MINUTEMEN: THE CRUCIBLE
Office of Captain Jack O’Shea
UNSC Post 53, “Fort Bunker Hill”
City of Boston
September 29, 2552
Three weeks before the invasion of Earth
“Do they still hang traitors?”
Captain Jack O’Shea looked past the holographic displays streaming above his desk and across his spacious office at Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds. Jack raised an eyebrow as he waved a hand over the surface of his workspace and powered down the desk.
“I haven’t educated myself on the subject, but I guess it’s pretty timeless, Gus.” The Captain answered, wary of his old friend’s conversational tone.
Reynolds put his freshly polished boots up on the table in front of the wide leather couch and sighed wistfully. “I think that’s how I’d want to go out. Firing squad is just kinda…sudden.”
“You’re in a particularly sunny mood today.”
Reynolds returned to sitting attentively, leaning forward, palms up in conjecture. “I’m just saying. If the kid rats on us—”
O’Shea rolled his eyes. “He’s not going to rat. As I recall, Master Gunnery Sergeant, you hand picked this kid.”
Reynolds shrugged noncommittally. “You can’t know how someone’s going to react to something like this. It’s not like we’re telling him his pet died.”
Jack made a show of powering up the desk again, stopping Reynolds’ train of thought dead in its tracks. “Look,” Captain O’Shea instructed, pulling a Marine dossier literally out of thin air, “This isn’t just some kid we’re talking about here.”
Reynolds stood up to refill his empty coffee mug from the thermos on O’Shea’s desk. “I know.”
“Are you sure?” The Captain asked pointedly. “Do you need another look at the service record?”
Gus put his hands up in surrender. Jack only stretched his hand out to increase the file’s size and resolution and then flicked his hand to spin the hologram so Reynolds had no choice but to see it.
“He’s not a kid. He’s a Marine. And when the corps asked him to put it on the line he did it no questions asked. He swore the same oath we did, Gus. He’ll play ball.”
Reynolds tugged on the hem of his crisp gray duty jacket before sitting down in silent thought. After a moment and a sip of piping hot tasteless coffee, the Master Gunnery Sergeant spoke without a hint of reservation.
“All right,” Gus nodded. “Let’s talk to the kid.”
Jack nodded back, satisfied, and tapped a translucent blue circle hovering an inch over the desk that turned red at his touch. “This is O’Shea,” he instructed casually, “Send in Lance Corporal McHale, please.”
**** Red Line MagLev Transit Tunnel
Evacuated city of Boston
October 20, 2552
“Somebody talk to me!”
Captain Jack O’Shea groaned and shifted himself to one side, leaning heavily against a door that no longer existed. The Captain barely had time to squeak out a yelp of surprise as his arm and shoulder leaned into thin air, searching for a door that had been ripped off in the crash. With nothing to stop his rapidly shifting center of gravity, O’Shea tumbled out of the wreck and landed hard against the tunnel floor.
Jack saw stars and his head swam as he groggily tried to move, completely disoriented in the darkness. Only the distant echoing rumble of a lost ground war could be heard in the collapsed tunnel, a steady tune played over the twinkling drops of moisture leaking from the battered ceiling.
Despite the ringing in his ears and the utter lack of light, O’Shea knew the darkness and quiet meant the Warthog he just fell out of was most likely not on fire or completely demolished. Unfortunately, Jack also knew the lack of sound was not a good indication that anyone else was conscious or alive.
O’Shea’s heart raced in a rapid thud he imagined he could hear through the dinged and scratched ceramic titanium chest armor. He dragged an aching shoulder along the grimy, moist concrete and took a deep breath as he fought to control his heart rate. Jack was rewarded with stabbing pain through his whole torso and the grim realization he had broken a rib. Every breath was cold fire spreading through his chest. In the dark, the veteran commander could not tell what was grimy subway water and what was sticky, life giving blood. If anyone’s still alive, O’Shea thought to himself, painfully picking himself up off the ground, they can’t stay here much longer.
Jack shuffled cautiously toward what he thought was his Warthog and silently thanked God when his aching hands touched the cool, smooth metallic chassis of the vehicle. Captain O’Shea shakily braced himself against the miraculously upright Warthog and hung his head as pain lanced through him again. “Come on!” He ordered, grimacing. “Someone!”
Office of Captain Jack O’Shea
UNSC Post 53, “Fort Bunker Hill”
City of Boston
September 29, 2552
Three weeks before the invasion of Earth
Lance Corporal Adam McHale stood his ground several feet in front of the Captain’s desk and tried his best to look like a confident, relaxed Marine who deserved his new promotion and not like the confused, overtired piece of baggage he felt like. His brand new scarlet red beret and double-breasted gray duty uniform itched him but he did not dare move to scratch.
The Captain’s office lacked the sterile feeling other commanders’ rooms had. McHale’s sharp gray eyes had taken in every detail they could when he was escorted into the room, a force of habit from seven years of training and narrow escapes. Pictures of distant worlds and groups of comrades ringed the fake wooden paneling on the walls, save one on the far side of the room. That wall boasted an intimidating metal container that begged the question of what was inside almost as quickly as it threatened observers to mind their business.
Behind him a couch and an antique wooden table turned the large office into a flexible meeting room, but McHale’s full attention was now straight ahead, where Captain Jack O’Shea was silently examining Adam as though the Lance Corporal had slept with his wife.
Adam McHale silently asked himself for the fifty-second time why he was in Boston. The first words out of O’Shea did nothing to help that predicament.
“Do you know fleet command’s nickname for Boston, Mr. McHale?”
McHale shook his head. “No, sir. I don’t.”
“The speed bump,” Gus Reynolds answered, looking up at the fresh-faced Marine from a hand carved wood chair positioned in front of O‘Shea’s desk.
Jack turned a studious face toward the Lance Corporal, face illuminated by the blue glow of the desk’s holographic projector. “We’re the least important population center on Earth. We don’t have a space elevator or an orbital cannon. We don’t have air bases or factories. We have one barracks and that’s stretching the word. On great days we’re battalion strength.”
O’Shea leaned forward over the desk and put his palms together. He pointed his hands toward the serious, perplexed recruit. “Mr. McHale, Boston’s called the speed bump because if the Covenant roll through the city they’d barely slow down. Do you understand me?”
Adam McHale was doing every possible thing he could to listen to what was being said without looking confused. “Yes, sir,” was all he thought to say. In the background an antique clock ticked the pregnant seconds away.
“I’d like to hear about Tribute,” O’Shea said, leaning back off the desktop and into his chair. “In your own words.”
Adam last attempt to hide his befuddlement failed. His large brow furrowed and his head tilted to the side. “I don’t understand, sir,” he apologized. “The report says everything you could want to know, including command’s—”
“We read the report,” O’Shea informed McHale.
“Twice.” Added Reynolds.
“We’re not here to sip whiskey and high five each other,” Jack explained seriously to a hesitant Lance Corporal, “We just want to hear it from the source, unfiltered.”
The Lance Corporal took a short breath and crossed his arms behind his back. “I was part of OPERATION: PURSE SNATCH, a Navy mission to break the Covenant’s blockade of the planet Tribute and extract VIPs left on the surface after the Covenant took the rock. My unit was one of ten ground teams. Our mission was to insert via Pelican, find the VIPs, and extract them before the Covenant could regroup.”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t know if command thought we’d punch a bigger hole or we’d catch the enemy flat-footed, but the Covenant got their act together quick. They regrouped and smashed the Navy in orbit. By the time we touched down we were already stranded on the planet.
“Situation on the ground was stellar as usual. Turns out when an entire planet’s under siege it tends to make the operational picture fuzzy. We couldn’t find our targets anywhere, but we were pretty good at walking into every Covenant ambush in the hemisphere. Eight hours into the mission and every Marine who put boots on Tribute is dead, minus me.
“I was stuck on a blockaded planet with no support or evac coming. Frankly, sir, I found that situation to be untenable. I found the closest town I could, armed the civilians with spare weapons and ammo, and trained the civvies as best I could. We killed fifty Covenant and took three casualties over two months and ten days until Carrier Strike Groups Six and Fifteen broke the blockade and took back Tribute.”
“But why did you stay and train the civilians in a populated zone instead of finding a secluded, secure location for yourself and waiting it out?” Jack inquired, trying not to let anticipation seep into his question.
The Lance Corporal responded without hesitation. “Because those civilians would have been slaughtered and there was no safe place to take them without air evac. I couldn’t leave innocent civilians behind, sir; not while there was something I could do about it.”
The two ranking Marines in the room shared glances followed by almost imperceptible nods before O’Shea continued in a much more conversational tone.
“Thank you for your report, Lance Corporal. I apologize for the confusion and the secrecy. We flew you out a long way and at great expense to be with us because we had to look you in the eye and make sure you’re the same man this collection of zeroes and ones says you are. I hope you’ll believe me when I say I know what you went through on Tribute. Experiences like those change a man, regardless of how many scalps he’s got.”
“I know who you are, sir.” Adam stated, earning raised eyebrows from Gus Reynolds. “Before the Covenant war you were part of the local system’s rapid deployment force, anti-insurrectionist special forces. You have over twenty years’ service in the Marine corps, a Colonial Cross, three Red Crescents, two Purple Hearts, and a Partridge in a pear tree.”
Gus Reynolds laughed out loud. Even O’Shea’s studious gaze softened with an expression that was half bemused, half impressed.
“It’s a long flight from Mars to Boston, sir. Pilots tend to be…” McHale bit his lip searching for the most diplomatic word. “…Chatty.”
Gus and Jack’s shoulders rose in an appreciative chuckle. McHale smiled along with them, dropping back into full attention as he sensed the two veterans shifting gears.
Captain O’Shea called up a hologram that McHale could not quite read. Whatever it was, the middle-aged Captain seemed sobered by it, running a rough hand through his short brown hair. When Jack looked over at the young Marine, Adam made sure he was looking back with the same intensity.
Jack folded his hands and leaned over his desk. “Mr. McHale, I have a mission that’s been hand-picked for you. If you accept, you’ll be briefed right now and your training will begin immediately. Master Gunnery Sergeant Reynolds and I will spend the next four weeks turning you into an authority on urban insurrectionist tactics and prolonged anti-invasion strategies with paramilitary forces…then we take the leash off. This mission is extremely high risk and volunteer-only. I need your answer right now.”
Adam barely hesitated before he nodded, serious but eager. “I’m in. What planet are we heading to?”
McHale could not help but notice O’Shea’s glance toward his second in command before turning a laser-like look at the new recruit. Adam risked a look over his shoulder as Gus Reynolds silently stood and walked to the open door, closing it in the casual manner of someone hiding something. The spacious, well-decorated office became a few shades darker.
Lance Corporal McHale looked back at his commanding officer with a look that asked what the hell was going on.
“Sir?” Adam asked with suspicion.
The Captain pointed at the previously hidden holographic folder and pulled several spy probe pictures out of it. From what Adam could see, there were at least three hundred Covenant warships clustered around several huge space stations, each looking more like gargantuan purple metal onions than supply depots.
Jack’s voice became grave. “What I’m about to tell you cannot be repeated to anyone.”
Red Line MagLev Transit Tunnel
Evacuated city of Boston
October 20, 2552
“I’m here!” Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds coughed a few feet away. “Jack, it’s Reynolds.”
O’Shea stood up as best he could, bright blossoming points of anguish popping throughout his body as he walked slowly around the ‘Hog’s hood, propping himself up with a hand on the troop transport as he went. The slow approach was all that kept Jack from falling on his face as he slipped on a patch of water and oil, causing the injured leader to twist and scramble to find something on the Warthog to hold on to.
As his legs gave out O’Shea managed to clutch the vehicle’s front mounted winch, saving him from a nasty fall but slamming the left side of his rib cage against the Warthog’s grill. Even Jack O’Shea’s renowned tolerance for pain fell away as the agony flashed through him, eliciting a sharp anguished grunt that echoed against the cold concrete and disappeared as quickly as it had been uttered.
“Jack?” Gus urgently called out into the dark, worried. “Jack? You all right?”
O’Shea wearily reclined his head back into the Warthog’s bent front grill, breathing through the stinging, throbbing hurt in his torso and smelling the acrid scent of burnt metal combined with dripping coolant.
“Yeah.” The Captain wheezed back. “I’m…I’m good. Just slipped.”
“God,” Reynolds’ voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, “can you imagine if you—of all people, after all this—died from slipping in the dark?”
Jack nearly lunged to grab on to the mangled side of the windshield, using the grip to guide the rest of his body to the driver’s door. He clutched onto the side of the Warthog like a petrified mountain climber and felt overjoyed to catch the outline of Gus’ shape in the driver’s seat.
“This,” O’Shea gasped sluggishly, looking down at the whites of his friend’s eyes, “Coming from the guy who shot at me ten minutes ago.”
The Master Gunnery Sergeant laughed to himself, a jolly rumbling bass sound followed immediately by a hacking cough. Jack stared through the crushing dark at his friend, concerned.
“How bad?” The Captain asked his second in command seriously.
“Not terrific. Banged up from the crash. Came to when you started shouting. My head’s ringin’ and there’s there stuff feelin’ loose that shouldn’t, but considering you and I should both be dead? I feel pretty good.”
O’Shea put a weary hand on his old friend’s shoulder. “Call South Station and give them our position. Can you walk?”
Reynolds grunted with pain as he twisted in his seat. “Had worse in high school. Gimme a second.”
Jack cast a worried look into the inky depths of the tunnel. The mouth of the railway had definitely collapsed and kept O’Shea from seeing anything, including the rear of the Warthog. “Think McHale made it?” O’Shea pondered aloud, his voice vanishing in the dark.
“Stubborn kid. Tough kid. Wouldn’t surprise me.”
The Captain stifled a sigh and wiped a moist, dirty glove on his pants before rubbing his tired features. A dull rumble crept through the tunnel; a prelude to what Jack could only guess was an orbital bombardment of the human home world.
“Gus?” Jack asked, silently thanking the darkness for masking his hopeless expression. “Are we just killing these people slower?”
“Probably,” Reynolds grunted, twisting and wrenching his body out of the ruined driver’s seat. He used a severely bent roll bar for support and cleared the crumpled nose of the Warthog, gingerly stretching his left leg. Jack could hear Gus’ labored breathing and it broke O’Shea’s heart to hear his old comrade in pain. “But for now let’s pretend like we fought and died all day to save their lives, whaddaya say?”
Jack offered his good side and slowly helped Reynolds out of the wrecked Warthog. “Check to see if the kids made it and call Ibanez right away.” O’Shea grunted a sigh and strained to see through the murk. “I’ll find McHale and we’ll both pray to God we didn’t lose our only barely-qualified replacement.”
“Barely qualified?” the Master Gunnery Sergeant winced, a wry smile fighting through the pain, “We gave him two weeks’ training to do both of our jobs. What could we possibly have missed?”
UNSC Post 53, “Fort Bunker Hill”
City of Boston
October 6, 2552
Two weeks before the invasion of Earth
“You realize three weeks is simply impossible, right?” Adam McHale spat, angrily dismissing the holographic projection with a wave of his hand. The purple and green wireframe map of Boston fell away like sand, followed immediately by the stocky Lance Corporal’s beret smacking against the table. “I don’t mean it in the dramatic sense. I mean it’s a fact we can’t do this in three weeks, especially when you’re wasting your time training me to help you with a plan that can’t even work.”
Gus Reynolds walked out of the darkness of the briefing room’s corner, joining McHale and O’Shea’s frank exchange of ideas. The Master Gunnery Sergeant uncrossed his arms and called the diagram up again. Adam was tempted to turn off the map again just to spite the bigger noncommissioned officer, but a healthy sense of self-preservation stayed his hand.
Captain O’Shea sipped coffee from a white ceramic mug, his expression neutral but his eyes dark with concentration. “The harsh truth of your training is it’s very likely that something will happen to the Master Guns and/or myself during the invasion. To lack a trained replacement who knows the details of this operation is foolhardy.”
McHale stabbed two fingers toward the map of the city and spread them apart like Moses parting a miniature Red Sea. The map immediately flew into the towering structures, zooming toward a blinking orange dot below the model city streets.
“You can’t make an oil painting if all you’ve got is crayons.” He muttered, frustrated.
“Care to expound on that fortune cookie?” Reynolds challenged, leaning against the railing of the wide rectangular holo tank.
The digital topography shifted as McHale deftly rotated his hand, swinging in low and following a moving train of yellow dots as they diverted off the main roads and approached phantom tunnels. As the dots slid along the glowing lines, tiny equations and measurements spread out along the digital formation, calculating spatial relationships and speed.
“Look,” Adam explained, slapping a hand against the railing in frustration, “In a perfect world maybe we’d have time to get most of the civvies into an acceptable number of transports, but in the guaranteed absolute cluster fuck we’re wading into there’s no way this will go according to the sims.”
O’Shea shook his head. “We can wring our hands over what’s going to happen in three weeks or we can deal with all the things we know we have to do now.”
Purple light flickered over McHale’s frustrated expression and he hunched over the holotank railing like a street fighter who just had taken a massive blow to the stomach. The stocky Lance Corporal shifted his gaze from the wireframe city to his commanding officer. “One more time, sir?”
Jack reached back into the dark recesses of the briefing room and exchanged his coffee mug for a data pad. “I said focus on preparation and we’ll be able to handle the challenges three weeks from now.”
Adam pushed back from the map suddenly and looked at the Captain like O’Shea was an annoying child who would only parrot back McHale’s words. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
Reynolds and O’Shea stole a brief exasperated glance through the shadows as the stern middle-aged Captain sighed audibly. “Sure,” Jack allowed.
McHale slammed weathered fingers against his data pad like he was playing a miniature drum set. He very nearly thrust the handheld screen in an increasingly impatient O’Shea’s face. “Why do you keep saying we’ve got three weeks?”
Lance Corporal McHale turned on his freshly shined boot heel and talked to the room as if he were addressing an invisible jury. “A couple ONI spooks…uh, R-Ricardo and Phillips, right? They just gave you, a guy they knew was using defense materials to try to find Covenant invasion forces, some magically classified intel that tells you exactly when the Covenant reach Earth so they could…what? Borrow a Warthog for a couple hours? We trust this why? How do we know we don’t have four or five weeks?”
“How do we know we don’t have one week?” Reynolds asked, arms crossed and miffed at McHale’s tone. Adam missed the non-verbal signals to shut up and instead pointed right at the stern Master Gunnery Sergeant.
“Exactly,” McHale nodded, gray eyes flashing in the dim light. “It’s bullshit, sir! We should be cutting our retrieval goals in half—right now—and honestly? We should seriously consider evacuating people from a potential combat zone to the hills or somewhere that feels less like a mass grave.”
O’Shea made up the distance between him and Adam in three quick strides. The Captain’s tall, lean figure loomed over the shorter McHale and O’Shea stood there for an extra moment, content to let his rank and body language do the talking. The Lance Corporal’s fiery mood was extinguished immediately, even Adam’s fierce gray eyes fell to the floor, cowed.
For all the combat he’s seen, he’s just a kid, Jack thought, deleting a fire and brimstone reprimand from his mind. He’s just a kid and you told him the world ends in three weeks. In three weeks we lose a war we’ve been fighting since before he was born.
Gus’ head tilted in surprise as Jack put a supportive hand on the young Marine’s shoulder. “I know this is a hard thing to wrap your head around,” O’Shea said in a low, somber voice. It pained Jack to talk outside the details of their preparations, almost as if not talking about the imminent invasion directly kept it from happening. “But we hope for the best and prepare for the worst. I trust ONI spooks about as far as I can throw them, but we do know it’s only a matter of time until the Covenant find Earth. I don’t care if it’s tomorrow or next year, when they get here I want us as ready as we can possibly be to save every human we can.”
Jack then left the deflated Lance Corporal in his wake and opened the heavy briefing room door. Sterile white light flooded in, followed by the muffled din of a military office hard at work and blissfully ignorant of the coming storm.
O’Shea nodded out to the comparably cheery world outside. “I’d tell you to take the day off and come to grips with all this, but time is a luxury we can’t afford. Take two hours. Catch a nap, a hot meal, whatever you need, then report back to the briefing room at 1600.”
Adam trudged across the worn gray carpet and the United Nations Space Command seal stitched on it, remembering at the last minute to turn around and snatch his beret from the holo tank railing. The air hung thick with things unsaid, but O’Shea knew better than to start another frustrated exchange. Adam blinked twice as his eyes adjusted to the brightness of the overhead lights, and then turned at attention and saluted his commanding officer.
“Will that be all, sir?”
“That’s all for now, Mr. McHale. Dismissed.”
O’Shea watched the skilled young Marine walk through the corridor with the unseen weight of the world on his shoulders, then turned back into the briefing room. Gus Reynolds waved out the hologram and turned around to lean against the tank, arms crossed over his chest. As the hologram faded out the strips of ambient lighting brightened slightly to keep the hardened soundproof room from becoming pitch black. Captain O’Shea wearily unbuttoned the collar of his duty uniform and nodded at his second in command.
“He can handle it.” Jack said defensively, reading his comrade’s body language.
Reynolds shook his head. “He’s gonna burn out, Jack, and I’m scared shitless it’ll be right in the middle of D-day. We can bring one more inside—”
“We went over this, Gus.”
“You think they’d rat us out.”
Jack fixed a hard look in Gus’ direction. “Two senior staff members withholding sensitive, vital information about the imminent invasion of Earth? I’d rat us out.”
Reynolds stood against the railing in silence; chin down as if deep in thought. “Earth,” he said softly, as if saying it louder would break the planet in two. “That’s it. The ballgame. Why shouldn’t we tell command?”
Jack patted his comrade’s shoulder sympathetically. “Because if we know, command knows; and since we’re not at our highest alert levels and prepping for planet-wide evacuation that tells us something very important.”
Gus looked up cautiously in the dim yellow light. “What?”
O’Shea leaned over the railing and called up the map of Boston again. Jack stared into the maze of tiny lines as if the answer to their problems was somehow hidden in the hologram. “It’s too late to save Earth.”
Red Line MagLev Transit Tunnel
Evacuated city of Boston
October 20, 2552
Jack O’Shea leaned heavily against the creaking, groaning Warthog transport and convulsed into a shuddering cough that felt wet against the back of his hand. He did not need light to tell him that he was coughing up blood; the tacky slick feeling between his fingers told the veteran Marine all the bad news he needed to know. O’Shea would have lingered on it longer if a gruff, labored voice had not broken through the silence.
“Did you call me ‘Barely qualified’?” Adam McHale’s indignant tone drifted weakly from somewhere ahead of O’Shea. Jack scrambled hand over hand along the side of the transport, palms slick with sweat and disoriented from the blanket of black.
“McHale!” Jack called out, “keep talking to me!”
The Warthog creaked just ahead of the groping Captain. “Barely qualified?” Adam groaned, speech interrupted by grunts of pain, “You picked me! I quit.”
O’Shea jumped as Gus Reynolds put a heavy hand on Jack’s shoulder. Before the Captain could question his second in command, Gus wordlessly handed him a sturdy black flashlight. Jack exhaled with as much relief as several broken ribs would allow, then clicked it on and swept it in the direction of McHale’s voice. Captain O’Shea muttered a string of curse words when the light finally found the Lance Corporal.
The stocky, powerful Marine was lying awkwardly across the nearest bench in the troop bay, half on, half off. McHale’s torso was twisted on the seats, legs splayed out on the floor, right arm hopelessly pinned underneath him. Adam’s left leg was bent in an impossible angle and absolutely broken. The badly injured Lance Corporal had managed to pull off his helmet with his free arm and dropped it in the Warthog, faceplate cracked and illuminating the floor of the transport with the splicing and static-ridden displays inside it. O’Shea was shocked at the scarcity of blood pooling underneath the recruit.
McHale held a hand up to shield his eyes from the blinding brightness of the beam. He squinted, annoyed at the glare, and waved his free hand to pull Jack and Gus’ attention from his grotesque injury. “Sir?” He asked, still peeved, “You mind not shining that directly in my eyes?”
Jack immediately passed the light to Reynolds and stood over the brave soldier as McHale took deep steadying breaths through grit teeth.
“Do you have feeling in your fingers and toes?” O’Shea asked nervously, mentally cataloguing the injuries that he could see. Adam’s face was blanched where it was not bruised and it was clear the man was in blinding pain. O’Shea was impressed to see McHale manage a half smile and a nod. If his left eye had not been swollen shut, Jack imagined Adam would have winked.
“If by ‘feeling,’ you mean ‘blinding pain that makes me want to throw up,’” Adam breathed, putting his free hand over his face and wiping away a light sheen of sweat, “Then yeah, I’ve got feeling pretty much everywhere.”
“Cap!” Reynolds shouted from the other side of the transport. “I’ve found the kids!”
The Captain stood up as quickly as his battered torso would allow. “Are they ok?” He asked, tension evident in his voice. The seconds between Jack’s question and Gus’ response seemed like hours.
“They’re all beat to hell, but vitals are green across the board. The girl and the shorter kid are out, but the blonde one—”
“Ron!” Ron Parsons’ voice jumped out of the dark in a thin shout, like a person with a hangover trying to hail a taxi. “For like…the eleventh time! Ron!”
O’Shea was certain Reynolds’ eyes were rolling. “Beginner’s luck,” Gus chided amicably from the inky murk. “They’ll make it, Cap.”
O’Shea heaved a sigh and checked McHale once more to make sure he had not missed something life threatening. “Don’t move. Help’s on the way,” Jack said with confidence, tapping McHale’s helmet supportively instead of harming the broken Marine further. “You did good work today, Lance Corporal.”
Adam closed his tired eyes in acknowledgement. “Thank you, sir,” he muttered through a wave of anguish.
“Warthog, Warthog, Warthog.” The COM jumped to life with a jubilant chirp, “This is conductor. If anyone’s receiving this send traffic, over.”
O’Shea wiped a bloody hand on his trousers and gingerly squeezed his throat mic. “Conductor, this is O’Shea. Our vehicle wrecked inside the lev tunnel. The opening has collapsed behind us and the enemy broke off pursuit. We’ve got four wounded who need immediate medical attention. I say again, critical wounded. Request immediate medevac, over.”
“Conductor copies all. We’ve got a fix on your position. Ibanez is inbound for medevac. Sit tight, sir, we’ll take it from here. Conductor out.”
“Help’s on the way!” Jack shouted encouragingly to the survivors who could hear him. His voice echoed through the subway tunnel and mixed with the growing rumble of safe transport rapidly approaching.
Back by the Warthog, Gus Reynolds and a hastily bandaged Ron Parsons bumped fists in celebration. Adam McHale relaxed his tense neck, content to rest his head on the uncomfortable bench seats.
“That’s nice,” The Lance Corporal sighed. “I’m gonna pass out now, ‘kay?”
Office of Captain Jack O’Shea
UNSC Post 53, “Fort Bunker Hill”
City of Boston
October 20, 2552
Morning of the invasion
Gus Reynolds jumped to his feet in an instant, almost flipping Jack’s office couch with the jolt of energy that came from more than a decade of training and discipline. Reynolds was not even fully awake by the time his feet hit the plush robin’s egg carpet, but the wafting aroma of fresh hot coffee helped pull his consciousness from the foggy recesses of his skull.
Captain O’Shea regarded his friend’s usually immaculate wardrobe with a hint of disappointment before wordlessly handing him a mug and crossing over to his desk. Jack unbuttoned the collar of his gray uniform jacket and leisurely tossed his data pad onto the workspace. The surface glowed a light blue as soon as the storage device made contact.
“Second night in a week you’ve slept in my office, Master Guns,” Jack noted disapprovingly, making a point of looking down at the morning briefs. “One more and I get to buy you a collar and a bowl.”
Gus rolled his head, wincing at a stiff neck. “It takes the sims five times as long to render since we’re not using military servers.” Reynolds explained. “Calculating a final dress rehearsal for our visitors takes time, sir.”
O’Shea slid his finger across the desk to access the next document, ignoring his second in command. Gus sighed.
“People work late here all the time. No one suspects anything, Jack.”
Jack let the silence hang for a few seconds before rubbing his eyes in frustration, pinching the bridge of his nose, and finally looking up at Reynolds with a face reserved for assistant principals.
“Let’s stop giving them opportunities. Get it together, Master Guns. We’re no good to the people in this city if we’re under court martial.”
Reynolds looked at the drone footage in his hand sadly. “I think they’ll have bigger things to worry about than courts martial, sir.” He pointed out.
O’Shea relented, letting the disciplinarian mood drop as he took another swig of coffee. “What’s the verdict from the sims?” He asked intently.
Gus brightened and took out a data pad, the shinier, slimmer devices that private citizens carried everywhere with them. The Master Gunnery Sergeant’s posture improved as he placed the digital assistant on O’Shea’s desk. A small green wireframe map of Boston emerged from the top of Jack’s workspace like a digital Atlantis rising from the depths of the sea.
“First good news in three weeks,” Gus announced, highlighting a route through the city toward South Station. “I recalculated for the new trucks we’re getting in two days and the computer says we can hit quota within two hours of first contact.”
O’Shea scratched his chin. “What if the trucks don’t get delivered on time?” He asked. Reynolds shook his head in response and stood up, sipping remorsefully on the coffee and examining the photographs that ringed the Captain’s wood-paneled office.
“Drivers would have to take multiple trips between South Station and the loading zones.”
“And the last thing we want is to keep poking our heads out in the middle of an attack.” O’Shea frowned. “Pay the dealer extra if it will help speed delivery. We’ve got seven days left; I’d like to stage a training exercise if we can.”
The slightly unkempt Master Gunnery Sergeant nodded and turned back for the desk, stopping for a moment to pick up a framed picture on the edge of Jack’s desk. He tapped the glass of the portrait with the back of his index finger before placing it back in its prominent position. The frame held a colorful, bright picture of Jack O’Shea next to an elegant, striking woman with short sandy blonde hair and roughly the Captain’s age. Two adorable children, an eight-year-old boy with curly brown hair and a ten-year-old girl the spitting image of her mother, stood attentively in front of the couple. The foursome was bundled in bright scarves and slim, metallic-looking jackets; Boston’s famous Frog Pond lay behind them, replete with a throng of skaters enjoying the winter.
“Still love that one,” Gus noted, nodding to the picture. Jack reached out and adjusted the frame slightly.
“Took us forever to get the kids to stand still,” O’Shea chuckled softly, recalling the fond memory. Gus sat back down, thoughts still churning in his head.
“Jack,” Reynolds’ bright brown eyes flashed toward his commander’s to get his attention, “have you thought at all about moving them to a safe place?”
O’Shea’s mood darkened. “There is no safe place, Gus.”
Reynolds’ mouth twitched. “But you’ve told Laura?”
Jack nodded. “Aiko?”
Reynolds only shook his head, a very brief but vigorous motion that indicated he did not want to talk about it. Captain O’Shea would not take no for an answer.
“Gus, you know what’s coming. You need to talk to her. You need to stop blaming each other for Eridanus—”
Jack only got Reynolds’ raised hand in response. Before O’Shea could press the point there was a forceful knock on the heavy door. The Captain sighed at the door, buttoned the collar of his duty uniform, and fixed a serious look in his old friend’s direction.
“Don’t live in regret,” the leader of Boston’s military forces advised before unlocking his office door from the interface on his desk. “Yeah?” Jack called.
Lance Corporal Adam McHale nearly kicked O’Shea’s door in and threw a sloppy, hasty salute in the direction of the Captain.
“What is it?” O’Shea asked, concern creeping into his voice as he read the young man’s expression. Reynolds turned in his chair to see what was the matter as soon as he read O’Shea’s face.
Adam McHale crossed the carpet in a rush, withdrawing a ruggedized military data pad from his duty uniform like a loaded gun. Jack could not help but notice the young man’s trembling hand as he gave the pad to his commanding officer. The Lance Corporal stood at attention as O’Shea activated the device but McHale’s eyes were flying around the room, clearly spooked.
Jack frowned at the levitating progress bar as his desk worked through the pad’s encryption software. O’Shea glanced up at the new recruit, uncertain about what was going on. “Report,” Captain O’Shea ordered curtly.
McHale momentarily swallowed his fear. “Sir, Carrier Strike Group Twelve just jumped away. Fleet Command won’t say where.”
Gus Reynolds’s head snapped up toward the ramrod straight Lance Corporal in surprise. “What?”
Jack focused on swiping through holograms, fighting to stay composed. “On whose authority?” He demanded.
Adam stared straight ahead. “Fleet Admiral Harper, sir. FLEETCOM just put all orbital cannons on general alert and set condition one throughout the orbital defense picket.”
Reynolds eyes opened wide as he heard the news. “That can’t be right,” he shook his head in denial.
“Is there anyone in command who can tell us what’s going on?” McHale asked. “Is there anyone you trust?”
Jack stabbed a finger on his desk, opening a COM window. “This is Captain O’Shea. Get me Major General Parikh with FLEETCOM right now.”
“Jack,” Gus said urgently, “Strike Group Twelve was supposed to—”
O’Shea put up a hand to silence his friend as the desktop flashed red and gray. A hollow, tinny voice sounded through the desk’s communications system.
“Sir, I have Colonel Ackerson for FLEETCOM.”
O’Shea looked up at the ceiling, now thoroughly confused. He put his elbows on his workspace and rested his chin on his hands. “Colonel Ackerson, Captain Jack O’Shea.”
The reedy voice on the other line sounded harried and hoarse as it echoed off the walls and landed in the thick carpet. The sound of organized chaos drifted in the background of the transmission. “What is it, Captain?”
Jack’s brow furrowed, perplexed. “Sir, I need to speak with Major General Parikh.”
“This isn’t a phone bank, Captain. You’re talking with FLEETCOM. Now what do you want?”
Jack and Gus exchanged glances, visibly suspicious and wondering how much knowledge to give away. “Carrier Strike Group Twelve just jumped away, sir. Why did Fleet Admiral Harper order the only ships in the vicinity of the eastern seaboard to leave?”
There was a tense silence in the room, broken only by the filtered and muffled shouts of officers on the other side of the call. When the Colonel spoke again, Jack’s blood went cold.
“Captain O’Shea, by order of the United Nations Space Command Defense Force, you are to deploy your forces to New York City immediately and await further orders.”
Gus dropped his coffee. Jack stood up and stared at the desk, bewildered, as if the Colonel was hiding inside it. “Sir, with respect,” O’Shea protested, “There are eight million people in this city; we can’t just leave them. What about Boston?”
“What about Boston?”
Reynolds, O’Shea, and McHale simply stood there dumbfounded as if their own death sentences had been called out. A chorus of shouts in the background of the transmission all called Ackerson’s name. No one in O’Shea’s office was listening.
“You have your orders. Get it done, Captain. Ackerson out.”
The COM chirped off and left the room in deafening silence. The men’s insides churned as they realized none of them was ready for what was about to happen. Adam McHale, despite several weeks of forewarning, was despondent.
“That fleet in the spy drone shots…it was massive,” he choked through a suddenly dry mouth, “How did they move that fast? How did they get here a week before—”
“They’re not early,” Jack said numbly, leaning over his desk as if he might collapse at any moment. “You were right.”
Adam shook his head, confused. “What do you mean?”
O’Shea walked to the far corner of the room, equal parts embarrassed and enraged. He stood in front of a large armored compartment, nearly as tall as the ceiling and ten feet wide, and stood watching it as if it might suddenly grow arms and legs and walk out of the room.
“Last week when you asked how we could trust the intel. You were right. The spooks forged the data to make us think we had more time.” Jack turned around slowly and shook his head, disappointed with himself. “And I fell for it.”
Reynolds banged a meaty fist against Jack’s desk. “Why would they do that?”
Captain O’Shea put his hand up to a smooth black rectangle on the left side of the compartment. A series of clicks and whirrs emanated from within the wide locker and Jack took a step back.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” O’Shea said with dark resolve. The armored front of the container opened slowly with an audible hiss, sliding straight down into the floor, earning raised eyebrows from McHale. Jack looked over his shoulder and pointed deliberately to Gus Reynolds.
“Call. Your. Wife.” Jack instructed forcefully. “Tell her what to do and where to go. When you’re done, find Ibanez and the two others we talked about and bring them here. Make sure no one leaves this base unless I say so.”
The Master Gunnery Sergeant’s strong angular features mixed in an expression of determination and anxiety, but his posture straightened immediately as he saluted the Captain and turned to leave the office. “I’ll be in my office if you need me,” Gus said as he opened the door, flooding the dark atmosphere with the light and sound of an oblivious office.
“What do we do about command?” The Lance Corporal asked as the door closed behind Reynolds, doing everything he could to shake the fear clouding his mind. “Are we going to disobey orders?” McHale would have asked further questions, but he was too transfixed on the sight ahead of him to speak.
In front of Jack O’Shea were six separate compartments, lockers that looked like they had been stolen straight from the action holos. Each was packed with ballistic body armor, helmets, and weapons that the Lance Corporal had only seen on Special Forces soldiers. If the circumstances had been different, Adam would have joked that it was the sexiest thing he had ever seen.
The composite plates of the black and gray urban assault armor made the battle dress uniform look like the perfect marriage between digital samurai and gun-wielding ninja. Not only would the body armor help deflect and absorb Covenant energy weapons and human ballistics, it would also assist in load bearing and traveling through urban terrain undetected.
Despite all those advantages, the jewel of the battle armor system was the helmet. Fully integrated with the UNSC’s COM and tactical map systems, projected onto a polarized, hardened faceplate, the Special Forces helmets were only available to the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. McHale did not know if O’Shea had been a Helljumper, had bought the kits, or had obtained them by some other means, but he was not about to ask.
“We weren’t going to leave these people, Mr. McHale.” Jack stated as he shrugged off his duty uniform jacket and reached into the leftmost locker. “We knew that the moment we saw the intel.” The Captain motioned for McHale to join him and the Lance Corporal nearly fell over himself to get to the gear.
O’Shea pulled a dark gray combat harness and chest plate from his locker and laid it out over his desk. Adam noticed his commander’s armor had Jack’s last name and Captain’s bars stenciled across the front. McHale inspected the rack and was silently delighted to find his very own in the rightmost locker. The world was ending, but to the soldier in McHale, things were looking up.
Adam grabbed his armor from the container and inspected it intently. “Sir, why would ONI give you that intel at all?”
Jack finished strapping on ceramic greaves and talked as he tested out the leg armor across the office. “ONI couldn’t just move the military out of a population center without attracting some kind of attention.” O’Shea stated hesitantly at first, starting to put the pieces together in his mind.
“They showed us the size of the enemy so we’d know we didn’t stand a chance, and they dated the intel so we’d be caught flat-footed if we planned anything. The Strike Group jumping away was meant to panic us. I don’t know who this Ackerson guy is, but I’d bet my salary he’s Naval Intelligence.”
The Lance Corporal grabbed a nasty-looking combat shotgun from the locker and visually inspected the breach before sliding it shut with a metallic snap. “That’s a lot of work just to get a small detachment of Marines out of Boston, sir.”
O’Shea conceded the point with a nod. “Which makes me wonder just what’s in this city that they don’t want the UNSC around to protect. I don’t know what ONI wants with Boston and I don’t care, but they’re dooming innocent civilians and I’ll be damned if I let that happen on my watch.”
Adam looked up from across the room and double taked as he caught sight of the Captain. The man in charge of Boston’s military was already completely dressed in his battle armor, calibrating the sensitivity of his helmet with the focus of a clockmaker. The Lance Corporal had been impressed with O’Shea’s legend, but the sight of the Captain in the black and gray armor suddenly made all of the tall tales and rumors seem completely legitimate, perhaps even understated.
McHale’s eyebrows arched. “That was fast,” he noted, gesturing at Jack’s armor. “Did you assemble a whole BDU in sixty seconds?”
Jack patted his chest plate with equal parts severity and pride. “Old habits,” O’Shea said dismissively. “One of the only times you can call yourself a minute man with pride.”
“Jack!” Reynolds shouted urgently as he ran across the office to the mini-armory, medical officer Harold Ibanez in tow and looking like he was about to throw up. “Long range scanners just picked up Slipspace ruptures across the system. Telemetry on one signal looks like a Battlecruiser heading for Boston.”
All eyes snapped to the Captain, who grabbed an urban camouflaged Battle Rifle off a rack and began screwing a sound and flash suppressor to the barrel of the modified weapon. “Sever all communications out of the base. Send a general alert to all hands,” he instructed as calmly as possible. “Anyone who uses the words, ‘Last stand,’ will be shot.”
Red Line MagLev Transit Tunnel
Evacuated city of Boston
October 20, 2552
Jack patted the back of the first medevac Warthog with all the strength he could muster. Gus hobbled over to help his comrade, supporting him under the left arm and trying to not to jostle Jack’s broken ribs.
The second Warthog’s fusion drive spun up in a high whine, echoing whispers of high frequency sound through the tunnel along with the metallic gravel of the tires rolling over rails and grit.
“That’s our ride,” Reynolds said with not a little relief in his voice. “I’m fighting the urge to shout, ‘Shotgun.’”
O’Shea winced through a smile. “I’d punch you, but I’d definitely pass out.”
“You know, I think we got a good thing goin’ on here,” Adam McHale called back to the pair as two Marines lowered the Lance Corporal onto a stretcher and lifted him into the back of the second Warthog. The stocky soldier’s words came thick through a cocktail of painkillers. “Whaddaya say we start a band?”
Despite an entire day of tragedy, heartbreak, and defeat after defeat, one thought flew into the Captain’s head. “We need to talk about a little stunt you pulled today,” Jack said to McHale as Gus Reynolds helped O’Shea ease into the passenger seat.
“Can I guess?” McHale asked, doing his best to look back at O’Shea despite being strapped down and facing the rear of the transport. “I, uh, disobeyed orders from high command, I helped conscript college kids into a gaggle of deserters, I murdered taxpaying civilians who just happened to be gangsters, and then stole their booze. Oh, and I peed on the war room carpet before we left. It’s just something I’ve wanted to do.”
“You stole a truck,” O’Shea called back as the transport powered up and illuminated the subway tunnels in a spooky white. “Back at the docks. I put you on patrol with the kids, you went AWOL and stole a truck.”
“Came in handy later,” Gus offered, looking out at the tiles lining the walls zipping by.
“Permission to speak freely?” Adam asked over the echoing depths, facing the rear of the rescue Warthog and the scene of what should have been his death.
“Why not?” Jack answered drolly.
McHale continued to stare back at the crushed but miraculously intact wreck even after it was swallowed in the darkness. “I honestly did think about it. At the truck. I thought about leaving.”
Jack O’Shea stared through the windshield as spots of light appeared ahead. The medevac Warthog had already slowed down, joined on the other side of the tunnel by an escort of two other agile urban scouting vehicles. The light of a growing, living camp was just starting to reach them.
“I don’t blame you,” Jack muttered into the whipping air.