miles of barbed wire, rubble, and destroyed buildings as they fired rounds at us just inches over our heads.
That was just to get us into shape.
On the first day of squad tactics, they dressed all fifty of us still remaining up in full ODST training gear and dropped us off at the base of a mountain.
―Get to the top and you can eat and rest back in your barracks to night," our drill sergeant, O'Reilly, said with an all-too-familiar grin.
Our guns were loaded with TTR rounds. They were fake bullets with paint inside that contained particles that reacted with nanopolymers in your gear. Your clothes (or in the case of us training ODSTs, our signature black body armor) stiffened to immobility when shot with a TTR round, and then an anesthetic in the paint left the part of your body it hit paralyzed.
Day two of training, O'Reilly had walked up and down the line with a TTR pistol, shooting us in the leg and then shouting ―Run! Run! Run!" as we limped off in confusion. Anyone not quick
enough was shot in the other leg and told ―Crawl, soldier!"
Once I'd found myself completely paralyzed while a trainer squatted overhead and screamed into my face that I was a worthless excuse for a soldier, and a ―fine example of the best the CMA had to offer."
One day, on the mountain, I had an MA5B assault rifle with sixty TTR rounds loaded.
The fifty of us waited for the Pelicans that had dropped us off to thunder away, and as quiet descended, we looked nervously at each other.
―What do you think's in there?" someone asked, looking at the forest that covered the low flanks of the mountainside.
―I'm guessing trainers with their own guns who're-" I didn't get to finish. The person next to me was hit in the chest. The TTR round splashed red, and he went down stiffly, his body armor locked up as he toppled to the ground.
The forty-nine of us remaining scrambled for cover in confusion, and by the time I'd found a boulder to shove my back against, I could see eight more sets of black ODST body armor stiffened up, splotched with red, and their occupants dropping to the ground.
A nervous Marine slammed into the boulder next to me. He caught his breath, then popped up to scan the area. The loud impact of a TTR round struck his exposed helmet, and he slumped down over me with a grunt. ―Dammit."
In just minutes, half of us had been struck by fire from somewhere high inside the forest. I could hear laughter.
I shoved the ―dead" Marine off me. If we remained here, we'd all be done in another minute, and no one would get to the top. ―There are only a handful of them," I shouted. ―We have to rush them, some will get hit; the rest will get into the trees. Then we'll have a chance."
And in the far distance, I heard Felicia shout back, ―He's right. On three!"
―One, two, three!" I burst out from behind cover with the other twenty-four and rushed for the tree line.
I got within five feet of the tree line before a TTR round hit me in the stomach and I sprawled into the bushes, frozen in place.
Up the hill, in the trees, the battle raged on. I heard Felicia's voice at least once more, giving orders, then swearing.
After half an hour a trainer walked out from the shadows of the forest and looked down at me.
―That was the first useful thing you've done in three weeks, maggot," he shouted, and then left me lying there.