Where Good Men Stand Chapter Two: Arrival
Posted By: Archangel_7<email@example.com>
Date: 12 September 2008, 5:36 am
Desperate times called for desperate measures, and committing to this was a desperate measure if he ever saw one. The bus engine started again as Aleksander took his seat. While he sat he looked at the man sitting next to him- the kid sitting next to him, rather. He couldn't have been older than eighteen, nineteen at the most. The first thing Aleksander noticed was the dome of short brown hair covering his head, spiked and evenly cut. From there a pale, freckled face led down to a spindly neck and equally spindly arms, both of which were draped over a bag presumably carrying his belongings.
The kid noticed Aleksander looking him over. "How's it going?"
"Terrible," Aleksander replied.
"Sorry to hear that," the kid said. "The name's Tim. Tim Rafferty."
"Aleksander Kovalenko," he responded. "You can call me Alex."
"Nice to meet you, man." Tim scratched the scraggly whiskers on his chin. "So, what brings someone like you to the service, anyway? You look a little old to have been, you know, scammed by a recruiter."
Aleksander smiled. "Let's just say there's not much left for me at home. What about you? You don't seem like the easily fooled type, either."
"I suppose you could say that," the kid said. "I was picked up by the draft. Hell, I tried hiding behind my own brother, but you can see how well that worked out. I kinda hoped that he'd be taking my place. Most people would say he was more qualified than I was. But they wouldn't take the bait. You wanna know why that bastard got away?"
"He's one of the few police officers out here with a squeaky-clean record. Never misses a date with the UNSC's Jurisdiction Officer, always snitches when there's something out of line. He plays the role of lap-dog pretty well, and the UN would rather have someone like him in charge of policing their citizens instead of someone who, you know, actually knows how things work out here."
"Well, I guess the UN has to keep the reins on us somehow."
"Yeah," Tim scoffed, "but at what cost?"
Aleksander didn't have an answer for that. He turned to check the small bag of his belongings laying on his lap and fished out a small candy bar. It would probably be his last for a good long time. He quietly tore open the wrapper and jammed it whole into his mouth, keeping an eye on the Staff Sergeant seated in front. He didn't know what to expect if the Sergeant turned around, but he decided it was best not to make a bad impression. Or any impression at all, for that matter.
The bus ride continued for a good hour without another word spoken between Aleksander and Tim. Other conversations were maintained at a low murmur. Comradery was something alien to most of them, and although social niceties were being exchanged Aleksander knew they did not care for one another. Most of them would probably sooner put the other in the path of a bullet to save themselves. The real question was, would that change by the end of the twelve weeks? Aleksander wanted to trust in the basic goodness of these men, but again he couldn't give a straight answer.
He propped his head against the cold vinyl of the seat in front of him and tried to sleep. The quiet drone of the bus' engine buzzing through his head made for a soothing backdrop, drowning out the haze of quiet voices.
His thoughts drifted to the nightmares of several long evenings ago. He considered himself a rational man, not inclined to fear the potential boogeymen lurking in his dreams. But these nightmares were different. Many nights since the day he set foot in the enlistment office he spent awake. Tossing and turning in the stale hotel linens, hearing gunshots and the cries of unknown men stirring about in his head. When he awoke every morning, he found himself sweating. Not because of some innate fear of the unknown, but because of the knowledge that these dreams could very soon become reality.
His fear grew, his doubts about the coming trials becoming clearer as he felt a sudden drop in the pit of his stomach. What kind of atrocities would these men be capable of, if pushed by unmitigated terror? Would the ties of brotherhood and discipline be strong enough to keep them from abandoning post and turning on each other like a pack of rabid dogs?
Aleksander had read about the daring exploits of men fighting and dying side by side on Harvest. He had seen their courage and comradery showcased on the evening news. But he had also read about the other face of war. The Free Press magazines were filled with the stories many of the bombastic media giants were afraid to tell: Marines turning tail and fleeing at the sight of unimaginable horrors; weapons that seared through armor and charred flesh from the bone; and even a lone madman who hijacked a freighter and left hundreds of men to die in return for his own unworthy salvation. At the other end of training awaited an enemy wholly unhuman, and that thought drove fear into his heart.
What horrors would await him, when he was on the other side of the camera lens? Aleksander did not wish to think about it. The fear still lingered, but he would do his best to ignore it. There would come a time when the gravity of his decision would overcome him, but it would not be now.
Slowly, he let his reality fade away. Inklings of conscious thought trickled away into blackness. He slipped into the deepest sleep in what felt like a lifetime.
His earliest memory of her was seeing her in the grocer's, picking a bag of peas from the frozen foods section. Aleksander couldn't remember much of what she looked like then, but he could recall that she wore a pastel-green hooded sweatshirt and not a lot of makeup.
As he strolled down the aisle he caught her eye. Both of them halted in mid-step, locking their gazes on one another. A few tense moments passed, then she smiled and turned away. After a moment's contemplation, Aleksander decided to follow her, catching her at the end of the aisle. She gave a start as she noticed him walking beside her. The cart in front of her jolted forward, nearly ramming into an older woman. A sour expression came across the woman's face as she gave a huff and continued on.
"Sorry!" she called to the old woman. She pulled her hand to her face, trying to hide the embarrassed smile that came across her.
Aleksander could see the nervous glimmer in her eyes as he offered his hand to her. "I'm Aleksander, by the way
The bus came to a halt, jolting Aleksander out of his dream. "Shit," he mumbled under his breath. His mouth was gummed with mucus and his eyes had trouble adjusting. It took him a moment to realize that the horrendously bright light flooding in was not sunlight. It was dark, and the bus was sitting under a low-hanging set of stadium lights, as though they had somehow anticipated that he and others would fall asleep. He knew it was a method meant to break him, but could this antagonism not wait?
"Recruits, on your feet!" the sergeant screamed. Disoriented, Aleksander pulled himself to his feet, his eyes still squinted, his mouth still gummy. The sergeant made his way down the middle aisle, his head swiveling like some bird of prey. After an apparently satisfactory survey, he walked to the front again and hopped down from the open sliding door.
"Alright, out of the bus! Let's get moving, people!"
One by one the men filed out of the bus. Although he was seated somewhere toward the middle, the line stretching out in front of him seemed almost insurmountable. As he slowly edged his way closer to the door, he could finally look out the window and see what was awaiting him on the outside.
Men were lined up by drill instructors in wide-brimmed covers, standing on the designated areas marked by yellow feet painted on the asphalt. One by one, row by row he watched the marks be covered, until at last Aleksander was at the head of the bus.
"Let's go, let's go!" the sergeant said, before giving him a less than subtle shove out of the door. His mind was still hazy from disorientation; his eyes were still pained by the harshness of the stadium lights. The night air was unusually cold. Before his mind could grasp the situation at hand, however, an instructor had placed a broad hand on his shoulder and led him to one of the pairs of painted footprints.
"Stand here," he said, "Heels together, back straight, chin up, fingers at the pant seams
" Aleksander hardly listened to the string of commands, but he followed them robotically, only half-conscious of his own movement.
When would he get over it? When would the horrible reeling in his head stop? It couldn't be long. If anything he should have already been over it by now. Would it never stop? He shuddered at the thought.
Another man in a wide-brimmed cover emerged from the building beside them. He gazed over them, inspecting the ten rows of men with eyes hidden behind a pair of dark aviator sunglasses. The jowls of his cheeks sagged, wobbling as he turned his head.
"Congratulations on your decision to become a United Nations Space Command Marine!" His voice boomed across the lot, echoing from the red brick wall beside him. "It is a choice you should not regret! That is because you are first up to become members of the finest fighting force in the galaxy!" As the instructor walked by his row, Aleksander could see a fine wooden toothpick hanging from the man's lips. It jostled with every word the man spoke, writhing in time with his words.
"I am Staff Sergeant Mitchells. From now on, you will refer to me by rank, if you find the need to refer to me. Otherwise, from this moment the first and last words out of your mouth will always be 'sir.' Do I make myself clear?"
Aleksander joined in a chorus of voices saying "Sir, yes, sir!"
"Now, first things first: From now on, you will not refer to yourselves as 'I' or 'me.' You will refer to yourself as 'this recruit.' You will refer to others as 'that recruit' or 'those recruits.' And most importantly, you will always refer to your superiors by rank or by 'Sir,' 'Ma'am,' or in third person as 'the Drill Instructor.' Do you understand?"
"Sir, yes, sir!"
"I can't hear you. Louder!"
Aleksander screamed at the top of his lungs. "Sir, yes, sir!"
"Alright! Now we're going to move you recruits through Receiving." Aleksander's eyes followed Mitchells as he made his way to the front of the formation. "You will have fifteen seconds to form two single file lines in front of the two doors around the corner here. When I begin counting, you begin moving!"
Mitchells moved to the side, leaning against the red brick wall. "Fifteen! Fourteen! Thirteen!"
Aleksander and the other men suddenly broke formation. They ran like a herd of wild buffalo for the doors. It was run or face unknown consequences. Follow the herd or be trampled. Aleksander could foresee that very mindset being prevalent in this place. Perhaps that was why he was surprised to find himself running without the realization he was doing so. Was it the tired delirium caused by his abrupt awakening? Or was he weaker than he anticipated? Ten minutes in and he was already submissive, beaten down by the power of the hive mind.
"Ten! Nine! Eight!" The last few men scrambled to find their places in the pecking order. "Five! Four!" Aleksander shoved his way into the line. "Three! Two! One!"
Mitchells looked up from his place on top of the steps in front of them. A satisfied smirk crept onto his face. "Good. Now you are going to enter the Receiving building and make your final phone calls home. You will enter these doors and make your way to the desk. Once you make it there you will turn left, and enter the door. Do you understand?"
"Sir, yes, sir!"
"Alright! Now get in there! Get in there!"
The line started to move, and Aleksander was pushed from behind, up to the door. Why was he resisting? In the end, it was his decision to be here. Here, at the point of no return. The fear crept up on him again, nagging at his insides, but he knew he had no choice but to continue. He bought the ticket, he rolled the dice, and now there was nothing to do but take the ride.
He took a small, breathless moment for himself and stepped through the doorway.