MINUTEMEN: THE CRUCIBLE
Chapter Eleven: “End of the road.”
Evacuated City of Boston
The scene at the warehouse was now the embodiment of chaos. While everyone at the scene had witnessed their fair share of violence and destruction over the course of the day, the Pelican being shot out of the air in full view of the civilians was the equivalent of a match being thrown on a long trail of gasoline. Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds and the rest of the soldiers were doing their best to get everyone out before the wharves went up in flames.
Captain Jack O’Shea, Tim McManus, Ron Parsons, and Rachel Lynch jogged back into the tumultuous loading area only a minute after the airship went down, but they hardly recognized the scene now.
What had once been orderly lines of shuffling wounded refugees was now a wobbling, pulsing, bending and breaking mass of desperate people clawing for a chance to board the last available truck, a salty cargo vehicle that, while quite large, did not stand a chance of fitting everyone. The soldiers on hand were on the verge of losing control of the horde and looked like they were considering using their weapons to maintain order. The Captain craned his head and searched the crowd for his second in command, and upon finding the Master Guns directing a pair of soldiers back into action, picked up the pace and ran the rest of the distance to the tall, dark-skinned leader.
“Captain!” Reynolds shouted over the growing noise, “COMs were a mess after that Pelican got—well, truck two’s safely away, we’re loading up Mr. McHale’s commandeered vehicle and throwing the rest on truck one’s return.”
Jack turned around and jumped on the back of Adam McHale’s commandeered mail vehicle, which was sitting lower and lower to the ground with the sheer weight of the refugees. O’Shea frowned. “We’re going to need an escort Warthog right the hell now. Where’s the doctor?” O’Shea began snapping his fingers, trying to recall something. “What was her name again?
Gus glanced down at his data pad. “Kathleen. Dr. Kathleen De Vere.”
“Dr. De Vere. Where is she?”
“Truck two. Said she wanted to get to camp ASAP to take care of the worst. Didn’t see any harm.”
Jack grunted, taking the pad from Reynolds’ hand. “I would have felt better keeping her in sight.”
“She wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer, sir, and I wasn’t about to restrain her in front of all these folks.”
“For a smart woman, she wasn’t exactly thinking about the mess she left behind.” The Captain shook his head in brief exasperation, scanning the crowd again. “All right,” he yelled to huddled masses, “we’re locking down this transport and loading the remainder in the returning truck, warthogs, wherever we can fit people! It’s a short ride, so sit tight!”
Rachel groaned, doing a mental headcount of the remaining soldiers and civilians. “It’s going to be a hot meat locker in that last truck,” she said, tilting her head toward Tim, “I think I’d rather walk.”
“We might have to,” McManus replied, checking his watch. “No way we fit all these people. But if push comes to shove,” he said, patting Ron on the arm, “We’ve slipped by Covenant already, we can do it again.”
“And please don’t diss meat lockers,” Parsons interjected, still looking up at the sky where the Pelican had been shot down. “At this point, I kinda miss my pride-swallowing, soul-sucking sandwich gig.”
“So you’re cool getting packed into a container?” Lynch turned toward Ron, tilting her head at the people crowding into the truck. The lithe amateur sniper shook his head, finally taking his eyes off the sky.
“It beats flying, apparently,” Parsons took a step back as the truck fired up its engine and began rolling away from the docks.
“Step back!” Jack O’Shea yelled, making sure no one could be hurt in the departure. “Step back right now! The next transport will be here soon!”
As the crusty white transport pulled away, each of the kids tried to figure out if the departure was a sign of their salvation or the signal for the next big test to begin. Tim could not help but look over his shoulder to make sure that nothing was happening over the water. As hard as he tried to think positively, he just could not shake the feeling that something bad was about to happen.
“McHale,” O’Shea’s voice sounded over the COM, “this is O’Shea. We can’t risk any scouts right now, I need you to report once you lose visual on us.”
“McHale copies. I’ll sitrep you, standby.”
As the third truck crested the hill, Adam McHale responded back in an alerted tone. “I see a truck on approach. One of ours but he’s not answering my signal. Coming in fast!”
Everyone on the COM jerked upright and looked toward the road where they had just lost sight of the truck. It was unnerving to hear what was going on close by but not be able to see it. Ron even went so far as to hop up and down, craning his neck, trying to catch a glimpse of anything playing out over the hill.
McManus could feel his jaw starting to clench as the throaty growl of McHale’s truck accelerating was joined by the snarl of another large engine, distant but definitely approaching at speed. Though they were a fair distance away from the hill and near the end of the wharf, the kids started taking wary steps backward until they joined the bulk of the soldiers. Jack put up a hand to keep everyone in their place as he replied on the channel, “McHale, Cap. Do you see any Covenant?”
“Don’t see any, sir. Guess he’s just in a hurry to get to you.”
The tension in the immediate group lessened considerably. Even Jack’s shoulders became a little less bunched together. “Give him as much space as you can, McHale,” the Captain said with as much comfort as possible, “once we get eyes on the incoming truck, it’s my hauler, acknowledge.”
“McHale copies, sir,” Adam said in a clipped, professional tone, “your hauler, aye.”
O’Shea nodded and motioned for the men standing by to reorganize the civilians. “Get the line back together!” He shouted, for both instruction and morale, “we’re all getting out if we keep this orderly!”
Tim felt genuine relief for the first time in hours. It had been miles of hiking, untold loss of life, and enough traumas to last a person for decades, but through it all he had led two new dear friends through hell and back. Finally, after so much risk, they would get out of this certain deathtrap—
“Cap, McHale! All hands be advised, I see weapons fire coming from the truck and it’s starting to swerve!”
Jack grabbed his throat to make sure his message would be sent clearly. “Truck on approach, this is the Captain. Ident and report status.”
The squelch of the truck channel responding, coupled with the background noise of the overworked engine, made everyone on the COM grab their ears in a moment of discomfort.
“This is Hakata,” the anxious person stammered, “we got hit en route. Heavy Covenant pursuit, they’re all over me!”
The COM chirped as Adam McHale immediately jumped on the feed. “Cap, McHale. No hostiles anywhere. Say again, no Covies in sight.”
Jack looked at Master Gunnery Sergeant Reynolds with confusion, only to see Gus with a hand on his head with a concerned, worried look on his face.
“Gus?” O’Shea asked expectantly. Jack’s second in command turned his head to face his Captain, putting pieces of an alarming puzzle together.
“Hakata was just off the shuttle from Mars, no one sleeps on those crates,” Gus said, more to himself than anyone around. “He’s been up for more than forty-eight hours and fighting hard for most of the day…” Reynolds trailed off for a second before finally saying what everyone feared.
“He’s snapped. Christ, Jack, Hak’s lost it.”
Captain O’Shea tried to mask his own alarm, changing his tone on the COM to try and reassure the cracked driver. “Hakata, McHale’s there to back you up. Reduce speed and let McHale get it done.”
Over the hill, an echoing scream of rubber on cement chilled everyone on the dock to bone as Adam yelled back on the COM, “Jesus! Fucker almost clipped me! My truck’s ok. We’re all right.”
Whatever tiny shred of relief McHale’s words gave, Hakata’s transmission disintegrated. “Gotta punch it! Gonna try an lose ’em over this hill!”
“No!” Jack shouted, uncharacteristically losing control for a moment. “You don’t have enough room to brake!”
Only then did the crowd see the approaching vehicle, tearing over pavement at such a speed that it even made the Master Guns gasp. From the moment the hill crested, the front wheels of the massive vehicle were off the ground. Before O’Shea could issue another order, the COM shrieked open:
“Truck one, comin’ in hot!”
The truck flew up on two wheels at a severe high speed, keeping the trajectory of the vehicle in line with the side of an industrial crane. Hakata panicked in mid air, twisting his arms and turning at exactly the wrong moment to land. The moment the transport hit the ground it was swerving on to one side, only to be jerked in the opposite direction by desperate strength.
Pale gray smoke swirled out from the shredding heavy-duty tires, mixing with the squeal of the brakes locking and chassis flexing dangerously. The momentum of the swerving only served to transfer the weight from one extreme angle to another, until the large vehicle yielded to gravity and completely tipped over on its side, still traveling at high speed.
Just as the collapsing ceiling in the Harvard dorm paralyzed him before, time once again slowed to a laborious crawl for McManus as he watched the scene with horror. Screams and warnings shouted became distorted as if yelled underwater. Tim could feel the concrete and steel trembling under his boots as the truck skidded on its side, throwing up sparks and sliding roof first toward the crowd.
A wall of scratched and spotted steel bore down on the terrified college student. Despite his brain screaming for action, he stood rooted to the spot once more, unable to resist the cold, fatal knockout punch that he seemed destined for. Tim had simply cheated death too many times today to escape the consequences of his last good deed. His mouth hung open, eyes wide, seeing every spot that a pigeon or seagull had relieved itself on. Tim wondered if his last thought was really going to be amazement at how many white spots of bird crap were on the roof of the dirty death truck.
The choice was not left up to Tim McManus.
Once again, Tim felt the air rush past his face, but instead of being tackled backwards by a heroic Boston cop, he felt the jerk of someone gripping either side of his combat vest and wrenching him sideways toward safety. The Harvard Junior was so transfixed on the screeching, wailing, sparking wall of metal sliding toward him that he never even thought to look over his shoulder to see who was dragging him away. It was only with a foot to go that Tim realized the mortal danger he was in. McManus found himself with just a little more muscle control, and that control went directly toward screaming in terror.
Just before the air could leave his lungs, Ron Parsons, the man throwing Tim to safety, did his best to shove his friend even farther out of the way. The new sharpshooters were clipped at their feet, by the hood of the cab swinging them like a bat into the front grill, both of them bouncing off in cries of pain. The crowd behind them was not nearly as lucky.
Though the very last batch of survivors were the most able-bodied, they were still immensely fatigued, hurt badly, and had been subjected to inactivity for hours. Once their tired minds were able to process that the truck was still coming at them, they did everything they could to scramble out of the way. A few on either side of the gathering stood a slight chance, the rest were struck with vicious force from the overturned civilian transport. The ruined truck wiped out the remaining survivors, either crushing them from the initial force, from unprotected skulls shattered on the pavement, or being dragged over rough concrete for dozens of feet.
As the world began to fade to throbbing black, McManus could make out an anguished screech of steel on concrete, an inanimate cry of panic and pain before groaning in defeat. A heavy splash followed after a split second of silence and everything finally went dark and quiet. As the college student slipped into unconsciousness, he ceased caring about grinding out survival in a city that was very obviously, stubbornly doomed.
What’s the point? He thought as his limbs relaxed and his head finally settled on the dirty dock. Why fight it? His last thought as the lights went out was hazy, the best he could guess was that it had something to do with Rachel, but before he could clarify it, his eyes shut and blackness was all he knew.
When he woke up, Tim McManus was exactly where he did not want to be.
His vision wavered between hazy, wavy, color, and black and white, but what he could not see from his worm’s eye view, he could gather from the sounds of men shouting to each other. Through the fading moans behind him, Captain O’Shea’s voice rang clear.
“Yeah, I’m here! Anyone got eyes on hostiles?”
Tim’s vision was swimming and pain was shooting up his legs in searing electric currents. Even if he could see back where the ill-fated truck had come from, McManus could not find the strength to speak. The blurry shape that Tim assumed was O’Shea was moving quickly across his field of vision.
“I saw two of ours in the cab, Master Guns! Secure the transport and get me a headcount on survivors!”
A big gray splotch covered up the light in front of Tim. The just conscripted soldier recognized the voice as the Master Gunnery Sergeant.
“Kids look hurt, Cap!”
“They’ll keep! I need you here!”
McManus got up, facing away from the water, stumbling to his right, trying to keep his balance. Between the pain in his body and the sheer strain of the day, his legs gave out and he tumbled heavily to the street, joined soon by Ron Parsons.
“If,” Ron gasped, struggling with wobbly arms to prop himself up, “I don’t somehow, someway get laid for this, I’m going to be pissed.” The two new friends shared a weary look and Parsons offered a hand to support his comrade. Tim reached to accept it, but instead found both his and Ron’s arm grabbed by a strong, determined hand with chipped fingernail polish.
Rachel Lynch grunted, face dirty and loose locks of red hair defiantly dropping out of her jeep cap. “Come. On!” She implored, getting them to their feet and supporting them for a few steps. “Don’t you watch the news? The girl can’t be the only new kid, there’s, like, hazing and stuff.”
The trio finally regrouped with the rest of the urban-camouflaged warriors who were gathered at the edge of the dock, lying on the ground and reaching down toward the harbor. The kids were amazed to find the Captain already in the water, frantically trying to get inside the cab of the truck, which was partially submerged on its side and rapidly filling with water. Finally O’Shea wrenched the passenger side door open and started calling out names. After shouting inside the cab for only a second, O’Shea abruptly shut up and started slamming a fist against the side of the truck in rage. Jack looked up at his second in command after venting his frustration.
“Two bodies, both KIA!” He shouted, swimming toward a few bobbing refugee bodies. “Hakata and Register. We’ve got to get these survivors! I need some help down here!” When no one immediately responded or jumped in after him, O’Shea looked back angrily.
“Do I stutter, Master Gu—”
Gus’ impenetrable demeanor cracked for a moment as he threw up his arms in anger. “For Christ’s sake! They’re dead, Jack! They’re all dead!”
O’Shea splashed in a quick circle, noticing the swirling tide of red and the bobbing bodies meanly tossed over by the truck. Tim turned slowly, trying not to press his body too much. The truck’s path to the sea was marked by deep gouges and grooves, streaks of red, brown, and shredded rubber and metal defaced the surface of the dock. On either side of the destructive path, a handful of civilian bodies lay still; a violent end that none of them deserved. A few soldiers were checking them, but only had to look for a moment to be assured that there were no civilian survivors left. Once again, Tim felt the crushing weight of inability, the detachment of sitting on the sidelines while his team suffered loss after loss. He was back at Harvard Yard, looking blankly in stupefied horror at a massacre. He shut his green eyes tight and opened them again, trying to mentally reboot himself to deal with yet another disappointment, but only felt numb. He could not decide if that was a good thing.
At the edge of the dock, Jack O’Shea had finally given in and climbed back up to rejoin his men. The kids moved over to help as quickly as they could, supporting the tired commander until he shrugged them off. The Captain looked around the scene hopefully, trying to catch at least one survivor in the entire mess, but it only compounded the defeat they all felt when O’Shea finally turned around, looked at his second and command and simply said, “All of them.”
“All of them,” Gus confirmed.
“Shit.” A stiff breeze blew through the impromptu huddle as Jack shivered slightly and ruminated on what to do. “We can’t take the time to get Hak and Register out. Where do we stand with the rest of transport?”
“There’s a troop Warthog and a M41 ‘Hog inbound. Should be here in two mikes.”
Jack nodded and looked toward the warehouse that had housed the refugees. “All right. Take two scouts and post them over that hill so we don’t get surprised like that again. Everyone else takes cover in the warehouse ’til the Warthogs arrive.” Everyone, including the kids, began to move out until Jack called the trio of friends over. They approached cautiously at first, then fell into step with O’Shea as they walked toward the warehouse. The Captain did a brief visual examination of the youngest soldiers in his tiny army, then looked back toward the city.
“Telling the Master Guns to leave you back there…don’t take it personally.”
“Yes, sir,” they all replied softly.
Jack sighed. “Are you all ok? I know seeing something like this can—”
“When this whole thing started,” Ron interrupted, looking down as he walked, “a bunch of people followed us from Harvard, they made us feel like we had to protect them.” Parsons kicked a piece of tire out of his way. “We didn’t do so good with that.”
The COM chirped and the kids all instinctively put a hand to their ears. Jack, who had shucked his gear before jumping after the truck, stopped and waited to be updated.
“‘Hogs are here,” Tim informed him, and just as he said so, two Warthogs leaped into view, fishtailing to a perfect stop right in front of the warehouse. The remaining guerilla warriors came out of the structure and secured the area. Jack and the kids ran to the scene, stopping briefly by O’Shea’s equipment. The Captain tossed his gear into the passenger seat of the larger troop Warthog, fished a dirty towel out from the front of the vehicle, and then walked to the back where Tim, Ron, and Rachel were securing their effects and preparing for departure. They stopped what they were doing as soon as they saw the imposing Captain approach, wiping his face distractedly with the small towel. O’Shea looked tired, concerned, and a little bit guilty.
“I want you to know that I’m sorry for all this,” Jack said, trying meet all their eyes at once, “but I didn’t know another way to keep you safe. You have some skills, but you don’t have any training, and it’s unfair and irresponsible of me to expect you to do all the things we’re doing.”
“Speaking for all of us,” Ron said, leaning over the roll bar and resting his chin on his hands, “we’ve been playing fireman, doctor, and soldier all day. We’ll do what you need us to do, but you can’t put us in charge of civilians.”
“Losing all those people at Harvard was our fault,” Rachel Lynch added, nodding, “and we shouldn’t have that responsibility again until we’re ready.”
Before Jack could reply, he became aware of Gus Reynolds’ broad figure behind him, standing at attention but obviously there to have an audience with the CO. Drying off the last wet patch of hair behind his ear, O’Shea nodded at his XO. “What’s up?”
Reynolds passed Jack his throat mic and earpiece. “Just got a call from truck two for you.”
Reynolds nodded in affirmation.
“It’s about damn time.” O’Shea said as he fastened the device around his neck. “Did he say what about?”
“He’s holding for you.”
“Thanks,” the well-built Captain said, putting a hand to his ear and signaling for the kids to give him a minute. “Ibanez, O’Shea. Go ahead.”
“You should have let them go.”
Jack and Gus both looked at each other, thoroughly confused at the female voice on the COM. Even though they had only met for the first time an hour ago, they both recognized the smooth, educated, strong tone of Kathleen De Vere.
“Dr. De Vere?” O’Shea started, trying to figure out what was going on, “what are you talking about? Where’s Ibanez?”
“I’m holding your men and the refugees for myself.”
“Excuse me?” Jack demanded, anger seeming into his voice.
“Things were moving so fast back at the warehouse,” Kathleen continued, “we didn’t have enough time for formal introductions. My full title is Dr. Kathleen De Vere, Office of Naval Intelligence. You and your men shot down my colleagues.”
“No.” Captain O’Shea said forcibly, jabbing a finger at ground as if she was right in front of him. “That wasn’t us.”
“Regardless, my function was a safeguard for agents Ricardo and Phillips, and in the event of an attack on them, these were my orders. Consider this a small price to pay for betraying the UNSC.”
Jack and Gus started moving for the front of the troop Warthog, waving for the rest of the soldiers to follow. “What did you do?” O’Shea demanded.
“I’ve left your men and the refugees with some leftover contacts. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Winter Hill gang?”
“You left civilians with gangsters?”
“In exchange for safe passage out of this city, yes. They can get more use out of a labor force than I. The refugees have been quite docile and none have been harmed. Your men, however, have been…less than helpful. I’m not sure they have much utility in this new world Winter Hill’s planned.”
Jack looked up at a gesture from the Master Guns, pointing at his eyes then down at his palm. The Captain looked down at his data pad, which was showing a wireframe map of the city with a blinking green dot and the words “COM traced,” right above it. O’Shea nodded gravely in acknowledgement.
“If you or any of those two-bit thugs touch my soldiers, I swear you’ll wish the Covenant found you first. I’m coming to have some words with you and your friends, De Vere.”
“Even if you reach them in time, Jack, I think you’ll find I’m quite difficult to get a hold of.”
“I don’t give a damn what you think,” O’Shea growled through grit teeth, pointing around for the soldiers to mount up. “I’m getting my men.”