The Bearer of Exceptionally Grave News
Chapter 9: The Bearer of Exceptionally Grave News
I looked around the Omega Wing and took stock at welcomed surroundings. Omega Wing had become a second home to me, to all of us. The interior space was the temporary ballast against the tension and grief we'd endured. The air was clean and crisp and you could relax anywhere you looked. This refuge reminded me of my childhood home, always constant and safe. But I couldn't bring myself to relax despite how easy it seemed. A sense of urgency tugged. There was still a mission. I had to take part in every aspect and see it through.
I tried not to get lost in the peaceful surroundings. I looked at some of the Marines staying behind. A flux of emotions were registered on their features. Worry, anxiety, hope, determination…all, so much to deal with. But I could never tell what Amy was truly thinking. There was a constant barrier between us, a wall of shielding buffering the very air amid us and the gold sheen of her faceplate—stripping her eyes from my sights.
I approached her and asked, "Hey, are you alright? Thirsty? I took some water if you need it."
She tilted her head towards mine and paused there for a moment in that posture. She could see right through me with her steely gaze, reading me like an open book. She threw up a hand and looked away. The gesture signaled that it was I who needed looking after, not her. "I'll be fine." she said flatly.
Feeling sheepish at her response, I looked elsewhere. The scientists roaming the outskirts were just as evasive. Still, they could be seen one moment and another they'd be gone. Their priorities were paramount, whatever they were. I could never get through to them, not even in downtime. Worse, there was no task, nothing of utilitarian importance for Lima Company to accomplish. We were literally frozen here in this place without objective. I was stuck in a state of uncertainty and the frustration had finally began to mount. It felt so wrong not to investigate things further, but where to start? There was no help to be found in anyone or anything. Were my thoughts spiraling?
I then took a seat.
I caught Lawrence out of the corner of my eye.
"You alright, Shakespeare? You look a little winded."
"Felt like sitting for a while. I'm good."
"Good, good." he said. "Catch your breath and rest a bit. You did your part. Let first team do their thing and then try getting back on your feet, buddy." He glanced over to the massive green figure standing motionless. "Don't worry about that Spartan, either."
After a few moments, I felt better. I drank some water, stood up and stretched. Amy moved. She walked across the broad expanse of the main lobby and ascended one of the spiral staircases in the far corner. "Where's she going?" I asked.
"Beats me." Struger said, preoccupied with inventorying his supplies.
"What makes her so special that she gets to just disappear at any time?"
Lawrence chuckled, "What do you mean?"
"I mean, she goes freaking AWOL whenever she wants."
"Since when has she ever gone AWOL, Blake?" Holmes said, strolling closer.
"Since god-damn always. Is she clearing this kinda shit with Gunny?"
"She's technically not required to. You know she outranks Smith."
"If she wants to notify him," Haze interjected, "she'll do it out of courtesy."
"It's bullshit." I replied.
"Penn, you need to do a vector check." Holmes said firmly, the first time I ever saw him get stern on someone. Me.
I stood up, trying to get a better view of her, but she soon faded from sight. My mind was starting to spiral again. I sat back down. Something definitely wasn't right. More frustrating, I couldn't put a finger on it. I couldn't figure out just what it was. I just knew I had a bad feeling about something. Now, with nothing to accomplish I either needed rest or I needed to find something to do in the absence of orders. Maybe I should've been in the halls with first team, getting the mission done. Maybe that's what I needed—for this whole thing to be over, to help see it done. All I knew is that I couldn't bring myself to relax.
"Pennington, what's up, man? Why do you look like you're about to clobber somebody?"
I looked down and I hadn't even realized my fists were clenched. I took a deep breath, looked around and realized I was currently the center of attention for a small, gathering crowd.
"Just relax, dude." he said, taking his helmet off. "You're stressing."
"Sometimes, you need to know when to rest." Haze then said, seating himself across from me. "I've seen you. You took more than a normal brunt. Fuck, you almost got vaporized before we even had an engagement. You deserve rest more than anyone here. So, take advantage of it...while you still can."
"You really think so?"
"I know so. And believe me, the instant Gunny gives the word to rack out, I'm done."
"You're right. I guess I just needed to hear it from someone. Thanks."
"You're welcome, now get to it."
"I'm pretty tired." I said, my eyes suddenly growing heavy. "I think I'll get some shuteye for a bit."
"Good idea." Holmes said. "We'll wake you if anything changes."
I sauntered a few steps away. My nerves were finally at rest as I stretched my body out over a wire-meshed bench nearby. The fatigue finally peaked and it hit me like a rock, and I fell into a dreamless sleep.
A low murmur of voices woke me, sounding like a buzz at first. I felt incredibly well rested as I opened my eyes. My joints were no longer aching and my hands felt heavy and strong as I pushed myself up from my place of slumber couch. I was instantly awake, fully alert. I checked my wrist watch and only a few hours had passed. I glanced around the lobby and saw all Marines had huddled together in the center, debating, arguing, ranting. A few scientists stood at the periphery in silence. I wanted to be a part of it, like nothing else before.
I felt light on my feet as I marched there. I stepped up to the outer rim of the circle, trying to pick out words of the many conversations. My thoughts immediately went to the device Amy and I encountered in the halls.
A few NCOs observed subordinates, making sure they didn't carry on too far in their shouting matches. So far, no one had gotten out of line, but the worry stirring amongst us was obvious. I found Lawrence at the edge, his brow furrowed, attempting to listen in like me rather than talking over others. One of his hands vigorously scratched at two-day old stubble on his face. I slapped his elbow.
"You look like you just slept with a ghost."
His first response was a glare, then a fraternal grin. "We're waiting on the lead scientist for a sit-rep."
"Sit-rep on what?"
"On the crystal. Don't you know?"
"The crystal Amy had?"
"Yeah, smartass. She went upstairs and gave it to one of the techs for analysis. Now we're waiting on the final word on what it is. Where the hell have you been?"
"I was sleeping. Let me tell you...it's amazing what only a few hours can do for you." My mouth was dry. I needed water after what seemed like hibernation. "I'm gonna go get a drink."
I stepped away from the main square, transitioning form the black obsidian to a shale-blue carpet of one of the break rooms. I took a cold bottle of water from a refrigerator and began to sip. A few sips then turned into chugging the cool liquid. I downed the whole bottle in just a few gulps, then reached for another and pounded it down as well, then completely satisfied. I took another with me on my way out. Half of the people at ground floor were staring at the East balcony. Amy was there standing firm. The rigid outlines of her armor suggested confidence. At her side was the Scientist—the Civilian we first met in Omega Wing.
For the first time, he looked worried.
One hand held a data tablet. The other was raised in a gesture to quiet us all down. Silence quickly adorned the Omega Wing.
"It is my reluctant duty to inform you all, that what many of you thought is indeed true. The device discovered by Spartan oh-seven-one was believed to be a high-powered Covenant communication terminal. No doubt, the contingent isolated in the admin wings of this facility knew of their ally's demise at the North. It is hypothesized that they transmitted a distress call back to a series of unknown coordinates far away from this star system. This Spartan was able to obtain an unusual rock specimen from an optical scanner on top of the device before disabling it. Just moments ago, our neutron imaging scanners attempted to extrapolate tangible values for rhythmically-arranged inclusions of crystalline morphologies embedded within the rock sample. Coupled with the latest Covenant translation lexicons, our quantum cryptography team was able to decipher the contents of the transmission. What we found was...alarming.
"Lima Company," he said, pushing the bridge of his glasses further up his nose, "it is with great apprehension that I should be the bearer of this exceptionally grave news. A grand fleet of the Covenant is headed this way, with intent to glass the planet."
The entire wing was abuzz again.
For once, my thoughts and feelings ventured outside of Lima Company and the Omega Wing to farmers and doctors and engineers, to all of Zagosa Prime. Mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, sisters and brothers, people I had once known and countless others I've never met. Even in the world's brightest moments there were still those who knew that the Covenant would eventually win, like some cosmic law. It was almost universally understood at this age in the War that humanity was on the backpedal. I grew up in that age. Were our successive wins just a series of chance victories? Until now, the defense forces held them at bay, for which Lima Company was a part of.
Everything would change again. The Covenant masses were on the way. Like the moment the wraiths charged before us at the North side, that dreaded, sinking feeling hit me. This was it. Not just our last stand anymore, the planet's last stand. I then pondered our end, how it would transpire, if there was something that awaited us after. Lawrence shook me. The buzz of the Omega Wing crept back into my consciousness, a loud drone thrumming into my ear as I looked to him.
"Hey!" he shouted, wide-eyed. "Got any plans?"
The man was scared to death. Everyone here was. As I looked around for an instant, I began to grasp the finality of our situation. In the end, there was little use worrying. It would all be over soon enough.
"Sorry, Lawrence, I don't have a plan."
He let his arm slide off my shoulder. His gaze fell to the floor and he shook his head. "There's no way this is happening. After all we've done, why now?!"
He voice was just a whisper amidst the tempest of emotion in Omega Wing.
A wave of authority eventually smothered the calamity at the lobby floor. One by one, our sights passed up to the third floor balcony where the lead scientist and Amy stood.
"Wait!" I said to Lawrence, who was still consumed in half anger and half fear. "If anyone has a plan, it's the scientist. Let's hear what he has to say."
I could barely see Gunnery Sergeant Smith, lost amidst the shuffle of Marines and civilians in the lobby.
The scientist nodded to Amy by his side. She nodded back. Cupping his ear, he announced, "I've just received word from Intel Forward Operating Agencies that the Covenant are indeed en route. Sensor outposts confirm their fleet passing through the outer rim just minutes ago. If measured in medium to high-tonnage vessels, they number in the triple digits."
Mouths dropped wide open. Disbelieving stares filled the lobby. Tears flowed. It was really happening.
"Ahem..." the scientist intoned, this time with the help of the PA system to seize our attention. "A mass evacuation of UNSC Defense Forces and civilians has been ordered to this facility. I encourage you all to get to the North loading bay and assist evacuees into this wing. Please note that high-ranking officers and heads of state should have consideration over others."
"What's going on?!" the Gunny shouted, easily piercing the ambient noise. "Why are they coming here?"
The scientist thought it over and chose his words rather carefully. "…Because this is the only safe place now."
"Of course!" I shouted, wishing I hadn't an instant later.
All eyes were now on me, the silence fully settled.
I forced a steady tone. "Well, why else would everyone in the world come to the Foreclay Outpost? Because the Omega Wing is the safest place. I mean, look at this place. We'll outlast them in here!"
"You really think this place can hack it against a Covenant armada?" Lawrence asked with a wary stare.
"I'm not a war planner, but it's the most hardened structure I've ever been in. I mean, look at these walls. Look at those friggin' blast doors for cryin' out loud! Did you even notice that this place doesn't even have any windows?!"
I had my doubts, but then Haze emerged from the cluster of Marines in the center of the expanse. He strolled up to me and then slung his rifle over a shoulder. "What do you do if the Covenant suddenly takes interest in your world?"
Lawrence answered, "You build a shelter capable of withstanding the unthinkable."
Haze nodded. "Every colony that has UNSC has to have at least one of these so people can carry on. We're in it."
"Omega." Smith said. "The end. The last."
"Then this is what they planned all along." Lawrence said. "Omega Wing is the last stand."
"That's right." I said. "We weren't just lending a helping hand to some civvies, were we? We were securing our own fate, and the world's."
"Yes!" Haze yelled. "We can wait for reinforcements, some other colony can send the cavalry!"
"We'll survive and fight from a place of strength for once!" I glanced up to Doctor Kleiner high above immediately after I spoke. He was shaking his head tactfully as if I had assumed too much. I thought that perhaps I had it figured out, that our presence here was one of humanitarian purpose, but apparently there was something I missed, and I felt as though I spoke out of turn upon his glance.
But speculating was now a waste. Refugees were inbound. I spurred into action, made ready to lend a helping hand to any survivors seeking the Outpost. I looked about and found a place where I could lend my effort to the cause, pacing toward a break room to take whatever provisions it held. "A lot of people will be coming here." I said aloud. "As much as the Omega Wing can stomach."
Not a moment later, the rest of Lima Company mirrored my actions and the wing was bustling with purpose yet again, quite possibly on par with the efficiency exhibited by Foreclay scientists. We pushed back all the couches to the edges of the lobby to make as much room as possible for the inevitable influx of refugees. I grabbed a few more chairs and walked to the vast square of the jet-black tile in the center of the wing. Once I set them down, I took a brief glimpse upstairs as again Amy just about disappeared beyond sight with the Lead Scientist. Like me, I doubted anyone else knew where they were going. She had complete autonomy from the Gunny.
"She's always disappearing. Where does she go?"
No one answered me.
With a higher priority, I double timed it to the North side, down gently-sloped service ramps and wide turnstiles, finally to the massive blast doors. I accessed a nearby keypad and the seal cracked, slowly slid apart. I crossed its wide threshold and fresh air submersed my senses. I stood there and took in the breeze as two other Marines joined up with me. The stench of rotting Covenant corpses was gone, and the ozone and the burnt oils and metals too. We checked our poly suits for rips and tears and made sure they were sealed against the effects of the Beta particles that were still likely to linger. We covered up as well as we could with our issued gear, donned our gas masks and headed out into the carnage.
We labored for what seemed like an eternity, toppling over mounds of corpses in the path from the land outside to the blast doors. We scooped up spent Covenant weapons and tossed them far into the shadowed periphery. Inoperative Warthogs or smoldering Wraiths would stay put. Once a straight path was attained, as one we back-pedaled it to the loading dock. I regarded the bay once more before I passed on to the other side of the blast door. The awning was still holding above, pieces of sheet metal sagging of its framework, the fasteners still clinging to the girders like we would to our survival. Some sections of it dipped down almost to the ground.
"Let's hope those people out there make it here faster than the Covenant can."
But I knew not everyone out there would make it. The sheer distance for some to travel here wouldn't guarantee their survival, and we couldn't possibly fit the whole world. Life just wasn't fair. Maybe by some chance there were other Omega Wings out there.
"Pennington, you really think this place can put up a fight against glassing?"
"Maybe. It's pretty stout. Or, maybe it's like Lawrence said earlier."
"What'd he say?"
"Said the Covenant wouldn't touch this place if they knew what was good for them. Scientists dug up something important here. I might be stretching it, but something is starting to piece together here. How did one and half companies defeat an entire brigade of the Covenant? Something's here that they want, badly. They only took on full strength once they committed themselves right here. The Covenant left behind in the admin sections called for help. Oh, shit...I have to speak with Smith."
I left the men at the loading dock and high-tailed it back to the main square. The Gunny was there in the center, directing the operations inside. I disregarded any protocol and ran straight towards him. "Gunny, the courtyard is clear. Refugees can make it through and into the Omega Wing. What's the word on them? When will they start showing up?"
He took a slow look at me. "I don't know, Private. Soon, hopefully. We'll do what we can here. That's all we can do."
I nodded. "Aye, Gunny."
"Pennington, I haven't gotten the chance to thank you lately. You've done a damn fine job so far. It's been my sincere pleasure working with you."
"Thanks." I said, wondering why his compliment had such a sense of finality attached to it. Was he thinking doom-and-gloom like some others?
I stood straighter, wanting to say more, to let him know how much Lima Company appreciated his leadership, but he turned from me and went back to overseeing some of the others. That was my queue. I had to do more. I had to be prepared for the worst. I high tailed it back to the loading docks. The blast doors to the North gained in size as I rushed towards them. Over-informative bulletin boards were anchored to the surrounding walls and I hadn't noticed them until now. I got only a passing glance as I ran. Every one of them was filled with high-resolution recon stills of Covenant cruisers holding position over some unknown planet, their main batteries connected to the surface below through solid shafts of crimson light. A terrible omen.
I hopped over a turnstile which clicked upon my passing. Their true purpose was to account for shipments going in and out of the facility. Service ramps guided those shipments in and out of this place and I sped down one of them to the foot of the threshold. Past the doors' massive frame I could see my Marines standing on the loading platform, ready to lend a helping hand and be the ones to shut the gates when that fateful time arrived. Past them, past the loading platform, past the bloodbath in the bay, and past the awning were tiny figures. Like the blast doors a moment ago, they gained in size, just black specs from here, contrasting nicely against the blood-hue of the dying sunset.
"They're here!" I announced. A duo of nods answered me. This first wave had reached the home stretch. Before I could get the chance to see their faces and welcome them in, they all froze in their tracks. As one, they acted, looking straight up as a gigantic shadow passed over them. With only a few seconds warning, the shadow over them morphed from shady black to a brilliant red, bathing everything below in illumination. I didn't know why, but a strange impulse drove my eyes to the upper-left quadrant of my HUD where a counter resided. It measured in the hundreds of thousands of lumens, and climbing.
The sight both in my HUD and in my widening eyes was horrifying and simultaneously awe-inspiring. Reflections of crimson bounced off every surface and into the bay, into my eyes. I could not see anymore.
The last things my eyes witnessed before I shut them were those people outside, the light storm consuming their silhouettes.
The insides of my eyelids darkened to normal again. I opened them. The people were gone, simply vanished. Only a smoldering crater of glass appeared where they once stood.
Like a commandment-punishment for taking in such a sinful sight, a residual heat wave advanced towards me with horrifying speed. The approaching blur was all I could see.
"Seal the doors!"
"Bloody Elisa!" Someone shouted. "Bloody-fucking-Elisa! They're gone!"
I wasn't sure who was speaking. All I knew was that I was on the floor, shaking and somehow already out of breath. I could feel a warmth radiating outward from the door. The sight I'd just witnessed didn't seem real. I collected a few breaths at my position and assessed the large hatchway. I trusted its integrity for only a few second. I was stammered and working on the willpower to rise again. Like the pure crimson glow outside, the image of a hundred people dying in it was burned into my mind forever.
I made certain of the fact that I was still alive and uninjured.
"They're gone! Can't stay here!" I said, maybe more to myself than them. "C'mon!" I shouted with a gesture further towards the interior. I gasped for air, willing myself to move despite my muscles being doped with adrenaline so heavy that they quivered. "We need to get away from this door."
Despite its reassuring, imposing mass, I wanted away from it. A Covenant armada held a capability that we knew nothing of kinetically. We stammered back to our feet and ran. At the main lobby, the business at hand was the most frantic it ever had been. The place looked like an electron cloud—random, chaotic, dangerous. All military bearing and discipline had broken down. There was no order, only primordial impulse that drove everyone. I made finding the Gunny in the fray my number one priority. Lima Company was now alone here at this outpost, surrounded by Covenant warships.
Chairs and tables toppled over as people scrambled for their gear and for safety—a sturdy pillar or an alcove further out. Marines donned their polys with clumsiness. They hastily scurried and weapons clattered to the ground in their stupor. Some hit the deck, clenching the helmets covering their heads and anticipating the ceiling coming down. We as a unit were nearly broken. I saw one or two get trampled by others.
"I thought I had a good bead on things." Lawrence said, sorting me out from nearby. "...Turns out I don't know diddly-shit about anything anymore."
He stopped next to me taking in the sight. He was like me, awed not only at the strength of the enemy breathing down our necks, but also how easy it'd be to defeat us if they actually breached inward. The Gunny was seen right in the middle of the madness, desperately trying to issue orders. There was no use. And he soon gave up. That's when our eyes met. I ran toward him. "Gunny, this is real bad."
"Worst I've seen it. The Doctor's saying the whole planet is being glassed. I can try and wait for new orders, but something tells me we're on our own. And I'm not taking anyone anywhere outside. We're staying right here."
"We did our best, Gunny."
"I know. It's a damned shame, son. We fought hard, but we can always take that to the grave."
"Maybe we won't have to, Gunny."
"Why is that? If you know something, tell me!"
"I don't know for sure yet, but I think we'll be safe in here."
"What makes you think? What the Doctor said? You think he's right?"
I glanced at Lawrence and he nodded.
"We think the Covenant are trying to keep this place intact."
"I'm not so sure, Pennington. I wouldn't bet my last rations on it."
"We're still alive."
"Maybe they're just trying to figure out how to best inflict the max amount of pain they can? They got all the time in the world now."
"No, I think it's more complicated than that. I think they need this location. I think they want something from here. That's why the brigade never glassed this place from orbit. That's why they're not doing it now, either."
"Maybe the nerd squad did dig up something worthwhile, but I doubt the uglies want this whole world a cinder and this place pristine just for a few excavations."
"We have to get a hold of the Lead Scientist…and we have to find Amy. First we gotta sort out Lima Company. We won't be able to do fuck-all if we can't calm everyone down. They need to know what we know."
"You know, Private, I consider you for another stripe more and more each day."
"Thank me later when we're not fish in a barrel."
"Ha! You bet, Shakespeare!"
With that, we reached outward and grabbed Marines paralyzed with fear off the ground. Gunny Smith nearly clotheslined a passerby's neck as they sped past in lunacy.
"Sometimes you just need a little bit of tough love, Marine!" I heard him holler.
We eventually attained order after a few minutes of literally slapping some sense into Lima Company.
Most were quick to come back to their senses. I was thankful for that. Haze was a different animal. He sat in a chair, head held in his hands. His leg was bouncing up and down at a rapid pace. Some of his hair had been pulled out, some of it still in his palms.
"Haze, it's Pennington."
There was no response.
I tried again. "It's Blake, the idiot who can't low-crawl through a mine field for shit. Gotta move, we've got some Covy to grease. Don't you want in?!"
"They're all dead." The withered Private said, raising blood-shot eyes to mine. "And if they're not dead, they're dying. We lost. Zagosa lost this time! And we're all alone in here! What can we do about that? It's over."
"He's in bad shape." The Gunny whispered to me. "There's no fight left in him."
"No one's giving up on him. C'mon, Ryan. We're not done yet. Don't kick yourself. There's hope."
"...Hope." he said blankly. "Hope? What hope? We're beaten. We're done. They've run us into a corner."
"But we've got Omega Wing! This place is tough as nails! C'mon! We'll give 'em a fight the galaxy will remember!"
"We're not fighting anything! Omega Wing is tough, but what are we gonna do? Hide in here forever knowing we lost? Sounds pretty fucking lame to me!"
The Gunny finally made his way between us, half of Lima Company in attendance to this spectacle. No one interfered with us as they gathered.
I looked around…
Tight-faced and weary Marines had the floor, their hard eyes meeting mine. Their weapons were hoisted and they were steady again. They waited for something good to happen once more in our favor. I knew it would come, because we held the floor, not the Covenant.
"We have to keep going, Haze."
"What's keeping you going, Penn?"
"I don't know. Faith, man. Just a little faith."
"Well, I got a news flash for you, there, Shakespeare. Reality is kicking faith's ass right now! Unless you have a plan that's gonna get rid of a hundred enemy Cruisers, you just count me out."
"This isn't working." Lawrence said from over my shoulder. "Let's just leave him alone for now."
"Alright, but I won't give up on him. Do you hear that, Haze? I do have a plan. It involves finding a scientist first. Preferably, the lead one. And we're going to find Amy. We are going to make it, Haze."I wasted no time. I left everyone there and ran to the staircase. I was going to get some answers.