|0957 Hours, August 29th, 2531
SOAC Centre, Fargad, Inner Colonies
"How long you been fightin', son?"
"Five years, sir. Joined up just before Harvest was attacked."
"And you survived all that? Heck, we should put you boys in pods right away, most of our boys haven't seen half of what happened down there. What's yer name?"
"Mack, Richard. Corporal."
"Okay, go through the gate and we'll put you in with the rest of the candidates."
The sergeant ambled off to the next recruit while Mack moved into the next room, where over two dozen other men and women were seated. They were currently in the Special Operations Application Centre, or SOAC, on Fargad, one of the most militarised planets outside of Reach and Earth. Looking around, he could see that just about everyone in here had seen some action. Several had nasty looking plasma injuries, brought on by the vicious campaign that had been fought for the last five years to retake Harvest. They had won, but not without considerable losses.
After a few minutes of sitting in the waiting lounge, the last of the applicants had finally been processed. They had already gone through several screening papers and interviews. Now it was time for the real work to begin. Mack had fought as one of thousands of ordinary marines on Harvest against their alien foe, the Covenant. He could recall the first time his unit had happened upon a group of them. It had been easy to see them as genocidal monsters who burned planets. Five years later, and little had changed. A door slid open at the other side of the room, and three men entered. Two were clad in black armour plating, with opaque, silver-visored helmets. The third wore a simple black uniform. He looked around at the assembled men and women in the room, before speaking.
"Looks like everyone is here. Good. Listen up! I am Gunnery Sergeant Keel, an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper. Every single one of you has chosen to be here today, and has at the very least shown to be smart enough for the paperwork. If you'll kindly move your arses aboard the transport, we can take you for some actual training"
Keel stepped aside to allow each person to file past. It was true that the ODST's were a volunteer division, and only took the best applicants. Mack had a feeling that in the next few weeks, over half their number would drop out. He hadn't exactly been a volunteer, but after an incident the previous week, this was his only real option. He walked amongst the silent group and boarded the transport. It would take them about a week at most to get to Reach, where they would go through the physical part of the gruelling training of an ODST.
Oh, how he hated cryosleep.
Mack sat up, spluttering as he coughed up the surfactant designed to give his body nutrients while in cryo. It tasted terrible. There was a chorus of coughs and groans along his row of freezers. Strangely, aside from waking up with a nasty taste in his mouth, Mack had never had any ill-effects or the occasional sickness that accompanied cryosleep, even when he had first shipped out from Earth six years ago. Like most of the oddly beneficial things that had happened over the years, he attributed it to the injections he had received at a young age. Though he had only heard about it from his father, whatever had been done to him had always given him an edge.
Mack climbed out of the cryotube, and walked towards the lockers without a word. Though some people he had known liked to chat after waking up, he had preferred not to speak while cold and naked. He got dressed in silence, that bad taste still in his mouth. Thinking back, dad had once told him that he was 'special'. Of course, most parents would say that to their children, but perhaps he had actually meant it. Mack had grown up in a household where strangers in military attire and dark suits often passed through, though he never spoke to any of them. Joining the Marine Corps had been a bit of a nasty shock for his father, who wanted him to attend the Luna OCS, or Corbulo Academy, two places that he could have easily gotten into. Maybe this Shock Trooper business would impress the old man, who had been some kind of special forces soldier years ago.
After collecting his belongings in a duffel bag, Mack joined the others as they filed into their seats. A monitor on the wall displayed the date: March 2nd, 2531. It had taken them nearly three weeks to get to Reach. Gunnery Sergeant Keel entered the room, which fell silent immediately. He had changed from his regular uniform, and was suited up in the black BDU and armour of an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper. It became clear to them that rather than being a simple drill instructor, this man had seen action. His chestplate bore a noticeable plasma burn, while the rest of his armour had been customised to some degree, one pauldron showing signs of repair, the other with a print of the Union Jack above four painted yellow stripes.
"Right then, welcome to Reach. It is here that the lot of you will go from being soldiers, to genuine hard bastards like me" This brought on a few chuckles. "Everybody out!" he called, marching towards the airlock followed by the candidates. Rather than going straight into the terminal and catching the MagLev to wherever, Keel had other plans for them. After climbing down a gantry onto the spaceport floor, they had to march, still carrying their bags, towards the exit, where four troop transport warthogs awaited them. Keel waited for the last stragglers to catch up before handing out lists to the drivers.
One by one, they were called to their transports. According to one grumbling applicant, they were being put into groups according to their service records and performance reports, as well as the results from the mental paper they had taken before leaving Fargad. He didn't know anyone here, and so could not discern if this was true or not. Eventually, his name was called by Keel, who was at the front jeep.
He walked forward. A few others were staring at him. "That's me, sir."
"You're up here. So, are you the son of-"
"Right. Get on, you're with the A-grades."
That confirmed the rumour, at least. Mack knew all about how famous dad was in the Marine Corps, and had seen him on the news a few times over the last few years, largely discussing tactics against the Covenant or making public statements about the few victories the UNSC had garnered. It didn't help that he was already some sort of hero years before his son's birth. Mack boarded the warthog, sitting close to the front. He was the first one to be called to this one. He sighed, and waited for the inevitable questioning.
A few more were called before the warthog was ready to go. There were just under forty of them going for this training. Not one of them wanted the shame of being returned to their unit because they couldn't make the grade here. This was, putting it simply, the big leagues of soldiering. The man sitting opposite Mack, a man in his early twenties, leaned forward, looking at Mack until he caught his eye.
"Hey, you're Richard, right?"
"Yeah. Don't call me that, please."
"Never liked my name much. Just call me Mack."
"You know, your dad didn't like his first name either."
Mack glanced up, raising an eyebrow. "You've met him?
"I served under him on Harvest. He's a good man."
"That so?" The other man seemed friendly enough, but he was starting to get on his nerves a little. Whenever someone met Mack, they always wanted to speak about his father's exploits rather than get to know him. It was just something he'd gotten used to over the years.
Eddie smirked. "Okay, okay, I get it. Dad's a war hero, right? He was a good leader, but kind of an ass, sorry."
This was the first time that anyone had spoken about Mack Senior in anything other than high praise or admiration. Maybe he could get used to this guy.
Mack found himself smiling. "Tell me about it. You didn't have to grow up with the guy. Where are you from?"
"Draco III. You?"
"Earth. Lived there 'till I joined up and got shipped out here."
"Homeworld man, eh? So, why didn't you join up with one of those fancy officer colleges they have there? Trying to piss off the old man?"
Mack shrugged. "Pretty much. What was your last name?"
"Buck. What, you don't like Eddie?"
"Just wanted to know. For when we're sent out."
"Yeah, fair enough. Nice to meet you, Mack."
It took them nearly two hours to reach the ODST training grounds. Mack had seen the place before when he had come to Reach for his basic training a few years back. It was separate from the area where both the Marine Corps, Army, and Colonial Militia were trained for combat. To be an ODST, you had to be the best of the best, bar none. The warthogs ground to a halt on the gravel outside a large building. Three men stood outside, waiting for them.
"Line up!" bellowed Sergeant Keel.
The trainee ODST's trudged forwards and stood side by side, dropping their kit bags at their feet. With a sudden internal jolt, Mack realised that he recognised two of the three uniformed men striding towards the recruits. The one he didn't recognise, a tall, lean man with prematurely greying hair and a hooked nose, paced in front of the recruits, surveying them like a predator watching his prey. He had the air of a drill instructor about him and was probably, Mack guessed, going to be the man responsible for making them into ODST's. As the other two approached, he stood back and allowed them to inspect the group.
"Let's take a look at you," one of the men spoke with a grin.
he was clad in a plain black officer's uniform, with short straw-coloured hair and a fierce look in his eyes. Though he didn't look much older than thirty or so, something about him made Mack think that he wasn't exactly a young man. A bruise was fading just below his right eye. This was John Ackton, the Major he had made the mistake of fighting a few weeks back. They had just taken Harvest, though Mack had been the last survivor of his squad in the final stages of the conflict. He was tired, angry, and the wrong man had just bumped into him. Of course, the fight had probably lasted no longer than twenty seconds, but by the end, the officer had a black eye and half a dozen others had wrestled him to the ground. He was thrown in the brig, of course. To his surprise, the officer had come down to visit him with a smile on his face. After congratulating the young Marine on his skills, he gave him an alternative to the likely court martial: Become an ODST, and join his team.
Wonder if he's here to check up on me.
Of course, that one had been a no-brainer on his part. He had no idea why Ackton, had decided to give him this chance, and at the time, didn't really care. It was the third man, however, who made everything clear. He was not a particularly large or exceptionally tall man, with silver hair, a scarred face and dark brown eyes. He did, however, seem to possess a certain aura of command and power that dwarfed the other men as he casually walked along the line of recruits. His gaze lingered on Mack's for a second before he turned his back to face the first man. This was Richard Mack Senior. A few other recruits glanced down the line towards the younger Mack, who stared forward without a flicker of emotion.
"I'll hand it over to you, Lieutenant McNair. Make them into the best."
The ODST saluted before responding. "Aye, sir. I'll have 'em jumping into hell soon!"
He had a deep voice, with a resounding Scottish accent. John Ackton took out a datapad, and checked the line, seemingly ticking off a list. Mack guessed that he wasn't the only one to be offered a place in this new unit. After a few seconds, he and Mack Senior turned and walked towards the main building, chatting like old friends as they did so. McNair grinned maliciously at the new recruits.
"Right then! I see 'yer all tired from the journey, so I'll go easy today. Three times around the base, bags 'an all. Move!"
Four hours later, the recruits lay in their bunkhouse, absolutely shattered by the day's events. McNair's idea of a jog around the base included climbing, swinging and crawling through an assault course, all while clinging to their kit bags. Once the Lieutenant had decided that they had done enough, they were allowed to shower and were given their new uniforms. They were largely the same as their previous ones, albeit in black rather than green, with 'ODST' emblazoned on the shirt in white lettering. Mack lay on his bunk, listening to the conversations going on around him. Buck, Driscol and Embry were still laughing at Sergeant Keel's pronunciation of 'water bottle', while Reyes attempted to explain what a glottal stop was to them.
Guess this is what I'm gonna have to deal with from now on.
He sat up, and looked around at the others in the room. For better or for worse, they were his family now. Back on Harvest, the heavy casualties had meant that forming friendships was nearly meaningless; a new friend could end up impaled on an elite's blade or vaporised by plasma the next day. He'd make the best of this situation, as he had done before. It didn't matter if his father had set him up for this. Frankly, by this point, he didn't care. Mack looked over a few bunks, where Papadakis was telling several others about his younger brother's disappearance on the UNSC Spirit of Fire not long before. Mack sighed, and lay back. It was the strangest feeling, he felt both surrounded by company, yet completely alone. The Lieutenant, McNair, seemed to have something similar about him. He was engaged with the recruits, leading and ordering them, while remaining detached all the same.
Richard Mack Junior lay back and closed his eyes. Sleep never came easily, especially after what he'd seen on Harvest, but he was grateful for some kind of respite from the world around him. In spite of all his supposed superior abilities, the special treatment he had been given and despised, he was still only human.