MINUTEMEN: THE CRUCIBLE
CHAPTER THREE – “WORST CAMPUS TOUR EVER”
City of Boston
United North American Protectorate
October 10, 2552
For Christ’s sake, your school, your city, and your planet is being bombarded and invaded by hostile alien forces, and you’re really thinking about sex right now?
Tim McManus had tried everything he could to keep that revelation buried in back of his consciousness. Despite being covered in soot and breathing in the rich stench of burning paper, wood, and smoldering brick, it had made its way into the front of his mind. McManus shook his head vigorously as if he could physically jettison the thoughts from his head, but once again, he failed.
Rachel Lynch, the object of Tim’s untoward thoughts, tapped him on the shoulder a step behind him. “What’s the matter with you?” She asked, concerned. Two hours ago Tim would have done handstands to command her attention like this. Despite her beautiful face and sparkling green eyes showing genuine concern and eager to hear his thoughts, Tim knew these particular thoughts would be a distraction that could get both of them killed.
“Nothing.” Tim lied, tightening the straps of his backpack and checking his Battle Rifle for what had to be the hundredth time.
“You sure?” Ron Parsons chimed in, falling in step with the pair and shooting a glance Tim’s way. “Ever since that library burned down, you’ve been fidgeting like a retard sitting on an ant hill.”
Rachel laughed out loud at the off-color joke and Tim did his best impression of an appreciative chuckle. Tim wanted nothing less than to talk about his reasons for distraction, so he changed the subject without thinking. “No,” he deflected, “it’s the noise.”
“What do you mean?” Ron asked, picking a large piece of ash out of his hair.
“It just happened a few minutes ago. Listen.” McManus said, nodding toward the smoking city of Boston. “Like, ten minutes ago there were sirens. Cops, ambulances, fire. Now,” The Harvard Junior paused, letting the silence hang over them like a cartoon anvil, “nothin’.”
“See, I was thinking you were worried about our little fan club.” Ron responded, poking a thumb over his shoulder. Lynch and McManus turned around and finally addressed the problem that none of them wanted to talk about.
At least two-dozen people; students, faculty, staff, and bystanders, were walking about ten feet behind them as if the three dirt-caked, exhausted kids had any idea where they were going. Ron spoke low, as if sharing a personal secret about the people in front of them. “Ever since we ran in to grab Rachel, they’ve been looking at us like we planned that or something.”
Tim bit his lip in quick thought, and while he did not believe what he was saying to his new friends, said anyway, “I’ll take care of it.” To McManus’ relief, the other two fell in behind him.
Tim had no earthly idea what he was going to say. He tried to think thoughts of leadership, of inspiration and courage, and instead only blurted out, “What’s up?”
A history professor, a tall, rail-thin man with wispy gray hair and dirt streaked across his face and a bloody palm print on his chest, looked wide eyed at the Harvard student. “We thought you had a plan.”
McManus could feel Ron sigh with exasperation behind him and knew Rachel would be feeling quite the same. Tim gave a slight shrug of helplessness and tried not to panic. “You gotta have us confused with someone else. We just rushed to that building because my friend was in there and we had to get her out.”
“So now what?” Someone piped up from the back of the group. A murmur of agreement followed.
“So now—” Tim glanced over his shoulder at his friends with a look that begged for help, and seeing none there, returned with the same confused expression. “Look, I just don’t know. You people said the Marines were getting folks out of here. Why don’t you go there?”
The group now started to look menacing, as if Tim was keeping something from them. The professor pointed angrily behind McManus. “You’re going to help the people back there, but you’re just going to forget about everyone else?”
The brown-haired Harvard Junior put a hand to his forehead, squeezed his eyes shut tight for a moment, and reluctantly turned around to look where the faculty member was pointing. What had once been called Harvard Yard was now a funeral pyre.
Freshman dorms lit the sky and belched smoke up into enemy airspace. Bodies littered the ground in various macabre poses. Between splintered trees that once shaded scholars, a bewildered, bloodied, and broken male student stumbled from point to point. “Lost cause” did not begin to describe it.
McManus once again shook his head, and whispered to himself, “You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me.” The large group behind him took it a gesture of abandonment.
“Hey!” The academic shouted, desperation creeping into his voice, “We’re talkin’ to you!”
Rachel now stepped up and got between McManus and the group. “Whoa!” She shouted, getting too close and stabbing a finger at the taller man, “No one said we’d be your tour guides!”
“But those people in the yard—”
“Are probably dead!” Lynch was almost screaming now. “You want to stay out in the open and wait for them to find you?” Rachel whipped around and thrust her hand in the air, pointing at the giant CCS-Class Battlecruiser dominating the Boston skyline, its pulsing purple gravity lift thrust into the city center.
The statement echoed off the surviving walls of the campus, leaving the group in silence. The injured girl exhaled sharply and joined her newfound comrades, revealing an expression of hopeless fatigue that hit Tim like a punch in the gut. Ron and Tim traded uncertain looks.
“Whaddaya wanna do?” Parsons asked.
Tim put a hand on Rachel’s good shoulder and took a deep breath. “We could take quick look,” he offered. “It is on the way to your place.”
Ron shrugged helplessly. “If my place is still standing.”
“Good point.” Tim did not like being thought of as a leader. Only hours ago he was a carefree college student whose only thoughts had been on schoolwork and where he was going to eat lunch with his friends. Now he was running into burning buildings to save people he did not know and, though he was feeling strongly about the girl next to him, was not in the least bit qualified to be trusted with their lives. This isn’t fair.
McManus gave himself a few extra seconds to try and make sense of the decision. A group like this, tired and scared strangers in the middle of a Covenant invasion, would not last long trying to move together. But they deserve a chance to get to safety, he told himself, and apparently we’re the best candidates to get them there. If I was in one of those buildings, and I was still alive, he reasoned as best he could, I’d be hoping and praying for someone to save me.
McManus balled his hands into fists, knowing that what he was about to say was at best foolhardy and at worst a death sentence. “All right,” he said to no one in particular, “we’ll take a look—a look—and see if there’s anyone we can save. We don’t take stupid chances, and we get out here as soon as possible.”
McManus searched the faces of the two people he trusted in the group. Ron, despite reluctance to save Rachel before, nodded in agreement. Rachel’s face showed the opposite reaction. McManus leaned in and whispered in her ear. “I came back for you,” he pleaded, “others deserve at least a chance.”
Lynch had apparently been just as torn as Tim, and he saw the dull streaks of small tears on her cheek. “But I’m a lot better looking than them,” she sniffed through the joke.
“We’ll see,” Tim smiled, rolling his shoulders and walking toward the blaze. “C’mon, let’s go.”
The journey from McGoohan to the Yard was short and silent. Everyone was on edge, casting nervous glances into the sky and scanning for places to hide should hostile aliens suddenly emerge from the shadows. The leading trio realized as they got closer to the site that their view from farther away was much more pleasant than their current vantage point. Of the dozen or so buildings that surrounded the Yard, ten were completely demolished or gave no hope of a safe entry.
Two seemed remotely feasible, the only two moderately intact dorms by the front gates. Both roofs had caved in, and the fires around the buildings were getting closer by the minute. As the group got closer, the rightmost dorm gave a low groan and leaned heavily on one side like a drunk. The mass of civilians gasped and took a big step back.
“Bit of a fixer-upper,” Parsons joked. “Flipping it will be a bitch.” Tim did not appreciate it.
“That dorm’s a death trap,” he stated, crossing his arms and then tilting his head toward the leftmost building. “The other one’s Harding Hall. Two stairwells on either side after you get through the front door.”
“How do you know that?” Rachel asked.
“I used to live there.”
Tim walked toward the bulging front doors, darkened with soot and splintered from the stress of the structure. Before he could make any other statements, the doors smashed open and a heavyset man in a Boston Police uniform emerged, carrying the limp body of a Harvard co-ed out of the building. The kids could not help but notice the M6C Magnum pistol holstered on his thigh and Tim took an instant to wonder if maybe this scene was not as chivalrous at it first appeared. The cop paused, fires crackling and popping around him. He looked around in angry confusion at the crowd assembled in admiration and fear around him.
“Who do I have tah fuck to get some help ’round ‘ere?” He roared. Tim, Ron, and Rachel jumped to assist him in easing the body down to the ground where Rachel laid down a blanket.
“How is she?” Rachel asked, concerned.
“Found ‘er passed out tryin’ tah break through a bathroom windah. Inhaled a lot o’ smoke,” the burly figure responded. “She flicker’d on for a sec on the stairs, says she got a roommate trapped in ‘er room. Need a spare pair o’ hands.” He looked back and forth between McManus and Parsons. “Suppose you two wanna ‘elp out an’ she can tend ta’ this one?”
Ron nodded vigorously. Tim did not seem so sure. “That building gonna hold?” he asked pointedly, casting a skeptical eye toward the dorm. The police officer laughed.
“Maybe. Maybe not. One way tah find out, ‘eh?” He clapped a hand hard on Tim’s shoulder and walked back toward the doomed dorm, chuckling. Tim stared, wide eyed, at Ron.
“Great. The one cop we find and the dude’s fucking insane,” he pointed out.
“Right, like we aren’t.” Ron answered back, tossing his backpack on the ground and following the hulking man.
Rachel shrugged off her backpack and began to stand. “I’m coming with you,” she said. McManus grabbed her arm.
“You gotta stay here,” Tim tried to say as forcefully as possible. “I can’t bring my rifle in there and you’ve gotta look after this girl. Trust me.” The brown-haired student did his best attempt at a wink and got up to join the two men at the entrance. Lynch smacked McManus on the back.
“The hell do you think you’re doing?” She asked. Tim turned around, confused. “You’re going in there without any way of staying in contact with me? What if you get hurt? What if you need help?”
Tim scratched his head, embarrassed. Lynch faced the group behind her. “Hey,” she shouted, “anyone got radios or any kind of two-way communication?” A janitor sporting a bandaged head wound reached inside a tool kit and tossed two small radios to the red-haired Boston College student. Tim lunged to catch one device so she did not have to use her bad arm. The two students looked at each other for a split second until Tim raised the radio to his mouth. He clicked the transmit button and locked eyes with his new found friend.
“Take it easy on me,” he said. “It’s my first time.”
“Never,” she answered. “Now get.”
McManus smiled, nodded at the sassy remark, and took off toward the building where Ron and the mystery hulk were waiting and in the middle of conversation. Parsons looked very impressed.
“This is Officer Walt Merriweather,” Ron introduced the cop to Tim as Walt crushed McManus’ hand in a viselike hand shake. “Formerly Private First Class Walt Merriweather, UNSC. Purple heart recipient, and apparently wasn’t bright enough for any other job than bashing criminals’ heads in.”
Merriweather laughed appreciatively as he tightened an improvised smoke mask around his mouth. “Do some recruitin’ on thah side nah,” he added, smashing the dorm doors in for entrance and shielding his face from the heat. ” Follah me. Floor three, let’s go!”
The trio ran in a tight group, now suddenly experts on the dangers experienced in structure fires. Merriweather, though resembling an ox, was surprisingly agile, jumping missing steps and shouting instructions to the rookie first responders.
The entire building was pulsing with the heat of outside fires, the licking flames begging to meet the tinder of the dorm. The moaning and creaking of the residential building was growing into a dull roar around the group as they started advancing upstairs two at a time.
“You know anything about architecture, Walt?” Tim yelled from the rear.
“I know wha takes ’em down, if tha’s what yah mean.” Merriweather said, coming to a brief rest at the third floor’s double doors.
“How do we know when we should get out?” McManus asked earnestly as Harding Hall groaned beneath their feet.
“If yah heah popcorn poppin’ and there’s no movie on, tha’s windows smashing and tha’s yah first bad sign. When thah roof caves in, it’s a good time tah make yahselves scahce.” Two floors below them a beam snapped suddenly, a crisp clap that made everyone flinch. “Structrah fiahs,” Walt snorted, “Gimme dah creeps.”
“Let’s not stand on ceremony then,” Parsons said, patting both men on the back then checking the handle of the doors for heat. Satisfied, he put his weight into a sturdy kick that smashed the doors wide open, revealing a sickening sight.
A portion of the fourth floor had buckled and dropped straight down on the far end of the hall, pinning what looked like three students underneath. Only the odd limb stood out from the wreckage, a grisly juxtaposition to the relatively intact dorm room doors that sported cheery, colorful messages, funny pictures of friends, and names written in perfect female penmanship. Walt stalked down the hall checking room numbers as Tim and Ron tried not to stare.
“Was that before or after you were here?”
“Aftah.” Merriweather said simply over his shoulder, indicating he did not want to continue the conversation. “Three-fourteen. Zoey and Maribel.” Merriweather grabbed the handle and jiggled it, but it would not give. He swore aloud, backed up to the other side of the hall, and rammed a shoulder into the door.
The door refused to buckle and the ex-Marine swore again and looked up the down the hallway. Seeing nothing that could help, he motioned McManus over.
“Group effort?” Tim guessed.
“Hell yeah,” Walt nodded, putting a python-like arm around Tim’s comparatively slender shoulders and grabbing him tight. “On three.”
Merriweather counted down and the two ran as hard as they could, giving a rousing shout as they hurled themselves into the solid surface, and yelling with exertion as the frame splintered in and conceded, sending the pair sprawling out into the mangled bedroom.
Parsons was right on their heels, helping Tim up as Merriweather picked splinters out of his side. Ron flicked on a spare flashlight and swept it around the room.
“Zoey?” He called out. “Maribel?” Only the roaring of a fire about to jump into Harding Hall and the anguished sounds of a distant building collapsing answered him. McManus inspected the room quickly, noting one of the puffy pink duvets was stained with streaked blood, leading toward a smashed window. “Shit.” Parsons breathed, motioning frantically for the others as he came to the other side of the bed.
Lying there, gasping in rasping breaths, was a young Harvard freshman. She was staring up at the ceiling and clutching around the stomach of her white t-shirt, which was rapidly becoming red. Merriweather swore again and dropped to his knees, checking the girl’s pulse and breathing.
“Fuck,” he said through grit teeth over his shoulder, then put on a reassuring face and put both hands gently on the girl’s cheeks. “Ok deah, I’m with the Bowston cawps. You’re gonna be fine. Don’t move and try not ta speak. Relahx, relahx. We’re going to stay with yah and get yah out of heah lickety-split. Blink twice if yah can heah me and yah understand.”
Tim was heartened by the two blinks in response, but not by the slight cough and red bubbles that formed in the corners of her mouth. Walt motioned for Ron to watch over the girl and made a quick huddle with McManus.
“Internal bleedin’, probably’s got blood in her lungs. She’s gotta be moved ASAP,” Walt whispered.
“Can you call an ambulance?” McManus whispered back, feeling anxiety and fear creep into his chest. Tim did not feel any better at the police officer’s laugh as Merriweather only pushed him out the door.
“You get me medical supplies right nah so we can move ‘er. If we can make a stretchah, tha’s bettah. Got a radio?” Tim nodded, eyes wide open. Walt slightly slapped Tim on the cheek reassuringly. “Get on the horn and make it happen.”
McManus fumbled with the radio for a second, mashing the transmit button and nearly shouting with the adrenaline flying through his veins. “Rachel, we need any med bags and a stretcher right now.” McManus waited for two seconds, hearing nothing back. “Rachel?” Tim now felt himself being forcibly pushed out of the room and into the hall.
“Signal’s prolly fucked!” Walt chastised the student. “Try it out theah!”
Tim squeezed his hand tight around the radio and tried again, but he could only get out Rachel’s name before he felt the odd sensation of the world shuddering and a loud crack that sounded like thunder ten feet in front of him. He flinched and cowered for a second, watching helplessly as the ceiling in the hallway started to buckle again.
Overwhelming fear rooted Tim to the spot; the student could only passively observe the bulge in the ceiling tiles getting bigger and bigger. He heard his name being screamed by Ron, but it seemed as if it was being said underwater. McManus’ world was moving in agonizingly slow motion, but he could not put together any other thought than, “This is my own goddamn fault.”
Filed under: Minutemen | Tagged: boston, covenant, Halo, halo 2, halo 3, halo fan fiction, Harvard University, Minutemen, rachel lynch, ron parsons, science fiction, the crucible, tim mcmanus, woody tondorf |