MINUTEMEN: THE CRUCIBLE
Chapter Fourteen: “Wind Sprints and Suicides”
Black Rose Bar
Evacuated City of Boston
October 20, 2552
This isn’t fair.
Tim McManus shifted his gaze down in reply to Rachel Lynch, who was staring at him with teary green eyes that still stubbornly sparkled in their last moments. The roaring rush of wind combined with the bucking, shuddering chassis of the Warthog disoriented him, but he fought against his churning guts and forced himself to look as brave as possible for his last friend.
They had marched across an obliterated and forgotten city. They had watched strangers and friends die. They had fought and survived firefights with no military training against superior hostile alien forces. They had faced paralyzing fears and crippling conditions, and they had walked away alive from every single encounter.
It was not good enough.
The Harvard Junior was once again lost for words and he hated himself for it. The last thing he could conjure from his racing mind was two words that he doubted she could hear over the deafening, high-pitched shriek of the incoming plasma mortar.
30 minutes earlier
“How effed up is it that, all things considered, our current predicament is not the worst scrape we’ve been in today?” Ron Parsons sighed, nodding out toward the boarded up windows and the haunting howl of the approaching enemy dropship. Rachel Lynch finished gingerly reattaching the last of Parsons’ armor while Tim checked Ron’s suppressed submachine gun, handing it over after a satisfied Lynch took a step back.
“I need an honest, no shit evaluation from you,” Captain Jack O’Shea said, crossing the bloodstained and battered bar to stand a little too close to Ron Parsons. The well-built Marine took off helmet and scratched his salt-and pepper chin as he inspected the prominent entry wound in Ron’s armor. “Can you run?”
Ron looked back at O’Shea as if he had asked an embarrassingly simple math question. “Yeah,” Parsons replied, eyebrows raised. “My legs are fine.”
“I’m not talking about your legs,” Jack clarified, his tone sharpening as he slipped the helmet on and activated the face-obscuring, silvery reflective shield. “You’ve been shot in the chest. I need to know if your lungs can handle sprinting.”
Ron tried to throw his shoulders back confidently but only succeeded in wincing badly as his bruised and battered lungs expanded and caused a blossoming of anguish in his chest. “I’m not staying here,” Parsons countered in a rasping voice, “this bar sucks.”
Before Jack could press his point, Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds put a hand on his CO’s shoulder. “Let’s get him in one of the Warthogs, then.”
“Oh hell no,” Ron said, shrugging off Tim McManus and Rachel Lynch’s supportive arms around him and shaking his head vehemently, “I’m not riding in a Warthog with doctor Trojan horse over there.”
O’Shea looked over at the dead body of Dr. Kathleen De Vere, the woman who had revealed herself to be an agent of the Office of Naval Intelligence and trapped O’Shea’s men in the bar. Jack’s dark brown eyes narrowed in a peeved expression as he regarded the corpse laying unceremoniously on a corner table. An attending Specialist monitored a ruggedized data pad as he stood over the body, which had started broadcasting a Covenant officer distress call since the moment the doctor’s vitals flat lined. Though Jack and his men had not been responsible for De Vere’s demise, she had damned them all the same.
“We’re not moving the body,” Jack growled. “As long as the Covenant think her signal’s legit we can use her to sneak away. Then they can have her.”
“Fair enough,” Ron replied, doing his best at a hampered shrug and glancing left and right at Tim and Rachel, “But I’m not gonna break the band up.”
“Ron,” Tim started, but was immediately cut off by a swiftly raised palm.
“Shut up.” Ron interrupted, peeved. “It get it; it’s nice, but shut up. The Ron Parsons pity party is now cancelled and I’m kicking you all out of the bar.”
“Technically it’s my bar,” Rachel Lynch breathed out the side of her mouth, grateful to catch subtle chuckles from Tim and Ron.
“Sir!” A soldier called from the front of the Black Rose. The focus shifted from the impromptu barside conference to the bigger problem of the hostile alien ships approaching outside. “Phantom’s slowing to deploy. Looks like they’re gonna park a Wraith tank ‘cross the street by the intersection.”
“That Wraith’s danger close—too close—for taking out the bar.” Gus noted with a brightening voice as he peered through a crack in the boarded up windows. He looked back at Jack with a murderous gleam in his eye. “They don’t know we’re here. If we can get the drop on ‘em, bet we can kill the gunner and move inside its blind spot.”
The Captain shook his head. “Forget the Wraith. If the Wraith’s that close the Phantom’s gonna stay on station and they’ll smoke us before we got halfway across the street. No,” Jack said through a clenching jaw as he slowly brought his hand up to his throat, “we’re going to need a diversion to pull the Phantom off before we even think about leaving this bar.”
Reynolds turned around and sat with his back against the front wall. “What kind of decoy you thinkin’?”
“We have to pull the security detail off the last refugee truck.”
Tim, Ron, and Rachel shared apprehensive looks. Not only was the situation looking worse every second, their commander was about to take away the one piece of protection the last Bostonians had. They could not help but stare at the bowed head of O’Shea as he made the call and the completely neutral faces of the soldiers behind him. McManus had to remind himself to stop pressing against his earpiece so hard.
“Delta, this is the Captain.”
“Captain O’Shea, this is Delta actual. Send traffic.”
“Patch me through to the refugee escort Warthog.” Jack waited for a brief moment before the COM gave a friendly beep.
“This is Delta Two,” the voice crackled over the filtered rush of wind. McManus guessed the man behind the voice was maybe thirty years old. “Go ahead, sir.”
“Need a sitrep on the refugee truck,” O’Shea instructed flatly, motioning for the troops stationed at the entrance to crouch lower to the poorly constructed boards by the front entrance. The Phantom’s bone white searchlight sweeping over the front of the bar gave them even more incentive to stay as out of sight as possible.
“Route scans all clear from here to station, we were just about to hand control over to Conductor at South Station refugee camp. Truck’s gonna make it,” the soldier replied confidently, taking a brief breath before his tone changed noticeably. “Sir, we saw the Phantom towing a Wraith inbound on your location and we have not seen it leave. How copy?”
“The Phantom’s just deployed the Wraith and it’s staying on station, Delta Two,” O’Shea replied grimly. “It’s got us trapped inside and we need a diversion if we’re going to have a prayer of leaving here alive.”
“Copy,” the digitally filtered voice said after a moment’s silence. “Delta Two requests permission to leave convoy and swing back to pull that Phantom off you, over.”
McManus exhaled, concern etched across his face as he met eyes with Rachel. “They’ll be able to get away, right?” He asked his red haired companion. “Right?”
“Permission granted, Delta two,” Jack nodded, “Don’t stay a second longer than you have to. Get the Phantom to commit and then get the hell out of there.”
“Delta two copies all. Sit tight, sir. We’re inbound.” The COM chirped off to the low-frequency hum of the Covenant anti-gravity propulsion drives outside.
Tim opened his mouth to ask the Captain about Delta’s odds but was cut off by O’Shea motioning hastily to get Lance Corporal Adam McHale’s attention. “Delta one, gimme a sitrep.”
“This is Delta Actual,” a hushed voice responded. McManus imagined the man peeking around the corner of the building at the idling tank and support gunship, “We’re in position in the alley behind the bar. I’ve got eyes on the Wraith and Phantom. Be advised, we’re still sitting on two spare rocket launchers back here.”
The Captain slapped a hand on the shoulder of Lance Corporal Adam McHale, who was gripping his shotgun the same way a star golf player would hold his driver before he swung. The eager Marine looked at his commanding officer with anticipation written across his face as O’Shea pointed deliberately at him and two other soldiers sitting on the ground by the front door.
As the Delta member finished speaking, O’Shea twirled his index finger in a quick circle then jabbed it over his shoulder at the back door. The three men bounded back to the rear with the easy lope of retrievers carrying a ball back to their master.
“Copy that, actual.” O’Shea said. “I’m sending three back to you to borrow a launcher. Keep me updated and get ready to attack on my signal. McHale, how copy, over?”
“This is McHale,” Tim recognized the tough voice over the COM, “we’re meeting up with Delta to borrow a can of whoop-ass. Uh, interrogative: where do you want us, sir?”
“I want you on the roof as soon as the airspace is clear. Find a ladder, stairs, or stack some dumpsters, I don’t care. When Delta hits the tank, I want us hitting, too. Understood?”
“Understood, sir. Eyes and spears.”
“Captain!” The Specialist standing over De Vere’s body blurted out, holding his data pad away from his body as though the device itself might explode. “Covenant are pinging the body!”
Gus Reynolds marched across the bar, jabbing an angry finger at the reporting Marine. “Hijack that frequency and answer all clear before they get wise!”
“But, Master Guns,” The fresh-faced soldier stammered, “It’s a hostile challenge. I don’t have any up to date response codes.”
“We’re running out of time,” Jack said, venom creeping into his tone as he walked purposefully to the front of the pub. “Delta Actual, what’s the status of that Phantom?”
“Still on station,” Delta’s leader whispered.
“Sir,” the young soldier with the data pad interjected once more, “They’re pinging hostile challenge again and I think they sent it in bold, if you get my drift.”
“Now we’re out of time,” O’Shea said, peeking through a slat cautiously and listening to the Wraith’s anti-gravity propulsion system rattle the hastily boarded up windows.
“What do you want me to do, sir?”
“Respond with something, anything.” Jack answered, head tilting almost imperceptibly to the side. “We’re due for a break.”
The result came faster than anyone thought as the COM chirped to urgent life. “This is Delta Actual,” the hushed tone now completely abandoned, “Wraith’s mortar cannon just went hot and it’s reversing into close attack range!”
“Time to go!” O’Shea shouted as the Black Rose came to life with nervous activity. “Master Guns, take two of yours and take the kids! Half of the Master Gunnery Sergeant’s team is with me, everyone else is folded into McHale’s command.”
Reynolds snatched up three spare magazines lying in an improvised armory along the bartop. “How do you want to designate teams, sir?”
O’Shea stabbed a finger into his chest plate, right between his Captain’s bars. “I’ll take Alpha, you take Charlie, and McHale will be designated Bravo. Lance Corporal, acknowledge designation.”
“Acknowledged, Alpha actual. Be advised, just found roof access in the alley. I’ve got a guy going up to give us a—sniper! Man down! Man down! Shit, Delta, tell me you saw that!”
Medic Harold Ibanez was running in a dead sprint back to the alleyway the moment McHale’s voice changed. He nearly collided with Jack’s outstretched palm and somber face, directing him back to his position. The latino medic did not take the stand fast order well; Ibanez turned on his heel and marched back to his position, furiously flipping over a table in the process.
“McHale, Delta Actual. One of my guys got a fix on that sniper—whoa! Enemy dropship taking fire!”
Everyone taking cover in the bar rushed for the boarded front windows like a group of schoolchildren at first snowfall. The looming purple and black Phantom dropship, complete with three mounted plasma turrets and two support gunners, had taken position twenty feet above the rooftops of Commonweath Avenue and cut off nearly every route away from the Black Rose.
Now the support dropship was veering back away from the bar and a steady stream of depleted uranium shells from Delta two’s decoy Warthog was smashing against the alien vessel’s sturdy hull. The intruder swerved to the side as if it had taken offense to the volley, leaning away from it at a perilous angle before righting itself and redirecting shields to throw the projectiles off. The hefty bullets deflected off the unseen energy barrier in a haze of purple and gold, clinking against the pavement as through they were mere currency.
Not only had the Phantom taken the bait, but the Wraith had now swiveled away from the bar to focus on the incoming Warthog. O’Shea pumped a fist and immediately put his men to work.
“OK, Phantom’s definitely taken the bait! Wraith’s firing at us, too!” The decoy Warthog called over the COM as a tremendous explosion reverberated in the background, “We’re bugging out. Shit, that thing’s huge!”
“Everyone form up!” Jack shouted, waving for his group of warriors to join him. “Master Guns, the kids are your responsibility now. Take them via alley and make sure they all get out alive.”
Reynolds pointed a very serious finger at the threesome, unmoving while everyone else jumped to life. “Go to the back exit and wait for me there,” he instructed. “Do not go outside. I’ll be with you in a second. Go now.”
“Come on!” Rachel called to Ron and Tim, waving them toward the kitchen door as the bar became a flurry of semi-organized activity.
The powerfully built Master Gunnery Sergeant turned on his heel and scratched his head at O’Shea. “What’re we gonna do about De Vere’s body?” He asked.
Jack’s voice darkened considerably. “We’ll rig it with enough charges to level the building,” he said, looking sideways at the corpse. “Leave a detonator with me.”
Despite a dislocated shoulder and a room full of big, tall Marines running in every direction, Rachel Lynch managed to duck, side step, and dodge every obstacle in her way, immediately putting distance between her and the two boys she had survived the apocalypse with. Tim looked over his shoulder at his new friend, who was already starting to grimace with masked pain.
“You all right?” Tim asked, concerned.
“Never better,” Ron gave a brave thumbs up before roughly bumping into a passing Private First Class who never looked back. Parsons turned his thumbs up into a peeved finger at the oblivious PFC. The duo gingerly made their way through the blood smeared back hallway, past the doors to the bathrooms in which one dead gangster was slumped against the wall like a passed out fraternity brother, and finally into the relatively clean kitchen where only a few splotches and sticky pools of dark red indicated that a dozen human gang members had failed to defend their clubhouse from O’Shea’s tactical wrath.
Rachel Lynch was already in the kitchen, staring at a stubborn splotch of red mist and methodically, mechanically trying to scrub it away with her hand. All she had succeeded in was spreading out the thin film of gore by the time the two young men entered. She seemed completely transfixed on the spot, oblivious to her friends’ hasty entrance.
“Did you run?” Ron asked, bemused and pretending to be out of breath. “You totally ditched us back there.” Rachel made no indication she heard him. McManus cocked his head to the side and scrutinized the stubborn girl attacking the even more stubborn splotch on the wall. Tim’s attractive features scrunched into a worried frown and he crossed the room ahead of a curious Parsons.
“Rach?” Tim asked cautiously. He received the same silent treatment. Ron Parsons walked around the middle island of stovetops and deep fryers and approached the quiet, agile redhead from behind. He missed Tim’s subtle motions to hold back and quickly reached Lynch’s side.
“Hey,” the blue eyed, shaggy blonde chef said warmly, putting a friendly hand on the shoulder of her cleaning arm. He barely had time to lean backwards as the surprisingly strong Boston College coed screamed and wheeled around, throwing an instinctually swift elbow directly toward Ron’s nose.
“Get away from me!” Lynch screamed in a high-pitched voice, as if she had just been shaken awake from a horrible nightmare. Parsons missed the blow by mere inches, stumbling into a counter and knocking over a stack of worn wooden bowls.
“Whoa!” McManus exclaimed, jumping between the kids and shooting out an arm to separate the two. Parsons collected himself quickly, throwing a confused, scared look Rachel’s way. Lynch’s perfectly proportioned features twisted into a face that looked like she might bawl, throw up, or both. Her face was already flush with embarrassment.
“Did she get you?” McManus asked Ron, visually inspecting his wounded friend for a bloody nose, black eye, or worse.
“I’m cool,” Parsons responded, eyebrows so far up they looked like they might reach his hair. He quickly composed himself and nodded over Tim’s shoulder. “Check on her. I don’t wanna get decked again.”
Tim turned around and put his hands up, urging calm. Rachel had already backed up all the way to the wall she had just been cleaning, crimson embarrassment converted to blanched horror over what she had almost done.
“I’m so sorry!” She apologized profusely to Ron. “Oh God, Ron, I’m so sorry!”
“What the hell happened?” Parsons said, picking his submachine gun off the dirty tiles.
“I—I came in here,” Rachel said, swallowing hard and doing everything she could to cure a suddenly dry mouth. She started trying to explain, but her words seemed to go faster and faster until she was nearly incomprehensible. “And I saw the—the blood, and I just couldn’t stop looking at this one spot and I didn’t see any towels or anything and I thought maybe if I just started wiping it b—by hand maybe but it wouldn’t come out and I kept wiping it and wiping it and it wasn’t even doing anything it kept spreading and—”
Tim took one more cautious step toward the clearly freaked out girl and then wrapped his arms around her in a warm, tight embrace that was returned threefold by Lynch. She finally stopped her stream of words and closed her eyes tightly, sniffing loudly and making a herculean effort to keep from crying. Parsons walked awkwardly toward them and joined the group hug. After a few seconds that seemed like an hour, they all broke off and Rachel’s face had returned to its former color. She wiped an eye and removed a smudge of sweaty dirt in the process.
“You wanna talk about it?” Tim asked, his eyes going around the room, indicating the post-slaughter scenery.
“No.” Lynch answered flatly, catching a bit of hurt in Tim’s face at the perceived rebuke. Her tone softened slightly and she raised a bloodied palm defensively. “It just seems…selfish. There’s, you know,” Rachel nodded out toward the sound of explosions, “More important stuff to focus on.”
“We’re gonna get through this,” Tim said confidently. “Just stay with us, ok? It’ll be fine.”
Rachel nodded, eyes fixed on the ground. Before Tim could follow up with any more encouragement, a deep rumble of a throat clearing snapped everyone out of their moment and toward the doorway-filling shape of Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds. He regarded the scene through the visor of his helmet for a moment.
“I miss something?” He asked skeptically.
Parsons shrugged. “We’re playing two truths and a lie. I’m a pro wakeboarder, serve sandwiches to Harvard kids, and have a ten-inch cock. You wanna play?”
Reynolds gave a baritone laugh and walked purposefully past the group, followed by two other well-armed Marines. He opened the back door a crack and took off his scratched, dinged combat helmet and held it at arm’s length outside into the back alley. He held it there for a second before pulling it back and nodding to himself. “Coast is clear,” he assured the group, then resumed his vigil, keeping watch through the partially opened door.
The three kids could not help but notice the whiskey bottle in the Master Gunnery Sergeant’s hand. Feeling their eyes on his back, Reynolds turned around and offered the mouth of the glass vessel to the kids.
“What?” Ron chuckled darkly, using a bandaged hand to adjust his armor and poorly concealing a look of discomfort from the pain in his chest, “No cigarette? No blindfold?”
Gus’ shoulders rose once in an invisible laugh. “Think I’m gonna like you, kid.”
Parsons nodded sarcastically. “That’ll be great for the next two minutes we’re alive.”
“Ping back when you’re in position,” O’Shea’s stern voice echoed in their ears after a COM-clearing chirp. Reynolds glanced down at his slim black data pad as it began to fill with single points of blue light, indicating all teams were in position around the Black Rose.
“This is Captain O’Shea,” Jack’s authoritative voice crackled in everyone’s ear, “we’re breaking out of this area. Phantom’s on the move but we can’t get our vehicles out safely until the tank’s destroyed. Once we kill that Wraith we’ll only have about sixty seconds until the Phantom swings back around to check it out. Sixty seconds, that’s one minute to get to your rally points before the Phantom’s back on station. Delta one, you are cleared to engage. All other teams standby. Good luck.”
Gus tossed the now empty whiskey bottle over his shoulder and slipped his battered, olive green helmet over his short-cropped black hair. He inspected the magazine of his rifle once more and slapped it back into the weapon. The bar’s back door was already partially open, and the wind whistled through the opening in a high whine that contrasted sharply with the low, ground-shuddering hum of the unseen tank that waited for them in front of the building.
Tim McManus tried to ignore his shaking hands, hiding them by burying one in a pocket and the other seemingly casually draped over the barrel of his suppressed Battle Rifle. He glanced to the right and caught Rachel’s bright eyes locked on his gloved hands and realized the effort was for naught. She reached out her good arm, gave Tim’s wrist a squeeze, and nodded at him slightly. McManus took a deep breath as Reynolds clapped his hands together once and kept his eyes focused on the alley ahead.
“Delta one actual has eyes on the Wraith. Delta one-two, found the sniper yet?”
“Do. Not. Stop.” Gus said with grave importance to the kids, eyes still locked on the open door. “Don’t look back until you reach the rally point.”
“This is Delta one-two, hostile sniper acquired on the rooftop of blue restaurant across the street. Standing by.”
“You get lost, you activate your transponder and run some more until I find you.”
“Delta one-three, in position. Rockets ready, standing by.”
“Don’t linger in the open and don’t fire unless your life’s in danger.”
“Delta one-two, clear to fire.”
Despite the advance notice, Tim, Ron, and Rachel jumped as a loud crack split the air above them. Gus looked back over his shoulder one last time and opened his mouth to give one more piece of advice before being overruled by a flurry of Delta’s activity on the COM.
“Hostile down. Clear up.”
From the kids’ position inside the bar’s kitchen, the distinct sounds of the human weapons all melded into a conglomeration of whooshes, splintering wood, back slapping concussive force, and the satisfying crunch of metal on metal that culminated in a high frequency shriek, a flash of bluish white against the bricks, and an echoing crash of the Wraith’s antigravity propulsion system suffering catastrophic failure. Tim could not help but notice the Master Guns’ grin on his face.
Captain O’Shea jumped on the COM immediately. “All teams go! Start the shot clock. One minute.”
“Don’t get separated!” Gus yelled, yanking the pin from the light gray cylinder and tossing it in a hard underhand throw into the alley. “Stay with me!”
McManus was shocked at how fast the much larger noncom was. Despite hours of hard fighting in a city that was literally falling down around their ears, Reynolds showed no signs of fatigue, getting a good first step and launching himself into the tight, desolate alley behind the bar. Tim immediately slipped on a small, slick pool of blood and scrambled on all fours to leave the kitchen, only getting a moment to glance to his right as the other teams sprinted out in tight three man groups toward unseen Warthogs. McManus could have sworn he heard a muffled laugh from Ron but pushed the thought from his mind, focusing only on using the strength left in his climber’s body to catch up with the rapidly shrinking form of Gus Reynolds.
“Hurry!” Rachel called after Tim, falling in stride with the sprinting Harvard Junior. The athletic young woman did not waste a minute as they gained ground on the leader, taking Gus’ lead as he used a pile of discarded loading pallets to hurdle an overturned dumpster. The group leaped over the obstacle with excessive force, adrenaline supercharging their tired and muscles and sending Ron Parsons into a stumbling fall as he hit the ground. The lithe blonde sharpshooter cried out in pain and immediately bit his lip to stifle any further whining, cringing as Rachel and Tim took an instant to help him back up.
“Ok!” Ron wheezed, falling back in with the small squad. “This sucks worse than the bar!”
McManus’ senses were now completely overloaded. Between the staccato bursts of weapons fire, the autumn breeze whipping up foreign scents of a city left to die, and the horrible rumbling avalanche of bricks, steel, and glass signaling yet another building’s collapse, Tim could hardly bring his eyes to focus as his loose helmet bumped roughly against his forehead and fell in and out of his vision. In a fit of frustrated rage, McManus took his free hand and ripped off the offending protective covering, tossing it behind him with no small amount of satisfaction.
He could hear his ragged breath over the pounding of his boots, and his chest felt like a blast furnace after so many miles of sprinting, jumping, and hiding. He had almost forgotten about the chorus of urgent bursts of soldiers’ voices in his headset, a reminder of the scene being played out behind and around the small group of survivors.
In the midst of the chaos and swirling gray smoke filling the streets, McManus had not thought of the possibility that enemy troops might have joined the battle. That possibility suddenly became a reality as the head of the Marine running directly in front of Tim disappeared in a wet burst of bright green and pink. The brain’s very last synaptic firings and the body’s forward momentum kept it moving for another half stride before it toppled forward and revealed an entire alleyway of incoming fire.
Streaks of green, purple, and blue light hurtled down the alley at the suddenly exposed humans. Only Ron thought to actually fight back, fiery orange tracers flying downrange and buying the survivors just enough time to react. Gus Reynolds hustled to cover, breaking left and taking position behind the corner of a retail store’s shallow loading bay.
“On me!” He roared, expertly looking down his sights and returning fire at the advancing ominous silhouettes. Even through the smoke, McManus could see a few irregular shapes suddenly collapse out of view. Tim slid on his knees to an overturned dumpster on the other side of the alley and did his best to shoot in the right direction while the Master Guns called in their situation. “Alpha, this is Charlie actual! We got hostiles in the alleyway blocking our route!”
“Solid copy, Charlie actual! Tank must have been waiting for backup, they’re all over the place. Stay alert!”
Through the rising, swirling mist of the smoke, a new color flew through the haze; a bright dazzling pink encased in what looked like tiny crystal shards. Tim could not help but stare at them as they whizzed by him at incredible speed and gave off a curious high frequency sound. The former student felt inexplicably transfixed at the curious projectiles until the series of crystals suddenly veered off their straight path and directly into the left leg of a soldier still in the middle of the alley. He cried out in surprise and pain as the pink curiosities passed through his thin leg armor and embedded themselves in his thigh. McManus could only watch, jaw slack, as the enchanting objects then exploded like flash bulbs, tearing open the unlucky Marine’s leg and dropping him to the ground as he clutched the gaping wound.
“No!” Tim instinctively yelled, drawing Ron and Rachel’s attention away from Reynolds and back to the center of the alley. Without thinking, McManus ran back to the screaming soldier, firing his weapon haphazardly at the Covenant.
“Don’t!” Rachel screamed, eyes open wide in terror as she tried to be heard over the deafening barrage. “Come back!”
“Shit,” Parsons spat, running out into the crackling ionized air. Ron did his best to ignore the hairs standing up on the back of his neck as the plasma bursts flew hot and heavy around him. Errant shots smacked against exposed brick and the superheated materials instantly melted the walls, dropping sizzling pieces to the smoking concrete and filling the air with an acrid burning smell.
The injured Harvard chef ducked as a bolt flew much too close to his head, trying to keep his balance as he threw himself toward his newest and probably last friend in the world, who had managed to successfully stand the fallen soldier up under his shoulder and was making hobbling progress back to the squad.
Ron ran to the other side of the wounded man and helped make the desperate, stumbling rush to safety. Both kids did their best to tune out the Marine’s anguished groans, focusing instead on the five remaining feet to safety and a very angry looking Master Gunnery Sergeant. Tim’s ears were ringing already and his lungs felt like paper bags as he completed the journey, nearly dropping his charge with exhaustion and relief. He looked over his shoulder in astonishment at the charred black plasma burns on the walls and street, wondering just how the hell he had managed to survive that short moment of insanity.
Parsons collapsed against a railing and tried to catch his breath through the stabbing pain in his chest. McManus tried to ease the suffering of the wounded soldier, who was moaning through a clenched jaw and looking down at the horrific looking injury in near shock. Tim jumped as Reynolds slammed a hand down on his shoulder, focused rage written across his face.
“You trying to get yourself fucking killed?” He roared. “Get inside this building! Do it now!”
Rachel took the lead, raising her matte black M6 pistol as she scurried the short distance to the rear entrance. Two double doors stood obstinately in her way, their opaque white glass obscuring her view of the space inside. The Boston College junior, unable to know if the doors were locked and unwilling to waste precious seconds fumbling with knobs, did her best to look down the iron sights and squeezed the heavy trigger of the weapon several times. Lynch tried to anticipate the kick of the weapon but her throbbing shoulder protested the strain with eye watering pain.
The first shot spat out of the barrel and passed clean through the right door, spreading tiny white spider webs through the glass. The former division one pyramid ball player gave the briefest of gasps as agony rippled through her shoulder and back, then focused all her energy on bringing the sights back down on the door. Another round smashed against the thick glass door but could not shatter the barrier.
With only three more feet to go, Rachel grit her teeth and pulled the trigger twice more, but the door refused to yield. Her sparkling green eyes opened wide in protest and her mouth opened to yell out a curse, but before the word could pass her lips she felt something pass by her long red hair, followed immediately by Tim McManus’ urgent cry of, “Outta the way!”
A large gray brick flew over Rachel’s shoulder and crashed through the door, bringing the stubborn opaque glass straight down in a clinking heap of wintry white. Lynch looked over her shoulder and past errant strands of hair as McManus flew past her and put his shoulder into the last remaining chunk of glass, tripping and sprawling out over the floor as his momentum betrayed him. Rachel hustled to help her friend up, helping Tim to his feet as Ron and Gus carried the wounded ex-Marine into the wide open space of an athletic shoe store.
The very last promotional sneakers fell off a towering display as an explosion ripped through the alley behind the squad, throwing tiny pieces of debris inside the store. Parsons wheeled around and took shaky aim at the open door, pausing a moment before shooting the Master Guns a wary glance. The powerfully built noncom glanced up at Ron as Reynolds eased his wounded comrade into a safe corner.
“I tossed a TR-9 mine behind us,” Gus explained, reaching into his vest and pulling out a canister of biofoam, “but keep an eye on the alley just in case. Elites are tougher bastards than the news tells you.”
Ron kept his weapon pointed at the smashed rear entrance while Tim and Rachel slowly crawled toward the miraculously intact windows of the shoe store. The duo gingerly stepped over benches and finally took cover behind a large damaged display case. Above them, a dramatic holographic display of a star Boston Red Sox player flickered in and out. Rachel banged a fist against the side of the combination shoe case holo display and the image spliced out of view.
Jack’s voice crackled to life over a burst of weapons fire. “This is O’Shea,” he shouted impatiently. “You’ve only got 30 seconds. Why aren’t you moving, Gus?”
“Dunbar’s KIA. Stark’s hit,” Gus responded, squatting in front of the wounded man and ripping open a package of socks. “Needler caught him in the leg and I can’t move him.”
“If we’re not moving, we’re digging graves.” Jack’s voice took on a hard edge. “You can’t stop. We’ll come back for him once the area clears. You take the kids and you get out of there now.”
Tim, Ron, and Rachel all turned somberly toward the doomed man. Jack had just given him a death sentence and they could not bring themselves to turn away from the scene.
“No!” The wounded soldier pleaded as Reynolds finished wiping away the perspiration. Stark tried to get up with a heart-breaking amount of resolve, but without a working left leg to support him, the effort only resulted in him slouching farther down the wall and gasping through the pain.
Gus shook his head sadly at the ex-Marine. “Understood, sir.” Reynolds locked eyes with the petrified Stark and let his expression soften almost imperceptibly.
“You listen to me,” Gus said with as much gravity as he could. “You stay out of sight and stay alive. I swear I’ll come back for you. I swear it.”
Stark’s eyes fell from their frozen lock with Reynolds’ and moved towards his holstered sidearm. Gus slapped him across the face and shook him roughly.
“Don’t even think about it, Marine.” The Master Gunnery Sergeant growled darkly before he shoved the first aid biofoam container into the soldier’s chest. With that, the hulking trooper stood up and motioned for Parsons to join him at the front of the store with McManus and Lynch. The battle outside had not abated in the slightest, and Gus glanced at the glowing watch on his wrist nervously.
“What’s the clock say?” Rachel asked tensely.
Reynolds only shook his head and leaned cautiously out of cover to take a look at the street ahead. “Same thing it always says,” Gus grunted. “We’re behind.”
“Charlie Actual, this is Alpha Actual,” O’Shea announced over the COM. “Gus, shot clock’s expired. You need to get out of there now.”
Reynolds exhaled with frustration. “Charlie’s oscar mike, I’ve tagged Stark’s location for SAR on TACMAP. I promised him, Jack.”
“Understood, actual. We’ve secured our Warthog and we lost men, too. No more distractions. See you at the rally point.”
Tim winced as pain radiated through his shoulders like venom running through his veins. The former Harvard student had to force his clenched shoulder blades to lower and willed his exhausted mind to focus on the task at hand. He had to block out the fits and starts of urban warfare going on all around him while staying alert enough to know if the sounds were getting closer or louder. He blinked hard, clearing dirt and sweat from his eyes and rubbed them vigorously to clear his vision.
The sharp crack of a M6C pistol fired behind him shattered that tenuous concentration and caused the two young adults beside him to jump in shock and check themselves for an entry or exit wound. Gus Reynolds only hung his head in resignation.
“Don’t look back there,” he muttered, silhouetted by the last ruby rays of light that snuck through the smoke and dust. “Cancel my last,” Reynolds said with as much composure as he could. “Scrub search and rescue. Stark’s KIA.”
Gus’ glanced at his three companions, expressionless behind the blank faceshield but slouched like a man who had had enough for today. “Listen to me,” he instructed coldly. “If something happens to me and I can’t move on my own, you’ve got to leave me behind, understood?”
Tim, Ron, and Rachel all nodded simultaneously. Reynolds nodded back at them.
“Time to leave,” he said, standing up and pointing his well-loved assault rifle out toward the much wider city street. Ron, Tim, and Rachel made the mistake of standing up with him, hearing the warning over the COM a moment too late.
The word did not even register with the three young adults before a blurry, faintly purple shape streaked out of nowhere and smashed into the street, blowing the windows in with barbaric force that felt like a molten fist to the stomach. The mortar blast threw the three unprepared kids backwards and slammed them into another display case before unceremoniously dropping the gasping kids to all fours. They did not have the luxury of catching their breath before they all felt the vise grip of the Master Gunnery Sergeant on their collars like a protective lion moving his pride of cubs.
“We gotta go!” Reynolds yelled after the kids, pushing Rachel out the door as Tim and Ron took off in an all-out sprint across the street. The team left the relative safety of the enclosed sporting goods store and canyon-like confinement of the alleyway for an all-out warzone that was plucked straight from Tim’s nightmares.
It was as if the street itself was fighting the stubborn clutch of human survivors. One moment a patch of clear concrete offered safe passage to the rally point, the next it suddenly exploded in a flash of purple-gold and hurled tiny jagged chunks of concrete 360 degrees at the exposed runners. Only a momentary shriek announced the mortar’s imminent arrival; the Covenant’s projectiles were flying in so thick and fast that the shrieks seemed like a macabre forest scene with deadly crickets chirping only once before obliterating the urban trees. Smoke choked the group’s throats and the force of each successive blast bounced them around like unfortunate pinballs.
McManus could not help but look back over his left shoulder at the defeated Wraith tank sitting obstinately in the middle of the intersection like a pouting toddler. Its hard purple shell was cracked in jagged pieces and bright blue plasma fire consumed the heavily armored vehicle’s deadly cannon. The roaring fire belched dark violet smoke nearly twenty feet into the swiftly darkening evening, bathing the city street in flickering azure and sending a sickly citrus smell meandering along the wind.
As the group crossed the middle of Commonwealth Avenue the fire reached the cannon’s ammunition and secondary explosions ripped the vehicle apart from the inside with the force of a firecracker inside a Lego house. The concussive force of the blast caused the entire group to stumble and nearly fall. As Tim regained his balance he noticed a screeching, wrenching sound getting louder from behind the stunned foursome. His eyes opened wide in shock and his voice refused to work as a large chunk of the tank’s engine block bounced and tumbled down the concrete at them at fatal speeds.
“Move!” McManus shouted breathlessly, shoving his two friends roughly in the back and diving out of the path of the projectile. Reynolds saw the smoking, twisted hunk of metal an instant too late. The Master Gunnery Sergeant did his best to leap out of the way, leaving his feet in an impressive athletic display that nearly made it.
Just as it looked as if the heavily armored soldier would actually clear the obstacle, the engine block struck a buckled piece of concrete and suddenly changed direction. It skipped along the ground like a stone across a lake and smacked hard against Reynolds’ armored legs.
“No!” Tim blurted out, reaching out uselessly as the impact spun Gus 180 degrees in the air before dropping him hard to the street with a heavy grunt. Despite the mortar fire coming down around their ears, McManus stared at the body of Reynolds for a full second, horrified at the thought that their protector had just been killed right in front of them and flat out panicking about what they could possibly do now. Relief flooded Tim’s body as the powerful veteran stirred.
“Hey,” Ron Parsons noted, looking quizzically up at the sky, “the mortars stopped.”
“—is Delta one actual!” The COM burst to life in the kids’ ears while they rushed to the fallen Master Guns. “Be advised, Phantom’s back and it has acquired us! We’re going hot—!” The COM line died just as quickly as it had been born.
“Where’d Delta go?” Ron asked nervously as they scrambled around a groaning Master Guns. Tim and Rachel looked at their friend with faces that said they could only assume, and the assumption was not good.
“This is Bravo actual.” McHale’s voice immediately followed. “We’re two blocks from securing the rally point. Be advised, we skipped around fifteen plus foot mobiles with vehicle support moving north. How copy, Alpha?”
“This is Alpha actual,” O’Shea answered. “I copy fifteen plus foot mobiles and vehicles heading north. Alpha is diverting to engage the Phantom, Bravo actual; I want that rally point clear for loading when we get there. Get it done.”
“What the hell did I tell you?” Reynolds demanded as Tim and Ron helped the bigger man up.
The stern faced Master Gunnery Sergeant grimaced further as he put his full weight on his right leg. Rachel Lynch’s eyes widened as she noticed the prominent dent in the titanium leg armor.
“You told us we couldn’t stop moving,” Ron offered, passing the noncom the gray MA5C Assault Rifle he had dropped on impact. “You never said in what direction.”
Gus looked like he was deciding between punching the wiseass civilian and laughing out loud. He did neither, opting to resume running albeit at a much slower pace and with a noticeable hobble in this stride. “We’ve got to keep moving to the rally point,” Gus shouted, eyes scanning the approaching rooftops with unease. “Even if McHale thinks the Covies won’t come near the rally point, they’re can’t hold out if a force that size finds them.”
Tim cleared a deep impact crater in the middle of the street. “And we can?” he asked, catching up with the impeded Reynolds.
“We can certainly help,” Gus offered, taking a sudden right toward an abandoned and thoroughly looted coffee shop. The foursome stacked up in a single file line as Gus entered the shop first, sniffing once to take in the last lingering scent of coffee beans. He swiftly glanced through and around flickering holographic displays of impossibly happy people with perfect teeth enjoying steaming beverages, twitching once when a sputtering cappuccino machine gurgled its last breath and tumbled to the ground in a tinny crash. Tim slowly walked backwards to cover the group, turning around quickly as he heard the crash of Gus Reynolds kicking in the door to the back receiving room.
“Charlie, this is alpha Actual,” O’Shea called over the COM, hasty shouts echoing in the background. “Be advised, we’re playing hit and run with the Phantom so it might be a few before we reach the rally point. Gimme a sitrep.”
“Charlie’s still a few blocks from the objective,” Gus breathed, weapon sweeping over the area ahead as he ran through the alley, “We’re taking alleys for now, will update you once we reach Bravo.”
“Uh, Alpha actual, Alpha actual. This is Bravo actual.” McHale’s voice had changed considerably over the course of only a few seconds.
“This is Alpha actual. Send traffic.”
“Bravo’s reached the rally point. There’s, um, sir…you’re not gonna believe what I’m looking at here, sir.”
“I’m looking at a hostile Phantom dropship, McHale. Spit it out!”
“Sir, I think I’m looking at the Pelican that got shot down earlier over the harbor.”
The three civilian kids and their veteran guardian nearly stopped in their tracks. Each of them shared separate looks, none of them thankful.
“Are you positive?” O’Shea asked deliberately.
“Tail number pings ONI, sir, but that’s as far as I got. I tried to scan for IFF tags and the Pelican fried my data pad with some kind of electronic interference. I’ve never even heard of Pelicans doing that, sir. You heard of any spook Pelicans that fry friendly tech?”
“I’m not going to take time today to wonder what ONI’s putting in their Pelicans, Bravo Actual. Do you have any other pressing news to share?”
Static ruled the line as McHale paused. When he finished speaking, the foursome stopped in the middle of the alley altogether.
“Yes, sir. Uh, I know how this is gonna sound, but there’s no sign that a missile crashed this bird.”
Tim wheeled around as if a voice from his past had just called his name and he put a gloved hand to his furrowed brow. He tried as best her could to replay the scene from earlier in his mind. He saw the Pelican deploy chaff countermeasures to defeat a surprise missile attack, but the second anti-air attack had apparently destroyed one of the dropship’s main engines and sent it plummeting into the city, which had set in motion most of the particularly nasty parts of Earth’s last day.
“But everyone saw it get hit before. How is that possible?” Tim asked as he caught up with the group.
“If a missile took out this bird’s engine, I wouldn’t even be looking at it right now. But it’s there. It’s charred halfway to hell, but it’s there.”
Ron’s eyes widened and he shook his head. “This day makes absolutely no sense.”
“Alpha copies all. Secure the crash site and prep wounded for evac if you can. Charlie actual, sitrep.”
Gus Reynolds’ pace had quickened significantly and Tim’s breath was now becoming ragged, his chest was a dry, wheezing chamber of burning air. He almost tripped as the larger, more powerful armor clad warrior took a surprisingly sharp left and started skipping in a sidestep through an even narrower alley. Rachel Lynch picked up the pace, grabbing the edge of the alley’s entrance with her good hand and using it to halt her momentum and effectively throw herself after the leader.
“Taking a shortcut,” Reynolds’ voice sounded odd off the walls of close brick and inside Tim’s ear, “should be at the rally point any—”
“Kiowa, get down!” McHale suddenly yelled over the COM. “Bravo taking enemy fire at the intersection! I say again, hostiles at the rally point! We’re getting overrun!”
Filed under: Minutemen | Tagged: alien invasion, apocalypse, boston, chapter 14, covenant, halo 3, jack o'shea, Marines, Minutemen, ODST, rachel lynch, Reach, ron parsons, science fiction, the crucible, tim mcmanus, UNSC, woody tondorf |