Far Side of the Moon
Chapter 14: Far Side of the Moon
A thousand cries rang in my head.
The sudden, luminous flash forced my eyes shut.
They opened and the noise instantly faded along with the artificial glow.
The view had changed in front of me. Gone were the harsh lights of manmade facilities and gone was the omniscient dim of the mines far below. No more tunnels and twists and turns, the incredible secrets around each dark corner.
We stood together in a broad, plagioclase plain, a grey-white panorama. Jagged and rocky in some places and smooth dust in others. An ankle-deep layer of silvery, talc-fine powder swirled around everyone's boots and was thrown into the ambiance from the instantaneous displacement of us—combatants and non-combatants—all indistinguishable and anonymous behind polarized face plates. The far away star lit up the ground like a mirror and reflected a pale, pleasant glow upwards. Mountains at the far horizon spewed molten chunks high in the air like otherworldly fountains.
"We're on the moon, Marines." Kleiner broadcasted. "Zagosa Majoris."
I looked up: black was a sky in front, vast and open, a wonder of colors filling the void.
As if hive-minded, the group reluctantly began walking on Kleiner's lead.
We carried on for miles. A splash of stars dotted the dark velvet of space. One-sixth gravity and power assist made it easy despite this perilous terrain. The barks, the screams and howls, and the humming of machines had long since faded from my mind, but something else inside still shouted. Everything changed. We had skirted death once again, only this time we were thousands of miles away from any danger. The change was welcomed, though the silence and stillness of space was somewhat disconcerting after everything that had transpired.
I stammered along with the pack as we traveled with the rotation of the moon, which was perpendicular to that of Zagosa Prime's own spin axis. The mechanical whir of my oxygen pump began to still my thoughts the longer I walked. I looked on ahead, dreaming of Gunnery Sergeant Smith faithfully leading us at the point of formation as usual.
Throughout the moonscape, trench-like troughs or impassable rock faces loomed over the area around our snaking path. Up and over gentle foothills we slowly marched. Wisps of dust curled around us as we carried on. A small outcropping of rock stood higher than the surrounding bluffs. I broke free of the group for a moment and stood upon its highest vantage point, scoping the terrain, sighting it out for miles. Pockmarked plains stretched on until they terminated at the horizon, perhaps spanning even farther beyond my sight. Sheer cliffs and unfathomable craters dotted an area far to my East, casting out as far as the eye could see. The terrain was either jet-black or high silver, deep shadows or harsh light. A treacherous and humbling domain.
I caught up to the rear of the group as Kleiner and Lawson ventured further on. The foothills soon settled into a downward slope and lead into a shallow basin. The ground was cracked and split, possibly the sign of a water channel residing here eons ago. A vertical drop loomed ahead, merely five meters down, giving way to a field of high stones and helmet-sized potholes, an isolated meteor shower site. We landed through, traversing another kilometer. For some unknown reason, a wave effect progressed through the line of people and I sidestepped ten meters to the left, navigating out of the path leading into a deep trough—which eventually became a profound ravine, its destination a mystery as it faded into bottomless shadow. On this plateau we strolled. Mountains that were once far were looming closer, humiliating us, their molten lava the only color to behold.
The silence of hard vacuum did nothing to bring ease as we passed under the shadow of a lunar precipice towering high above our heads. The light was shunned away for a moment as we passed under. Far below this ceiling was a gap in the path, which upon more time and decreasing distance became a sheer hundred-meter plunge into darkness. We hugged a wall, traversing a slim ledge leading up to this drop. Around us, a shadowed panorama with monolithic stones thrusted up from the depths like foresaken souls desparate to escape their eternal purgatory. Single file, we pushed off and floated over the yawning chasm. Fresh sawtooth boot treads beat each other up as Marine after Marine after scientist jumped across and landed into more dust on the other side.
Far ahead in the light gleamed a crater of glass. I looked on and caught the inside of the far rim—half in shadow. The depression was lined with the green glitter of Iridium and the pinkish-red hue of shocked quartz. We pressed closer until we were face to face with the crater's ledge. It dove deep into the ground. Lying far below was a tremendous object of exact shape, impossible to have been left there by the will of the cosmos. Vaguely rectangular, its only camouflage was the wide, deep-shadowed basin it lied in. At the far end of this lengthy block, I could make out a series of circular rings—the fluting of rocket engines—conical in shape. A UNSC starship, medium tonnage by my estimation. We peered over the rim of the immense bowl. The parabolic walls of the canyon tapered into the wide floor.
"Follow me." said the Doctor.
He pushed off the ledge, gliding softly down into shadow. We followed.
After about a moment of one-sixth freefall, I landed gently into a thick layer of dust.
Vision was totally obscured after the gentle impact.
The entire group waited a moment for the haze to dissipate. I then looked up. Only the faintest rays of cosmic light crested the lip of the crater, a half-halo materializing above us once the dust rose enough. I activated my night vision and panned around the bottom. Directly ahead was the ship. A few paces away and we collectively came face to face with this Titanium-clad hulk. Painted on the side in white, block lettering was THERMISTICLES.
Doctor Kleiner held up a remote transceiver between his thumb and forefinger, activating the device. The Starboard airlock slid open on command, a slice of light pouring out onto the ground. A mix of Marines and scientists began to enter single file, cycling through by the dozen. I looked up into the sky again and was struck by the sight of Zagosa Prime coming into view inside the crater's wide cone of visibility. A flush of red tickled the distant planet's horizon, slowly enlarging as it rotated my way. Full view would occur in a matter of minutes.
More and more Marines and scientists piled in while I lingered in silence, my gaze glued straight up. All the vertebrae in my neck began to ache, the pain intensifying the longer I watched.
"Curious to see the aftermath?" the Doctor's voice emanated through my headset. He had a strange tone. He posed the question as if the dying world was a specimen under study rather than a place we called home.
I looked over to him as I answered. He was already looking at me, though both of our visors were polarized nearly an opaque-black.
He strolled towards me, taking a stance by my side. "I am too."
A moment of silence lingered as more of Zagosa Prime rotated into view. We gazed together.
"I was sorry to see Sergeant Smith go." the Doctor said flatly. "He seemed like an excellent Marine, and an even better person."
I had only known the Gunnery Sergeant for a few weeks, and I found myself readily agreeing with Kleiner. The realization hit home that I would never see the man again. I glanced sidelong at the Doctor, wishing I knew how to thank him for everything he'd done. Because of his genius, Lima Company cheated death.
It wasn't perfect. Nothing ever is.
We still lost too many Marines down there.
And losing Gunny Smith was still unthinkable.
"Thanks for getting us outta there when you did. I'm not sure I could've handled seeing him go down."
"It was the least I could do for Lima Company." Kleiner replied as the sky tinged redder by the second. "You know, I spent a lot of time down there in the mines of that planet. I hardly got to enjoy its surface. What's left of it looks peaceful from here. But I suppose all that will soon perish as well."
More of the Covenant's bombardment began to show as we waited, until after another moment the entire view was blood-red.
It now waned three-quarters full. Zagosa Prime had died.
Nevermore would it be the green and blue and white that I once knew.
"You think there's any hope for Zaragosa, Doctor? I mean, if we win the War?"
"With enough time and resources, a planet can be brought back to life. I'm sure of it. There's an entire field of academia dedicated to planetary resurrection. Whether or not we'll ever get to see their theories realized, well, it'll be up to us."
"Yeah, I remembered about a decade ago reading an article in Popular Science that terraforming scientists and environmental engineers formed a galaxy-wide community of practice dealing with the after-effects of glassed worlds."
"Phytoremediation has come a long way." Kleiner offered the conversation. "If we're patient, nature can do most of the work for us while the inner worlds are rebuilt."
There was always hope. Only the surface was destroyed. The planet within was still churning.
But there was never any time to undertake such efforts with the War going on. Just another concept on the drawing board, waiting.
Now, Zagosa Prime was completely aflame, bright as an elderly star in its death throes. Piercing through the scorched terrain were pinpricks of glittering light—mellow glass that encased the planet's fair crust like a Hell-razed pincushion. Rust-yellow plumes of sulfuric acid seeped through prematurely-opened rift vallies that resided in what used to be blue oceans of diversity. Hydrochloric acid and silicon dioxide dust clouds surged up from the redirected flow of magma chambers, molten fountains spewing straight up into the troposphere and higher. In slow motion, the plumes rose high into the upper reaches of the Zagosa Prime's gravity field, huddled around the Van Allen radiation belt for hundreds of miles, then slowly sank back into atmosphere toward their eventual destination in the glass.
A halo of Titanium dust shimmered even farther out as chunks of debris collected outside the planet's gravity well. UNSC warships—floating dead hulks—most of them disintegrated remnants of a once-proud fleet vanquished by the hundreds of violet specks surrounding the entirety from pole to pole. They'd nearly finished their orbital bombardment, but a few areas remained. One such unblemished patch was right on the edge, right on the equator, now rotating into center view. Just a particle in relation to the overall mass of Zagosa Prime, it still registered to the Doctor and I as the Foreclay Outpost even from this far away. The valley we'd fought to protect was instantly familiar, just seen from a different perspective.
I had the suspicion the Doctor was waiting for this exact moment as he reached into an exterior compartment of his space suit and retrieved another remote transceiver, this one much larger than the one he used to unlock the Thermisticles earlier. He brought it to bear, angling a small aperture directly toward the world ahead. He pressed a button on the surface and a safety lever snapped open, revealing another control. He pressed this one and there was a delay lasting exactly two seconds.
Suddenly, a titanous fireball sprang out of this tiny fortress that once staved a Covenant brigade. The light from the colossal detonation shone tenfold brighter than any of the Covenant fire that smothered the planet thus far. The massive patch of planet shot skyward just outside ground zero. In perfect silence, the concussion roiled with anger and cascaded higher into the stratosphere. We watched it all in slow motion from our vantage, the fiery ballad it was.
The Foreclay Outpost, the mines, all the secrets below were no more.
"Seems we've all lost something down there." Doctor Kleiner gaited closer and tapped me once on the shoulder. "Gunnery Sergeant Smith was a brave man for what he did. He'll never be forgotten."
Kleiner turned and headed towards the airlock.
I caught up with him and we cycled through together. A maze of hydraulic and high pressure lines crawled over the walls, serving to tame the volatile relationship of atmosphere inside and vacuum outside. A hiss of air permeated the chamber and a cluster of green OLEDs pulsed at the entry way. The inner door opened and we stepped through, the last of humans to have taken up residence at Zagosa Prime.
I removed the helmet that had began to feel stuffy. The air inside the ship had more volume and wasn't stale like that of my suit.
I navigated the wide corridors on his lead, past Engineering, skirting by the Med Shed and up a ladder shaft. In a moment, we arrived at the Command Deck. All ancillary systems were kept on standby, waiting for authorized personnel to wake them up again from a long hibernation. Only mission-essential systems were online from what I could gather. The halls were bathed in dim halogen light. Doors opened only manually with hand cranks. Finally, Doctor Kleiner, Captain Lawson and a few Marines and scientists entered the bridge. I waited outside in the main hallway and took a seat on the deck. I checked what provisions I still had on my person. My entire water supply had been used up while at the mining facility. I felt starved but I confirmed long ago that my last rations were used up. A few minutes went by as I rested there, my weapons and my gear sprawled out on the deck beside me.
"Anyone feel like hitting up the galley?"
There was no reply from anyone, just a group of worn out faces briefly regarding my own before retreating into whatever it was that occupied their thoughts. Surely the lot of them grieved for Gunny and the others we lost along the way. Maybe they were too fatigued of grief itself, too tired to think. There was no way to tell.
I took out a field cleaning kit from one of my cargo pockets, then brought my rifle to bear and began breaking it down.
I had gotten to removing the bolt when the bridge hatch opened and Doctor Kleiner appeared through, his sunken face peering into the hallway. "Can anyone operate a communications console? Even basic theory of operations would be of great help to us."
"I can." I responded, instantly losing interest of my weapon's upkeep.
"Are you qualified?"
"Communications is my primary MOS, Doctor."
"Are you comfortable with ship-borne equipment?"
"UNSC employs common systems interfacing throughout ship and shore inventories. I should be okay."
"Is that a fact?"
"Yes sir, Doctor."
"Perfect. Follow me, Private."
I slowly got up, shaking off the aches that plagued my bones from all the physical stress I'd endured. I followed him into the Command Deck with a pile of weapon pieces in my hands. Captain Lawson was at the command console, a stately leather-wrapped chair. Two holo-pedestals flanked him, one of which was occupied by the holographic representation of a smart A.I.. I looked past the slew of consoles all around the periphery and towards the view port in front as Kleiner directed me to a station at the Portside bulkhead.
"Please take your station." Kleiner said with a slow gesture.
I got situated with the controls as I sunk into a chair. The layout wasn't instantly familiar, so I activated a tutorial on-screen. Captain Lawson approached my station, placed a hand on the high-backed chair I occupied. I customarily stood up and snapped to attention.
"At ease, Private. Your name?"
"Private Pennington, sir."
"Blake, is it?"
"Yes, sir. I see you've viewed my file, sir."
"Yes, I did. Well, truthfully I've viewed all of Lima Company's files...seven months ago. It's nice to have you aboard. Thank you for volunteering to take up a position that an executive officer normally would. Your service on my boat is a tremendous undertaking. Are you up for it?"
"Your leader, Gunnery Sergeant Smith, proved himself to be worthy of the UNSC Medal of Honor. I'll see to it personally that he and his family receive the appropriate honors."
The Naval Captain slowly turned to man his station. In that instant, he stopped and turned again to face me, his brow arced in curiosity. The field-grade officer was studying me.
After a brief moment of scrutiny, he said, "You earned a degree at your university prior to enlisting and you took the officer prep exam. You got a perfect score. I can count the number of people on two hands that have done that. What's the reason you never commissioned?"
How to respond? Give 'em the truth. A naval captain would appreciate that.
"You could've easily made the mark with your credentials." He added. "Could've been a good leader."
"If I could put it simply, sir, I'd just say that it was my pride for the enlisted corps."
"Now that's something you don't hear everyday."
"Couple people told me I was a fool back in my first unit."
"I could understand. Most people commission for the higher pay and increased authority. But I admire your perspective. It's quite notable of you."
"Well, truthfully sir, I can't assume full credit. It was my recruiter who ultimately swayed my decision."
"I know. Recruiters are required to provide minutes on all their meetings with prospective recruits and you were one of the few that actually listened to them, but I think the wrong advice was given that day."
"Well, he told me if I wanted to sit behind a desk all my life, then commissioning was the right choice for me."
"Did you ever think he was just a little bitter when he told you all this?"
"Bitter about what, sir?"
"Well, maybe this recruiter was a bit chapped when he was denied commissioning himself. It's not an easy process. Lots of washouts."
"Actually, the man had two advanced degrees but said to me he wasn't cut out for politicking."
"Well, now this conversation completely turned out to be something I hadn't expected, but I'll just say that the enlisted truly are the backbone of the UNSC and each of you have my respect."
"Likewise, sir. You said you pulled all our records a few months back, so you probably know just about everything about everyone."
"I had you all hand-picked for assignment at Zaragosa Prime, yes. Down to the last private."
"And the Spartan? She must've had some pull in your decisions."
"She was an asset, to be sure, but a single Spartan could not have protected us or stopped that brigade alone."
"Well, sir, she's the reason we're here right now talking about it."
"No, you all are."
I nodded, then I imagined the Gunny snapping back with something quick-witted. I couldn't summon anything. I was still reeling at his loss. I forced composure for my superior.
There were still an ample amount of tears that I'd been holding back for the Gunny's passing, and maybe one day I could take time to ponder about the incredible man that once led this unit, and grieve.
"May I ask why all of us, sir? You'd think for this kind of job you'd get some high-speed ODST unit for it."
"I needed the right kind of troops for the task, and ODSTs are offensive experts, not defensive. And they're spread incredibly thin to be able to assemble the amount of personnel strength needed. Seventh Army hasn't expanded out far enough to bed down at a place like Zaragosa Prime, either. Forming Lima Company was the best option."
"How did you know who to select for Lima Company?"
"Easy. You've basically got four kinds of servicemen. For some, it's a family trade. They join, they make a living, they excel at a steady pace and collect their pension when they discharge. Others are bent on payback, which is all well and good. Give them some training and focus, and they'll follow orders and fight as long as they're needed to. And some are just floating in life looking for a job. The last type is the patriot, the one who fights to protect all people. The greater good types."
"Which one are you, sir?"
"I'm the first one. Father was a sailor, his father was, and his father was."
"I guess it's just in your blood."
"Yes, which means I'm an incredibly good judge of character when it comes to military service. Each and every one of you were reviewed extensively. Every recruit has their reasons for joining and they're all just causes. All of you were worthy of the assignment, and I made the final determinations myself. Just as many predicted, all of you exemplified the kind of courage and leadership down there that merits substantial recognition. You are true heroes. Do you ever stop and think about everything you all did down there? Together, in defense of the Outpost, your unit single-handedly defeated a Covenant expeditionary brigade, and that was just part of it. Historians will be citing that battle as a key engagement that led to much bigger things for the UNSC. Well, that's if we continue that legacy." Lawson flared his chin upward. "Imagine what we'll accomplish moving forward."
"Yeah. I uh...I think we had a bit of luck while just trying to keep each other alive. And we did pretty good, you know, pretty good. I think we're still trying to come to terms with it all and let the shock settle. But now that it's over, where does Lima Company and Sierra Company go?"
"It's not over. Not for you and not for Lima Company. Not for the UNSC. Ever heard of the Cold War?"
A wry smile then appeared from the Captain.
"Vaguely, sir. I remember some history on it back at University."
"What did you learn about that War? What did you take away from it?"
"I think I got out of it what most other people did. Two superpowers epitomized what the definition of deterrence was, sir. A global power struggle on Earth. Back in the twentieth century if I recall correctly.
"True, but it was much more for me when I accessed some old war journals, mandatory reading during my time as a cadet. The winner of that War would be the winner of Earth. Make no mistake...the Covenant are taking us down. And from what information I'm privy to, we're only beginning to attempt the same. It's a war of attrition spanning every front a war can have: ground and aerospace, spies, assassinations, cryptographics and communications. And some pretty interesting technology is being uncovered throughout human-controlled space by the Covenant, as if they were caches waiting to be extracted. Like the Cold War on Earth, this War we find ourselves in now is also winner-take-all. Only during the Cold War, the enemies shared the same space."
"All these worlds must be defended. The more we lose, the closer we come to our end. At the height of the Cold War, there were still friendly lines of communication open between the Russian and American generals. Did you know that?"
"Yes, a few generals on either side respected one another so much that open dialogue was still maintained privately between them. It would surprise you to learn that politicians of either side accounted only for a small fraction of all that communication."
"Most troops never get involved in the political aspects of war, sir."
He leaned in closer. "Me neither. And most don't know that Soviet generals confessed something to their American counterparts when the War was in full swing. Do you know what it was they confessed?"
"They told their American rivals that they knew the war was over for themselves once they understood what kind of military the Americans possessed."
"I thought the Russians lost because of a monetary system collapse."
"No. It was not because the American economy was stronger or because their quality of life was better. It wasn't that American society was a freer one, either. It was because of the people in the American military, Private Pennington. Soviet Generals said that as soon as they looked at America's enlisted force, they knew they were already defeated. They probed all American media for intel, tuning into their television and radio channels, reading their newspaper articles. They sent in their spies looking at what privates and airmen and petty officers and gunnery sergeants were doing day to day. The Soviet generals knew that these American men and women were doing more than what they could get even their young officers to do. An enlisted force outshining your officer corps. Such a force cannot be reckoned with."
"I see, sir."
"This is why we will ultimately win, because of units like Lima Company, because of people like Gunnery Sergeant Smith. This day came in their sacrifice. With the Transit in our possession, we will turn the tide of this War, Private Pennington, and we will honor our fallen in full. The Covenant will see what Humans are capable of and their Elite generals will be that much closer to admitting defeat when it happens. Now, man that console and be at ease."
I took my seat and swung around to face the communications console. The conversation with the Captain had inspired me. He had a way with words and my resolve was renewed.He and his impromptu staff of scientists and enlisted Marines ran procedural diagnostics and gradually brought the ship to operational status. I looked at what was going on around me and tried to remember the last time I had any time to myself. I retrieved the sweat-stained notepad from one of my cargo pockets and started to write.