MINUTEMEN: THE CRUCIBLE
Chapter 5 – “City Limits”
City of Boston
United North American Protectorate
October 10, 2552
“So I’m railing this chick from behind, right?”
Tim McManus and Rachel Lynch warily looked over their shoulders from the front of a tiny motorboat. Behind the water craft, Harvard University burned. The three survivors had gone through collapsing buildings, the assumed deaths of all their friends, and failed miserably in their mission to save other survivors on the campus.
The path ahead appeared no better.
The rickety craft they were trapped on sputtered and puttered along at an agonizingly slow pace, weaving past partially submerged chunks of high-rise office buildings, floating sections of obliterated trees, and bobbing corpses. Until Ron Parsons had spoken, the group had sat in soppy silence for upwards of fifteen minutes. Tim’s brown eyes narrowed in a look that asked just what Ron was on about.
“We’re going at it for, like, forty minutes. Intense stuff.”
Rachel tilted her perfectly proportioned face in utter disturbed confusion.
Parsons looked at his two companions like they had grown extra heads. “Come on, at the forty minute mark you start to get bored unless you’re changing it up.”
McManus turned his attention to the approaching river bank and the smoking, demolished city of Boston ahead. “I’m not entirely sure why we’re sharing this, Ron.”
Parsons threw his hands up. “You know what? Fine. Let’s just sit here in silence while I putter across the River Styx and we can just stew in our thoughts about Boston being destroyed and our friends being dead and Earth being invaded by the goddamn Covenant…which, if you do the short math, means we’re going to die, by the way.”
The antique gas-powered outboard motor took over the conversation as Ron proceeded to pout in the back of the boat. “Don’t know why I’m driving this friggin’ thing anyway,” he muttered to himself.
“All right,” Lynch sighed, turning her body toward Parsons but staring up at the sky. “So what happened next?”
The blonde-haired, slightly lanky Bostonian brightened. “So I decide I’m going to just go for it and put it in her ass.” Ron ignored the disapproving looks his boorish tale was receiving and kept on. “So she gives me the fish eye, right? She asks, ‘The hell do you think you’re doing?’ I say, ‘I was gonna put it in your ass.’ She gets all high and mighty and says, ‘Well that’s a bit presumptuous,’ and I go, ‘Presumptuous?’ Damn, that’s a big word for a nine-year-old.”
Tim knew that he should not laugh, but it bubbled up from a dark place in his gut and blew out his mouth in a shameful guffaw. He clamped a hand over his mouth and was relieved to see that Rachel had a dirty sense of humor, too. “That’s fucked up, Ron.” McManus chastised.
“Yeah, but it’s a decent pick-up line.”
Tim and Rachel finally gave in, bursting out laughing and nearly doubling over. It felt good to laugh, and to Tim it seemed as if he had not laughed in years. Parsons adjusted course to avoid a submerged car in the shallows and faked a wistful sigh.
As Rachel wiped away a mirthful tear and sniffed for a second, McManus turned around and wagged a finger toward the boat’s pilot, who was wearing a satisfied, wily smile.
“No more jokes,” the Harvard Junior said in a low, angry voice, though the broad grin on his face betrayed him. Ron nodded back.
“Yes, sir,” Parsons mocked Tim. “Not even my best stuff anyway.”
The bottom of the crew team’s pace craft scraped up against the silty bank and ground to a halt. The relatively happy go lucky mood inside the boat fled the scene as the three survivors jumped out. Ron had his M6C Magnum pistol out already, but it probably would have done better in his holster as he slipped and scrambled up the bank to join Lynch and McManus taking cover behind an overturned bench. Tim had his Battle Rifle slung across his chest but was focused on frowning at the late Walt Merriweather’s data pad that he had out and working.
It was hard for Tim to come to grips with the events of less than an hour ago. Officer Merriweather, a veteran of the UNSC, had entrusted him with the powerful military-grade COM system as a dying gift. It was even harder to forget that Walt’s last selfless command, made while he was pinned in a burning building saving Tim’s life, was to escort desperate Harvard survivors to the safety of a Marine escort. Less than an hour ago, Tim and his friends failed Walt Merriweather completely.
That wasn’t fair, McManus told himself for the hundredth time. I’m just a kid. I can hardly take care of myself. I didn’t even know those people. He should have known I couldn’t do it…I should have known I couldn’t do it. Jesus. Oh God…
A firm hand gripping the top of Tim’s head brought him out of himself and he became aware that he wasn’t breathing and his face was turning a bright red. Rachel and Ron were looking at him with trepidation, Ron’s hand still on Tim’s head and twisting it so he faced them.
“What’s your malfunction, smart kid?” Parsons asked.
McManus took a breath. “Nothing,” he said, more to himself than anyone else. “Nothing’s wrong.”
Neither of the two looked convinced, but they chose to ignore it. “So what’s the story?” Ron questioned.
McManus shook his head. “There’s a whole lot of red between us and the evacuation zone, I assume that’s Covenant. Everywhere else that’s clear to travel looks treacherous at best. So many buildings went down this thing’s having a hard time seeing through the smoke.”
Lynch was on the other side the Harvard student, looking over his shoulder. “So many buildings,” she whispered in a hushed, awed voice.
McManus peered over the fallen bench into the war zone. “It looks kinda better on the edges of Boston. What’s your address?” He poked at his taller, blonde companion. Before Ron could answer, Lynch pushed Tim’s data pad down and tried to shove them down with her good arm. Both men glared at their female accomplice.
“What are you—” Tim tried to say, before the surprisingly powerful Boston College student clamped a hand over his mouth. McManus now noticed Parsons was pressed against the dirt, eyes wide, mouth agape. As Tim hugged the ground with them, he saw through the wooden slats of the outdoor furniture what had thrown his friends into a panic.
They were short, almost comically squat, and waddled like babies, babies with hooves and methane rebreather tanks. Tim almost squeaked in surprise, but found that Rachel’s hand was still clamped hard on his mouth.
It smelled like sweat and the last gasps of an expensive perfume, but McManus did not have time to let his mind wander. Five Grunts were clopping past them, and despite their size they were the scariest things Tim had seen in his life.
Each of the kids stared in absolute awe, their first encounter with the genocidal aliens that had burned their planets one by one. McManus could not believe that these things were the one of the races that were winning battles hand over fist. They clutched weapons in their hands that looked like purple and black remote controls linked in their middle, ending in two glowing green tips that stood out like highlighters under black lights. They jabbered back in forth in a language Tim did not understand, and for a few terrifying seconds that felt like hours, they stood around not ten feet from the petrified humans.
McManus looked over and noticed Parsons ever so slowly bringing his pistol to his side, preparing to fire if he had to. Tim cursed himself for having dropped to the ground so clumsily, pinning his Battle Rifle between his chest and the ground. He did not dare move to adjust it.
He wondered if that was the last mistake he would ever make in his life for another few seconds until the Grunts trooped off, satisfied that nothing was amiss on the banks of the Charles River. As they turned their backs to the water completely, the group gave a collective, relieved exhale. Parsons rolled over on his back and stared at the autumn sky for a second.
“We don’t need to go to my place,” he said. “I just need to get out of this city. There’s nothing for me back home.”
“Don’t you have a gun at your place?” McManus whispered, still afraid to talk at normal volumes. Parsons looked at Tim as if he had spoken in Chinese.
“Covenant are here,” Ron hissed, “on the ground. I’ve got a gun now. We need to get the fuck out of here.”
“They’re gone,” Rachel said, keeping an eye on the scouts’ progress. “We should move.”
They each rose slowly from their prone positions, never wanting to pry their eyes away from the direction their enemy had gone. McManus willed the Grunts to continue on their patrol as the three kids hustled, low and fast, among the spotted trees until they came to the edge of a six-lane highway known as Soldier’s Field Road. Tim scrutinized the intact roofs across the wide space of the road and grunted.
“What?” Ron asked, arriving last and watching the group’s back.
“If they’re on the ground,” Tim explained, taking a knee behind the guardrail, pointing at the ground and then gesturing towards the city, “then they could also have guys on the roofs, snipers and stuff.”
McManus was now scanning the rooftops with the help of his rifle’s scope. “So we’ve gotta cross that road and there’s not a lot of cars! We’re in the open, like, forever!”
Ron heaved his shoulders up in a sigh, sliding his pistol into the black thigh holster and securing it tightly. As he adjusted the straps on his backpack, Tim now started looking at Parsons more carefully.
“What?” Tim questioned him, “What are you thinking?”
The tall blonde cafeteria worker tightened the laces of his shoes, turned himself around so he was facing the city, bent down until he nearly touched the ground, and launched himself over the guardrail of the highway. He landed nimbly and took off in a dead sprint for the other side of the road, weaving around cars and vaulting hoods when he had to, and finished up his no-cover run by jumping on the trunk of a small, abandoned sports car and used it to clear the adjacent guardrail to safety. Tim and Rachel’s stared in surprise as they peeked over cover, then Lynch’s eyes narrowed in consternation.
“I think he did that last part to show off.”
“He’s gonna get himself killed or worse.” Tim spat. “But I didn’t see anything on the roof so I guess it’s clear. Let’s stay low and get this over with.”
Ninety seconds later they caught up with Parsons, who was lounging with his back against the guardrail, nibbling on the remnants of his beef jerky. Ron looked up at Tim’s annoyed expression and offered some of the dried meat. Tim slapped the hand away.
“The fuck is wrong with you?” McManus demanded.
“We had to cross the street,” Parsons offered. “I crossed the street.”
“You get shot and we don’t—we can’t—help you get out of here, Ron.”
“Never asked you to.”
“Are you joking right now?”
“Hey, you came to me, smart kid.”
“Will you two just shut up?” Lynch halted the brewing argument, kicking dirt at them and bringing the group’s attention to her. “Ron, have some patience. Tim, stop trying to put all this on yourself. Can we get the hell out of here now?”
The familiar, comforting blue light of the data pad glowed in McManus’ face as he switched it on again. Tim pointed straight ahead down a street towards a major intersection littered with waves of paper debris and overturned cars. “We go to that intersection and head northeast,” he said. “We stick to alleys and make sure we can hide quickly.”
“Any other way than that?” Parsons asked, still munching thoughtfully on his snack and sitting on the ground. Tim accepted a bottle of water from Rachel and looked back.
“Why?” He asked, irritated.
Parsons stood up slowly, fatigue creeping into his muscles like doubt. “Because,” he pointed out, “Right before you guys crossed the street a whole bunch o’ folks tossed themselves off the roof of that apartment building onto the intersection and I imagine it’s gross.” Off his partners’ disgusted expressions, Ron shrugged. “You asked,” he said simply, following behind as they detoured toward a nearby alleyway.
As the trio entered Boston city limits, Tim became aware of yet another enemy: the city itself. The Covenant had taken the place that he had called home and had turned it against him. Streets or alleys that would have given him safe passage were blocked. Houses and buildings that could be used for shelter were in danger of collapsing around them or risked being consumed by nearby blazes. The crumbling husks of structures meant that the threesome was not only watching their front and back, but also above and below.
As another pile of bricks fell from seven stories up and landed ten feet in front of him, McManus became more and more angry at the thought that his city was more likely to kill him than the aliens that destroyed it.
The echoing growl coming from the main street ahead of him immediately wiped that thought away.
“Hide!” Tim whispered frantically, pushing and shoving his friends into a small alcove that served as a restaurant’s loading dock. Rachel and Ron were about to protest before they heard it again, a series of barked growls, short aggressive roars, and the occasional “wort.” McManus dared to sneak another peek around the wall and down the alley, but the sight he saw caused him to lose his breath and duck back to his fellow survivors.
“Are they the big ones?” she whispered, petrified. “Are there Elites out there?”
McManus nodded, eyes wide but with a resigned expression. Ron swore and ran to the doors leading into the restaurant but found them locked. There was no advancing, no retreat. On either side, brick structures towered over them with no chance of climbing out. They were truly trapped, and the sounds of the Covenant were getting louder and clearer. Tim suddenly realized Rachel was grabbing his arm, and her hand was shaking.
“We’re going to die,” Lynch breathed, her eyes misting. “I don’t want to die.”
The unwilling leader of the survivors snuck one more quick look around the corner. Tim had seen videos of Elites in news broadcasts, but they had always been piles of corpses from very far away and never lasted for more than a few seconds. Never had they put the hostile alien species up in a comparison of humans, and McManus had been hard pressed to find even an illegal pirated video of real battlefield footage. Therefore he, and the rest of his ragtag group of survivors, had never seen backbone of the Covenant military as they really were.
The videos did not do them justice.
They were massive. They were twice as tall as Tim and broad as an ox; their hooves alone were as big as McManus’ head and their armor, when it was not streaked with human blood, gleamed along smooth curves and glinted off sharp edges. The Grunts had scared Tim, but these behemoths petrified him with fear, and they were heading straight for his hiding spot.
Filed under: Minutemen | Tagged: boston, boston college, chapter 5, elites, grunts, Halo, halo 2, halo 3, harvard, Minutemen, rachel lynch, ron parsons, sangheilli, science fiction, the crucible, tim mcmanus, unggoy, woody tondorf |