Old Faces, New Faces
Chapter 7: Old Faces, New Faces
The spacious interior of the Omega Wing was a welcomed sight once again. It was starting to feel like home, though it seemed to be an eternal struggle to be free of all the distractions the main lobby had to offer. If there was a single, best fact I could take away from Basic Training, it was that you should never allow yourself even a moment of complacency.
But I looked around, looked at various faces of Lima Company. It wasn't hard to relax inside the Omega Wing.
With the high vaulted ceilings, the rock-solid walls, climate controlled air, friends and commrades milling about, and the amenities of a four star's private retreat, we felt safe here, maybe too safe. Was there such a thing? With humanity's enemy as mighty as they were, I couldn't deny it. Nevertheless, Marines congregated and shared recent war stories, told the jokes, broke the ice with unfamiliar faces. Life had flipped a switch. Everything that we worked so hard for could be enjoyed. We readily embraced it, no doubt, but to me it felt inconsistent. Inconsistent to how we were trained. Inconsistent to how we should've felt. Inconsistent in the mind of the enemy.
The Covenant never turn the other cheek. To have denied a Covenant brigade led by a zealot who campaigned this world for months was unheard of. Once they reared their might towards the outpost, they were destroyed in a matter of hours. I knew this kind of luck wouldn't hold even while we laughed and reveled in total safety. A burning in my stomach told me our triumph could not last much longer. The covenant force would fail to report in at its established interval, and then even more forces would arrive. The only question was when. This dreary chain of logic pulled my mind to the side even as I smiled and sporadically joined in the fun. Amy was a little distant too. I could see her keeping a steady buffer at the far end of the wing. But wasn't she always distant? Was I imagining things again?
A gut feeling told me she was thinking the same as me. She wasn't just taking a side seat or spectating as usual; she was formulating a strategy even as Gunny Smith celebrated. She's contemplating, calculating. She's dead-set on winning.
Her visor was locked onto something, the entire soiree, maybe. Taking it all in. She didn't notice me staring her way. The Spartan's mind was working multiple tasks, I could sense it. Her armored figure was imposing, tensed and ready for action. But there was none at present. There was nothing Lima Company could do. How does a group like this one instantly wind down after all that had transpired? I took it in from as many other perspectives as I could. In such a short timespan, we had accomplished so much, lost so much, experienced so very much.
But of course everyone was different, despite all the training and indoctrination into a job of conflict. A contract for most. For others a career. For even few others, a life.
I looked around again: the room was still alive with conversation, Marines reenacting pieces of the battle. Some kept to themselves in sorrow—turning away an empathetic other—still picturing something horrid in their memories. Too many friends were lost today. Some were already on their way home with defeat on their mind. Eventually, the grief-stricken Marines shook it off one by one and took part in the festivities. There might be a better time and place to grieve properly. Maybe I had already grieved enough. Maybe a little celebration was needed after all.
Haze stood near a small crowd, nodding as the Gunny described our harrowing journey into the Omega Wing to a few Sierra Company Marines. Holmes tried to pay full attention but was occupied with an itch near his wound. Gunny Smith's hand movements were swift and steady as he regurgitated every detail of that close-quarter stampede we fought through just before our arrival at the Northside battle. They were smiling and laughing heartily at the tale. The ambiance was a total buzz from the amalgamation of noise inside the Omega Wing, and it was all a welcomed blur of sounds, rather soothing to me.
Amy had strolled off since my in-depth observation of things, to where I didn't know. She had left my sights and therefore my thoughts. I decided to recuperate as others had already begun when something about Holmes caught my attention. I walked over to where he stood, currently next to the Gunny and his captive audience. He looked rather somber, out of the moment with his gaze frozen to the deck.
"Holmes, you thirsty? I was going to get some water."
His reply was instant. "I'll go with you."
He collected his rifle and rucksack off the floor and dragged them both by the straps a short distance to the nearest break room. He was exhausted. It would take some time for others, but eventually they would hit a wall once things quieted down.
"Our morale is lookin' pretty good." I remarked with a glance over my shoulder.
"Thanks to Amy."
"Got some new people in the ranks too."
"Yeah, that Private Struger seems like a real go-getter. That Gauss Hog was pretty nasty out there. Compelling accuracy. I gotta hand it to 'em."
I looked rearward again as we walked. Though there were significantly more UNSC personnel here than before, there was also a much larger number of Foreclay scientists roaming around the wing. I had only now noticed it. They walked in bee lines straight to their tasks—whatever they may be, zipping around the complex very briskly. They stopped at specific offices off the main square only to be on the move seconds later.
"Looks like their business picked up a little." I said, pointing around. "I wonder if it has anything to do with us eliminating the brigade. Was it always this hectic inside?"
"Can't be sure," Holmes furrowed his brow, "but I want to say it was less busy before."
I even saw old Hal Overton milling around one of the break rooms across the way. I hadn't seen the forklift driver since we first arrived at the Foreclay outpost, many hours ago.
"There's that forklift driver from the South side."
"Yeah," Holmes said, "it is. We'd be dead if not for him."
"True. Very true. And the brigade would still be at the North side, maybe busting the walls down by now."
"Eh...I doubt they could do that."
"Yeah," I relented, "you're probably right, but Sierra Company looked like they were in trouble out there. Good thing we made it to the docks when we did. All thanks to that little forklift."
"Yep, just another life-saver around here."
"I wonder how the old man is holding up."
We both looked to Hal. He was now at a break room we were slowly making our way towards. I thought our eyes met for an instant so I nodded to him, but he turned away. Even if Hal did notice me, he was apparently too busy for chit-chat. Even the non-verbal sort. He soon entered one of the freight elevators with a cold soft drink in hand. He was gainfully employed judging by the tempo of his step. He descended before we entered the break room.
Everything seemed to be going quite well, then I remembered Lima Company troops were still MIA back in Med-Lab. And another ten bodies had been sent to rescue them. I tried not to dwell on it. All we could do was sit and wait. Hopefully, the ten-man shotgun corral would wipe the floor clean with the remaining Covenant or at least strike fear into them. With that, I followed Holmes into the break room and went straight for the fridge.
The soda cans caught my eye. I had already fully hydrated many times. This was the perfect time for a treat. I popped the top back, took a swig, and swished it around with a cold smack of my lips. "Ahhh, haven't had one of these things in forever."
"Pretty good, eh? Hard-earned drink today."
"I guess you never really appreciate the little things until you suffer a bit."
I stood at ease, leaning against a wall. My breath started to slow and I was finally relaxed. Marines were casually sharing their stories outside. Others sat, cleaning their weapons while some stood and listened idly to conversation. But the most noticeable movement taking place was those scientists again. It was as if nothing else could exist but their next task.
"Holmes, you ever wonder what it is the Foreclay scientists are into out here?"
"Haven't had much chance to, but now that you mention it—"
"—I mean...Look at them. It's like they needed us here for years, like only now are they able to accomplish any work."
Holmes glanced at me and shrugged, taking a slow gulp of cool water. "Well, whatever it is they needed to do, it definitely required a lot of protection from the Covenant."
"Yeah, and a fortress with a massive loading bay."
"Shakespeare, it's a mining facility."
"An EMP-hardened one?"
"And blast-grade doors? I haven't got the slightest idea why this place would need all that kind of protection."
"Seems like you and me are just as interested in this place as the Covenant are. Maybe it's an old bunker from the old wars? Weapons storage or something."
"I'm just saying it would help to know a little bit more about why we're here."
"I usually leave that kind of stuff up to the Gunny."
"Yeah, but they're blowing him off too."
"Maybe you should try talking to one of them."
"Hasn't been much reward to hunt any of those lab coats down. Any time I approached any of them, they blew right by me like I was invisible."
Holmes took another slow drink of water as he looked out of the break room doorway, to the multi-leveled office section of the Omega Wing. "Well, it seems they're very occupied at the moment."
I was about to mumble something spiteful as one of the scientists brushed past the break room, but an outburst struck a discord in the harmony.
"They're back! The Marines are back from Med-Lab! Open the door!"
The scientist that ignored us suddenly rushed over to the class-A vault door, his white lab coat flapping as he breezed by.
We stepped out of the room and hung just outside the door, looking onward. An instant later, the scientist stopped short of the vault and entered in the appropriate combination. Marines made room for him, then gathered around with weapons drawn towards to the entryway. The seal broke with a hiss and the heavy door swung inwards into the wing. Fourteen Marines piled in the lobby like a stampede.
They were all here, none of them perished—a miracle. And as far as I could tell, no one was injured. A cheer echoed through the spacious interior. Amy moved like lightning and shoved the door closed, much to the lone scientist's content. And as soon as it was secured, every other scientist went back to their affairs—uncanny how they were all on the same page.
"They're like little worker bees." I said, my attention strangely drawn to them rather than the returning Marines.
"Quite industrious." Holmes said absentmindedly, scanning the Marines.
I looked back towards the fourteen that had just made it through. The crowds gathered and celebrated their return.
"Let's walk over there, Holmes."
We moved as one towards the scene.
As we neared, the Gunny cleared an area just off the crowd and quickly attained everyone's attention with mere presence.
"Lima Company," he said, casting a rigid smile, "You've done very well today. You've vested so much in this mission. And together we have lost much. But we couldn't possibly have gained any more than we have right now." A brief uproar of cheer resounded through the wing before he continued. "It feels good to have the rest of you back and safe. We've won this battle, but let's remember there's still a war. And part of it is holed up beyond this little door." The Gunny wrapped a knuckle against it. "This place is nicely dug in, but remember who your enemy is. They are not as ready or willing to take part in festivities as you are. They're thinking of ways, right now, to bust in here and start taking lives...and who knows what else that's in here.
"So, stay sharp. Have your fun, but take a little time out here and there to do what you can in preparing. Glad to have you all back. Carry on."
"Sir," I said, "we've got some motion-activated turrets on tripods from the drop-shipment. We could have them set up outside that door in minutes."
"Excellent, Private. Get whoever you need to make it happen."
I glanced at Holmes next to me. He nodded.
We immediately went to work. All the while, stories were told and laughs were had by many.
I listened in to one particular story as I assembled a turret and began configuring its autotrack programming. Four Marines from Lima Company described to us a horror story. Hunkered down in Med-Lab, insanely lucky they weren't found by the Covenant war party—still roaming the hallways. Scratching noises in the walls, distant screams and wails, and the sounds of ravenous brawls they had to deal with for hours on end while we fought at the North side. They could do nothing but listen and maintain hope that Lima Company hadn't forgotten them, and that we were still alive to come back for them.
I completed the azimuth sweep range parameters and energized the targeting acquisition system. It was ready to kill anything without a UNSC IFF Tag. Once Holmes and I finished with two gun emplacements outside the small vault door, I moseyed back inside once it was sealed and checked the ten volunteers to see if they had engaged the Covenant in there. None of them were wearing any of the enemy's blood on their uniforms. Either the Covenant war party was somewhere off the blueprints, or they in fact pulled out completely. Maybe they knew their allies to the North were KIA.
I walked over to the returning Marines and offered what help and hospitality I could. One responded to the offer.
"Hey, I'll take some water if you have it."
"Got plenty. Drink up."
"I'm Private Hill." he said. "Call me Lawrence if you want. That's what everyone in Sierra called me."
"You're from Sierra Company?" I asked.
"Yeah, we were first responders here."
"You guys were the primary QRF?"
"Yep. We got ripped to shreds, man. I...I'm still not sure if our NCOIC was able to send a MASCAL report after our Lieutenant went down."
"Dang, man. Sorry to hear all that. I'm sure it'll all get sorted out eventually. Hey, now that these purple bastards are gone, you'll probably be heading back to your HQ within a day at most! My name is Private Pennington. Just call me Shakespeare. You'll understand soon.
"Roger. Glad you heard Command's relay of our distress call. Without Lima, we'd be done for."
"And without you and your unit, we'd be done for too."
"Probably so. You've got mostly Struger to thank for that one."
"How you been holding up since?"
"Alright, I suppose. Had the jitters so I decided to help out the rescue party."
"Wait…you're just getting back from the Med-Lab?"
"Yeah, I was one of the volunteers."
"Wow. That's awfully nice of you to go out of your way like that for Lima, Lawrence. Truth be told, I'm a little shocked."
"Aw, no worries. Figured it would be better to keep busy rather than dwell on the people we lost out there."
As he bent down to grab water I'd set down for him, I saw the artwork on his helmet. Painted on the side was a skull and cross bone image with two bone-colored pistols pointed squarely at me. Under the art, a caption read, 'Mr. Nice Guy'. I found a dry humor in it, just as Lawrence probably did when he first drew it on there.
I took a seat on a curved, stone ledge that encompasssed a small garden of wheat grass. I felt relaxed again, simply by sitting. As he drank the fresh water, I couldn't help but see blurs of white in my periphery. The lab coats again. I turned my head toward the center of the lobby and saw three or four of them walking very briskly to an elevator, speedier than times before.
"So what do you make of this place, Lawrence?" I asked.
He swallowed and set the bottle down, studying my gaze. "If you ask me," he said quietly, "it looks like the Foreclay Outpost folks dug up something important."
"I was beginning to think the same thing myself."
Of course, that was a lie. I had thought this for quite a while now.
"Why else would the Covenant send such an army to this place?" he added.
"I've wondered the same thing myself. Hey, would you like to check out some new weapons we just received?"
His eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. "Hell yeah!"
He jostled around, waiting for me to lead the way to this new weaponry, but I just handed him my new BR-55 Battle Rifle. "Behold, the brand-spankin' new, BR-55 Battle Rifle." I announced opulently.
"Whoa. This is great! Are we the first to get this?"
"I think so." I replied.
"I think I'm gonna like this better than the MA5B!"
"Wait, wait, wait," Haze said butting and elbowing his way over to us. "What's this I hear about this rifle being better than the MA5B? Nothing's better than the MA5B. Let me see this thing." He snatched it from Lawrence and took one quick look at it before handing it back. "Ha! Half of this damned thing is plastic! What the hell are you gonna do with sissy shit like that?"
"Uhhhh…it's lighter so you don't have to train as hard to lug it around. And I see a fire-rate selector switch here, which just so happens to have a burst mode. The barrel is longer, the magazine isn't as tall, and there's a scope. This means you're gonna put more rounds downrange, faster and closer to the mark than with an MA5B. That's what." Hill countered.
Haze took a longer look at it this time. Upon a more reasonable inspection, I took it that Haze noted the longer barrel, the higher caliber rounds, as well as tighter mechanical tolerances and lighter weight. "Eh, maybe. We'll see about that when the next battle comes. Just remember, the MA5B has been around since our training days. There's no reason to scrap it now."
"Oh, I'm not saying it's seen the end of service." Lawrence said. "It's still a fine weapon and I'd go to war with it any day of the week. I'm just saying that the Battle Rifle is easier to shoulder and more accurate."
"Oh yeah?" Haze said with a challenge.
"Yeah. Fifty credits says yeah."
"Fine." Haze said, fishing his pockets for money. ""I'm Expert Marksman with the MA5B. I can shoot the dots off a pair of dice at a hundred yards out. I'll take that bet and we'll see." He reached for my hand and slapped his credits into my palm.
"I guess I'm the middle man." I said dryly.
"Sure will." Lawrence said to Haze. He placed his wager into my hand as well.
Haze looked at me and then back to Lawrence with a glare, then walked off.
"That's the first time I've ever seen anyone get a rise out of Haze." I said. "You might be the new wise guy, Lawrence."
"Me?" he said quizzically. "Nah, I'm the Nice Guy...look." He pointed to the artwork on his helmet.
"Yeah, I figured. Well, if you need to clean up there's a bathroom right over by the break room. Help yourself."
"Thanks." he answered over his shoulder as he walked off.
After everyone was situated and well-equipped with their weapons of choice, the Gunny gathered everyone around for a briefing, Amy standing stoically at his side at Parade Rest.
"Listen up, team. Apparently, the Covenant in the halls are on the run. We're going to use this opportunity to take back some real estate and give these scientists a chance to collect some things back there. This plan will involve two teams. First team will stay put here in Omega and hold the entrance open and provide egress cover. The second team will file into the halls. They will systematically plug up the vents with sheets of titanium-A battle plate. Guards with CQB weaponry will provide spherical coverage for the welders at work. The team will go by the numbers—one vent at a time—one hall at a time until we have a comfortable buffer between us and them. I've selected four team leaders to take charge of second squad. You'll each receive copies of the facility blueprints we obtained from Admin. Highlighted, are the vents you need to secure. The goal is to seal forty vents in thirty minutes. Once we have attained this, second team will fall back and first team will fall in to start escorting a few civvies to their places of business. Our objective then is to be as quick as possible in getting them to their desired locations and then getting the hell out and back to Omega. Safety first. We don't advance if a sector isn't completely secure. Any questions? Everyone's an expert then? Alright, then get with your team leaders and prepare to kick some ass once again."
I thought the Gunny's preemptive strike was necessary. We needed to be decisive and to keep whatever Covenant there was from getting clever and thinking they could get the upper hand. Though they were isolated, there was still the possibility they could pull off something that would undermine our efforts. Indeed, forceful infiltration was in order. We needed to push them around and keep their spirits low, or hopefully kill them in the process of accomplishing our new directive. The civilians among us apparently needed something from that area.
I was in team two. I was going in first.
I used a few moments to check my gear: survival knife, med kit, flashlight, NVGs, grenades, my new rifle. I held the BR-55 in front of me. I rarely felt comfortable using a weapon I barely knew. If there was action ahead, I had zero trigger time in this rifle. I had no idea what to expect. It would be a learning experience upon the first shot I took. But something about the new gun gave me reassurance. The buttstock was incredibly ergonomic to my grip, yet hard and dense, able to prosecute fierce combat either at distance or up close and personal. My forefinger rested gently against the trigger guard and seemed to easily slip into trigger well if the need would arise. The optics were positioned incredibly close to the barrel, but not close enough to impede co-witness of the integrated sights. I pointed it downrange and appreciated the light weight as I stepped into the hall, the door now behind me.
I wondered who would win the bet—Haze or Lawrence. It wouldn't matter much. We were all encouraged to rely heavily on our shotguns for the close quarters of the hallways, which made perfect sense. I slung the BR-55 over my shoulder and retrieved my shotgun, loaded with hybrid slug/buckshot shells. The light of the Omega Wing was slowly dimming. A draft of air brushed past me, and Amy appeared in front of me. She intended to take the point of the formation.Suddenly, the new objective seemed easily obtained.