Rank and File
Chapter 19: Rank and File
"So, Lieutenant Pennington, what do you think about us going to the Sigma Octanus system? You looking forward to it, sir?"
That was Enrique Rios, the most tenured Marine in Lima Company, recently promoted to Gunnery Sergeant and now the senior-ranking enlistee among us. Every one of us received—earned—some kind of promotion following our actions at Zaragosa Prime. Even those belonging to Sierra Company were awarded accolades from Captain Lawson, who'd likely be encumbered with PERSCOM correspondence on the matters for quite some time to come.
The question sounded loaded and I sensed angst in his usually composed voice. I looked upward. He had his gaze trained on me waiting for the response, but before I even considered an answer I instead looked down at my own uniform, still incredulous of the sudden and unprecedented transition into command. The gold bar sewn to the placket of my battle dress was an everyday reminder that the title of Lieutenant still seemed like a gaffe thrown at me for lack of a more deserving candidate, like waking from a dream I wasn't sure was bad or good.
The Gunny regarded me carefully and I didn't mind being pressed for information like this. The current venue was surely crude, but as a prior-enlistee myself I could easily relate. How could anyone be sure of what we were getting ourselves into again? He would have legitimate concerns going forward, after all. He was senior enlisted, charged with immense responsibility. They'd look up to him as a mentor, a guide. All the Marines seated at this particular mess table were to be the future decision-makers of Lima's tactical operations. They were the best suited to lead by Captain Lawson's determinations as well as my own upon accepting command of the unit.
But like me, they were wary of the role they were thrust into. Very few of us were properly indoctrinated and hardened over the customary lengths of time. Though, to be fair each of us had proved our prowess in actual combat and our unit persevered because of one another. By deed alone, each of us got what we deserved. The Captain had no other alternatives, regardless. All aboard the Thermisticles were the last survivors of our world.
Appearing worthy of Lima Company's approval would be an ongoing struggle for me despite being the sole Marine selected to utilize the almighty Transit. I realized that all eyes at the table were fixed on mine now, no longer just the Gunny's. They'd come together on questions to ask beforehand, I gathered. I stole a swift gulp of coffee and quickly uttered, "Sigma Octanus? Well, we need a change. Gotta keep moving forward. It'll be good. I'm looking forward to real food again anyways."
I was terse. I had to be. If I had real information I would volunteer it to the senior ranking ahead of the upcoming briefings, but I had no information. Here I was, caught in the middle. There was nothing yet from the Captain, and all of Lima Company was growing more curious by the day. It wouldn't be in a company grade officer's best interest to tip-toe around issues, but there were so many at this point and addressing them during a meal proved rarely useful anyways. There was surely a better time and a place for this.
"Speaking of food, let's enjoy it for once."
I nodded suggestively, glanced around the Mess, avoiding any eye contact with the Marines seated at my table.
Lima and Sierra were coping incredibly well. I could see it in their eyes, their body language. Despite us losing everything, they all moved with a sense of purpose. They would finish a meal and exit the Mess soon after, very few of them taking up chatter. They were considerate of those still waiting for space to sit down. The unit as a whole still felt like it had direction. No one of authority needed to intervene since we departed our derelict system, not once.
I realized that Gunny Smith would be sitting where I currently was, probably doing much the same as me in this moment: speaking with the senior ranking on enlisted morale, equipment shortfalls, and just enjoying the meal while joking and keeping an eye on others. It seemed none of that was necessary for the moment. The Captain, the Doctor, and their team of scientists always had a way of inspiring confidence and hope despite their elusive nature.
Even after everything that happened, we still possessed that all too critical hope.
But that was only my assumption based on appearances. I also had to rely on NCOs for feedback.
The room was a drone of conversation and silverware pinging against silverware and chairs sliding across the Thermisticles' deck, all sounds echoing against her unforgiving bulwark. I enjoyed the noises, the small bouts of idle talk among the NCOs. I sipped some more coffee, lost focus on my surroundings and realized again that all eyes at my own table were still looking at me, and I set my tin down.
"LT," Rios said, "the troops are getting curious as to what's going to happen. Where we're going, what we'll be doing. It's been three days since we left 'Gosa and we all remember being promised some much needed info. What's the mission?"
"Well, we're going to Sigma Octanus."
"Yes, and the Captain did mention we're going to engage some Covenant." Staff Sergeant Holmes remarked. "So, how much Covenant? Will we be rallying with other UNSC? Like…what's the game plan?"
"I don't know any of that yet. I'm still waiting to get briefed by the Captain himself. Have any of you noticed any turbulence among the squads?"
Rios glanced at all the enlisted leaders seated among us before offering, "No, sir. Nothing. And that's why I feel we owe it to them to get them answers sooner than later."
"What do you think he's waiting on?" Sergeant Haze asked. "Like Gunny said, it's been three days in slip space. Going on four, now."
"Gents, he probably has a lot on his mind right now. I say we remain patient. It's not just about us anymore."
"We can only remain so patient, LT. We've got lives, too. Even if they haven't said anything yet, I know some of the troops are rather anxious to find out if anyone they knew at Zagosa made it outta there in time. And some of us just want to reconnect with whoever we have elsewhere in the galaxy."
"Okay, I get it. Believe me, I get it. I've got family at Reach and I know they're waiting to hear from me. Same for everyone, I'm sure. Captain knows that. He's undoubtedly just as anxious, though we don't see him in a frenzy about it. I'll press for it when he's ready to see me. In the meantime, nothing changes who we are. We're Lima Company." I cracked a smile, winking at Haze. "We're the Illusionists. Only now we've been entrusted with even more responsibilities than before. You're NCOs, so get everyone on a regimen. Do what it is we do best. Prepare. And the only reason we're preparing is because we ain't fighting."
They all nodded firmly, the Gunny saying, "I'll see it done, sir."
Following the morning meal, I received a message from Rosetta. The Captain had requested my presence. I marched toward the Command Deck with a sense of hope that we'd be given a clear path ahead.
My visits to Captain Lawson weren't often, and I was never the initiator. I hadn't yet requested anything of him on behalf of Lima Company. Since our voyage, I always respected his situation, how occupied he always was in his own duties. The man wore so many hats: a scientist leading UNSC R&D efforts, a ship commander and field grade officer. How the man pulled it off was beyond me, but I could tell all that responsibility was going to wear him down eventually. I didn't know the state of his health and sleep habits, but surely they were lesser than my own at this time.
This was the burden of command.
Meetings with Captain Lawson were only at his behest and they were highly structured and succinct, never any wasted time. They were tiny missions in themselves. Information to be relayed, orders to be passed down and seen done. Standards to be set and enforced on those I would never have thought of commanding.
Upon my entrance to the Bridge, Rosetta announced, "Second Lieutenant Pennington on deck."
The Captain was already standing. Various civilians and a few Marines held position at the ship's sub-command stations, all engrossed in their tasks and oblivious to my presence. The Captain pivoted and placed his attention away from the others and nodded at me. "Have you decompressed, Pennington?"
"Yes, along with all the others, I'm sure. We're grateful for the change of pace."
"Good, though I presume that gratitude won't last very long because we're on the move again in short order. I hope you've all enjoyed every bit of it."
"Does that lead us to the next mission's in-brief?"
"Yes. Sigma Octanus." The Naval Captain then stepped toward the exit corridor where I currently stood and brushed past me. "Follow me to the Conference Hall."
He didn't waste any time elaborating as we left the vicinity of the Command Deck, walking with fast and long strides. This corridor was eerily silent, only the two of us occupying its length as we marched.
"The Thermisticles is entering normal space in thirty-six standard hours. Our itinerary takes us straight to Sigma Octanus Four and we'll be arriving there in the aftermath of a major invasion. Latest intel states low risk, though we've been asked for a favor upon our arrival."
"What's that, sir?"
"To investigate potential threats in the area. They've already cleared their world of Covenant presence, but I still consider our little errand to be of substantial importance to the Sigma Octanus system as a whole. We're venturing outward to investigate another planet in that star system, Sigma Octanus Two. This comes by request of Colonel Mattis, the head of Planetary Defense for the Sigma Octanus system."
"Should we be expecting hostile engagements, sir?"
"The Covenant never back down from a fight. They may flee temporarily, but eventually they turn up in force. We know that all too well. And the force that attacked Sigma Octanus Four was three to five times the size that struck Zaragosa Prime. You know what that means."
"Means there's something of interest here, too."
"That's correct. All assessments conclude the enemy is most likely staging reinforcements elsewhere in-system. See, I told you I'd make you tip of the spear again."
"Aye, sir, you did."
"And now we're doubly prepared to stand up to the Covenant, alone if need be."
"Lima Company will be ready, sir."
"I know. That's why I've taken up Colonel Mattis' request. We can continue to grow Lima Company as a fighting unit and use the Transit to even greater effect, not to mention draw out any Covenant presence still in the shadows. But first, I'm going planetside to meet with the Colonel and I'm taking you with me."
"I'm going to be working with other senior officers?"
"Not quite, Lieutenant, but it's time to get you exposed to command duties. One of these duties includes acting on intelligence. This is the point in time that Lima Company starts to really take shape into the unit it was meant to be. Starting tomorrow, there will be a lot of information to absorb in the days and weeks ahead. Aside from commanding Lima Company, think of yourself as my shadow from here on out."
"I'm ready to learn."
"What's first on the agenda?"
Lawson stopped short of the bulkhead before the Conference Hall and offered a rare smile. "Real food."
I followed him inward and the room was empty and silent save for a wide holo-display board flanked by high-backed chairs.
"The real food is at Sigma Octanus." He again smiled, finding a seat.
I remained standing, respecting protocol, assuming the position of Parade Rest just a few paces away.
"Now, there's a secret meeting that's been arranged. Local UNSCDF will be there, ONI officials, Highcomm officials. It'll probably be a short exchange and that's fine as we've got other stops to make, but I really needed us to make this one. The information being presented will be extensive, so I'm told. It's because of the hard work we've already done that Lima Company is getting access to this intel."
"What sort of intel?"
"I believe it is something that could end this War, Pennington."
"Well, whatever it is, it's major. Someone anonymously summoned me there, and I think they were postponing this meeting until I could arrive. Anyways, keep this information our secret for now and rest assured that we're getting something significant in return for our efforts."
"You're dismissed, and have the unit ready to muster when we arrive."
On the way to the ship's armory, I summoned the Gunny to meet me there. A few of the bulkheads offered clear windows but only the void of slipsapce was there waiting just outside the hull. Any minute now, the Thermisticles would make the transition to subspace and the view would change. I descended a loading ramp before the threshold to the armory and found the Gunny already waiting there along with Staff Sergeant Holmes and Sergeant Haze.
"Any news from the Captain?" He asked.
"Not much. Well, he's due to get a briefing from some senior officials at Sigma Octanus Four and then we should know some more."
"So," Haze began, "about five days and no clear direction. What are we going to do if we still have nothing when he returns from his briefing there?"
"It's going to get clearer as we progress, I know it. We're all going through the motions here, Captain Lawson included."
"Alright, sir. Guess we'll just have to see what happens."
"Gents," I said, "I have to be on the move. With you all as my witnesses, I'm going to store the Transit here in the armory before we head to ground."
I glanced about. There was only a Corporal at the CQ station, bored out of his mind. Though Rosetta could've easily surveilled the premises, Marine Corps regs mandated the continuous manning of critical facilities at all times. This was one such place.
"I'm storing this in the vault, Corporal."
He stood at attention. "Roger, sir."
He swung the heavy door open and I set the canvass bag down on a metal shelving unit inside the protected confines.
"What is it, sir?"
"Classified. When's your shift over?"
"Another couple hours, sir."
"Lock yourself inside and have someone fetch you some hot food, then get some good sleep. I have a feeling you're gonna need it."
Just then, Captain Lawson was patched in to our corridor's PA system from the Command Deck.
"Lieutenant, what's the status on the Transit?"
"Stored in the armory as you asked."
"Good. If you see no objection, order your unit to take a day of shore leave as soon as we enter real space. They look like they need it."
"I know I say this on behalf of the Company. Thank you, sir."
"It's nothing. But I'll need you to stand fast. You're going under the knife."
"Under the knife, sir?"
"You're getting a neural lace installed down there. Stay behind and wait for me."
I turned to face my NCOs.
"I want you with the troops as they make preparations to head to Sigma Octanus Four. Forget about anything mission-related and join them on vacation."
The Gunny nodded. "Aye, sir."
We parted ways and I headed toward the Command Deck. By the time I reached the Captain, the Thermisticles had already made the transition.
In orbit around Sigma Octanus IV, all seemed calm. There was a clear view outside the forward screen. There were no signs of Covenant activity, confirmed by Rosetta moments prior. Even from this altitude, I could see giant plumes of dust the size of cities hanging in patches and slowly churning like hurricanes. I could see networks of orbital tethers erected and ferrying supplies up and down. Space stations at the high ends gleamed in sunlight. Rebuilding on a massive scale was underway below.
"Okay," Lawson said, descending from his command station, "let's see what we can do for the UNSC."
The Pelican touched down onto tarmac and the ramp opened. Sunlight and a cloud of dust swirled inward, showering my uniform. We strode down onto the taxiway and were escorted by a few local troops toward a walkway that exited the flightline, leading directly to our destination just a few hundred meter's walking distance. Other than a few mixed reactions from being in such proximity to a pair of Spartan supersoldiers, the escorting troops didn't say much, simply gestured onward. The path was fenced off on all sides with razor wire anchored to its outer surface for the entire length onward.
Far beyond in either direction were patchworks of freshly-poured concrete foundations and construction vehicles helping to lay more foundations. Electrical conduits snaked everywhere from some central power source and construction workers tapped in at various points, siphoning off energy for their heavy vehicles and power tools. The entire military base was rebuilding. The Covenant had leveled much of the installations here in their assault.
"The city got hit even harder." Lawson remarked as we approached our destination. "But I'm told they're on the rebound."
Though completely cordoned off like our pathway was, an area directly ahead appeared finished, replete with colorful landscaping and signage which read:
ATTENTION: YOU ARE ENTERING A RESTRICTED AREA
ONLY PERSONNEL AUTHORIZED BY THE INSTALLATION COMMANDER MAY PROCEED
UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL WILL BE DETAINED
There were two entrances on either side of the building just a few more paces ahead, some sort of bunker by appearances. The gaps between windows were wide and the surfaces had no seams that I could discern. I rapped a knuckle against one of the window panes and I heard no sound in report. It was blast-proof to a certain degree. An irresistible itch then nagged at the back of my neck right where the surgical operation was performed two hours prior and I went to scratch at it. The lidocane anesthetic had already fully subsided, luckily with no lingering pain.
"It'll itch for a day." Captain Lawson said. He then grunted, or laughed, I couldn't be sure which. "Reminds me of the day I graduated OCS."
"You must be Captain Lawson." A man said from nearby. "You're the only one here wearing whites."
Leaning casually up against a railing, a soldier dressed in Army Class-A service uniform smoked on a cigar near a row of bench seating, eying Captain Lawson.
"Colonel Mattis, good to finally meet you."
The two marched toward one another and stopped to exchange handshakes.
"Yes, good to finally be putting names with faces. So, your ship's here with you? The—"
"—Thermisticles, yes and a company of the finest Marines I've ever seen. Now that we're face to face, I'd like a favor from you as well before we attend this meeting."
"Wanted to tap your inventory."
"What is it you need to borrow?"
"Equipment and vehicles. All my troops are going into combat, so I'd also need a minimal amount of support personnel to stay behind."
"I don't see why not. Recovery efforts are steadying out here."
"It's going to be short notice, Colonel. I plan on checking out your second planet tomorrow."
"Really? I didn't expect it to be so soon. I could've had it ready for you right now if you mentioned it sooner."
"Wanted to ask you in-person. How soon can you have it all ready?"
"I'll put my best people on it once the briefing is through."
"The sooner, the better. I'm on a very strict timetable."
"Understood. Well, we'd better get inside and find our places."
Captain Lawson pulled the two Spartans aside, saying, "Why don't you post up on either entrance just in case strangers show up. This meeting is going to be extremely sensitive."
The two of them nodded and marched to each doorway.
The Colonel led us inward and flashed a badge at an MP posted inside the doorway. "These people are here with me."
The MP nodded and gestured toward an area with some free seats remaining. I chose a spot next to the Captain and looked around. I was the only one here in battle dress. I was also the only junior officer. High-ranking servicemen of all types were engaged in conversation, most of it informal by appearances. I watched two naval officers stare at one another for a moment before rushing to shake hands and reminisce about a duty station they where they once worked together. It's a small military. Like Captain Lawson, it was probable that none of them knew their reason for being here. Despite such obvious compartmentalization, every branch of the UNSC had representation. Some were suit-dressed, clearly ONI personnel. This briefing room was well adorned in freshly-laid wood paneling and the climate control made it cozy. Further toward the back wall was a lengthy table and a small feast on top of it. Before I thought about getting up to partake, recessed lighting above illuminated just as every window auto-darkened to pitch-black, choking off all outside starlight. The room then quieted down as a suit-dressed man walked to the central podium, glancing about the many faces for a moment.
"Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, welcome to Sigma Octanus Four. With everyone now present, the intel briefing can commence."
The civilian then began accessing a datapad as enlisted personnel scurried about the room fetching discarded plates and silverware, soon to be on their way into a back galley room.
Then, he began.
"While the UNSC Iroquois fought off an entire Covenant battle group, the UNSC Prowler Insidious was able to get in close enough to the lead enemy vessel and deploy a slip space probe aboard its outer hull just before it fled the system."
The room then hummed with murmur and speculation, all occupants wide-eyed as a translucent overlay was beamed inside my retinas from a nearby data feed automatically interfacing with my neural lace. Fast scrolling intel reports were on one side while a static display of the spy probe being referred to was on the other. The briefing agent continued.
"Over the course of several weeks, ONI utilized the UNSC Slipspace Probe Area Network to track its whereabouts and query it for data gathering. The SPAN successfully relayed that critical data to analysts in near-real-time. What you will find in the encrypted data files I'm uploading to your CNIs are routine stops to a set of uncharted coordinates. These coordinates never changed throughout the surveillance period. What they were visiting was stationary. Access further and you will see corresponding images taken by the spy probe."
There was sudden lull in the room, a collective pause of both word and breath, and I immediately glanced at Captain Lawson upon seeing what could only be the most important vessel in the enemy's fleet.
The Captain whispered so lowly that I could barely hear it beneath the many side conversations now starting up again. "…It all makes sense now."
"People," the agent said, glancing at all, "extensive analysis has been conducted on these high-res images, spatial data recorded, and a wealth of intercepted transmissions. CINCONI has determined that what we're looking at here is a mobile command post. We now have a prime target. From here, an official from SWORD Command has the floor."
The Captain then left his chair and paced to the apex of the room, all eyes on him. Once at his place, he gave me a nod. I could only stare back in surprise.
He then took stock of the room and all the participants, relaxing his stance. "Uploading to your CNIs now are the data files of an alien artifact we discovered at Zaragosa Prime, our base of research and development operations until its recent glassing. The device we have is believed to be of the same origin as the artifact retrieved by Spartan Blue Team here at Sigma Octanus Four, though it's assumed their functions are quite different from one another. It is my understanding that the artifact discovered here is currently undergoing analysis. The device excavated at Zaragosa Prime, however, has already been thoroughly studied and its function understood. The Transit, the device, can quantize units of space-time itself effectively enabling teleportation."
"Teleportation?" Asked an elderly General seated in the middle of the room. "You're telling us you can send matter anywhere?"
"Well, not quite, General. Teleportation, yes, but there are practical limits to its capabilities."
"So, we're talking about another one of these discoveries at an alien digsite. It sounds like you've tested this thing."
"Yes. The specifics we've been able to observe in both controlled and uncontrolled scenarios are presented within my encrypted report. View them at your own pace, but understand the device cannot teleport matter limitlessly. But given the right operational parameters and objectives, this weapon system can be used to great effect. The intel presented today could be the catalyst for which this weapon system is ideally suited for. In my belief, we can neutralize this Covenant High Command vessel and—"
"—Hold on now." The flag officer interrupted. "Just hold on." He scratched at his scalp. "Captain, you can't spearhead an operation of that magnitude with a single source of intel, a single weapon system, and god only knows what else you're cooking up and expect success. Let's ponder this for a moment. Where's the pre-battle assessment analytics? Logistical inventory requests for something of this scope? And as for the weapon system itself, who will be using it? Where's the weapon's field manual? Does one exist? Is there a chain of evidence from third-party reviews regarding its operational capabilities? So far, only your organization has had possession of this thing and I haven't even heard of SWORD Command until today."
"We're fairly new, sir."
"I can see that. I'm scanning through your data looking for a CONOP and I'm not seeing one."
"Well, sir, that's what this meeting is all about, however I can say—"
"—You can say what you want, but in the grand scheme it won't amount to much. Not enough to convince me, anyways. Until we get verdicts from commands outside your own, this is dead on arrival as far as I'm concerned, and—"
There was a plurality of reactions that made him pause and glance about the room. Particularly, it was the equally-tenured Generals of various other commands staring straight at him. Several others at the edges of the room shifted in their seats, exchanging glances between this General and Captain Lawson. It was easy to see that the majority, by appearances alone, was allied against this General's verbose appraisal of the situation. For the revelations presented here were incredible opportunities dropped into the UNSC's lap, free for the taking. Two of them. We had the best piece of intel anyone could hope to acquire these long thirty years of losing battles, and we had the perfect tool with which to exploit it. We could finally strike at a strategic target of incalculable worth.
We could finally inflict a mortal wound.
No more reacting to invasion after invasion. No more resorting to catastrophic and often futile colonial defense.
Captain Lawson was right.
"Look," the General resumed, again quieting down the ambient buzz, "Lawson, your realm is scientific research operations."
"I'm also a captain, a ship commander, and mission planner of Marine Corps Quick Reaction Forces."
"Well, I'm a general."
This gave everyone present a laugh and some comic relief.
"Okay? This isn't something you just immediately ramrod into a full-on strategic assault. You're suggesting a substantial, one-time strike that would require massive, dedicated support that will likely be expended altogether when the day is done. Something this heavy takes months and many man-hours to plan, not to mention stage covertly. And even if it's properly planned and prepared, what if it's unsuccessful? What if it fails? That's quite a bit of time and resources at stake to make that kind of gamble." He glanced about the room. "Let's all just catch our breaths here. Yes, this is exciting news. It's the best news I've heard in a long time. It's the one-two punch we've been searching for. So, let's not screw it up!"
The General folded his arms and leaned back in his chair, suggesting to everyone that he'd said his piece.
Lawson glanced at everyone and nodded, unable to keep a straight face while letting the gravity of this entire news sink in.
I began to see various high-ranking individuals of all services and agencies glance at one another, nodding as well. Despite silence, there was consensus.
"Alright," said Lawson, "seems like we've got a lot of work and collaboration ahead of us. I'll be performing several live proofs in the days and weeks ahead, stopping at several commands along the way to Reach where I presume all of these inroads will lead. We'll need to rally the support of more than what we have here in this room alone. This will require Highcomm, every section of ONI, all colony commands, and others still. We need as much human and material support as we can muster in what will amount to the largest military operation the human race has ever devised. The General is right to be skeptical. There can only be one shot at this, which means it's all or nothing. With that, we need to convince every big hitter out there that this is real and that this could work with their contribution. Let's get on the phones and start making secure calls, get everyone off the bench and into action."
Wordless, everyone stood, immediately making their way to the exits. The only sounds were the short, staccato footfalls of low quartered shoes tapping against the parquetry, an orderly stampede of commissioned officers. I got up and followed the crowds outward, eventually finding Captain Lawson shuffling through the door. Once outside, he donned his cap again and nodded at the Spartans standing guard on either end of the bunker, waving them onward as the various attendees filed out into the light of a star about to set over the horizon. The four of us regrouped beneath the dust-ridden covered walkway that would take us back to the Pelican.
"Wow, sir, that went extremely well from my perspective."
"Thank you, Lieutenant Pennington."
"How long was that meeting in the works?"
"Not long after we discovered the Transit and reported our earliest test results."
"Seems the events at Sigma Octanus and Zaragosa were connected by fate."
"Luck, fate, whatever. We're going on the offensive and it feels great."
"Aye, sir. When can I give Lima Company the good news?"
Lawson stopped walking. He turned to face me and make eye contact.
"I wouldn't do that. There will be a time for it, but it's not now."
"Sir, I just can't help but think of what it would do for morale. It would be such a major, long-lasting boost."
"I know. Your heart's in the right place, but this is all about using our heads just like that old General suggested."
"Do you suspect anything of the Marines, sir?"
"No, I don't doubt their integrity. Not after all they endured. It's where we're headed in the meantime that's got me concerned. It might take the wind out of their sails if you give them any."
"Why's that, sir?"
Lawson resumed to the trek back to the starport. I followed alongside, the Spartans walking in lockstep.
"Like we established in the meeting, this grand operation won't take shape overnight. While the planners plan and get all the details ironed out, you'll be taking Lima Company through some combat trials. If you're to take part in the strike, which I intend you do, you'll need to train for it…all of you. I plan on making you leader of a specialized infiltration team that will ultimately destroy this mother ship of theirs. But before the operation gets any wings, people of the highest grades will inevitably weigh in and steer it to its eventual course. We won't be the ones deciding how this whole thing plays out. In the end, we're all beholden to Highcomm. The only thing we can do in the meantime is present ourselves as the preeminent force best suited to lead the charge. Besides, most of those guys at the briefing were ONI or military attaché's working for ONI. Better to just let them take you under their wing, especially when they're controlling the purse strings."
"They funded your project?"
"Mostly. Enough of it that they essentially own it if they wanted to make a stink about it. A necessary action. Call it symbiotic. Without them, Doctor Kleiner would've been somewhere else, working on something else. You see, R-and-D folks like me and the Doctor are hard-working, patient, resilient, and hopeful above all. But these types…they just want instant results. They're used to evaluating toys that go boom and make things explode. To them, if you don't have a ready-made system sitting on a shelf just waiting to be used, they could care less about anything else. But we're past that now. The Transit is ready to be shown to the powers that be. The UNSC has wanted to field any disruptive technologies it could get its hands on for a long time and now we'll deliver. Once they finish reeling over the shock we'll surely give 'em, they'll green light us for this final mission. Realize Lima Company's true purpose."
"What about that technical brief you had encrypted and Lima Company's classified after-actions reports on the subject?"
"I would agree with you. For me, it's enough, but guys like these also have a time budget. Reading data points and first-hand accounts is not the same as a dog-and-pony show. They need to see it. Seeing is believing."
"Seems like you've planned more than you let on, sir."
"Well, as much as I can, but some things can't be planned for."
"Like that General?"
"I think a healthy dose of skepticism has its own benefits. Keeps us in check. And speaking of keeping us in check…"
Colonel Mattis was on approach.
"What did you think of the briefing?" Lawson asked.
"If the operation you proposed today comes to fruition, we'll all be grateful. The UNSC needs this and I hope you get the backing it deserves. I've been ordered to Earth, myself. We're standing up a new unit there, so I'll have my work cut out for me. But if I can be of any use, you let me know."
"Maybe I'll start up a petition." Lawson grinned.
"I'll be happy to add my signature. So, you're off to Reach to pitch the big plan."
"Aye, Colonel. Once we're through investigating the number two planet."
"Well, good luck out there and if you ever find yourself on Earth, pay me a visit. Hopefully it'll be post-war. With us as the winner, obviously."
"Take care, Captain, and God's speed. I'll have your requests carried out in full."
"Good luck to you too. Maybe someday soon I will pay you a visit."
They shook hands and together we left the Army Commander behind. Ahead now was the broad courtyard before the starport, our shuttle the only vessel atop the taxiway being refueled.
"Now, as for the next mission, you'll be taking Lima Company to ground when we deploy, Pennington." Captain Lawson consulted a data tablet as we marched. "I've prepared for you a mission overview and some specifics. Study and memorize them tonight because tomorrow starts the mission clock. We're on a strict timetable from here on out."
"What about Sierra Company?"
"I can't afford for any of them to have opportunities to leak news of the outpost or the device to people outside our operation, so effective immediately Sierra is now absorbed into Lima. They're without command and structure and they need a home anyways. It's easier and it just makes sense. Do you have any reservations commanding them, Lieutenant?"
"Not at all, sir. Hell, Sierra Company fought right alongside us. We're basically family."
"Good. Consider it official."
"I'll inform them."
"I'm placing this ground-op in your hands, Lieutenant Pennington. You're calling the shots."
"Transit and all?"
"That's heavy, sir. Are you sure about this? What if I make mistakes?"
"Mistakes are inevitable, but your unit will back you up. I have no doubt. It's time I throw you into deep water to see if you can swim."
I had no time for myself after downloading the Captain's pre-mission brief. Once I read it, I knew preparations needed to happen quickly.
First on my agenda was to review the status of supply requests. Colonel Mattis was extremely generous. Lock, stock and barrel, he agreed to everything we'd asked for, offering not only his own people and property to Lima Company but calling in favors from others at Sigma Octanus IV as well. We had access to the supply manifests of at least a dozen other Army units in the star system. What caught my eye in particular were surplus ODST combat harnesses and an AC-220 Heavy Gunship, otherwise known as a Vulture. The colossal war bird was a rarity to find these days, especially one in such good repair. This one's service record revealed not even a single caveat to combat. It was mint as the day it was assembled.
Merely two hours later, a UNSCDF Pelican entered the Thermisticles' launch bay laden with supplies from the planet below. Right behind it was the Vulture coming into view, poised further beyond like a giant sea predator chasing some smaller prey item. A grin forced itself on my face as I observed them taxi inward from beyond airlock windows. Once the bay doors sealed shut, I cycled through and guided them closer. As their engines spooled down to an idle, I met the pilots and accepted responsibility of the shipments. Non-combat technicians filed out by twos carrying boxes containing what I assumed to be the ODST gear I requested.
"You can drop all that stuff at the armory."
The pilots boarded their Pelican, one breaking from their formation and staying behind to operate the Vulture.
"How much seat time have you got with that beast?" I asked, glancing over the insignia on his uniform.
"Couple hundred hours, sir."
"Sounds adequate. We could be getting into some trouble down there, Chief."
"What do you think the odds are? Been waiting for some payback."
I smiled. "Good odds."
"Just tell me what to do when the time comes."
"Sounds good, Chief. Make yourself at home aboard the Thermisticles."
I double timed it out of the launch bay and caught up to the new personnel headed to the armory and supervised the inventorying and inspection process. Once all the gear was hung up on racks, the techs departed for their new homes aboard the Thermisticles.
Sergeant Haze entered and found me afterwards, looking like he'd been searching specifically for me for a while.
"Well, LT, are we still just treading water?"
"Nope. We're definitely picking up steam now, as you can see."
"Let's hear it."
"Well, we've got destinations. First one is Sigma Octanus Two. Once we're finished there, we're on a timetable. Apparently a pretty swift one."
"Where are we headed?"
"A few places, eventually to Reach."
"This sounds a little familiar, like I've heard it once before. How long are we staying at these places and what are we doing there?"
"—He didn't tell you." Haze shook his head.
"In all fairness, it is a lot of info and it's better to parse through the information as we go. And no, I don't know of every single place he plans on visiting, but we'll support him nonetheless."
"How long will this continue before NCOs need to take this up directly with him?"
"You don't want to do that. You know he's protocol-heavy."
"You gotta give me something, sir."
"Didn't I? We had a day of shore leave."
"Aye, one day is fine but not enough to hold a decent conversation. Some of us have family clear on the other side of the galaxy."
"I know it's not always fair for everyone. We could at least send messages, though. It wasn't a total loss, right?"
"What kind of big thing is gonna happen? We've been waiting to hear it."
"…All I can say is that it's a very important operation to the UNSC and we'll be in the center of it. Tip of the spear just like the Captain promised. I'm sorry I can't give more info on it. I wish I could."
"So you say there's big missions, we're a key player, and in the same breath you say you haven't got any info on it."
"You're not mad at me for it, are you?"
"Oh…no man. No way. We're totally not getting the run-around again. I mean, even though that's exactly what we got at Zagosa from the same exact Captain, it doesn't mean we need to know what we're fighting for after the fact, right?"
"Haze, we know what we're fighting for. The device they discovered. What could be a turning point in the War."
"Do you ever feel that the Captain is leaning on you just a little too much?"
"What do you mean by that?"
"Well, you're so new at this. You're a brand new officer with essentially zero experience at it. Lima Company has become like his personal army and I don't think he'll have any problems using us just like he did at Zagosa, and you would be like the perfect tool in his box of tools."
"I don't think that at all, and I'm still not sure what you're getting at."
"Well, sir, you've got to stand up for us. You may be his Lieutenant, but you're also our Lieutenant."
"Please, don't tell me how to do my job. I think I know a thing or two about looking after this Company."
"Well, some of us are wondering…"
"Oh, sorry, gotta get more info from the troops. I'll get back to you on that some time."
The Sergeant spun around and was about to leave when I stopped him short.
"In the meantime, Sergeant Haze, inform the Company there's an all-hands brief tonight at nineteen-hundred hours at the range."
Haze saluted, clenched his jaw and walked out of the armory.
In came Corporal Struger, nodding at the Sergeant as he withdrew.
"Hey, sir. What's all this stuff? New toys?"
"The finest toys. You'll hear all about it later tonight."
"Hey, sir, have you been getting enough rack time? You look a little…taxed."
"Too much time out here in space, Corporal Struger. One day groundside just wasn't enough. I'm sure you know what I mean. Been dealing with a lot of stuff lately, too. Ready to push on, you know?"
"I think we all are. Maybe we'll get in some trigger time soon, sir. Take out some Covvie and not even give them a proper burial."
"Aye, let's hope." I smiled.
I paced up and down the length of the only live-ammo targeting range the ship had. It was just one lane, all by itself. VR ranges were cheaper to use, cheaper to maintain, and required no backstops. VR ranges were just as accurate as well, but they could never mimic the intimidation and visceral feel of a weapon pointing downrange annihilating old-fashioned paper targets. Live-ammo ranges also provided troops the opportunity to disassemble and clean their weapons afterwards. Currently, I used the space for the pre-mission brief, all of Lima Company lined up against either wall. I wouldn't have to shout in the confines and it provided a more personal atmosphere, allowing them to get intimate with the details of the briefing. Everyone standing ensured there would be no nod-offs.
"Are we dropping in ODST pods?" Sergeant Haze asked.
"No, we'll be ferried in by Pelican, but this new gear is specially made for exo-atmospherics."
"Is that the mission, sir?"
"No, we're going groundside."
"Why these then?"
"I ordered them just in case. Anything could happen and I want the best of the best, people and equipment, just how Gunny Smith always had it. Now, for anyone not originally part of Lima Company, you know by now that you are indoctrinated into X-ray directive. I'm talking to you, Sierra Company. By participating in these missions and all subsequent, you're agreeing to compartmentalization and non-disclosure. Consider all knowledge past, present and future to be classified unless made unclassified by Captain Lawson himself. Now, the mission…
I began to pace the full length of the range, and back again.
"Parent units lost contact with the UNSC Boxer and all her hands approximately one month ago at the planet Sigma Octanus Two. It's a derelict world, thick jungle, overgrown, a diverse set of indigenous, non-intelligent wildlife. The only thing of danger known about the place is some of the terrain and the fact that Covenant are confirmed to have at least visited and engaged UNSC there."
"How do we know there's Covenant still there?" Asked Gunny Rios.
"We don't, Gunny, but we do know that's the reason the Boxer went down. Our mission is a combat search and rescue. I'm sending in two teams with two on standby in case our cover gets blown. This will be largely boots on the ground. Once we're offloaded, all deployed Pelicans will loiter throughout the duration of the mission with the support of a Vulture on loan from Sigma Octanus Four."
"What else did they lend, sir?"
"Sergeant Haze, everyone, please hold questions until the briefing is completed. Orbital scans detect intermittent IFF transponders, but Rosetta is having a hard time pinpointing due to some recent geo-magnetic storms in this quadrant of the system. They could just be transponders belonging to KIAs, but we're going in nonetheless. Primary objective is to hone in on those signals once we touchdown and search for survivors. Secondary is to neutralize any Covenant we encounter. This doesn't appear to be a world the Covenant devoted significant resources to, according to the brass at Sigma Octanus Four. That or the Boxer failed to report a larger hostile force than it initially encountered. Either way, we're going in light weight but with a heavier presence in reserve if necessary. Questions? Yes, Sergeant Haze."
"Who are all the new faces we have aboard?"
"Mostly Army technicians on loan to the Thermisticles. They're here to help maintain the extra vehicles and equipment we've picked up."
"Any word on whether or not they'll be loaning us any prior-enlisted Lieutenants? Ones with some experience?"
A murmur of voices circulated in the room.
"Are there any other questions? Yes, Corporal Struger."
"Sir, what's our timeline out there?"
"I think we'll adhere to what the CSAR field manual states. Otherwise, we'll just play it by ear. I'll need routine communications from fireteam leaders down there on troop and supply conditions. Don't anybody hesitate to relay any concerns, no matter how small they are."
"Sir," Gunny Rios asked, "Did any of the more recent scans detect Covenant?"
"Negative, Gunny, though I hasten to add that there could be a residual force bedded down there waiting for a search party like us to show up. We're treating this as a full-blown combat op, so gear up smart and be ready for anything."
Silence and stillness as I glance over the Company, finally resting my gaze at Sergeant Haze.
"Alright, everyone, fall out and prepare for combat."
"Entry vector stabilized." The pilot announced. "Passing through the ionosphere. Touchdown in ten minutes, Lieutenant."
"Roger." I said. "Is there a bead on any IFF transponder?"
"Nothing yet, sir."
"Keep me posted."
"Lima Company," I broadcasted throughout TEAMCOM, "Ten minutes to dirt."
There wasn't any turbulence so far, then it happened as we hit the highest reaches of atmosphere, and I could only think that just two weeks ago I was falling through a Zaragosan sky along with the rest of Lima Company on a mission that would change our lives forever. We'd lost good people, but that was just Lima Company. A whole planet was glassed along with countless other inhabitants. Here we were now in another star system, deployed yet again into the unknown, only this time the Captain and the Doctor were not in complete control.
"Sir," the pilot said, "Long range sensors have an IFF transponder a about thirty klicks away. It's registered to a Pelican dropship. It's patchy, but it's there."
"Alright, continue to hone in on that signal and make it our LZ."
"And keep scanning for anything, UNSC and Covenant."
Our vessel pitched and rolled into a mild bank and throttled to a higher speed.
"Alright, Lima," I announced, "We've got a Pelican on the ground and we're en route. Could be survivors there. At dirt, fall out and establish a perimeter. Looks like we may've gotten lucky this time."
Marines remained restrained in their harnesses while making their last minute preparations, and within minutes I sensed deceleration and a yawing. Soon after, we made our descent. Downward firing thrusters now drowned out my hearing as the tail ramp opened up, revealing the light of day and a plume of dust rising from below. I could smell the dirt and surrounding foliage, and as soon as my eyes adjusted the belly of our craft touched to the ground with a thud and I snapped free of my restraints. All other Marines followed suit and filed out of the ship's blood tray by the twos.
Once outside, I scanned the periphery. Other squads filed out of other grounded Pelicans in our formation. Far away, I caught sight of the Vulture descending atop a mesa about two kilometers distant. There wasn't enough space for it nearby. I then looked for the unknown friendly vessel.
"LT," Gunny Rios shouted, "over here!"
I ran to the Gunny as he pointed to our target.
"Down there, on top of that outcropping."
I followed his outstretched arm to where it aimed. Resting at the edge of a cliff was the Pelican, its tail ramp open. I could see there were some supplies strewn about its perch, all dust-ridden and grey.
"We could probably hike there." Rios said. "Looks to be a way to it from above."
"Sounds good. Rally the troops on you and get us to that bird." I looked back to the Peclians, made eye contact with the lead pilot. "Go ahead and RTS to scoop up reinforcements if we need them."
"You want us groundside afterwards, sir?"
"Negative. Remain sub-orbital and hold fast there. Don't want to advertise us more than we already have."
"Roger, returning to station."
As the Pelican formation ascended, Lima Company regrouped on the Gunny's lead and began the trek through this world.
"All clear!" Rios shouted.
Lima Company had fanned out and secured the perimeter. Troops were posted thirty meters in each direction, scanning the area with scoped weapons. I hopped down from a giant boulder leaning up against a shallow rock face and thudded into the outcropping the Gunny first laid eyes on at touchdown. The area was quiet as a gentle breeze pushed some weeds into a sway. Discarded MRE wrappers and spare ammo cartridges littered the ground. Open supply crates were still standing upright despite any wind gusts. There was no one here except us.
"What do you make of this, Gunny?"
Rios removed his helmet and wiped some beads of sweat away with his forearm. The climate here was subtropical, the orbit closer to the host star than that of Sigma Octanus IV.
"Everyone, hydrate!" He first called out. "Hard to say. It's not a crash landing. Hull looks to be in great shape. Insides are no worse for the wear. Systems aren't locked down or anything. I don't think the Covenant have been here. As for the pilot and crew, I just don't know. Maybe they fueled up on MREs here and made a break for the jungle down below. Maybe they were in search of water after they drank all theirs away."
I shuffled to the edge of the outcropping and looked out into the valley far down below. "Hell of a landing, anyways." I muttered.
I looked back at the whole of Lima Company. Most were covering our exit, scanning for any sort of activity in every possible direction.
"Gunny, have the men take a rest. There's nothing here."
"And have a tech team patch into the avionics and flight data recorder. Maybe there's something of interest we can recover."
Every Marine found some sort of seat. A chair in the derelict Pelican's cargo bay, a patch of weeds, a smooth bolder top, anything. Everyone had their own way of passing time when not on sentry duty. Time was elapsing and I had to find a way forward. I sat back against the co-pilot's chair and stared beyond the windscreen, seeing mostly sky and a small swath of jungle at the lowest reaches of the clear pane. I swept a hand over the rough surface of the riveted instrument cluster, wondering what to do next. It was then upon staring at the Pelican's radio that the way forward came to me.
"Staff Sergeant Holmes, can you get some SIGINT on the area? See if there's any more IFF tags present?"
"Yes sir." He nodded and made for the geo-location gear someone had stashed away in a rucksack.
"Hey, Holmes." I reached out a hand. When the rifleman turned back, I clutched at one of his pauldrons. "Did your arm every heal?"
"Yes, sir. I'm full up. Thanks."
As the Staff Sergeant withdrew to his new task, Gunny Rios crashed down into the pilot's chair, shrugging.
"Sir, there's nothing unusual we can find in the ship's data recorder. It's like the aircrew didn't want to leave any clues behind. All we have are flight telemetry statistics."
"Their mission must've gone as planned then. They were either captured here or they simply ran out of sustenance and headed into the bush. Scan whatever orbital imagery the Thermisticles took for rivers and lakes. If we can find fresh water, there's a good chance we can find them if they're still alive."
I accessed the Pelican's instruments and powered on the main breaker, observed a twenty percent battery life remaining. All engine fuel was exhausted, reading empty. There was no chance of recharging the battery then. I entered in the long-haul communications frequency that would radiate signals back to the Thermisticles. Hopefully with whatever charge remaining I could radio a voice message back to the ship and provide a sit-rep. The Pelican's high-powered amplifiers and larger antenna could surely provide more transmit distance than our handheld equipment. Before I could even determine what the message would say, good news luckily came.
"Lieutenant Pennington!" Holmes shouted. "More IFF signals!"
The Staff Sergeant came rushing up to the ship's canopy and said, "Here, look!" He handed me a data tablet with a set of blips pulsing on and off in the display. "These coordinates can't be more than ten klicks away, sir. And they're all clustered together."
Rios and I glanced at one another.
"Ten klicks away and at that bearing, sir," the Gunny said, studying imagery archives in his own tablet, "that overlaps a water source. They're not too far from a streambed."
I climbed out of the canopy. "That's our waypoint, then. Give the men ten more minutes to collect their things. We're on the move again."
Lima Company found a path down into the jungle, most of it a wide trough cut into the slanted rock face, the imprint of an ancient ice flow, maybe. There were other waterfalls in the area at extreme distance, their silvery bands glaring in the light of the day as they turned perpendicular. Loose gravel awaited us at the bottom which gave way to a dry, cracked basin. Once to the bottom, we could see the basin's floor slope gently upward a kilometer away, transitioning into the region of jungle that dominated much of this world. Tall trees swayed in the wind. Instinctively, we all knew anything could be out that way lying in wait.
We baked in the sun as we crossed the hard, unforgiving sink. One kilometer of marching felt more like five at the current pace. Not a single troop complained, though, and at one hundred meters before the transition to jungle I ordered the Company to hydrate.
"Drink up." I broadcasted. "We're still in for a long walk yet."
A minute later, I signaled the march onward and together we crossed into the first line of bush. It wasn't as dense as I first thought, the greenery tapered to just a few trees here at the edge. Another hundred meters, however, it turned from sparse shrubbery into a tangle of limbs and branches.
"Alright" I radioed to TEAMCOM, "Delta Formation. Keep your wits about you."
Lima Company morphed into an attack posture, the wedge-shaped omen of impending death.
The looming forest began to grow larger around us and the ambiance darkened. I checked the local time for this planet. At our latitude, sundown would occur in five hours. As the density of this place became apparent, I activated the suit's VISR at the expense of more energy consumption. The low light level imagery system compensated my frail, human vision accordingly.
"Anyone know at what distance these IFFs should be showing up in our HUDs?" I asked.
"Hard to say." Holmes responded. "Last text message from the Captain says Rosetta is still reporting coronal mass ejections up above. Could last for days."
"Is it affecting long-haul comms?"
"Can we still scan the IFFs accurately on the surface?"
"It's hit or miss. It would help if I had a better line of sight to their location."
With the aid of a rifle barrel, I pushed aside a pair of tree limbs directly in my path. "I don't think that's going to happen any time soon."
"With no way to communicate, should I call in air support to follow us in?"
"No, we still need to keep the element of surprise if there's any Covvie here. We'll just have to improvise. Use simple text for communications. No audio." I then broadcasted to all of Lima, "Stay alert and let's close in on the new IFFs."
Two klicks inward and the terrain had already drastically changed on us.
Berms shot up everywhere, limestone formations with underground river systems bloating the rock upward beneath our feet. Everyone tried to gain the high ground wherever possible as we progressed, but some were forced into the trenches in between due to the land-nav guiding principle that you never form up in a straight line when scouting an area. Not that the high ground yielded those above any advantage either as the jungle grew even thicker now, nourished even more so from the nutrient-dense aquifers below.
Our pace had further slowed due to the constant elevation changes. Lima Company troops were getting taxed with each rise and fall of the land they traversed. The only two in our formation that hadn't slowed one bit were the Spartans, who had been silent the entire mission. I took it this meant they approved of my leadership abilities thus far. Otherwise, one of them would have consulted with me by now. They were well within their rights to do so as ONI Commandos working directly for the Captain.
My attention suddenly focused to one of the Spartans who assumed the point of the formation.
Their fist was raised high in the air. The tell-tale red diamond shone brightly in my HUD.
"Halt." I broadcasted.
I walked slowly to Adrian's position, minding my path to get to him, sidestepping fallen twigs and loose rocks. The breeze in the air could at least drown out some of the sounds we had already made as a group. The ODST ensemble Lima Company now had was much more capable than our old polypropylene uniforms which merely had active charcoal as scent filters. The current gear was o-ring sealed and could be pressurized with its own internal atmosphere if required, which I immediately activated. All of Lima Company followed suit. If enemies were ahead, there was a good chance we hadn't alerted them to our presence.
And they were ahead.
"See that?" Adrian asked me.
"What is it?"
"Covenant war party. Amy was right. You are one lucky Marine. We're right at the tail of their formation. Must be going in the same direction we are."
"What do you recommend, Spartan?"
Adrian stared on for a moment, thinking the question over.
He glanced sidelong at me.
"If it were me in command of Lima Company, I'd follow them. Let them take me to their camp."
"Good idea. That's what we're going to do."
I turned and glanced at as much of the formation that I could, parts of it obscured among the vast network of mounds dotting this area. I broadcasted, "Covenant right in front. I need you all to go as stealthy as you can from here on out. We're gonna creep on them for a while. Do not break stealth unless it's life or death. Radio silence unless life or death. The Spartans have tactical command. Over and out."
The VISR application was the only reason I chose to take the point with the Spartans. I could see farther ahead. We walked slowly like stalking predators, mindful of our own presence much more so than theirs. I risked a quick glance over my shoulder, studying our own formation meandering up and over the wooded knolls. The sight of a whole Company displaying such stealth pleased me in some way that Gunny Smith would've lauded, I imagined. Then, a swift, red diamond flashed in my HUD and I whipped my attention toward the front again, witnessing Adrian holding another first high in the air. The entirety of Lima Company stopped moving. Not risking any movement whatsoever, I chose to hail the Spartan on a private channel.
"They've stopped. Taking a break or something."
"What do you want to do?"
"Let's wait until they resume, then follow them some more."
Amy looked at me and nodded. They'd already had consensus on this.
"What about our IFF targets?"
"We can still get to those. This patrol group in front of us will have to report in to their superiors at some point and I recommend we exploit that."
"You're sure they'll be regrouping with a larger force?"
"Look at them. It's only a few Grunts and Jackals. There's got to be at least one Elite in the area supervising their movements. We need to follow these ones home and get an idea of just how much Covenant we're dealing with."
"They're on the move again."
A green blip was broadcasted, followed by a series of yellows indicating stealth remained the priority.
The formation resumed on the Spartans' lead.
Another berm was ahead, this one much more prominent than all we'd encountered before. At a forty-five degree slope by my estimation, it shot up ten meters to where it leveled off flatly, the enemies in front trekking up its steep incline. The jungle seemed to thin out at its base, though I couldn't be sure what the picture looked like beyond it. The base was wide, stretching for hundreds of meters in either direction almost like a wall. This wasn't a berm. It was a mesa. It was the start of new topography, a new region of the planet.
Amy and Adrian stuck a solid red diamond on everyone's HUD and there it remained while the two of them climbed up the slope. Not one sound could be heard from their movements. Less than a minute and they were back down, walking toward me.
"What's your recommendation, Spartans?" I asked over the private channel. "Should we send flanking teams to the top and pincer the bastards while we scale the center?"
"No, there's no need for that. We got lucky today. They took us right to their encampment. Order the standby team to breach atmosphere and drop ordinance just ahead of our position, danger close."
"Sounds a lot safer. What coordinates do you want us to convey to the gunships?"
"Doesn't need to be complicated. Just make it a full grid box."
"I'll have it done."
I looked rearward and waved Holmes up to my position.
"What's the word, sir?"
"Holmes, call in the backup team and tell them to rain down hellfire on one standard-sized grid in front of us. Blast these motherfu—."
"—Contact!" Someone shouted.
Our perfect surprise attack was doomed to fail before it could begin. Plasma bolts of all variety arced downward and I could barely see the dirt slope in front of me once the dust started to scatter. I could only see flashes of light and weapon shrouds pointed downward. Instinctively, all troops flung their bodies toward the face of the berm and returned blindfire upward. Those who co-witnessed the first salvo had already primed grenades and were waiting for a break in the oncoming fire to toss them up and over. Sniper shots instantly rang out in succession further back behind the cover of berms, the jungle itself responding with their thunderous echoes.
Just as soon as it started, the lull came. Silence—only a brief moment of silence occurred as the Marines who kicked off the skirmish hesitated for a few seconds, regaining their bearings, sweeping their aim to find a definitive target. Howling then resounded, seeming to emanate from above, areas adjacent, the thick canopy, everywhere. Covenant Jackals and Grunts materialized from their cover, peering down at us from above. In an instant, the firefight resumed, the Covenant opening with bursts of plasma and needler rounds. The pink, crystalline shards ricocheted off tree trunks and the berm faces behind us, splitting into microfragments that broke apart and grazed a few troops harmlessly.
One Marine came under combined fire from two or three of the attackers and went down with a shot square to the armor covering the collarbone. Wild shots skimmed just over the top of his helmet milliseconds after he crashed into the dirt. By some measure of luck, he was spared death.
"Gamma Squad," I shout to the Marines at my sides, "flank wide and toss frags over that berm! Take whatever help you need with you!"
They bolt from their positions and into the last reaches of thickets before the steep rise. I return fire hastily to cover their maneuver, merely suppressive bursts without an intended victim. I can only hope that my effort scores a hit at some opportunistic enemy trying to send more plasma downward. After scanning the line above, I present as small a target as possible, pressing my helmet into the sloped dirt while unlimbering the Transit. The forest is now a deafening roar of rifle shots, shouting, screaming and scurrying as ally and enemy scramble for cover and better vantage.
"Someone please radio the Vulture over here."
"Radio can't cut through!" Holmes shouted.
"Find her with that ball of black magic you got there!" Haze screamed.
With not even the time to glare at the Sergeant, I did as he suggested and searched the sky, widening the display again and again, scanning. Nothing yet as squawks and screeches echo throughout the land, more enemy reinforcements signaling one another in their own languages. I can hear them between bouts of gunfire. A lone Grunt materializes at the crest of the slope with two grenades already ignited in its flailing hands, running at full speed for our center. Before I can take full stock of the threat, someone shouts, "Full contact! Twelve o'clock high!"
All rifles vector fire in that direction and the attacker simply disintegrates in an instant. The handheld explosives fall against the berm's face and detonate after rolling downward, sending scintillating radiation towards us and yielding nothing more than a brief show of static electricity in our HUDs.
I shout the order with a hoarse, burning throat, hoping to overpower the noise and chaos and decentralize our formation before another suicidal enemy breeches our perimeter.
I refocused in on the display of the Transit, peered into its pitch-black swath. No Vulture in sight, just miles of trees and giant weed sprouts. I have only a vague understanding of the planet's compass with all the cover overhead and the waning sunlight. I can't get my bearings. Marines are still yelling at one another, issuing their own orders in absence of mine. What they say is incomprehensible to me. I scan for the Spartans and realize they've already disappeared, taking on their own course of action. I know that it's taking too much time to hunt down any reinforcements. Too much else happening. A teleport of that magnitude is already overly ambitious and I abandon the search for air support.
But now it didn't matter. The sapper team reported in.
"LT, we've got shield walls cordoning off their camp. We can't engage anything past it!"
"Roger, can you breach with firepower?"
"Already tried! Frags can't cut it. We need shaped charges."
"We don't have any with us."
"Damn." I whisper only to myself.
"LT, orders?!" Haze shouts.
I hesitate for a few seconds.
"Another wave is coming!" Yells one of the scouts from somewhere else.
"Struger!" I shout. "I'm going to send you in to scout the far perimeter."
The Corporal is surprised by this order, maybe a little reticent to obey it. How could he not be? Anyone would react similarly. But it's a way to slip past the enemy defenses and he soon recognizes the risk as an opportunity.
"You have to trust me."
I teleport him far beyond enemy lines, well away from danger.
"Find our friendlies, Struger." I radioed as he disappeared.
A plasma grenade lands next to me. I shot up from cover and ran as fast as I could, diving into the dirt. I feel heat and a shockwave, but nothing else as I look back. The grenade detonates harmlessly, scorching only the earth.
"Shit, that was close, sir!" Someone shouted.
A scout removed from the immediate vicinity called out, "They're getting closer!"
We're all looking upward now in silence, every rifle fixed at an uncomfortably high angle, waiting for the final onslaught.
"Alright, everyone," I say into TEAMCOM, "prepare for the big one."
"The Pelicans are here!" Holmes shouted.
As everyone looked up at the flat bellies of the gunships hovering above, I smiled as their rotary canons started to spool. First, the deafening noise drowned out all thought as supersonic streams of tracers and chaos silenced our attackers. Steaming, banana-sized casings fell like rain and pelted our helmets. Then there was only stillness. Within seconds, it was all over.
"This is Angry Bird Two. All hostiles eliminated."
"Many thanks." I radioed back. "You made it just in time."
"You're lucky we did. Only reason we found you was from the heat signatures your grenades set off. We kicked up quite a bit of dust now, so watch out for stragglers out there."
"Good job. Find a place to land and we'll link up with you soon."
We rose from our cover and waved onward, began the steep ascent up the berm.
Once at the top of the rise, I could see the entirety of the shield wall had disappeared, offering an unobstructed path inward. In between the wavering pockets of smoke and dust were clear views of the carnage produced by the Pelican gunships.
"Fucking hell!" Lawrence shouted.
"Jealous you couldn't score kills?" Haze asked.
"A little bit, but really I'm just impressed."
"Everyone, stay sharp." I ordered. "Could be anything out there."
Just then, a lone Elite commando emerged from a patch of thick trees. Lima Company's reflexes were acute, but the enemy was instantly tackled by Adrian in a blur of motion. The alien commando hollered in pain as the Spartan wrapped an arm around its neck and snapped it broken with a swift, jerking movement. Before one of my aggressing squads could react to the threat, it was already dispatched by the Spartan.
Another Elite, this one gold, could be seen decloaking itself and igniting an energy blade that the creatures so often favored in CQB. They did this when they fought up close and personal or when they knew it was their time to die with one last fight. Taking its eyes off the Spartan that just killed its brethren, it then took notice of an entire company of Marines and retreated behind the gracious cover of a mature Giantwood. All of Lima poured into the thorny trunk, splinters of bark spraying in almost every direction. Some slowly flanked as they fired full-auto.
After we converted much of the base into wet pulp, the tree slowly cantilevered to the ground and crashed with a chest-rattling thump!
Behind a cloud of sawdust and floating leaves, the Elite emerged, sword already activated and shining bright, cutting through the haze. With its free hand, it thumped at its chest and roared with the sound of some suicidal bravado much like Grunts on suicide runs exhibited, only this creature had far more potential…and everyone here knew that. It then charged us. But with only one enemy in our midst, it was easily engaged before coming close to a single Marine. It was felled instantly. The dying warrior produced one final gurgled roar before its eyes closed shut.
We then looked around in silence. The forest was a battered mess. Only a couple of us had been injured, no fatalities. The ringing caught between my ears was slowly quieting, and I could hear at conversational volumes again. A hard pat on the back startled me. I wheeled around to see Staff Sergeant Holmes there smiling.
"Second team got here just in time. Good planning, sir. You might not have caught them with their pants down, but at least we overwhelmed the hell out of them."
"Should'a seen the look on this one Grunt's face." Lawrence said. "I think it actually shit itself when it saw me."
"Roger." I smiled while trying to keep focus. "Corpsmen, tend to the wounded and notify the gunships we'll need medical support at the LZ. Someone try to raise our Vulture and tell them to rendezvous there as well. I'm sure we'll all feel safer under its wings. Scan for survivors."
"Sir," Struger radioed in, "I'm approaching a friendly. There's just one here."
"Roger, where are you?"
"I'm still inside the Covenant perimeter. All the way at the edge."
"Are we too late?"
"No…but you'd better get here quick."
"On the way."
I looked beyond all the mangled Covenant bodies. The Covenant camp was wide. I could barely see the wall of shields they emplaced as the barrier sections bounded outward to the far end of what looked like an egg-shaped perimeter. Motes of dust and falling leaves and sunrays raked through the treetops and obscured anything beyond a few dozen meters. I then rightly consulted the Transit, scanned out far and wide.
I stopped marching when I found what I presumed was what we were here for.
There was a single contact. I zoomed in on it.
"LT, there's booby traps everywhere. Watch your step, sir."
At that, everyone froze like statues, looking down and observing their surroundings."
"What is that?" Someone asked, pointing ahead to where our contact was. "Is that a fire lit?"
It surely was. A thick, smoky column rose skyward well above the jungle canopy, broadcasting a presence for miles in every direction.
"Well, that's got the dumbest thing I've seen in a week."
Holmes stepped forth and peered through binoculars. "Um, yep. I think someone's cooking…something."
"Who is it?" Haze asked.
"Looks to be UNSC." Holmes replied. "They're wearing BDUs. Can't see much else, though."
I peered beyond, then peered into the Transit.
"What's going on, sir?"
"The extraction team isn't…"
"Isn't what, sir?"
"Isn't extracting. They're just standing there."
"I don't know."
"Let's have you teleport us over there."
"No." I said. "Something's wrong."
"One of our guys is there, sir."
"Why would they just be sitting there?"
"Let's go find out."
"No, I'm going in alone."
"Have it your way, sir."
Suddenly, a voice from beyond shouted into the eerily serene jungle.
It was our contact. Masculine in tone, his voice echoed everywhere.
"Are ya friendlies or enemies or just phantoms?!"
I thought I then heard a sickly laugh from that direction.
"Okay, I'm going."
I accessed the Transit's display and instantly emerged a few paces off from his position.
"Phantoms it is, then." He said, sitting cross-legged on nothing but leaves and twigs.
Next, I took notice of the smell. He was roasting some sort of animal carcass from the tip of a spear with an outstretched arm. The odor was powerful, traveling just as far as the smoke it rode on. My nostrils flared and burned. The small fire at his feet crackled and hissed and sent the smoky column up past the canopy, obscuring most of the man's features in the process.
"He wouldn't respond to me." Struger said with a shrug. "Maybe you'll have better luck, sir."
"Come to confront me about somethin'? Somethin' on yer mind?"
"We're friendlies," I answered the man, "sent here by Sigma Octanus Command to search for survivors."
"UNSCDF is here."
"Do I look frightened to ya, boy?"
I stepped around the fire and saw a man more grizzled than old Gunny Smith himself. He didn't bother to make any eye contact with me, just continued to char the meat over searing flames that were too hot to my liking as far away as I was.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" I scanned his fatigues. They were certainly standard issue. He'd sewn multicolored leaves of the world all over them, scavenged them himself, I imagined. It concealed an already capable uniform, but I could just barely make out the insignia, revealing his name and rank. "Sergeant Blunt?"
Only then did he look away from the fire, lifting his head at me, revealing a full beard two inches thick. His eyes then slowly drifted to my own uniform, then darted back to make eye contact with me. The look in his eyes was placid as the now quiet jungle. This man appeared to be quite at home.
"How long have you been out here, Sergeant Blunt?"
I glanced about his personal encampment and found corpses of Covenant lying about, each of them obscured beneath piles of leaves and pebbles and earthen dirt. Some such were half butchered, even filleted.
"Nah, needs garlic."
"Are you sure it's safe to eat?"
"Would you believe me if I told you it tastes just like chicken?"
"Well, I don't want to be the guy that finds out for myself."
At that, he chuckled and went back to tending the meat.
"So, have you been surviving out here in the wild all on your own?"
"It would seem so, wouldn't it?"
"Looks like you're hoarding food. You eat what you kill. Commendable, Sergeant. But you know there was another wave back there."
"We took care of it."
"I know. Heard ya comin' a while back during yer skirmish."
"Dangerous to be ambushing all by yourself. You're not all by yourself, are you?"
"This ain't nothin', kid."
"Nothing? You had a platoon-sized infantry ready to close in on you. Where's the rest of your outfit, Sergeant?"
"Just a bunch of Grunts and Jackals was all ya encountered." He shrugged. "Hell, they got more brain power than ten stupid idiots like you."
"How'd you fend off all the ones before?"
"Ya spout off too many questions in too short a time. Look around ya instead of movin' yer mouth, and ya might just answer yer own questions before askin'em!"
"You didn't do all this alone, c'mon. Where's your unit?"
"Ones ya just took out were just as gullible as every other wave before. Each suffers the same fate. I'll keep seein' ta that, keep doin' it until they're all gone. I took the side of nature here and nature always prevails. Now, you be gone. Disappear just like ya'ppeared. I ain't comin' back. I've already been freed."
"If you don't want to come with us, what were you planning on doing?"
"Stay here. Live off her land. And you think this is some kinda feat, me taking on Covy alone."
I unlimbered the Transit and brought in all of Lima Company into the encampment. A show of force to a friendly.
"So, Sergeant, are you going to tell me where the rest of your people are?"
"Got a little magic show, I see."
"Why don't you come with us, Sergeant. Get you cleaned up, get you some real food, and try to find the rest of your unit."
"I belong to the wild. Told ya, I took the side of nature and here I'm stayin'."
"I insist, Sergeant. This is no place to live. You're all alone and—"
"—I don't' blame ya for being so forward. Was hard for me to understand the law of the jungle at first. Been removed from it all our lives." He grinned wide, grabbing a handful of dirt. The coarse grains slid through his fingers and fell back down to the jungle floor, and I figured him a madman at this point.
The two Spartans then regrouped at the formation's edges, watching and listening in.
"I can see yer doubtful of me." He glanced at the faces of Lima Company. "Confused, maybe. But out here it gets real simple, real quick. The only law out here is law of the jungle. Kill or be killed. Tough at first and it's not for everyone. Yer lucky if ya make it this far. But once ya do, it's just so simple, that sound. Ya hear it?" He cupped a hand against his ear. "The silence. That's peace. Just you and the streams and the trees swayin' in the wind. Ya get a feel for everything. Ya blend in better once you fully break away. Once you're broken. Then after a while, ya know exactly when somethin's not quite right. Then, ya make it right. With her help."
While all of Lima Company was in spectacle of this lone survivor, the Sergeant casually pulled from a pocket a Derringer from a bygone era, a Semmerling variant of an old service pistol. He raised it slowly and pointed to the periphery with an outstretched arm. I flinched when the burst of fifty-cal shots rang out, and the lone Skirmisher stalking behind a tree trunk a mere fifteen meters away fell out of cover and onto its knees.
"That's one exception. I do get lazy sometimes."
He set the pistol down at his side as the Jackal howled and squawked for help there, grimacing at the gore pouring out of one of its lower extremities.
The raggedy Sergeant's aim was impressive. He glanced at me with a cocky smile, then to the wounded Jackal growling in pain and raw anger. The Sergeant's smile widened as he made eye contact with it. He reveled in delight at the creature's suffering, and with this behavior he was at least somewhat the same as the rest of us.
I suddenly saw in the Jackal's eyes a hope of retaliation as it reached for its own weapon. I was about to put it down, but this Sergeant fired another shot into the top of its cranium with barely a glimpse. It crashed limply to the dirt.
"Impeccable aim, Sergeant. Impressive."
"Heard ya comin' long time ago, like I said. So, who are ya and what are ya here for?"
I looked around. Most of us were raptly watching this man. Even the corpsmen gave the occasional cursory glance while they numbed and sutchered the wounded. The rest of Lima roamed around the perimeter, either scanning for booby traps or to setup lookouts in the event more Covenant loners stalked the perimeter. They couldn't help but glance upon this Sergeant between their steps.
"Careful, now, got the place rigged. Tread lightly."
"These are bullet wounds." One of the Marines says, brushing a gloved hand over the skin of a hanging corpse.
I looked outward again. Co-mingled among the slain enemy combatants hoisted high in the foliage were UNSC Marines. I then looked sidelong back to Blunt, see a pile of uniforms knotted together, dog tags and mess tins and MREs stacked in a neat pile inside a deep foxhole.
"How long have these men been strung up like this?"
"Can't be sure. Lost track of time after the first week. Make for good distractions, though, don't they?"
"You did all this?"
"Aye. Improvisation seems beyond the comprehension of these purple dipshits, at least the ones I've dealt with. Waiting for that Elite to come face me, and he'll come sooner or later after he realizes enough of his children don't report back. These dead men here been keepin' me alive, ya see."
"We got the Elite. There were two of them, actually."
Blunt pursed his lips and shrugged. "All the same to me."
"What happened here? Where's the rest of your team? Are you all that's left?"
Blunt chuckled to himself.
"This slick, young, prepped-up LT descends on this little world thinking he's gonna do right by it, questioning me. You find a tattered man all alone in the sticks, picking off Covy like he was somethin' more savage than they ever were and then you start assumin' things. I know what you're thinkin'. Thinkin' the brush and the solitude took 'im. Took his mind way out here in this off-world. Woods 'came a better friend to him 'an anyone else ever would, had 'im turn on his own kind and thought that somehow he'd have a better fightin' chance 'at way. Got tired of sufferin' others and toleratin' their misdeeds."
"Would I be wrong?"
"Yes, ya would be!"
"Well, seems to me we're getting along just fine so far despite perceptions. Why don't you keep going and tell me what happened. Exactly."
"Mutiny. Put an end to it, myself. Killed the ones responsible."
"Where's your Commander?"
"CO's out there…I can show ya. Well, what's left of 'im." Blunt waved the barrel of the pistol around, "Murdered by these few."
"From the look of it, I can see you're a man of action. Impressive how you've dealt with the Covenant, but taking on the duties of judge, jury and executioner within your own unit…it's a bit overboard, Sergeant. Wouldn't you say?"
"What happened, happened. Can't change any of it."
"What would you say if I told you that sort of stuff is better left to your chain of command?"
"Didn't ya listen, boy? There's no command out here. Told ya, ones responsible saw to that. Woulda killed me too unless I pandered myself to their schemin', and that ain't my style, ya see. I didn't break. Not for them. Not for one minute. Not for anyone."
"You should've waited until you regrouped with a rescue party or some other unit."
"Take the easy way out, then, ya say. Meet up with big-Navy and play he-said-she-said. Hope someone believes your side of the story while ya watch the ones who did it git off scot-free because you don't have the proof. That your style?"
"There's no style in it, Sergeant. That's the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and you are not a commissioned officer. You have no authority to dole out punishment the way you did. And look…you took it to the extreme. You'll have some answering to do for that."
"I'll make sure it don't happen next time then."
"I'm not so sure there'll be a next time for you."
"Well, what are you waitin' for? Get it over with. I was just bidin' my time until somethin' did me in."
"I'm not going to be the one that does you in, Sergeant Blunt. The only thing I'm going to do is apprehend you and take you to Reach. There, they can decide what to do with you. See how that works? That's justice."
Some silence, then the mask falls as the first twinge of fear shows up in the shade of his eyes. He's distressed.
"So, you say it's Reach we're goin' to?"
"That's right. Your pistol, Sergeant, hand it over. Time to go."
The trek back to the new LZ in the basin was shorter than Lima Company's insertion into the jungle, though daylight was lost. In total darkness, we marched. This world had no alternate sources of illumination, no satellites, no binary star system. A pair of Marines had apprehended Sergeant Blunt, searched his clothing for weapons and had him pacing along in the dead center of the Company, his wrists bound behind his back. He'd declined food and water the entire way.
"LT," Sergeant Haze said on approach to my place in formation, "a word, sir."
I side stepped the formation and patted the NCO on the back. "What's on your mind, Haze?"
"I couldn't say this in front of the others, but I needed to tell you something. You were reckless with the Transit back there."
"What do you mean, reckless?"
"Teleporting yourself, alone, into the Covenant encampment."
"Struger already had the situation under control."
"We hadn't given the all-clear yet."
"I had a pretty good feeling it was all clear after we took down two Elites back to back."
"Has your promotion to officer made you forget everything you learned as a rifleman?"
"Well, you sure as hell acted like it, sir. You had the Transit in-hand and you left us. You just left. We volunteered to go with you."
"What would you have done differently, Sergeant Haze?"
"I would have waited for the fire teams to verify all hostiles down, and I certainly wouldn't have sent in an extraction team of just one person out there."
"One person was ideal for the situation. I needed stealth while the main force kept the enemies occupied."
"You accepted a ton of risk doing what you did. Struger accepted a lot of risk too."
"I had to jump someone in."
"It could've waited until they were neutralized and we gave the all-clear."
"And they were neutralized."
"Thanks to Staff Sergeant Holmes and the Pelicans, they were. And on the subject of air support, you couldn't get the Vulture's location either."
"It's easy to find flaws when that's all you're searching for. You should quit the UNSC and be a lawyer."
"I'm not joking, sir."
"Our firefight evolved by the second, Sergeant. I'm sorry everything didn't go perfectly, but all things considered it went about as well as it could have. We didn't lose anyone, Haze. That's pretty good and we were asking a lot."
"Could've been executed better, is all I'm saying."
"Maybe? You're being obtuse."
"I'm not sure what else you want from me. You said what you wanted to say. You had some concerns. I've listened to them. I agree the mission wasn't perfect. Doubtful any mission will be. So, what else?"
Haze hesitated for a moment, glancing a few directions about the dark periphery, searching for any passerbys. But the entire unit was out of earshot by now. Despite total privacy at this location, he nevertheless stepped closer to me.
"If you ever get tired of dealing with it, I could take it off your hands. Won't be a big deal for me. I've seen how it works. Not that difficult to master. But it's a burden, I know. I can see the pressure is slowly getting at you, so you just give me the word and I'll take over, take it off your hands."
"Sergeant, listen to me very carefully...
"The Captain has designated two people, and only two people to use this thing. Lawson is dead serious about the security and survivability of the Transit. None of us need to be reminded of what Zaragosa Prime went through to attain that. And none of us need to be reminded of what people sacrificed. Lawson has made his choices. I am the operator. And I don't even know who the alternate is in case I go down. That's how serious Lawson is about the role of the Transit. I know it's not you because—"
"—You think I'm a worthless little shit."
"C'mon, sir, that's what you want to say."
"That's not what I was going to say."
"Then what were you going to say?"
"That I know you're not the alternate, because if you were then you wouldn't be asking to use it. You'd already know it was yours if I got neutralized in combat."
"Most of us are cool under pressure, Blake."
"And most people call me sir."
"Okay, fine, sir."
"Look at me, Sergeant Haze. Look at me."
Through the pitch blackness, our eyes made a forced, strained contact.
"I am your boss. It's been decided."
"Just know that we're capable of backing you up in any way. Even if the worst were to happen, you should know that you can lean on us for anything. So, I hope you learned from this, sir." Haze faced away and walked off, looked back once before rejoining the formation.
I stood motionless for a moment, my mind forced to replay our battle in the jungle again and again. Lima Company accrued more and more distance as I pondered it all in pitch-blackness. The trees swayed in the wind, though they could barely be seen in this darkness, and soon Lima Company was beyond my sight. There, I remained, content to relive the past, wondering about the actions I could've taken to save someone from injury or win the Marines over with perfect cunning and expertise. Actions that hadn't transpired. Actions that might never come to pass.
In my current solitude, I realized that I had to come to terms with the prospect that I might never attain gratitude or even respect. Captain Lawson stressed that expectations were high, but he was a wise man and knew that I couldn't be all things to all people. I figured that part out for myself a long time ago. What to do when commanding a company of heroes? The likes of whom were once led by Gunnery Sergeant Smith, the bravest man I'd ever known. I could only do my best. I started to move again.
I walked at a brisk pace until I rejoined the formation. Once at the tail end of the Company, I scanned the way ahead, nodding to Staff Sergeant Holmes standing at the rear point. Past shoulders and helmets and slung rifles were about two klicks of jungle and dry basin. Two more klicks and we were on our way to the Thermisticles, our home away from home. Minutes later, Lima Company broke through the last line of thickets and transitioned into the cracked, rocky surface. We were all exhausted as we carried on with the final march. Even with no moonlight, the Pelicans could be seen parked ahead in darkness. I deactivated the VISR and felt the end of the mission on rapid approach as we closed in on our LZ.
I then heard a faint roar from somewhere far off, sounding like an aircraft on rapid approach.
"Contact!" Shouted Adrian.
The Spartan opened fire with a rifle. Short, controlled bursts as he aimed. I couldn't make out what he was shooting at until I saw sparks flash in the distance, and I watched a Banshee close in on one of the Pelicans below it. This Banshee accelerated as it came to within striking distance of its intended target and I could clearly see it now, its canards glowing that distinct purple haze. In its high-speed strafe, a salvo of plasma rained downward and raked over the dropship's mid-section, peppering its dorsal surfaces. Before anyone else could target the enemy aircraft, it rapidly changed direction and retreated at maximum thrust to wherever it originated from. A hit-and-run. Worse, a recon sortie that would have it reporting back to its base of operations in no time. It was then that I heard our Vulture power up far away. A subtle cheer resounded from the Marines as it ascended.
It took on an intercept vector toward the Banshee once airborne, closed in on the unsuspecting pilot. Inside a massive dust plume, it launched a hail of tracking missiles and within seconds the Covenant craft was vaporized. Now, a loud cheer erupted from Lima Company. But our revelry wouldn't last. From further beyond the same mesa our Vulture had been perched upon these long hours, a Covenant frigate emerged. Its purple hull barely contrasted against the dark of night, only truly visible by way of its engines fully aglow aft of it. The Company grew silent in an instant.
"Radio a warning to the pilot." I ordered Holmes.
"Warbird, this is Lima Company, get out of there!" Holmes shouted into a microphone. "Bogie at your back!"
No reply as the frigate sent a volley of pulse laser shots toward the Vulture at near point blank range, clipping one of its ailerons instantly. Now in pieces, our gunship lurched forward and listed to one side. The impact sent it on a collision course with another nearby curtain of solid rock on the other side of the valley, its momentum now too great to recover from.
"Shit." Holmes said.
All we could do was watch, but the Spartans were ahead of the action as always.
"Move!" Amy hollered. "We're next!"
As one, Lima Company sprinted toward our dropships waiting on the other end of the sink.
"Move!" She yelled again. "We've got to get airborne or we're done!"
Adrian grabbed hold of a wounded Marine and hoisted him in a fireman's carry, sprinting past the Company. He moved faster than any human could, soon spanning the gap Amy had on the rest of us. The remaining Marines ran as hard as they could in their wake. By the time a kilometer of running full tilt elapsed, all of us were gasping for breath as we regrouped on the Pelicans. The engines were already fully spooled by the time we filed inward by the twos. Each pilot completely disregarded pre-flight procedures and we were almost immediately airborne as we all strapped into our harnesses, then when we heard the impact far away.
"Vulture down. No eject." The Pilot reported. "Time to boogie on outta here."
"You'd better put the fire on it." Said the co-pilot. "Frigate's coming this way."
"LT, do something!" Haze cried.
I couldn't see anything out the cockpit windows as I craned my neck out into the aisle. I unlimbered the Transit. I couldn't know if it possessed the energy required to relocate our impeding threat. A Covenant frigate was massive. I knew a Pelican could outrun a Covenant frigate in atmosphere, but it couldn't outrun its armaments. Our time was running out. Haze was right. Something had to be done if we were to escape.
I could hear alarms blaring from the cockpit ahead.
"Dropping chaff!" I heard the pilot yell.
The aircraft lanced to one side and the hull around us groaned.
"We won't be dodging another one of those!" I heard the co-pilot respond.
I peered into the Transit and zeroed in on the enemy frigate. At present, our formation of Pelicans was just outside of its range to accurately land pulse laser strikes, and we were already accelerating at full throttle. But I could see its lateral lines start to glow a bright red, so bright that the glare in the Transit's display was painful to look at. Covenant plasma turrets were waking along its hull. From everything I knew of Covenant fleet technology, those salvos had the ability to track their targets and surely our Pelicans could not outpace them. It occurred to me that only more distance would be our saving grace. Extreme distance. Rather than contemplate ways to distract or inflict damage on the enemy frigate, I instead took a hold of all Pelicans and prepared to send each of them to the highest possible altitudes the Transit was capable of sending them.
"Whoa!" The pilot said. "Okay, nice."
"Sit-rep?" I asked.
"We'll be onboard the Thermisticles in five minutes or less. Nice work, LT. Should be smooth sailing from here on out."
I stowed the Transit in its bag again and slumped back in my seat. "Do me a favor and radio in to the Captain. Inform him we're inbound-imminent and there's a frigate down there. Advise we break orbit and proceed to the next mission."
I glanced about the cabin. Pitch blackness was all that could be seen from beyond the cockpit windscreen. Most of the troops then leaned back in their seats and cinched down their restraints as zero gee became apparent. I looked across the aisle to where Corporal Struger sat. He gave me an appreciative nod, some might say a consoling nod."Lima Company survives again."