MINUTEMEN: THE CRUCIBLE
Chapter Ten: “Happy Landings”
Ron Parsons was about to die. One minute the red-lit troop bay of the Pelican transport was shuddering with the stress of escaping the extraction point, the next it was screaming with stress and twisting with multiple G’s, throwing his stomach into his throat and choking him with fear and dread. One minute red light illuminated the steady faces of his comrades in arms, the next harsh natural sunlight flooded terrified faces as the rear hatch shrieked open and hurtled into open hostile air. Sky and earth became one steady blur until Ron controlled his eyes and stared at the unforgiving ground rushing up to meet them. He tried to listen for instructions, but the howling wind drowned out any other noise.
The Pelican slammed against the side of an apartment building and starting a sickening flat spin, turning the edges of Ron’s vision red and black. Food was starting to force its way back up his throat. The dropship hurtled to the street, spitting the lucky ones out onto the pavement and enveloping the unfortunate in a flaming tomb. Parsons smacked against the rough street and actually skipped along the ground for several feet, feeling each separate impact, feeling the helplessness of becoming a rag doll tossed away by a bored child, feeling the joints twist and bones break until he finally came to a miserable, painful stop.
Ron gasped for air in rasping gulps and looked up groggily, his trained eyes catching two pairs of Jackals walking leisurely toward him, not a care in the world as they leaned down and locked eyes with him. Ron tried to yell out a warning, but found something blocking his airway. As one Jackal put its glowing plasma pistol to his head, Ron’s eyes opened wide and he flailed to get away but it was never enough and the Covenant were too strong and—
The passing maglev train shook the dingy apartment with a firm hand, bolting the young man out of his nightmare. Parsons sat upright, chest heaving, shaggy blond hair hanging just in range of his vision, matted to his scalp. His eyes swept the room as they did every day, searching out phantoms in the morning light. A cheery girl with an upbeat voice informed him that it was nine in the morning, it was a beautiful day in the city of Boston, and he could look forward to a new single from a generic pop group right after this.
“See you there,” Ron breathed, and shut off his alarm.
Coolidge Corner Apartments
City of Boston
October 20, 2552
The lithe Bostonian put both feet on his hardwood floor and padded across the bedroom to the open window. There, he took three deep breaths and banished the fresh dream from his mind once again, focusing instead on the South Boston streets in front of him. It was indeed a beautiful day in the city of Boston, and Ron took in the sights and sounds of a major city getting into the flow of its morning. Tall structures of glass and steel rose into the skies, men and women in form-fitting business suits bustled about the streets, dodging cars that looked more like bullets than anything else. The occasional civilian ‘Hog made its dominance known, and Parsons scoffed at one particular yellow-colored monstrosity.
“Douchebags,” he sighed, and turned toward the bathroom. He did not make it more than halfway there before his home phone rang, a neutral tone that sounded in all three of the rooms that made up his modest apartment. Ron gave it the finger and entered his bathroom.
“Incoming call from…Gunnery Sergeant Peter Parsons.” A robotic female voice stated. The young man grunted and began to brush his teeth. Another lighter tone sounded and a strong, firm voice entered the small apartment.
“Ron, it’s Peter. Pick up, little brother. I know you’re there.” An extended middle finger answered from the bathroom. “Fine,” Peter sighed, “whatever. Mom and Dad wanted me to call again to tell you it’s time you came back to Portland. Everyone understands why you left, but come on, Ron. It’s been three years. Three years and…what? You make sandwiches for spoiled yuppie kids. Do something with your life, do anything—”
Ron spat toothpaste into the sink with venom. “Answer call,” he commanded, and yet another tone beeped. “Don’t tell me how to live my life, Pete,” Parsons said, voice rising testily as he walked toward the sparsely decorated living room.
“Thank God,” Peter said. Ron could almost see his big brother’s eyes roll. “At least you picked up this time.”
“What do you want?”
“Mom and Dad want you back, don’t ask me why. They say they can forgive you, and I want to see you, too.”
“Are you reading off cue cards?”
“Don’t be a dick. We’re the only family you have, Ron. Don’t throw it away.”
Ron now stood in the middle of his living room and pointed angrily with his toothbrush. “You were only too happy to see me go, Pete. Or has your little time of playing soldier made you think that you’ve got some sense of honor or perspective or some shit?”
“You told us to go fuck ourselves as you ran off with that Lisa chick, who, as I recall, left you to join the Marines a year ago.”
Ron angrily swiped a single pair of pants off the back of a cloth couch. “When the phrase, ‘we’ll disown you’ is said with a straight face about ‘that Lisa chick,’ maybe it’s not so unexpected to hear ‘go fuck yourselves’ as a reply.”
The eldest Parsons brother sighed again, this time betraying exasperation. “Just come home, Ron. We need to talk.”
“About what? About the UNSC calling me every day saying you’ve put my name up as ‘Marine candidate?’ You want me to come home so we can sit down and talk about our feelings, or are you just going to get me off the train and throw me into conscription?”
The voice filling the room now turned decidedly hostile. “You listen good, you scared, ungrateful little ass. Mom and Dad want you back, and even though I tried to talk them out of it, they still want to see you. Just because I left home to defend our fucking species doesn’t mean you get to leave with some slut and think it’s acceptable. You don’t want to join the Marines, that’s your choice. Keep living your life in that glorified shoebox while real men save the fucking human race.”
Ron swiped his hair back as the words sunk in. “Hey Pete,” Parsons asked, voice dripping with disdain, “did they ever find your arm out on Harvest?”
“Fuck you, Ron.”
The call cut out suddenly, leaving only the ambient noise of the city streets below. Ron Parsons stood alone, head down in a nearly bare living room. Morning light streamed lazily in from the window and illuminated a cracked picture frame of a happy, smiling couple. For the one hundred and forty-second time, Ron backhanded it angrily into the wall.
“Good talkin’ to you too, big brother.”
“You ok, Ron?” Tim McManus asked over his shoulder.
Parsons nodded, picking up the pace of his walk as the group tried to stay in stride with Captain Jack O’Shea. The professional soldier had taken point as the team of four navigated their way out of the refugee loading area, heading in the direction of the D77H-TCI Pelican that had landed just out of view on the other side of the docks. “Yep,” he said distractedly, keeping an eye out for more airborne surprises. “I’m a peachy ray of sunshine.”
Ahead, O’Shea hesitated for a moment, taking stock of the terrain the team would have to navigate. He looked back at the three kids, then waved for them to follow hurriedly. “Stay low and keep up with me!”
Ron Parsons, Tim McManus, and Rachel Lynch all nodded silently as they hustled to stay with the Captain. Large shipping containers formed narrow steel canyons, dark and foreboding and causing the kids to lose time as they checked every corner for danger. The Captain did not seem to share their concern for safety as he slithered over and around discarded crates and sprinted through open areas in a low crouch.
After hours of already doing this, Ron Parsons’ back was beginning to ache. Somewhere ahead of the squad, they could hear the sound of a busy air pad. Men’s voices echoed off blackened facades, and the diminishing whine of an airship’s engine idling made eerie reverberations along the trail. As the group neared the end of the shipping containers, Jack got on one knee and held up a fist. The group stopped and mimicked the stance. O’Shea beckoned for the trio to come closer to him.
About a hundred feet away from their position, a high chain link fence topped with razor wire separated Boston from what might have been the last working airport in the city. Ron was surprised to see a second Pelican next to the one that had just landed, which was unloading at least a dozen armed Marines. The UNSC soldiers proceeded to secure the area, running into a small pillbox next to the raised landing pad. Once the Marines were clear, the Pelican immediately lifted off and cruised away at a blisteringly fast pace over the harbor. Jack looked at the scene like a child across the playground watching a bully who just stolen his bike.
Parsons tried to focus on the scene, but for the first time all day, he was not able to smell the burning structure fires or freshly dispatched bodies or plasma burns or rubber or gunpowder or sweat. All that filled his senses was the smell of the ocean in the wind, the safe blue sea where he could see anything coming for miles and the cold wet that would refresh his body and mind. For those fleeting moments, Ron lost himself in the fantasy of running off the docks and plunging into the safety of the water like he had done only a while ago in the mass grave that was Harvard University.
The three kids paid rapt attention as Jack pulled out his data pad and began tapping it with his finger.
“Observe the situation, orient yourself with what you have to do, decide what you have to do, and act on it. First to do and continue to do that will always win a firefight. You get me?”
“Huah,” Tim said. Jack looked at McManus strangely.
“What did you say?”
Tim was taken aback slightly, mind racing, wondering if he had heard correctly. “Back in the Warthog,” he explained, trying not to stammer or stutter, “one of the guys said ‘huah’ to answer a question.”
“Not in my Marine Corps, son. It’s ‘oorah’ or shut your trap.” Jack said with a harshness born from years on parade and drilling grounds.
“Sir?” Ron asked with a mixture of confusion and trepidation. “Aren’t ‘your Marines’ the same guys who left you and all of us behind?”
O’Shea looked as if he were about to punch the blonde cafeteria worker, then in a split second became withdrawn and somber, as if he had just heard a heartbreaking song. “You got a point there.” Jack snapped out of his funk and pointed toward the scene.
“Pelican’s already landed and it’ll take some time to get it back in the air. They’re loading equipment right now, maybe civilians we didn’t see, but let’s not give them the benefit of the doubt. We get in there, take that Pelican, and make them load some of our wounded. Do not, I repeat, do not fire your weapon. You impressed me at the barricades, but these jarheads will tear you apart.”
Rachel numbly nodded, not at all comfortable with the images playing in her head. Satisfied, Jack twirled his finger around in a small, tight circle and took off across the open, followed closely by the rest of the team. They mantled over the occasional crate and slipped around small forklifts until they slid into a portion of fence between an abandoned car and a shipping crate. Content that none of the Marines had caught their approach, O’Shea observed the area quickly and caught his breath.
Ron snuck a glance at the patrols and smiled to himself as he tried to anticipate Jack’s plan. “We’re not gonna ring the bell?” He asked slyly.
O’Shea let his urban-camouflaged BR-55 Battle Rifle hang for a moment. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission, I always say.”
Rachel’s eyes now went wide as she fully realized what they were about to do.
“This is trespassing on UNSC grounds in wartime. That’s shoot on sight.”
O’Shea pointed down at the Captain’s bars on his chest to reassure her. “Technically.”
Lynch took a swig from her water bottle with a shaking hand. “That’s all open ground, and even if we make it, how are we going to take control of a Pelican—?”
The Captain took the water bottle from her hand, opaque face shield melting away as he looked her square in the eyes and said in an even voice, “Ready for the second lesson?”
The former Boston College women’s Pyramid Ball player nodded slowly.
“Use your fear.”
O’Shea reached into his vest and took out a tiny cylindrical aerosol can. After shaking it briefly, he began spraying the chain link fence, making a rough rectangle with the ground as the fourth side. As the Captain sprayed the wire, the links began to crackle and crinkle as if a sudden frost had come through. While Jack was working on the fence, Ron noticed Tim taking a second to squeeze Lynch’s arm in support. When she looked back, Tim tapped her jokingly on the back of the head and flashed a quick smile. Ron wondered if that would be enough.
“Here we go,” O’Shea announced with a whisper.
The line of fence that had been sprayed had become a snowy white outline in front of the group, and Jack wrenched open the weakened frozen portions of the barrier, tossing it to the side and creating a small opening for the group to slip through undetected. The trio wriggled through and then followed Jack in a jog across the gray and white painted landing pad. The idling Pelican loomed huge in front of Parsons, its engines still tossing around loose dirt and the odd leaf in lazy floating cartwheels.
Now that the squad had entered the Marines turf, they could feel the panicked rush of men behind enemy lines and short on time. No one was walking anywhere, and any uncertain noise brought eyes immediately to the city and sky while hands went right to holstered side arms, rifles, or heavy weapons. Ron wondered for a moment what they would do if they caught sight of the group sneaking in, and whether he could defend himself in time. Though he felt confident he could, the wiry sniper hoped he would not have to.
Jack, Tim, Ron, and Rachel had now thrown all thoughts of well-being away as they started running into the chaos of the LZ. Boots pushed against pavement and Parsons checked the sky as Captain O’Shea fell into step with four Marines pushing wheeled pallets of servers toward the waiting Pelican. The group slowed its pace so they would not overtake the loaders, affording Tim a moment to visually scan the area. Try as he might, he could not find a single civilian around.
“They really aren’t taking people.” He said to himself.
“What?” Rachel asked over the din.
“They’re not taking anybody!” McManus shouted back, but was instantly instructed to shut up by O’Shea.
“The minute they see us, you put on your best ‘don’t fuck with us’ face, understood?” Jack said pointedly. “They’re not going to listen to ‘please.'”
Within ten feet, the Marine in charge of the loading, a Corporal, became aware of the extra personnel and turned to face the intruders. Despite the stern shouted warning and a palm thrust in their faces, the wide eyes of the young Marine crew chief failed to complete the picture of intimidation.
“Halt immediately! You’re trespassing on UNSC property! Show ID now!”
O’Shea stabbed a finger at his Captain’s bars and nearly shoved the Marine as Jack got in his face, barking out an order and getting too close for comfort.
“Do you know who the fuck I am, boy?” Jack looking menacingly down at the now docile crew chief with his impenetrable silver visage, his voice filtered and amplified to maximize the man’s fear. To leave nothing to chance, the screen across O’Shea’s features digitally fell away, and Jack twisted his face into a snarl. “I’m the goddamn CO of this city and you’re directly interfering with my command! You keep this bird down or you’ll be shoveling shit so long—”
“Belay that order, Corporal!”
Now everyone’s attention turned to the voice coming from the advanced Pelican’s troop bay. From behind two stacked wooden crates, a tall man in head-to-toe dress grays and two gold stripes around the sleeve cuffs emerged and shielded his piercing dark eyes with a hat bearing the standard of the Office of Naval Intelligence. His long gray coat danced around his legs as he leaned out into the fading sunlight and locked eyes with Jack. Ron Parsons was not sure if the man was studying the Captain or sending a message, but the four Orbital Drop Shock Troopers that backed up the ONI spook definitely made the point clear. The coat clad officer gestured across the landing pad at each of the “soldiers” standing before him as the Helljumpers filed out down the loading ramp, weapons drawn and standing guard around their charge.
“I’m not sure if you remember me, sir. So much has happened over the last few days, even I’m getting a bit…well, enough about me. Lieutenant Junior Grade Ricardo, Office of Naval Intelligence. UNSC High Command has hereby placed the city of Boston under ‘evacuated’ status. All Marine action forthwith is to be ceased and operations are now under command of ONI Section Three. You’re dismissed, Corporal. Send your men to the CP and await my orders. My ODSTs will handle op sec.”
The Corporal snapped to attention. “Yes, sir!” The Marine followed his survival instincts and fled the scene as quickly and orderly as possible. Ricardo now lightly hopped down from the transport to join the rest of his bodyguard and cocked his head at O’Shea. “Were the UNSC’s orders to report to the New York City vague in some way, Captain?” He asked with a half smile and a feigned scolding tone.
Jack stared back and did not dare give an inch. Tim, Ron, and Rachel did their best to imitate him. “We swore an oath to protect the human race, Mister Ricardo, and I can best follow that oath here in Boston. I have wounded civilians who need immediate evac and medical attention,” O’Shea said pointedly over the whine of the engines. “You told them to come here, and you’re going to take them with you.”
The Leiuteant Junior Grade slowly removed his hat and shook his head. “That’s simply not going to happen, Captain,” he answered calmly, examining the lining inside the formal cover. “UNSC told the civilians to come here. This is an ONI mission now. What was told to the residents of the evacuated city of Boston is no longer relevant.”
Ricardo tucked the hat under his arm and nodded inquisitively toward Tim and Ron. Ron returned the spook’s look with a cocksure wink and the finger. “And,” the shadowy ONI member continued, “how do you think you’ll serve that oath when you’re conscripting civilians? Captain may sound fancy to them, but we’re both aware you don’t really know how to command so many soldiers. Do these youngsters know that you lost half your company in the first hour, despite me giving you advance knowledge of the invasion?” He chuckled then, a rumble that was both dark and condescending. Ron caught the man in gray looking over Rachel and felt a cold shiver go up his spine.
“But it doesn’t matter how you handle your kids now. All that matters is making sure ONI doesn’t leave intel behind. If you interfere, I will rightfully identify your little samaritan efforts as insurrectionist activity led by a traitor. I will order my troops to engage you, and we know your efforts would be hampered if you had to drag another wounded girl with you. Or maybe you’d leave her behind?” The three kids were sickened to read the smirk playing across Ricardo’s face. O’Shea looked like he was about to explode.
“I will not stand by and let you issue a death sentence for a whole—”
Another man dressed in an ONI Ensign’s uniform ran across the landing pad and crossed behind the Lieutenant Junior Grade, looking worried. He jogged into the troop bay and smartly turned on his heel. “Lieuteant Ricardo!” He shouted, gesturing for the ODSTs to join him, “Overwatch reported contacts.”
If Parsons had not been studying the face of the ranking ONI spook, he would not have caught the flash of disappointment mixed with fear that played across Ricardo’s face. “Chawla hasn’t reported in, Ensign Phillips.”
“Section Three says that’s no longer our concern, sir.” Phillips then disappeared completely into the troop bay, leaving his CO to give his regards.
“That’s my cue,” Ricardo shrugged, taking a step backwards and giving a playful bow before bounding back into the Pelican. “If it makes you feel any better, Jack, I failed my mission, too. They might kill me for it. Well, for your sake, I hope they don’t.” The four ODSTs followed wordlessly behind, keeping their weapons trained on the enraged people in front of them. For a moment McManus wondered if O’Shea would order them to storm the transport, but for the time being the Captain was examining the retreating Lieutenant Junior Grade’s expression.
“What are you talking about?” Jack demanded, taking a step toward the Pelican and the ODSTs weapons. “What does that mean?”
The thrusters answered with a powerful whine, then a throaty roar as the group on the landing pad shielded their faces from the downwash of debris. The dark Pelican eased off the ground, lazily drifting up in the opposite motion of a leaf falling to Earth. The troop bay was still open and Ricardo walked to the edge of the hatch, never taking his eyes off Jack and never dropping his smug smile.
“You tell everyone in the UNSC to stay out of my city, you hear me?” Jack screamed in rage, pointing with fury and vengeance at the ascending gray Pelican. “You ever come back here, I’ll kill you!”
Whether the ONI officer heard Jack or not, Ricardo simply waved back, disappearing as the rear hatch closed.
Tim, Ron, and Rachel looked bewildered, turning around and trying to figure out just what had happened. Ron leaned his head to one side, cracking his neck, then looked to the Captain for guidance. “So what do we do now?” He asked.
O’Shea spat on the ground in disgust. “We figured we’d lose the Pelican anyway, but I’d hoped they’d have half a heart and at least take the worst of the remaining survivors.” Jack gestured toward the ad hoc Marine command post and opened a channel. “We’re going over to talk with the Marines for two seconds. They’re probably more pissed than we are. Master Guns, this is O’Shea. ONI showed up, screwed the Marines. Maybe they’ll—”
Jack’s sentence was cut off by the horrific force of the Marine post exploding from within, knocking everyone on the landing pad over and leaving them scrambling for cover while bits of debris rained into Boston Harbor and fresh flames sprouted from the ruined post. Ron’s head hung and his ears rang as he crawled on his hands and knees for a few feet. Finally, coughing, groaning, and his head swimming, he flipped his body over and sat heavily on the ground. He checked his weapon and slowly stood as he scanned the area around him.
Tim McManus was intact; the brown haired Harvard Junior was a few feet away, shaking dust and debris out of his hair as he supported a woozy Rachel Lynch. Everyone seemed ok, but judging from the grisly smoldering heap the command post had become, any UNSC Marine that had been near it was undoubtedly dead. The COM chirped in everyone’s ear, followed by a very concerned Gus Reynolds.
“What the hell was that?” Reynolds asked, extremely worried. “Cap, answer me!”
Jack coughed and checked his armor for damage before calling back. “We’re here. Uh, the Marine post is gone, Gus. They’re all dead. Looks like a bomb.”
“The ONI spooks from before were here. Ricardo. Phillips, too.”
“Are they dead?”
Jack motioned for the group to head back toward the fence, talking as he moved. “See the Pelican that just lifted? They’re on it. Can’t prove it, but I think Phillips planted the bomb.”
“Gus? Gets worse.”
Tim did his part to spread the hole in the chain link fence for the others to slip through. Ron took off in a quick jog to scout ahead in case more surprises awaited them. “That’s what it sounded like. The spooks left in a hurry. Could’ve been a signal that the bomb was planted, but we can’t take that chance. How’re the loads?”
“I’ve got Alpha’s Hog escorting first truck while we load the other, hopefully we can get it out of here in time. Good news: McHale just called in and said he found another clean truck. His return is imminent.”
Before O’Shea could reply, McManus tapped the Captain hurriedly on the shoulder. “What?” Jack asked, before the answer became clear.
The ONI Pelican was banking hard, too hard, its boosters burning bright orange in the sky and screaming in protest of the strain. A half second later, an unmistakable punch of sound echoed off in the distance and a sleek, gray missile flew in from an unknown position in the city, first flying off away from the airship, then whipping around and hunting the larger, slower target. The drab olive D77H-TCI surprised everyone on the ground by deploying chaff, earning a rare, slack-jawed reaction from O’Shea.
“I’ve never seen a Pelican do that,” he said to no one in particular.
The anti-air projectile took the bait and exploded behind the Pelican in crackling boom that Rachel and the men felt in their teeth. No sooner did the transport right itself than another missile snaked from out of everyone’s vision and veered toward the left side of the dropship. With no surprise countermeasures left, the Pelican banked into a suicidal turn and dropped altitude like its namesake diving into the sea. None of the evasive maneuvers did any good.
The projectile slammed into the ship, exploding one of its engines in a plume of black and orange and causing it to spin wildly between decimated buildings and, belching a trail of oily black smoke, eventually fell out of sight. Through the din of the Covenant’s war, the explosion of the crashed ship could not be heard. Jack could not believe what he had seen. Before he could attempt to put his thoughts into words, Gus came back to him on the COM.
“Did you just see—?”
“Yeah.” Jack replied dumbly.
“ASGM-10s. That was a textbook UNSC anti-air strike, either there’s a turret in my city I don’t know about, or there’s guys running around with UNSC missile pods acing friendlies.”
“What the hell is going on here, Captain?”
Ron Parsons looked up at the scene on the verge of trembling fear. His dream from before seemed even more vivid now, and the sheer reality of what was happening had finally sunk in. What was worse, Parsons did not know which to fear more: the overt alien enemy in his city, or the hidden ones keeping him caged in with them.
Beside the new sniper, O’Shea rubbed the back of his head and looked back up at the scene of the attack.
“I don’t know, Gus.” O’Shea said. “I don’t know.”