Chapter 2: Fate's Course
I knew something had gone awry. Multi-axial inertia invaded the pit of my stomach and the engines of the Pelican screamed with delight as if mocking my vertigo. We rolled into a steep bank and everyone grabbed hold of something solid to stabilize themselves in the high-gee maneuver. A sliver of illumination caught the corner of my eye. Moonlight that wasn't there a second ago rotated into view. It razored through the clouds, streaking through the cockpit windows and into the troop bay, then the Pelican stabilized.
The one I'd spoken with earlier grunted and shifted body weight after the hairpin maneuver was complete, then he looked to me.
"So now you know. Don't broadcast it on the evening news, roger?"
"I won't tell anyone about her unless you say so."
We were being diverted. Whether by choice or by circumstance, the troops usually never knew. Apparently our landing coordinates weren't good, which meant the operation was FUBAR or there were now higher priority taskings. I prayed we still had safe options this early, but in all likelihood there weren't any. From what I gathered, Lima Company was the most 'used and abused' unit in this entire star system. But that's where the real progress was realized.
I still couldn't see anything out the open rear hold, but I knew she could.
"She has the eyes of a hawk."
I looked over again, not sure how to respond. Before I could muster a reply...
"I know some of the men in Lima Company would volunteer to become a Spartan in a heartbeat if they had the chance. I probably would too, in spite of the surgeries they receive."
"Everyone wants to be a hero." I smiled.
"Sometimes, I wonder if they felt any of it. You know? The physical pain, the mental pain...losing their family and their innocence so quickly."
I realized my gaze was frozen to the deck. I looked back at him but he'd already turned the other way.
"No bother though." he said, suddenly meeting my incessant stare. "Our unit has a great track record so far with just one supersoldier. Over four-thousand confirmed kills, and the chest candy to prove it. Nice little rack of ribbons and medals on her service dress, maybe you'll live long enough to see for yourself at the next award ceremony."
"Well, I gotta admit that I was shocked when they told me of my new assignment to Zaragosa Prime and Lima Company, and I still can't believe I'm gonna—"
"—Wait, you still say Zaragosa? How long have you been here?"
"Just a few weeks, really."
"Use Zagosa. You can also just say Gosa. Hardly anyone ever says Zaragosa anymore. Maybe just the politicians and those other high society types."
"Roger. Man, I still can't believe I'm gonna be fighting alongside an honest-to-God Spartan."
"Consider yourself very lucky, then. Most people only hear about them. You're in the history books just for being here, but remember your OPSEC indoctrination. Don't go yapping your experiences here to all your friends back home. I take it you heard about the first and only Marine to do so?"
"Yeah, I know. I was given explicit instructions not to tweet before I got re-assigned."
"This your first combat drop in Lima?"
"Hell yeah! So, if I break the trend and act friendly toward her, will I get in trouble? She easy to talk to?"
"Heh, don't bet on scoring a photo op with her or anything. I think making friends with her is one of those luxuries you'll never indulge in. Me neither, not as long as we're at war. No time these days."
"Yeah, stupid thinking I could. They probably keep her busy as hell."
"Better believe that."
"And it seems the only friend she's got here is that rifle she's caring for."
"Good observation, Shakespeare. Now what'd you say your real name was?"
"Blake Pennington." I held out a hand.
He shook it, saying, "Blake Holmes."
He smiled back and we enjoyed the ride for the moment. Suddenly, the Spartan re-entered my thoughts.
"...Knew a girl like her once."
"You knew a girl like her? How the hell did that turn out for you?"
"It was nothing much. When I was a kid. She just reminds me of her, they way she carries herself I guess. Don't listen to me if you don't want to. I won't take offense. I've always been told I was a bit of a rambler."
"Well, maybe one day you can actually meet her, when the mask is gone and there are no formalities between you."
I remained silent. Holmes seemed a thoughtful and well-spoken individual, though he held a quiet air about him with an implied distance to be kept at all times. I'd heard many different dialects and speech mannerisms from my brief travels during the old training days. It was the most inter-colonial movement I'd ever experienced. I wanted to ask him what world he was from, but felt I'd get the chance later.
"Brotherhood's all we have left, anyways." Holmes said rather morbidly. "You'll never hear an officer admit it, but the UNSC's hanging by a thread. Paris Four, Herforst. I was sure we'd see the end when we lost the Jericho system, but I guess we're still here. Should've seen some of the troops' reactions when they found out Amy was from Beta Hydrii. I mean, what's next? People are tired of running and fighting. I'm tired. I know she's tired."
What was a polite and stimulating conversation between us suddenly turned grim and sobering. I could hear the wind buffeting as it met the cavity of the hold, the air around the Pelican shuddering into the drop bay and pelting my helmet. The noise of the turbines grew louder, caught in my ears.
"But there's hope here in Zagosa Prime." Holmes said with a catch in his voice. And I knew it to be true. The UNSCDF staved the Covenant onslaught…twice now. The outcome was definitely in Zagosa's favor each time. "It seems a little odd," he continued, "but we must be doing something right."
"Yeah, I heard about that on my way from Reach. I think it's amazing what you all have done here. I'm sure other units out there are watching you all very closely too."
"But it's come at a terrible cost just like any other place. Some of us wonder why we don't just pull out, abandon the planet, take what we have and run. To Reach, Mamore, Minister, somewhere more populated and better defended. Maybe it's propaganda, you know? Instilling hope in people. Keep them fighting. Inspire a few more civvies to answer the call. You never know, maybe we'll win our own war right here. Until then, it's bite and crawl."
"So, feel free to silence me, but it seems odd that a Spartan is attached to our unit."
"No, you're absolutely right. It is quite odd. At least, it would seem that way until you've worked with us for a little while."
"Why do you say that?"
"Look around you."
I did as Holmes asked. "Okay."
"Notice these Marines are packing just a little more equipment than your average Leatherneck?"
"A little, so?"
"It never struck you as odd that you were ordered to take all the advanced training courses and get issued all these extra goodies?"
"Not saying it didn't."
"Okay...ever take time to ponder why a company is led by a Gunnery Sergeant and not a Captain or LT?"
"Yeah, why is that?"
"We're highly mobile, Shakespeare. We're not bound by most standards. Lima got repurposed about half a year ago. That's about the time Amy came along, by the way. Gunny Smith took the helm and we went from a standard infantry unit to some kinda weird, assymetric task force. All our brass stays put at HQ and focuses on intel aspects. I'm pretty sure we're the only unit of our kind in the entire UNSCDF. We have complete autonomy from higher headquarters if we need it. Can't do that with some fresh academy grad leading the charge. That's why we do without them. Smith is the acting officer."
"You know it won't last, right? Eventually the brassholes will push a command structure down on top of Lima and all this convenience will vaporize."
He shook his head in reply.
"You're sure of that? Lima can just carry on with only an NCOIC?"
"Experience wins in this case. There's no Lieutenant or Captain experienced enough to do his job. We do have a Colonel somewhere up there that we supposedly report to from time to time, but I've never seen his face. Guess we're too busy for pomp and circumstance these days. We are pretty much the tip of the spear on this planet. We're one of just a select few units that see action on a weekly basis. You don't have a problem with that, do you?"
"No problem here. Consider me born to kill."
"Then I think you'll do just fine in Lima Company, Pennington."
"So...no officers. Ever."
"No, this unit's manning document specified him. By name, Blake."
"Then they'll commission him in the field. I'm telling you, it's coming."
Adamant, he replied simply with, "Nope."
"Well, you seem pretty confident. I guess I'll just have to smile and nod."
"Yep, no officers in Lima Company. Good thing, too. I can't stand lieutenants."
"Why? Is it because they—"
"—fucking know everything."
"Well, the Gunny doesn't seem elitist. Seems pretty down to Zagosa."
"He thought about going warrant-officer, but he's short on university credits." Holmes shrugged. "Whatever. He's sharper than any officer I've seen. Has Amy's respect and that's saying something. He might honestly still think of himself as a rifleman. Hasn't lost the skill for Covy-killing. Had one of the best accuracy ratings before he got put in charge."
"What happened then?"
"Nothing. He just couldn't get as much trigger time in at the range because he's always too busy submitting AARs and making sure things were running smoothly out here and back at Battalion HQ. Some of us have bets going as to who can reach his kill count before making staff sergeant."
"Well, seems like we have the best here."
"Both personnel and equipment, at least most of it. Sometimes even we have to get by with standard issue gear. But we've got some endowments, aside from the Spartan of course."
"Why do you suppose she's here? The heavy hitter or something? Ace up your sleeve?"
"It's a long story, but you'll hear it someday. For now, just know that Gunny and Oh-Seven-One have a history together that goes way back, back before even Lima Company was reactivated and recruiting the finest Devil Dogs into its ranks."
"Can't wait, man."
He leaned closer to me. "Lima Company will see some real action tonight, I can just feel it. I'm glad too because I'm angry." He removed his helmet and placed it into his lap. "I was helping a girl cross the street just last week." he spoke slower. "She fumbled with her databinders and they fell, so I ran over to her and scooped them up for her. I checked both directions and sent her on her way. She got to the other side and smiled at me. She turned around and then space debris from a destroyed Seraph crashed down on her, severed both her legs. I'm gonna kill some fuckin' Covenant tonight!"
The ship instantly nosed up, climbing ferociously fast. The mission suddenly crossed the realm between daily routine and utter realism, fate granting Holmes his bloodlustful vengeance-wish.
My bones felt hollow as the lift and thrust of the Pelican overcame its weight and drag.
"Heads up, Devil Dogs! We're goin' in high!" the Gunny yelled over all the noise. "TAC insertion, so get your shit wired and tight!"
"There it is." Holmes said, pulling out night vision goggles from his rucksack. "Straight from the Gunny himself. And what the Gunny says, is."
The already-dimmed lights overhead changed from amber to a forewarning red. I checked and rechecked my ammo, my survival gear, my altimeter, helmet, gloves, Oxygen apparatus, everything.
I paused for a few seconds and checked my breath, my heartbeat caught in between my ears. I exhaled…slowly. Better.
"Tactical Aerial Combat insertions, hoo-rah! Fuggin' love 'em!" someone said dispassionately.
"Doesn't get any more real than this!" another shouted back. "Why we get paid the high-cred!"
Holmes leaned over. "LZ's apparently too dangerous for a pelican gunship."
"Son of a bitch." I whispered.
"This could get rough. The whole terrain is probably peppered with Covenant triple-A fire. We're probably gonna HALO it from thirty-thou. I hope whoever packed your chute in the armory put a little extra pride into it. Seems it's running short these days."
I checked the seals on my jump mask. If I didn't check for leaks, I could be flirting with death. The Atmospheric Internally-Regulated Supply (AIRS) was 100 percent Oxygen. Air that high up was too damned thin. For now, I reached for a tube along the ceiling, placed it in my mouth, and was rewarded with some pure O2. The other leathernecks followed suit.
I began breathing normally, flushing out the Nitrogen in my system until I felt euphoria. Too much N2 and not enough Oxygen would inevitably lead to hypoxia up there. I could faint, and thus die because I wouldn't be able to open my chute. Though we all had automatic opening devices, but I wasn't gonna put all my eggs in one basket with an electronic barometer. Even if it did open, I wanted to land awake and frosty and not captured or dead.
I checked my gear and made sure there was no rips. As you approached terminal velocity from 30k feet or higher, the sheer draft of air rushing to your face was enough to take the breath right out of you, not to mention, it was cold as shit up there. I donned my dry suit, made mostly of polypropylene and Kevlar-ceramic weaves. It would keep me warm and stave off the frost bite. It would also subdue a pesky annoyance—a friction they call "rush rash" from the air turbulence tearing at your skin.
Across the deck 'Hazy' Haze had the most comfortable, shit-eating grin across his face. It made me want to laugh. I think we were all feeling the effects of the pure oxy at this point.
Though his reputation preceded him (just like everyone else here), I met him along with my first Lima Company meal at the mess hall a fortnight ago. I naturally took a liking to him. He was outspoken like I always wished I was. But Private Ryan 'Hazy' Haze was the typical loudmouth Marine you'd see in a poorly-written action movie, the ones with gratuitous violence and random, cheesy one-liners. He just turned 21 and got hazed well for it, with a double kegger, courtesy of the Gunny. Gunny Smith thought that maybe just one inkling of alcohol would calm the kid down, but no.
There was nothing really noticeable about PFC Haze. He was just your average Marine to me, but you sure noticed him when he spoke up. He was usually on peoples' nerves just for the sake of it. He was quick to start an argument and quick to keep it going as long as he could, and smiled the whole time while doing it. It took quite a few people a while to realize that Haze was more or less born to antagonize and instigate.
Holmes took notice of Haze and I staring at one another.
"Be careful, he likes to get a rise out of people."
"I know." I studied Haze as he did me. "So, is he all there?" I asked of Holmes next to me. "Is he mentally straight?"
"Wouldn't be in Lima if he wasn't. But it's okay. He's just a little hot-headed. This whole show is just his way of breaking the ice or getting to know you. But God damn, he is actually pretty annoying sometimes. I remember the first day I met him, he claimed to be this weapons guru. Swore up and down the MA5B was the best weapon out there. He would discredit other peoples' choice in armament, I think, simply because he hated being wrong."
"I ain't worried about it," I said, "I always try to be as nice as I can to everyone."
But upon saying tht to Holmes, Haze unbuckled his restraint harness and approached me. Gunny Smith wasn't having any horseplay.
"Haze, get yourself back in your seat before you get ass-stomped by my boot!"
The Private gave a weak sneer and complied. Before seating himself, he the yelled at the top of his lungs over the draft in the bay, "Shakespeare, you nervous?"
I played along. "Me? Nah. Why you ask?"
"You keep fiddling with your shit like it's an erector set. Don't worry! Mission Support Group takes good care of us. Haven't lost a single grunt from faulty equipment...yet."
I nodded to him, gesturing that I understood and suggesting the end of the conversation.
"You did good, Holmes whispered. Frankly, I didn't feel like watching you waste your breath. And I sure as hell didn't feel like listening to him. Trust me...in time you'll understand. If you can end the conversation as quickly as possible, everyone benefits from it. The longer you humor him, the longer he'll carry on. Mostly it just ends in him trying to belittle you or something to that effect, but I think right now he's too at ease from the Oxygen to press on any further. So, again, consider yourself very lucky. Breathe the good air for now."
So we all sat, waiting for the Gunny's signal to jump. The smell of old paint on old metal was infused with the maple syrup scent of the pure Oxygen. The innards of the pelican were definitely worse for the wear. The other birds in formation were likely the same: combat-tested and in growing need of maintenance and attention. Lima Company's small fleet of war horses had already lived past its better days for sure. We were all relaxed, perfectly tranquil in our pseudo-inebriated state, steadily en route to our point of insertion. Our bodies were calm, yet we possessed some hyper-vigilance, some omniscient understanding. I could sense more than the mere presence of the troops, I could sense what they were thinking, or so it seemed. Chatter had ceased and all that remained was concentration. The entirety of Lima Company possessed the same mind at this moment: we were heading into another battle within this great war. Within that collective mindset, there were the individual personalities overriden by years of military training and experience, battle-hardened wits and physical abilities within each of us. Though every person was unique in their own way, we shared a common purpose tonight. Together, we'd act as a single, unified machine engineered for destroying.
The red glow inside the ship pulsated, the pilot indicating we were over the drop zone.
"Here we go." Holmes slapped my kneepad.
The Gunny sliced a hand through the air. Next, everyone looked to Amy. She still gazed out the open rear hatch.
It was weird to feel such a premonition, but right from the get-go I had the hunch she knew we were gonna HALO jump all along.
And she seemed to fall in slow motion, my reflexes like that of a mountain lion.
The thought quickly vanished. I concentrated harder with the aid of an Oxygen-rich brain. I wished this feeling would last forever, but it would subside shortly after I hit dirt and I got that first puff of nature's air. Then I'd be afraid all over again and I'd have to rely on my creativity to get me through. If I survived the mission, I'd probably remember every detail, then pen up the usual poetry on it, and everyone would inevitably read it.
One marine drops, two, three, four. Haze dropped. I'm up.
I approached the last smidgeon of Pelican hull, stading there for just a moment, the rush of adrenaline coming to a climax inside me. Anticipating the free-fall, I pushed off and stretched out my arms like a soaring eagle and I started to gain speed. After a brief second I felt empty, hollow. The wind whipped at my mask. Before I knew it, I pierced through a patch of clouds like a scalpel through onion skin. I was weightless, travling at terminal velocity. The wind was like a draft as it rushed by my ears, much fiercer than the draft inside the Pelican—so far up now—an eternity away as I looked back.
I pushed aside the joy and checked my altimeter. Passing twenty-thou, falling fast, I switched my HUD to infrared. I panned my optics around as slowly and as purposefully as I could as dozens of radar contacts registered in all directions—the rest of Lima Company falling into loose formation. As I took in the sight of white caps forming atop the surf far below in the moonlight, I hoped we'd all make it.
I fell through a last remaining squall of thick cloud layer. Emerging on the other side, there was the landscape of Zagosa Prime. I ccould barely see it even with full gamma correction. But I could make out the outlines of riverbeds, mountains, valleys. There were never city lights on after dusk, not since the colony-world was discovered by the Covenant some months prior. Indoor light usage was heavily policed at night so that no more than a hundred lumens escaped the troposphere. And no more than a deciwatt shows up on aerial thermal scans. They couldn't know anything about how or where the UNSCDF staged from, especially any Special Ops Forces stationed here. Most importantly, civilian lives were at stake on a daily basis just by someone plugging in a toaster oven. Most people had below-ground fallout shelters where they spent much of their waking lives.
I checked my air supply as I sailed closer to the land. I hadn't yet asphyxiated so I must've been doing well. I still had about 25 liters compressed at 800 psi. All green and in the norm. Another reading from my altimeter: eighteen-thou. Per standard operating procedure, the Gunny would be coming over TEAMCOM any second for mission objectives and ground formation parameters. But nothing came. The Gunny's Staff Sergeant instead broadcasted over the net.
"Gunny! Are you awake? Gunny! What's the sit-rep?"
Command orders came directly from Intel and we're fed to Gunnery Sergeant Smith in real time. If he couldn't give them to us, we'd be lost. The Staff Sergeant did the only thing he could do: he executed the command for the Gunny's stim packs to activate. Just glorified olfactory refreshments—alcohol in the breathing apparatus. The raw scent of isopropyl would surely wake him up, assuming his blood wasn't saturated with Carbon-Dioxide at this point if it was an apparatus failure. He'd succumb to respiratory acidosis, a ninety-percent fatality rate. All we could do was pray he hadn't lost his air supply.
"Worrying won't change anything at this point." the Staff Sergeant said, feeling our thoughts. "We would all love to have the luxury of worrying, but we're still falling. Press on."
Another two-thousand feet went by and the Staff Sergeant came over the net once more. "Listen up, team. Covenant light infantry have taken up positions around the Foreclay Mining Facility. Provincial Marines and battle-ready personnel have taken up defensive fighting positions all around the perimeter of the complex, but the North side is hurting for aid and reinforcements. This is where we come in...
"We need to hoof it to the North side, link up with host combat personnel, and dish out some pain to the uglies. At dirt, set up formation Delta. We go swift and silent to the rally point...on the tac map now. Medics take care of the Gunny at touchdown, give me status on his condition and advise on medical proceedings."
Two green acknowledgement blips illuminated in the upper-right corner of my HUD near the TEAMCOM designator, and thus everyone knew the combat medics understood.
Without warning, my AOD deployed the parachute and negative inertia sprang in me. I was halted from terminal velocity to just a brisk float. Shortly after, I checked the altimeter one last time: seventy-five meters—perfect height for a combat landing. Minimal hang time meant I could disappear into surroundings very quickly. Stealth was now my first objective.
Again, my thoughts went to Smith as I lingered for a moment not too far above a row of pine trees, floating steadily down. But there was nothing I could do.
So, my thoughts instinctively went to Amy. I wanted to be alongside her as we made our way through the tangle. I always had a fascination. I was mesmerized by the rumors, the buzz of media outlets, of Section Two's efforts. I was caught up in the fervor of humanity's last, best, green-armored hopes. Now I'd see those hopes put into action with my own two eyes and I could hardly wait.It seemed as though the ground rose to meet my feet.