Reprieve and Solace
Chapter 6: Reprieve and Solace
My eyes were useless in this fire—brighter than anything I'd ever witnessed. A flare of heat singed any skin exposed to the air and I brought my hands up to shield my face. A howling sound swept into the entire bay and the accompanying gust threw me into the foundation of the loading platform. I remained fixed and pinned there, a tsunami of debris pelting my armor and helmet.
It then ended as quickly as it began, the heat surrendering and the wind subsiding. The light faded completely as I opened my eyes fully.
I was the first to rise. I looked side to side and gauged the remaining Marines of Lima and Sierra Company. Each of them appeared lucid. I was ready and able to finish the job, but this colossal column of smoke dominated the view past the courtyard awning, suggesting the battle had definitively ended. The metal canopy looked about finished, sections of it drooping and sagging off its frame, glowing dull-amber, gone at the Northernmost tip. Though we could only make out its incrediblely thick trunk, the pillar of smoke mushroomed high into the air beyond our point of vantage and dwarfed everything.
Wraiths and shade turrets and bodies littered the bay. The outward concussion wave brought some of our vanquished foes closer. Smoking, smoldering, decaying. Past gouts of smoke and fire, we could make out the twisted remains of anti-aircraft batteries.
Farther out, there was nothing.
I cried at the top of my lungs at the sight of it all. "Ha!"
Slowly, everyone else rose and took stock of the aftermath.
The miasma of the bay did not stifle the swelling cheer that circulated among the Marines.
"What?!" Holmes cried, shifting his stance. "That crazy-ass Spartan nuked the whole damned valley!"
"She did what Air Staff couldn't do." Gunny Smith smiled.
"They got nuked," Haze said, "but so did we."
He may very well have been right. We
had just come face to face with the resultant ionizing radiation, even though
the nuke itself could only be considered little more than a dirty bomb. Fury
tac-nukes were very low yield, only useful in close proximities to their
targets. We'd be gone if it weren't the case.
The unit's polymer ensemble gear was impregnated with captive ions whose wavelengths would normally be one-hundred-eighty degrees out of phase with most of the known alpha and beta emitters that were undoubtedly present. Radioactive dust would be repelled and prevented from seeping through the external layers and into anyone's skin. Gamma rays were short-lived and were likely concentrated about the epicenter. Whatever fallout was still out there, we were lucky that any and all Covenant positioned there would've absorbed the bulk of it all.
"Small price to pay for victory." the Gunny smiled. "Alright everyone, it's not over. Fire teams, form up and scour the area for any Covenant. No prisoners. Afterwards, make your way back inside and prepare your after-action reports. Be on the lookout for Amy."
The Marine snipers were greatly thanked as they put down the stragglers, making the cleanup much less risky. Marines began to clear the blast doors. I watched them close with a hiss behind them. I stole a few more glances about the bay, then followed behind them with a few other Marines at my side. We were the last to clear.
After passing the access ramps, we found ourselves once again in climate-controlled paradise. The floors were deep-black obsidian—highly polished to give immense depth. It gave me the disconcerting sensation that I walked on a sea of black ice and might fall in with every step. Much further ahead was the impenetrable vault door separating us from the ravenous contingent of Covenant still occupying the corridors of the administrative offices. Overhead, exposed vent ducting and support girders twisted and curled to their terminus, exhibiting a very purposeful architecture.
To the left and right were gentle ramps leading into a series of freight lifts, presumably terminating at the mines. At the corners of the structure were chromed spiral staircases leading to offices and lounge rooms. The atmosphere of this sector was a seamless blend of function and luxury, I had only now noticed. The walls next to the blast door were taken up by bulletin boards containing the latest safety slogans or the month's summary of mishaps, as well as the breakdown of Covenant species—complete with anatomical silhouettes. Other walls by the lobby areas had illustrious, flowing murals depicting Zagosa's indigenous wildlife. It was an odd yet welcomed transition.
I had never known a mining camp to have anything more than basic provisions for carrying on a hard day's work. Apparently, Foreclay's investors were deep-pocketed.
After looking around, I knew we were in complete safety. I then looked around at some of the Marines. Most were lying on the ground; some stood and leaned up against walls; others took advantage of the plush couches in the lounge area. All of us looked the same. Of course we were all bloodied or dirtied or beaten on the outside. But we all felt alike—all on the same page, knowing what we'd been through. I looked a little closer at them, skimming the contours of their weary faces. I was desperate for an answer, to know what more purpose we had here. But I was met with only lines of regret, of sadness. Shock had settled in.
Then…suddenly it hit me.
"Hopefully, she'll come." said the Gunny, glancing sidelong at me. He turned away.
"You mean we're not—" I asked, stopping Gunny Smith short in his tracks. I almost didn't want to hear his answer. I knew what it was before he even spoke up. I finished my question as he turned around. "…we're not gonna go outside and look for her?"
"...I think she was more concerned with destroying the enemy than surviving, Private. That's not what a Spartan lives for, if you get my meaning. It's to fight and win. Failing that, they will sacrifice themselves so the mission continues. That's what she expects. If she's alive, she'll come back. If not, we have to go on without her. We stay put." He grimmaced through the blast doors, then hung his head for a brief moment and sauntered over to a couch. He crashed down into it, wondering, and perhaps, praying, Maybe she had made it out of there.
I nodded. A kind of silent understanding drifted amongst Lima Company at the Gunny's words.
But Gunny Smith didn't relax long. "Someone get a link going back to HQ for a sit-rep. Tell them we need extraction for the wounded at the North side. And tell them to avoid all other sectors of this mining facility."
"What about the men still at med-lab?" asked Haze.
The Gunny thought it over a minute. "...Who will volunteer to go back to med-lab and get them out? We'll need at least ten people to go."
And a good deal more than ten brave souls instantly raised their hands, Haze included. They formed up and headed for the class-A vault door that adjoined Omega Wing with those horrid halls—which we had gone through so long ago. I would've spoken up and said something to my friends as they walked into fate's hands, but the words escaped me. Rather, I let them go. The words were of no use. We all knew what one another felt. Words were frivolous leftovers. The abscence of our greatest reassurance—a Spartan—compounded our strife. Something was telling me she was a survivor. She made the decision to disappear behind enemy lines. After all everyone in Lima Company did out there, it didn't seem natural to believe she was gone.
I did an inventory of my gear to take my mind off the notion. My coordination was off and my movements were shaky. I shouldn't have been doing this now. I should've been resting or eating something, maybe stopping by the lounge for a cool drink, but I couldn't bring myself to unwind after everything that had transpired. I suddenly felt unworthy after the impact of Amy's selfless deed hit home…and especially after the Gunny's discourse on Spartan glory.
A cold lump formed in my throat, almost painful, choking me up. My thoughts wandered to the leathernecks like Janine and Tabs and any other who died today. I took a deep breath, pushed myself up from the floor, and staggered over to the lounge at the third level. I reached the staircase and pushed up step by agonizing step. As I reached the third floor balcony, a few Marines began passing out shotguns to the ten volunteers. They were headed into the worst close-quarter battle of their lives. I felt even more disgraced. I should've been in that group. It was my turn to give and sacrifice.
I brought down a few bottles of cold water for my comrades and I. We took our sips and savored the purity, though I think none of us whole-heartedly enjoyed any of it. It didn't seem right to rejoice.
"Radio is down, Sarge." Holmes announced. "Must've been EMP from the blast. Everyone's comm. sets are probably inoperative as well."
"Don't be discouraged." a booming voice said from above. The facility PA system sounded out loud and clear. The scientist we encountered when we first entered the Omega Wing. "I just received a dispatch from Zagosa UNSCDF HQ . You definitely got their attention with the fission device you set off out there. Ahem, Pelican ships have just dropped a load of supplies into the valley and the necessary MEDEVAC ships are en route as we speak. They request your presence at the North side. ETA is five minutes."
"Some good news, finally." the Gunny murmured. "Everyone, listen up! I want one fire team to stay behind and wait for the volunteers to get back from med-lab. Everyone else, round up the wounded and prepare them for immediate EVAC. We're going back outside."
The Marines of Lima Company made their preparations again for a return journey into the courtyard, only this time we'd march through the place the enemy once dominated.
The doors reopened. Intense heat attacked the nerves of my face, barely tolerable. The aftermath of the battle plain was revealed, though the smoke hadn't fully cleared.
The top of the hill just beyond this next obstacle. We were to stay for the foreseeable future. Someone high up made the call, ordered that the UNSCDF's presence here wouldn't stand down any time soon. With all the heat and carnage and fatigue, I didn't have the mind to ponder why the Covenant would commit such an effort to this remote facility. There was nothing around for miles. This was just a mining outpost, on the fringes of the Zaragosan frontier. I wondered if the Covenant forces were suddenly in dire need of resources or some kind of sustenance and that only this area had plenty of it to offer. Why else go all-in with the might of a Brigade? Memories of the battle outside replayed in my head. The various boxes and pallets that shattered from weapons fire and explosion all contained gems and rare-earth metals.
I reluctantly followed my team down the loading platform once again and crashed into the blistered concrete below, concious to consult my Geiger Counter at regular intervals. The pain throbbing through my lower extremities from the jump-down barely registered, I was cognizant of only my surroundings now that Lima Company was in the thick of the danger once again. The sight in front blackened my spirits ever further. Covenant carcasses were still strewn about the flattened, charred landscape, corroded with radioactive fallout and fleshy decay. Non-living objects were still hot to the touch as heat wavered off their surfaces and distorted the air around them, and the smell of ozone and engine oil and burnt animal hide saturated the ambiance. My nostrils were on fire with the amalgamation of stenches. Strangely enough, a sliver of sunshine broke through the gloom and touched upon all our faces. I involuntarily smiled. We were still alive.
The enemy was vanquished and we could live on, the Spartan our savior. Aid was en route and we could rest until new orders found us.
But a growing sense of closure came with this new sunshine. I was now one of those jaundiced soldiers that had experienced personal loss in this War, now just that spear of retribution just like she always was. The torch was passed and that was my solace, the most beautiful thing I could ever know from this point onward. My part in the War, this carrying-on, would be her remembrance. Our remembrance.
Lima Company trudges along the battle grounds, as one, alone.
"Everyone make sure your polys are on." the Gunny ordered. "Activate beta-blockers and pop your Potassium Iodide pills. I don't want anyone getting exposed more than we already have."
We complied. After the brief pause, we trekked toward the objective not far ahead. About halfway down the bay I pushed aside a small pile of jackal corpses, their skin still slowly melting away and pooling into a puddle of pure disgust underneath them. The eyes were vaporized, leaving nothing but dusty, blackened eye sockets. I looked right and left and took stock of the scene from Covenant perspective. Stillness filled the place. I looked beyond: the giant mushroom cloud had faltered and dissipated, the prevailing winds shearing it to thin lines. Soot and ash slowly rained, the sun blotted, a nuclear micro-winter.
We marched further into the blast radius, nowhere to go but straight-on. The air grew hotter and the rotten smells grew fainter. And soon, there were no smells at all. The only survivors here were bare metal, carbonized skeletons, and shattered armor. We approached what were their massive anti-aircraft batteries, twisted, mangled, and glowing red. Past these inanimate hulks was absolutely nothing, just a blackened turf, no trees or life to be seen. This was the spot where their commanders might've been. Nothing could've survived in the epicenter, a wonder that Lima Company further out made it relatively unscathed. Pinpoint devastation, Amy's attack was. No sooner had I realized that, I thought of her again.
"If they didn't survive, could she have survived?"
No answer was given.
I sensed a hunch in my posture and I started to drag my feet as we pressed on further towards ground zero. For the first time, I didn't want to complete the mission. For the very first time in life, I wanted to give up, but I looked up again. Against the sun, faint, blocky shapes sat at the top of a looming hill, merely a furlong away. Air-dropped supply crates. One shape stood out amongst others. It was narrower, not as tall. It moved.
"Sarge, you see that?" a troop called out.
"Copy that. Everyone, proceed with caution. We could have stragglers."
I could hardly see with the sun so bright and the sweat stinging my eyes. The fatigue from the battle and the blast had nearly drained the life from me, but I held the cautious pace onward with the rest of Lima Company.
I tried accessing my optics, but as expected they were fried from the EMP and residual ionizing radiation.
We slowly marched up the gentle hill, our boots crunching the small pebbles and shrapnel, a cool breeze kissing away the sweat rolling down my neck.
The figure once again moved ever so slightly, maybe making ready to fire?
The sun still pierced my vision so I threw up a hand over my brow. I could still barely see.
"Pennington," the Gunny called, "You're the luckiest SOB here. Move to my position and maybe it'll rub off on me."
I pulled up next to him at the head of the formation. The Gunny always seemed to lighten a situation up and make me laugh on the inside, even in the most dire of circumstances.
I focused in on the figure loitering near our supplies. I still couldn't see it all that well. A bullet train of thoughts raced in my head. Was it a lure? Is there another brigade just waiting on the other side of the hill?
I wanted a fight. I wanted payback. I wanted gain over loss. I've become like her.
As we became nearly level with the top of the rise, the sun sank behind a tall crate...and I could see clearly now. The whole unit froze in awe and wonder. It was not an enemy that I might've been joyed to murder. It was the most beautiful thing…
A reflection of myself staring back at me.
There she was, leaning against a fallen crate, the parachute swaying. She hefted a rifle in one hand, bouncing the barrel up and down in the other.
The Gunny paced closer to the Spartan and stopped short of her, barely out of arm's reach, his mouth slightly agape. "I don't…how did you…I don't understand."
She made to answer as a brisk gusts pelted her at the top of the rise. Amy was as rock-solid as the crates in the ground, and I had the feeling she enjoyed seeing the Gunny flustered for once.
"How did I escape? Never really had to." The Spartan scoffed. "FURY Tac-Nukes are light weight."
"You remote detonated."
"No. I set a timer and threw it hard as I could. It had to go off the instant it landed. Wouldn't have worked otherwise. These weren't your average troops."
"So, that's it?"
She shrugged. "Yeah."
"But you'd have to be at least a thousand meters away to avoid the immediate effects of the blast!"
"I told you, I was already in the safe zone when I threw it."
The Gunny stole two steps closer. "You mean to tell me you got behind the enemy formation, you threw tactical nuke more than a kilometer out, and managed not to sustain one scratch?"
"Good God, woman. I won't even ask how."
"Never mind all that. This was the easy part. Going hand-to-hand with a camouflaged gold Elite wasn't."
"You killed the Brigade Commander too?"
"I had to be sure it was dead. All in a day's work, Gunny."
"Well I'll be God-damned, Spartan." He surged forth and gave her a hug. She hesitated at first, then bowed her head and returned the embrace to her life-long comrade.
Rested beside here were UNSC crates. A supply drop. He glanced at them, then at her. She nodded, then the Gunny gaited closer and bent down to locate the release tabs. One by one, we all paid thanks to her as we joined Smith in inspecting the new provisions. Then, all of Lima Company reflexively turned sights to the periphery, almost in sync with one another as the distant hum of pelicans caught our attention—just specs on the Eastern horizon. Exuded by the smiles on troops' faces, our morale rightly elated even more. Amy was alive. An entire invading brigade was destroyed. Zagosa Prime had respite, and the wounded of Lima Company could go home and rest. And though we'd be losing some Marines, we gained some in their place. Sierra Company—what was left of them. They proved valuable and they did their part. Without their gauss-equipped warthog and its gunner, our mission surely would've been in shambles. Amy wasn't the only hero among us.
"Well, let's not ourselves dither." Gunny barked over the wail of approaching aircraft. "There's nuclear fallout all along the basin. Just thank the almighty that the winds don't blow this way. Let's get to unpacking our shipment before he changes his mind!"
"Oh, about this shipment," Amy added, "I took a sneak peek while you all were inside."
I looked to the crate next to her and confirmed that she had already been through it. Its side cover was unlatched and swinging freely on two sturdy hinges. Inside was a plethora of weaponry—the likes of which I had never seen. "Prototypes?"
"Yes," she replied to me, "it looks like Command has seen fit to upgrade our armaments. This is the new BR-55 Battle Rifle, Marines."
She twirled her rifle with grace and handed it to Gunny Smith, butt first. He cordially accepted it with two hands and a grin, inspecting its attributes. He retracted the bolt and examined its action.
"Pretty smooth. Still smell the assembly lube. Love me a well-oiled killing machine."
He then peered down the chamber, positioning the dark tube in-line with the light of day. "Heavily-rifled, I see. The wall thickness of the firing chamber seems higher than an MA5B, and somehow it's lighter weight." He let go of the rifle with one hand and held it with only his right, simply by the buttstock such that the tip of the barrel pointed straight in the air. He then let the muzzle shroud slowly plummet back into his left hand, letting it bounce naturally. "Good balance." he smiled and nodded appreciatively. "Can't wait to try one, but with no Covvie around anymore, Amy, it's gonna be a bit difficult."
A serenade of laughter followed from the Marines. "And I guess we'll just add another four-thousand kills to your tally in honor of that nuking." He finished his inspection, looking back up to Amy's pale visor, then toward the aircraft, or perhaps beyond and into the farthest horizon. "And I'm sure we'll get an angry response whenever that fleet returns. At least I can get acquainted with this thing in the mean time."
"That makes two of us."
"So, in the meantime," Gunny announced, "We'll let the fine men and women of Lima Company guess what this new rifle's capable of."
"Any heavy weapons?" A Marine from Sierra Company spoke up. The voice was unfamiliar to us all, thusly we all turned toward it for our own inspection.
"Who's asking?" Gunny replied instantly.
"Private Jon Struger, sir. At your service."
"You have a bias towards heavy weapons, Private Struger?" the Gunny asked in a serious tone. A smile then crept up on the Gunny's face, barely noticeable in the intensity of the sunlight.
"Actually, sir, yes. You may've noticed I'm somewhat of an artist with them. I was the one bulldozing Covvie with the gauss turret."
All eyes reverted back toward Gunny Smith. I could tell he didn't require anymore small talk. It seemed he instantly took a liking to this Sierra Company Private. He wasted no time.
"Oh-Seven-One," the Gunny prompted, "see if there's any high-explosive weaponry for this young buck. I think we'll fare better with him in control of it. Everyone else, get this new gear disassembled and back into the facility. And get those wounded aboard the air lifts when they arrive. I'm going inside for a drink. Move like you gotta purpose!"
Gunny Smith strolled back downhill towards the bay with a new bounce in his step and soon disappeared behind smoke and ash, passing through a landscape of decaying carnage. I thought I heard him whistling once he passed beyond the threshold of the bay.
Amy and a few Marines began to diseminate weapons and munitions to all personnel remaining, and Struger got his array of heavy arms. A mix of Lima Company and Sierra Company Marines were rewarded with the latest standard issue military hardware, anxious to put them through their paces if the opportunity ever presented itself—unlikely.
Suddenly, the roar of Pelican engines crescendoed as the VTOLs circled the LZ and initiated their descent. Our mindset flipped a switch from procurement to extraction, focusing on the Marines in need of MEDEVAC. During the fiasco of rushing the injured onto the ships, I tried my best to get a med tech to look at Holmes' arm. It was possibly the only chance he had at decent care since our own medics were MIA back in the cursed corridors of the outpost. These techs were apparently too busy either loading the wounded or prepping the aircraft for the return journey. Holmes would have to hold out a little longer with his hastily bandaged forearm. I did however manage to "procure" some biofoam from one of the Pelican's airborne medicinal stock while no one was looking.
As soon as the birds were spun up, I flushed out the old fluid in his arm, injected some fresh biofoam and changed out the dressing. A pat on the back and he was good to go. I got back to helping the team with the last of the supplies.
As we trekked back through the scorched battle plain, many of us were anxious to speak with Amy along the way, hopefully hear of a lone voyage into the heart of Covenant territory. For the moment, I hung back in content, suspecting I'd be graced with such a heroic tale sooner or later. Now, I simply enjoyed the sun on my face. The aftermath of the wreckage surrounding us didn't seem to faze me, nor did the horrific scene of the Brigade's demise. A company of Marines and one Spartan trudged along in relative peace and quiet, passing under the mangled awning overhead, through the spoiled bay, up the loading dock, and finally into total safety. The door closed behind us along with another chapter of my life.I paid no more mind to my own thoughts. I yearned for more rest. Good laughs would surely ensue once I was whole again. Somewhere in my distant hopes was the word for Lima Company to pack up and go home. I looked ahead to Amy, proudly marching us beyond last ramps and into the Omega Wing. The back of her armor glistened in the waning light.