MINUTEMEN: THE CRUCIBLE
Chapter Fifteen: “The Rally Point.”
Marlborough & Exeter St.
Evacuated City of Boston
October 20, 2552
“On the hop!” Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds implored over the sudden explosion of noise ahead of them. Tim McManus, Ron Parsons, and Rachel Lynch hustled past him down the narrow alley while Reynolds put a hand to his throat mic. “McHale, where are you?”
Lance Corporal Adam McHale’s voice was officially frantic. “Bravo actual to all teams! I’ve got one dead, one wounded bad in no man’s land. Taking heavy hostile fire! We can’t hold the rally point for much longer!”
“McHale, talk to me!”
“We’re in a bad way here, Master Guns! Need assistance!”
“Just hold on! We’re almost there!”
The rally point was an ideal location to stage multiple vehicles, but it was far from ideal to fight a pitched battle in. The intersection was wide with roads heading north, south, east, and west. Each street was three lanes wide, creating dangerous open ground that would expose anyone trying to cross them. The intersection itself looked like a child’s jungle gym had been thrown in a giant blender and poured out into the middle; mangled traffic signals had fallen into the middle of the crossroads. The pounding of the mortar assault that churned the large center square into a pock-marked no man’s land that wafted smoke like an urban hot springs. The fallen Pelican’s east-to-west crash landing cut a shallow trench in the street like a half-court line.
The black and gray Office of Naval Intelligence Pelican had come to rest at the northwest corner. Its nose had apparently dug deep into the street before spinning the drop ship so it precariously rested upside down against the side of a devastated brownstone apartment building.
The surviving ex-Marines were taking cover behind a giant billboard, crumpled like a car wreck and blocking half the road. Its display was still sparking and one-third was occasionally flaring to life with majestic mountain scenes in holographic definition. Luckily for the outnumbered humans, the billboard had twisted under the strain and threw the bright light away from the troops and toward the incoming hostile forces.
Unluckily for the outnumbered humans, the Covenant did not seem to mind and they had every intention of taking the intersection.
Two blocks behind the human soldiers, Rachel yelped in surprise as she ran out of the alley and was nearly blindsided with a half-dozen errant plasma bursts. The surprisingly quick Boston College student wheeled back, dropping to the ground and scurrying on hands and knees to a row of intact news download stands. She took an instant to pop up and haphazardly fire her pistol, only taking two shots before the blot clicked and her magazine was empty.
Gus Reynolds reached her immediately and pulled her down out of the line of fire, waving for Tim and Ron to follow. Rachel reached inside her pants’ pockets, withdrawing a thin metal magazine and managing to reload her weapon despite her shaking hands.
McManus and Parsons slid in behind them as Gus craned his head and took stock of the situation. McHale and four other ex-Marines had scaled the back of the toppled billboard and were furiously returning the Covenant’s fire; their weapons’ barrels flashed brightly against the lengthening shadows and billowing gray smoke ahead of them. Boston’s brisk autumn breeze whipped through the contested roadway and swirled the smokescreen high above, obscuring the route ahead and anything that might lie more than two stories above as well.
Tim breathed a short sigh of relief as he caught sight of the Lance Corporal’s black and gray clad team. McManus had to give them credit; they once again melted into the scenery just as they had in the alleyway hours ago. Gus tapped Tim and Ron on the shoulder, pointing ahead and pushing his palm down, indicating to stay low. The two new friends ran as fast as they could in a low crouch that made their legs burn while Reynolds called ahead.
“Friendlies at the your six, Bravo,” Reynolds announced, “don’t fire on ‘em.”
“Hurry the fuck up!” A stressed McHale replied.
Adam McHale dropped nimbly down from the criss-crossing steel supports behind the billboard and landed lightly on his feet, the dull metallic load bearing harness across his torso absorbing the stress of impact with a barely audible hydraulic hiss. The lead element of Captain Jack O’Shea’s escape plan waved emphatically for the four to reach him.
Ron, Tim, Rachel, and Gus picked up the pace, hustling to the Lance Corporal’s position. Reynolds and McHale shook hands briefly before Adam led them to the edge of the creaking, sparking metal shield.
McHale risked a glance around the massive toppled advertisement and was immediately rewarded with a volley of incoming fire. The veteran whipped back around to safety, and Tim could not help but notice McHale’s chest was heaving through his armor.
“You heard from Delta?” McHale asked his superior in a concerned but distracted tone. “I think they all got smoked, man.”
Reynolds only shook his head and deliberately pointed past the billboard to the battle for the rally point. “What happened? Are these the Covenant you told us weren’t heading toward the rally point?”
“I dunno. I, uh…Covenant opened up as soon as we crossed the intersection; I was watching the crash site, nobody was looking back where we saw the patrol. I was sure they weren’t gonna swing around like that…I shoulda been looking out…I— ”
Reynolds snapped his fingers loudly, jabbing them in front of McHale’s face, brining him back to the present. “How many hostiles?”
“Fifteen, maybe twenty, they might be getting reinforced…who the fuck knows, the spook Pelican fried our tech when we tried to scan for survivors.”
“Where’s the rest of Bravo?”
The stocky Lance Corporal chopped a hand to his left across the street at a decrepit-looking corner store, shattered windows and brightly colored snacks splayed out into the street like a gutted piñata. The men inside were only firing sporadically; rarely did a burst persist for more than a few seconds at a time before they were suppressed by overwhelming Covenant fire.
“Half my guys got caught in the open. I lost Ford right off the bat,” The Lance Corporal nodded toward the very center of the intersection, “and Sarkhan’s hit but alive right next to him.”
Gus Reynolds switched positions with the shaken team leader. The Master Guns wordlessly took off his helmet and held it gingerly at arm’s length around the billboard. He held his helmet out for a few moments before taking it back and playing back the protective cover’s internal camera.
The tactician frowned. “He’s out in the very middle. Sarkhan’s bait, McHale,” Reynolds grimly noted. “Probably got a sniper right on him waiting for us to go out there and rescue him. We gotta leave him behind.”
“The fuck we do!” McHale protested aggressively, cutting Gus off and getting in the larger Marine’s face. Tim held out a wary arm and kept Ron and Rachel back. Reynolds looked down at the insubordinate solider, incensed.
“You back off now and use your head, Lance Corporal.” Reynolds growled in a growing rumble. “I will not repeat myself.”
McHale spat on the ground but relented, reluctantly taking a step back as the stern veteran pushed past him. The Master Gunnery Sergeant walked briskly to Tim McManus, turning the confused student around and stripping his backpack wordlessly. Before Tim could ask what was going on, Gus pulled out a small motor-like device and a large gray sphere that looked like a reflective jumbo sized ping pong ball. Reynolds screwed the two pieces together with remarkable dexterity, then tossed the device into the air around the corner. The military-issue freecam suddenly stopped in the middle of its descent and went into a hover, bobbing ever so slightly in the breeze.
“Alpha actual, this is Charlie actual,” Gus reported, still staring at his data pad and tapping urgently on it.
“Send traffic, Charlie Actual.” Tim was relieved to hear the Captain Jack O’Shea’s voice over rushing wind, hopefully indicating the cavalry was on its way.
“Charlie and Bravo teams are at the rally point. Bravo team is split between a convenience store on the southwest corner, and a fallen billboard approximately thirty meters away in the southbound route, over.”
“Twenty-plus infantry with possible reinforcement. Right now hostile force is holding position on northbound route and taking pot shots at us, but that’s not going to last for much longer. I’ve got a freecam in the air now if you need to see the place yourself.”
“Alpha copies all. We’ve lost the Phantom, Alpha’s oscar mike to your location but we’ve drifted outside the AO and are encountering pockets of resistance. We need you to hold that rally point until we get there, Gus.”
“Understood, sir. What’s your ETA?”
Static reigned. Plasma hissed and fizzled against the billboard as the group waited for a response. “ETA is probably two minutes longer than you need.” Jack O’Shea finally replied.
McHale and Reynolds traded worried looks that were not lost on Tim, Ron, or Rachel. “Solid copy, Alpha actual,” Reynolds answered resolutely.
“Good luck. Alpha actual out.”
Reynolds took his hand off this throat and fixed a hard look at Adam. “Let’s talk about defending this rally point,” he instructed, standing up and crossing his arms over his chest. “How many you got in that store?”
“Five inside,” McHale pointed out, “and I’ve got three here with me.”
“How’re you equipped?”
“Assorted small arms. We stashed two rocket launchers in the store so we didn’t have to hump ‘em to the crash site.”
Gus frowned. “We can’t keep all our rockets in one basket,” he grumbled. “If they bring heavy equipment against us we might as well throw rocks from here. Someone’s gotta go get one.”
McHale started to move toward the besieged convenience store in a determined jog but stopped short as Gus put himself between the stocky Marine and the rest of his squad. “Not you, Adam,” Gus shook his head, “we can’t lose another vet at this rate.” The Master Gunnery Sergeant pointed a reluctant finger at Tim McManus, who looked like he had just been asked to recite a novel by memory.
“Me?” Tim asked, just catching his breath from the long distance run. Rachel and Ron shared his look of surprise.
Reynolds nodded gravely as the haze above him glowed with faint streaks of bright, colorful light. “You’re the only one who’s not hurt bad. It has to be you, kid.”
“I got contacts!” A soldier yelled from across the street, pointing emphatically at dark shapes advancing through the eerily lit smoke. “Here they come!”
“They gotta cut through this smoke if they want clean shots at us!” McHale shouted up at his teammate, running towards him and quickly climbing his way to the top of the large cover. Once on top, he looked down and cupped his hands around his mouth to shout to Gus. “Send the runner, Master Guns! We’re gonna open up as soon as we see ‘em!”
“Time to go,” Gus prompted, leading Tim to the edge of the fallen billboard. Ron and Rachel followed somberly behind like relatives of a man on death row. McManus stared ahead at the store, muzzle flashes inside illuminating strobe-like silhouettes of troops. It looked miles away.
Reynolds patted the intimidated young man on the back and spoke as positively as he could. “Looks thirty yards to the store,” he said, pointing out what looked like a clear route across the street. “You run your ass off and you’ll make it there fine. Get a launcher and bring it back to me.”
“No one wants snacks?” Tim joked weakly.
Reynolds chuckled. “You guys are funny.” The brief moment of levity was broken by a three round burst from McHale’s rifle.
“They’re moving on the store!” McHale shouted down at Gus. “Send the fucking runner!”
“Move!” Reynolds commanded as he pushed Tim and pointed urgently at the besieged store. “We’ve got your back!”
“Light ‘em up!” McHale urged over the COM. The human side burst into loud, bright fury as tracers screamed through the air, searing paths through the smokescreen and occasionally smacking into enemy troops that had just begun putting down withering suppressing fire.
Tim took off with his last few ounces of strength surging through him and propelling McManus forward with so much force he surprised himself. Despite the burst of strength and the confidence that he could make it there and back, nothing could prepare him for the next sixty yards.
As soon as the twenty-two year-old Harvard student cleared the cover of the billboard the darkness fell back and opened up into a bright, rust colored cloud of smoke and dust that seemed to be alive, pulsing in a wild array of colors like a psychedelic jellyfish. It was almost unbearably hot, and Tim squinted against the hazy glare and wafting heat immediately, almost oblivious its source: the plasma fire of nearly twenty fully armed Covenant ground troops advancing through the intersection.
The first blast missed the back of Tim’s heel by inches, instead spitting up a chunk of concrete that caused McManus to stumble and duck his head to compensate for balance. That momentary duck caused the second blast to miss the back of his unprotected head by several more inches, but the residual heat was enough to make Tim clutch at his head and completely lose his balance, tumbling onto his right shoulder and forcing his head forward and his line of sight directly back where he had come.
McManus was now nearly facedown and looking backwards at Rachel Lynch and Ron Parsons. He could see the looks on their faces and it broke his heart. Parsons was horrified, his mouth hanging open and his eyes so incredibly sad that he was barely aware that his hand shot out as if to catch McManus. As terrible as Tim felt for his friend Ron, he was devastated by the look on Rachel’s face.
He had never seen anyone stand so still. Lynch’s hand was already falling away from her lips, indicating she had already covered her mouth in worry before Tim took off. Now those worries and fears were being realized right in front of her eyes. The lethal streaks of plasma were passing by her in slow motion, only serving to highlight her complete shocked stillness.
You can’t do this to them. The thought flashed through Tim’s mind.
They need me.
I need them.
I need them to—Tim’s thoughts broke as his head hit the pavement, bouncing roughly up and causing a flash of stars across his vision. He skid to a quick stop and when his vision cleared he was still alive, looking at the last two friends he had in the world.
All Tim’s mind would let him utter was, “Cover me?”
It was as if someone flipped a switch in Ron and Rachel. They took a half second to realize just what was happening then flew into action. Rachel brought her newly reloaded matte black pistol up and smoothly flipped off the safety, aiming as closely to the approaching Covenant forces as she could.
Parsons took a bold step toward the edge of cover, swiftly taking a padded knee and remembering at the last second to slide on the pair of goggles attached to his helmet. Ron ignored the severe pain in his chest as he brought his suppressed submachine gun up to his shoulder and twisted around where the edge of the fallen billboard had buried itself in the street. In the time it took for the pair to be in position and covering him, Tim had just barely gotten back to his feet.
McManus flinched at the first crack of Rachel’s M6C, glancing back in surprise at the striking redhead.
“We got you covered!” Rachel urged. “Go!”
Satisfied, Tim gave an appreciative unseen nod and willed his drained legs to pump on for another few meters of hell. He made the most desperate sprint of his life powered only by the certainty that he would not let himself crush his last friends in the world. He even managed to take aim at a mystifyingly separated Grunt that had blundered its way into Tim’s line of sight.
McManus raised his hand-assembled Battle Rifle up swiftly and brought the sights perfectly into view, lined up just as the squat cannon fodder became aware of him and turned around. Tim pulled the trigger with an amount of satisfaction that was only matched by the amount of terror he felt when the rifle jammed.
Despite the Grunt’s methane rebreather, Tim could have sworn the genocidal alien was smiling. That smile lasted less than a second as a florescent, purplish mist sprayed backwards from the alien’s head, followed immediately by the echoing report of Rachel’s pistol. The body fell as though struck with a sudden thought and dropped straight backwards. Tim hardly noticed; the entrance to the store was scant meters away.
McManus ran around the dead alien and threw himself headlong through the threshold of the convenience store, slamming himself against a rack of synthenised sugar figures. As the remaining candies rained down on his shoulders, Tim reminded himself to thank Rachel Lynch profusely when he got back.
The haggard, beaten, but still remarkably professional faces of Bravo team inspected him with momentary quizzical silence, then a burly ex-Marine with blood smeared across his Private First Class chevron and rocker spoke.
The tall PFC with hawk like features regarded the horizontal student’s Battle Rifle. “Gun jammed on you, huh?”
The Harvard Junior nodded, gulping air.
“You know they got pills for that. Terrible thing to happen to a kid your age.”
Tim’s eyes narrowed. “How old are you?” He challenged. The PFC’s lips twitched as if to ask what it mattered, then he shrugged nonchalantly.
“Nineteen and two days.” He offered a hand to Tim that the three-year older McManus gladly accepted.
“But,” he said, pulling McManus to his feet, “In war age, I’m your old man.” The gung ho teenager nodded upwards with his sharp jawline and patted a stunned McManus roughly on the cheek.
“Private First Class Joe Lee, at your service. You know what the worst part of this shit is?”
Tim could only shake his head, finally catching his breath as he followed the loping Lee.
The Private First Class laughed to himself. “Technically, I’m still on shore leave.”
“S’not funny anymore, Lee,” A Marine shouted over the noise of his assault rifle. “Give the kid the rockets and get back on the line!”
“On it, sir!” Joe snapped back into business mode, reaching behind the clerk’s counter and throwing a long black case onto it. He expertly snapped it open and looked Tim in the eyes, bright white contrasting sharply with his dirt, blood, and dust caked features.
“Are you shooting this?” He asked pointedly.
“Ok then,” Lee nodded, snapping the case closed again with satisfaction, “no need for tutorial.” The burly nineteen-year-old veteran tossed the rocket launcher and ammunition case into Tim’s arms and reached back over the counter to take out his own. Lee proudly patted the intimidating heavy weapon, which Tim could not help but notice had eight tally marks scratched across it. Lee read McManus’ eyes and opened his mouth to boast before being interrupted by a sharp-eyed heavy machine gunner.
“Hunters Hunters Hunters!” The panicked cry made everyone’s head snap up and look toward the intersection, where a dull rumble of a war cry emanated in a deep bass that caused loose rubble to shake and struck cold fear into the hearts of every human with a pulse.
“Hunters?” Tim breathed, his face now devoid of color completely. “Here?”
The ranking officer in the gutted shelter stabbed a finger toward McManus. “Get the kid out of the store! Master Guns needs those rockets!”
Joe Lee urgently guided Tim out of the building, keeping a wary eye out the front of the store and through the smoke. “See ya, kid,” he said, opening a side door and signaling back at the billboard. In the darkness broken by intermittent fire, a blue light blinked twice. The PFC patted the new recruit on the shoulder.
“Keep a seat open on the Warthogs, will ya?” He asked cheerily. “I like the one behind the driver’s side.”
McManus clutched the long rocket case across his chest, bumped fists with the younger soldier, and sprinted back across the smoking pavement. Tim noticed the moment he broke cover that something was different. The hiss and sizzle of plasma screaming around him was gone. The blurs of light across his vision were gone. Still running at full tilt, Tim glanced toward the intersection and nearly fell on his face all over again.
The light and plasma fire was nowhere near McManus because there was no way to fire around them. Tim had studied the alien organisms known as the Covenant as part of his mandatory education. He could identify each species from above, below, near, far, anywhere; but the Hunter had always fascinated him since a grade school teacher described them as both creature and tank. Ms. Dakira had not exaggerated.
There were two of them, walking slowly like giant snapping turtles that had learned to walk on their hind legs. No one had ever seen Hunters that did not work in pairs, but that was not their most remarkable feature. The Hunters were not two separate creatures; they were massive, cohesive, sentient colonies of bioluminescent worms whose size was limited only in how large the colony wished to be. That size was more often than not gargantuan, easily over nine feet tall.
They inhabited a custom designed suit of armor, though it was less armor than cage to contain the subservient worms. On one arm a massive shield the size of three car doors was fused into the armor, engraved with alien symbols, smeared with blood, and bristling with sharp points intended to skewer humans foolish enough to be close to them. The other arm boasted a cannon that looked more like a radioactive jet engine than a hand, already trailing an ethereal electric green afterglow as the bonded pair trudged through no man’s land. Bullets from a dozen different weapons pinged ineffectively off the heavy metallic plates, barely registering with the rumbling beasts.
Tim McManus had just enough time to gape at them and realize they were looking right at him.
The first volley from the pair of plasma cannons flew wide behind Tim’s desperate stride, slamming into an abandoned delivery truck and throwing it end over end barely ten feet to the right of the convenience store. The flaming chassis finally came to a rest fifty feet inside the building. The force of the errant shots knocked the utterly depleted McManus off his feet again, this time unable to absorb the impact of the fall and cracking his chin against the unforgiving street. Tim did his best to scramble to his feet, dread creeping up his chest, knowing that this time he did not stand a chance of getting to safety no matter what his friends did. The intellectually gifted Harvard student never considered Joe Lee’s desire to impress his superiors.
A long arc of puffy red light flew toward the ground-shuddering creatures and ended with the road flare bouncing off the leftmost Hunter’s head, showering the organic tanks with sparks. They both reared back, guttural bass growls thundering through the ground in protest.
Private First Class Joe Lee took a steady knee just outside the safety of the convenience store as he shouted confidently over the battle. “This better get me into the Helljumpers!”
Tim’s desire to live barely overruled his desire to watch Lee’s attack. He steadied himself with a bruised and bloodied hand as he picked himself up and pitched himself forward in an awkward run that looked more like a prolonged stumbling trip. To his left, he could hear the short concussive blast of the rocket leaving the tube. The projectile screamed through the air, barely missing raised heaps of broken concrete, and finally rose at the last second to collide full bore in the middle of the leftmost Hunter’s chest. Ron and Rachel grabbed Tim by the collar and dragged him behind the toppled billboard as bits of dark blue Hunter armor and faintly glowing splotches of paste flew through the air and smacked into hard surfaces.
“Lee, get back in the store!” Gus Reynolds yelled just as the surviving Hunter recovered and took dead aim at the burly young Marine. Lee disregarded the order and swiveled to his right, realizing too late that the hostile alien had beaten him to the punch and had already launched a well-aimed shot. The Private First Class did not have time to move or even scream. Tim stared, petrified, as Lee simply disappeared in a ferocious flash of green and heat. The kids were paralyzed, rooted to the spot while Gus Reynolds tore open the weapon’s case and McHale screamed at his men still trapped in the convenience store.
“Everyone in the store get out!” Lance Corporal McHale cried out as the Hunter dumped excess heat from the cannon and shifted its focus to the five men still bravely firing out at the enemy. “Displace! Displace!”
Once again the warning came too late. Two blasts, then two more soared through the air and landed inside the storefront, vaporizing the troops inside and detonating the spare ammunition and explosives hidden within. The neighborhood corner store burst at the seams, eerie green flame roaring out and licking up the sides of twisted metal supports. Gus Reynolds scrambled to his feet after being knocked down by the blast, gritting his teeth, eyes burning with fury.
Ron reached out weakly to stop the determined noncom but could offer little resistance as a much stronger Reynolds ran past the petrified kids and swept around the edge of their cover. Gus took an instant to steady his shaking hands, settling the launcher’s sights on the surviving bipedal tank and loosing a high explosive round before the Hunter could change targets.
All the alien could do was turn directly into the rocket’s path, flying backwards as the vengeful strike found a weak seam in the hastily patched armor and blew the colony to smithereens from the inside.
The Covenant’s suppressing fire fell away for a few moments as both the unseen hostile force and the humans reeled in shock. Ron Parsons, Tim McManus, and Rachel Lynch could only stare in slack jawed awe at the hulking Master Gunnery Sergeant, who put the launcher over his shoulder and walked calmly past them to his post by Adam McHale.
“You ever seen anything like that?” Ron asked in a hushed tone as though afraid to attract Reynolds’ attention. “I’ve never even heard of anything like that.”
The Master Guns took the brief respite to check in on McHale, who was calling in the latest setback over the COM in a mechanical, detached voice. The fact that the young Lance Corporal was staring at the funeral pyre of his team immediately brought down Gus’ victorious mood.
“All teams, all teams. This is Bravo actual. Bravo team and Charlie team have sustained heavy casualties at the rally point and we are about to be overrun by ground forces. I say again, we cannot hold the rally point. Need assistance. Out.”
Adam continued staring straight ahead as he clicked off the COM. “What’re we gonna do?” he asked, despair written across his dusty features.
“We hold the rally point.” Reynolds said evenly, laying the rocket launcher down to pick up his discarded assault rifle. Gus gladly accepted a fresh magazine tossed by the stocky Lance Corporal, who looked at his superior with thinly veiled disbelief.
“They send a second wave and it’s game over,” Adam stated, locking his eyes on Gus’. “You know that, right?”
A surprising voice interrupted the conversation just as Gus was raising a disciplinary finger. “Bravo team, Charlie team. This is Delta one actual. Respond.”
Everyone behind the billboard shared utterly confused looks. McHale hastily responded, still throwing an unsure look in Reynolds’ direction. “Delta one actual, this is Bravo actual! What the hell, guys? We thought you were dead.”
“Worry about that later, McHale! We intercepted a Covenant mortar team setting up shop half a click from you and their target coordinates look like your position. I think your hostile infantry is waiting on us to smoke you. Now verify grids with me so we can give them their big surprise of the day.”
The Lance Corporal’s eyebrows shot up in pleasant surprise while Gus Reynolds nodded along with what might have been relief. “Don’t have to tell me twice!” Adam exclaimed, fumbling with his data pad for a second to input commands.
“Delta one actual, we’ve got a freecam up for remote forward observing. Sync with it at grid one-zero-eight, box seven. Target is fifteen-plus foot mobiles with possible vehicle support at grid one-zero-eight, box six. Danger close, over.”
“Delta one copies all. Out.”
McHale looked up at the nearly invisible floating camera hovering above the team. “Even with the freecam, they’re firing within a hundred meters of us,” he noted, looking back down at Gus. “What’re your orders, Master Guns?”
Reynolds was already helping Ron Parsons up as Rachel finished bandaging McManus’ bloodied chin. “I think the mortars missed me once today. I’m not about to tempt fate again.”
McHale waved for his last three teammates to come down from the billboard. “Fine by me,” he shrugged, “let’s get the hell out of here before Delta messes up the one good thing we got goin’ this whole invasion.”
The weary troops started their hasty retreat immediately, half of them turning every few feet to make sure the Covenant were not making an early press to pursue. The COM chirped in everyone’s ear followed by the clearly tired voice of the seemingly resurrected Delta leader. “All teams, this is Delta one actual. Be advised of mortar fire mission to grid one-zero-eight, box six. Clear the area, out.”
“On the hop!” Gus said, marching behind the stumbling kids and offering his own brand of encouragement. “I know you’re tired. We’re almost there.”
“Where’s Alpha?” Tim asked, looking ahead for any friendly forces to appear and take them away from the apocalypse. “Shouldn’t we have heard from them by now?”
“They’re on their way,” Reynolds replied with a hint of uncertainty. “Just worry about staying alive.”
“But they know where we’ll be, right?” Rachel looked over her shoulder to ask the suddenly tight-lipped Master Gunnery Sergeant. Gus only pointed ahead in response.
“Splash out,” Delta called over the COM.
“Keep your heads down but keep moving!” Gus commanded. “It’s gonna get loud!”
An echoing boom shook dust loose from the sides of towering damaged buildings and shattered any intact windows behind in the intersection. The boom of the first mortar was followed by four similar-sounding impacts and the satisfying faint crash of secondary explosions.
“This is Delta actual. Freecam registers good hits and plenty of secondaries. Adjusting fire on tubes two and four, all others will autofire for effect until stock depletion.”
“Now that’s fuckin’ sweet.” McHale said back to a jogging Gus Reynolds. “Thirty pounds of high-explosive irony falling on Covenant heads at three rounds a minute.”
Reynolds nodded back. “Thanks for the assist, Delta. We’re taking new position to wait for pickup. See you back home.”
Satisfied they had put enough distance between them and the mortar strikes, Gus signaled for the group to take cover on either side of the wide, deserted city street. The three kids joined Gus, covered front and back by abandoned parked cars. Save for the continuous hammering of the Covenant position, a tense silence had settled over the Boston streets. Feeling the three pairs of scared, tired eyes on him, Gus sighed and put his hand to his throat to assuage the newly recruited civilians’ fears.
“Alpha actual, this is Charlie actual. Be advised, we have to move the rally point six hundred meters south. Please acknowledge.”
The COM obstinately hissed static at the perplexed dark-skinned Marine. Gus’ eyebrows came together in a peeved expression. He clicked open the COM again. “Alpha team, this is Charlie actual. Do you copy?”
“I’ve got prime real estate to watch our six, so I’m eyes off for Alpha.” McHale informed Gus and the kids from across the street. “You got a visual yet?”
“Not yet—wait!” Reynolds pointed happily at a tiny pair of headlights sweeping into view far away from the surviving troops. “Looks like Warthog lights, but I don’t have a great look at it.”
“Do they usually drive that fast?” Tim asked, squinting into the distance as the vehicle approached at an alarming rate.
The bright, piercing white of the Warthog’s headlights bounced and shimmied with the vehicle’s rough approach, splaying Tim, Ron, and Rachel’s dirty, glistening faces with harsh shadows and leaving their vision with popping bright spots.
“Uh,” Ron started nervously, taking a wary step back, “The ‘Hog’s not stopping…”
“Cap?” Gus called with an uneasy tone. Tim and Rachel both took steps back with Parsons. Reynolds repeated his hail as the headlights continued to speed closer, this time veering dangerously right and issuing a thin screech of rubber on cement. All three of the kids now jumped with alarm.
Ron Parsons turned on his heel, actively searching for places to hide. “What the hell’s going on?” He asked, panicked. The Master Guns hushed him angrily.
“Jack, answer me.”
Rachel Lynch chewed on her bottom lip, remembering the near death experience with the runaway refugee truck only hours ago. She instinctively reached for Tim’s arm, pulling him away from the street and back toward the relative safety of the abandoned buildings. Gus made a frustrated grunt and flicked the safety off his own assault rifle.
“Jack! Come on!”
The speeding Warthog was now only four blocks away and appeared to be speeding up, dipping as it hit a pothole and then rearing up with a roar of turbines, squealing tires, and whining transmission; flying in the air for a full second like a predator lunging at its prey. Reynolds swore aloud and shot a burst of tracer fire above the runaway Warthog as a warning.
“Take the shot, Master Guns!” McHale hissed over the COM. “It’s hostile!”
“UNSC hostile challenge!” Gus barked angrily, free hand twisting with strain against the grip of the rifle. “Respond positive ID or you will be fired upon! Hostile challenge! Orbital!”
“Oh shit,” Ron breathed, taking unsteady aim at what was once O’Shea’s vehicle. “Oh shit. Oh shit.”
“I say again! Orbital! Respond or you will be fired upon!”
They could barely see the light play off the front “tusks” of the vehicle’s winch; the bright headlights now clearly illuminated everything around them save the occupants within. Gus fired another warning burst before emphatically waving for the survivors to take cover.
“Don’t fuck around!” McHale yelled. “Shoot it!”
“The next shots will kill you!” Gus yelled, nearly pleading with the ghost driver of the reckless speeding vehicle. “I say again, hostile challenge! Orbital! Orbital!”
“Reach!” O’Shea’s frantic shout rang in everyone’s ears. “Jesus! Reach! Hold your fucking fire and clear the street! My driver’s down and I’m steering this thing from the passenger side!”
Tim was awestruck at how calm and collected the Master Gunnery Sergeant was after hearing the news. McManus knew if he were in the same situation, facing a speeding Warthog head on and being instructed to get out of the way, that he would probably run through a wall, screaming and most likely pissing himself. The Master Guns casually turned back and headed toward the kids like a commuter on Tuesday morning.
With less than a hundred feet to go, a body suddenly slumped out of the speeding Warthog and the front end of the vehicle dipped dangerously forward to the accompaniment of screeching brakes. The drab gray military machine wobbled back and forth perilously, took a nauseating swerve to the left, then swept back across the street in a wide fishtail and a harsh rocking stop. Captain Jack O’Shea’s helmet bounced off the steering column like a rag doll and the leader of Boston’s human resistance let it rest against the wheel for a moment of silent anguish.
“Bus is leaving!” O’Shea finally groaned, twisting his body to fall out of the driver’s seat, clutching his right shoulder and grimacing as Reynolds rushed to help him up.
Everyone jumped up and ran for the vehicle as fast as humanly possible, some too tired to stop themselves and content to bump into the side of the Warthog. Tim, Ron, Rachel, and McHale made a beeline for the back of the troop transport, saddened to see two other bodies in the back, armor and flesh scorched with plasma burns. They threw the dead Marines out with as much dignity as he could, unable to spare the space in the back. Reynolds tried to wipe the congealing red liquid off the inside of the windshield but only managed to leave faint red streaks across his field of vision. O’Shea nudged his old friend in the shoulder to stop.
“We gotta go, Gus!” He said. “Worry about it later!”
“Everyone hang on!” Reynolds shouted into the back. Behind him, veteran soldiers secured extraneous equipment and held on tight to the roll bars. Tim McManus reached for where the seat belts should be and suddenly remembered the conversation with O’Shea about the baffling lack of seat belts in a notoriously top heavy vehicle. Tim threw his hands up in realization and frustration at the same moment that Gus gunned the accelerator and jerked the wheel in a lunch-losing u turn.
The momentum once again threw McManus forward and on his way out of the vehicle. Luckily, Ron and Rachel were attentive to McManus’ predicament and threw their arms around him just in time, pulling his body back just before he could be ejected from the Warthog. The powerful, unwieldy troop transport whipped around in a squeal of rubber on concrete and took off like a shot back the way it came.
O’Shea scrutinized every detail of the darkening city around them as he opened a channel on the COM. “All teams, this is the Captain,” he announced. “Everyone capable of pulling out of the AO should be clear by now. If you’re not, tag your location for search and rescue on TACMAP so we can come and pick you up. O’Shea out.”
The ruby pink of Boston’s last sunset had faded away into a moody purple, lit by crackling structure fires and the last gasps of storefront displays, billboards, and the odd traffic signal. Had it not marked the end of the world, McManus might have said it felt peaceful. The constant cool breeze blowing past his bruised and bloodied face, the relative silence of a completely deserted city, the gentle rocking motion of the chassis and zipping of wheels over street, all of these combined to do their best to put a jittery yet utterly exhausted Tim McManus to sleep. It was only after the Warthog hit a minor bump that the brown-haired recruit noticed that Rachel’s head had been resting on his shoulder. Lynch groggily shook her head.
“Sorry,” she said, sheepish smile forming in the dark. “Guess I nodded off.”
Parsons once again turned around in his seat to stare in disbelief. “You nodded off during the apocalypse,” he said, eyebrows arched, shaking his head. “Wow. Just…wow.” The sarcastic blonde sharpshooter turned back around in his seat, grumbling.
Tim nodded towards the muttering Ron, keeping his eyes on Rachel’s. “That is kinda unbelievable,” he agreed.
Rachel laughed for the first time since they had crossed the Charles River, a bright bulb of self-conscious levity bursting in front of Tim’s eyes. It was impossible to imagine that he heard that life changing sound for the first time this morning. McManus had to admit to himself that he was now addicted to it.
“I don’t know how!” Rachel said, playfully defensive. “I’m just used to falling asleep whenever I can. When we went on Pyramid Ball road trips you had sleep on shuttles and all sorts of really uncomfortable transports. I guess I’m just really good at it.”
McManus’ eyes would have been wide open if not for squinting against the rushing wind. Instead he tilted his head to the side, intrigued. “What? You played Pyramid?”
The pair braced themselves quickly as the Warthog took a sharp right turn. From what Tim could see, Rachel wore a sneakily proud expression. “Division one, First Team ‘51 All Sol,” she shrugged with her good shoulder. “No big deal though.” The stunning survivor wore the look of facetious smugness for another half second later before it went completely blank with fear.
Tim stared at her with concern, watching as her lips moved but could not produce any sound. Lynch’s eyes were huge with unblinking terror, transfixed on something above and behind McManus. Tim whipped around to face the back of the Warthog and see what was the matter. The blinding white light of the Phantom’s searchlight answered that question immediately.
The large, bulbous alien drop ship swooped down from the high smoky haze like a freighter bearing down on a dingy in fog. The telltale haunting moan of the ship’s engines reverberated along the façades of the tall buildings, buffeting the ears of the weary humans below and sending the inexperienced kids’ hands straight up to their ears.
“Holy shit!” McHale yelled, shrinking in his seat and staring at the purple propulsion discs on the Phantom’s undercarriage. “Phantom! Right on top of us!”
Reynolds did not wait for the order; the wily veteran threw the nimbler Warthog into another death-defying u turn and zoomed past the Covenant’s wide sweeping searchlight. Three-pronged automated defensive turrets swiveled along the underside of the dropship and tried in vain to track down the elusive humans, losing them around a tight street corner. Not to be outdone, the Phantom pilot responded expertly to the evasive driving, bringing the ship into a hasty ascent and then pushing the limits of the craft’s structural integrity in an almost absurd 180 degree turn.
The Master Gunnery Sergeant jerked the wheel left, gaining speed and putting precious space between them and the dominant aircraft. “I thought you said you lost it!” Gus shouted to Jack O’Shea. O’Shea craned his neck to look behind the ‘Hog from the passenger seat and swore.
“It’s not the same one!” Jack yelled back as the Phantom fired blindly above them, bringing down the side of a nearby building like an eroding sand castle and causing an avalanche of skittering bricks that almost rolled the vehicle.
“How do you know that?” Reynolds asked, barely avoiding a massive crater in the middle of the street.
“This one’s towing another Wraith!” O’Shea explained as calmly as he could. Everyone behind the two leaders bolted upright in shock and started scanning the violet fog above with more urgent purpose. The Phantom did not disappoint, once again sliding down out of the haze. This time, however, the Phantom materialized ahead of the fleeing humans and leisurely rotated to get in ideal position to block the Warthog’s escape route.
Tim could feel every muscle tense up as the hanging turrets slid smoothly into a good line of sight directly in front of them. The Warthog was charging into the teeth of the enemy drop ship at an insane rate of speed.
“Everybody hang on!” Gus yelled over his shoulder, forcing the notoriously roll prone ‘Hog into a sickening display of weaving, braking, and accelerating faster than most of them ever thought possible. The Phantom was descending gradually, careful to not get caught guessing again, perfectly content to let its auto turrets handle the insurgents.
A screeching tone blared from the center console of the vehicle. “Turrets hot!” O’Shea warned as three sets of hostile automated weapons tried to acquire the dark gray transport. Each spat out crimson and electric blue flashes of energy that boiled the pavement below and behind the Warthog, creating myriad craters and sinkholes behind, in front, and around the humans.
“Should we shoot back?” Ron shouted, shielding his face with his hands as hot concrete sprayed around him. Tim and Rachel looked back anxiously at Lance Corporal McHale, who was gripping the roll bars with white-knuckle force and staying as low in his seat as possible.
“If it’ll make you feel better!” McHale shouted in what Tim realized was fear. “Cap!” The Lance Corporal pleaded over the COM. “We can’t take much more o’ this!”
“We don’t have to!” O’Shea called back. “Look where we are!”
Tim squinted in the dusk to see if he recognized anything. All the buildings were blurry details that were only instantaneously illuminated by the turret fire, but as the Harvard Junior focused his attention ahead, he could see the dying blue flame of the Wraith tank that had been destroyed minutes ago.
“We’re going back to the Black Rose?” Tim looked over O’Shea, confused. “What for?”
Captain O’Shea ducked instinctively as a blast struck mere feet from his door. He reached into his armor and after quick search withdrew a knobby gray device that Jack held overhead like a humble athlete with the championship trophy.
“Because it’s wasteful to leave eighty pounds of plastic explosives behind,” O’Shea answered calmly, palming the detonator.
For a miniscule fraction of time, the Black Rose bar looked like it had suddenly become pregnant with light. A blinding, brilliant illumination shone out of every hole, every crack, every opening. The solid steel and brick walls themselves bulged out in gentle curves before giving birth to righteous destruction.
The mass of charges left in the bar exploded with such force that a lone bar stool that had miraculously survived the blast flew end over end above the Warthog, barely missing Tim’s exposed head. It continued its flight over two blocks and smashed itself into kindling against a building behind them. Tim, Ron, and Rachel all turned away from the giant flash of light and fire, ears ringing. McManus felt something warm slowly running down his right ear but fought the desire to confirm his ear was bleeding. Instead, he looked ahead and felt dark joy at the devastation the attack caused.
The surprise attack threw the hovering hostile ship in a rough push against the structures across the street, momentarily off lining the turrets while the pilot focused on regaining control of the dropship.
“Punch it, Gus!” O’Shea implored. “Do it now!”
Gus Reynolds grit his teeth as he smashed his foot down on the accelerator, shoving everyone backwards, chassis shuddering and creaking with strain as each separate bump threatened to flip the vehicle. The Phantom was only a block away now, hardly fifteen feet off the ground, Wraith tank hanging from its underside like a wolf still clenched to its mother’s teat.
From this distance everyone could see half the auto turrets sparking, one in particular swinging free, held only by strong wires that eventually gave way and dropped the lethal weapon to the pulverized road. The right side of the Phantom was hardly recognizable, looking as if a giant sander had been applied to the outer shell for hours. Venting coolant like an iridescent waterfall and listing dangerously to one side, the Phantom began climbing again. The surviving turrets did not wait for a firing solution; they poured forth indiscriminate alien wrath by the bucket load.
“Come on, bastards!” Reynolds roared, more to himself than anyone else, “I haven’t got all night!”
“McHale.” O’Shea did everything in his power to make his voice sound even instead of anxious. “Make ready with the launcher.”
“On it!” McHale responded, ducking a head down to grab the gray and brown rocket launcher and then following up with a strong curse word. “Last rocket, sir!”
“Phantom’s down but not out,” O’Shea instructed the eager Lance via COM, “You have to put a rocket on that dropship or we’re all dead. Don’t worry about the Wraith, just hit that ship.”
“Master Guns, left turn at Peterborough street on my mark,” Jack’s voice took on a twinge of strain. “Wait one…mark!”
Despite a growing inability to see, the Phantom’s labored moan still pursued the fleeing humans and reminded them they were far from safe. Tim’s eyes shot from spot to spot, absolutely sure he saw the craft descending from one side, then another altogether. McHale slapped him on the shoulder before Tim went completely crazy.
“Hey,” Adam’s gruff bark snapped Tim back into the moment, “hold on to my belt here so I don’t go flying off this wreck when I’m shooting. And watch the blowback! It’s minimal, but it’ll still burn your face off if you’re right behind me!”
Tim nodded weakly, then pointed franticly over the young veteran’s shoulder as the Phantom once again dropped out of the smoke layer to hunt. The Warthog’s threat radar shrieked wildly in response, blinking several shades of angry red.
“Turrets hot!” O’Shea yelled back to the rear. “Take the shot, Lance Corporal!”
“Gimme a sec,” Adam protested, squinting through the launcher’s targeting scope. “I don’t have a lock.”
“We don’t have time for a lock!” Jack roared. “You know procedure! If that Phantom’s still on us by the time we’re in visual range with the subway, they’re not letting us in!”
As if to prove his point, the COM chirped to life in everyone’s ear with a middle-aged man’s clipped, career military voice. “Warthog tag alpha, Warthog tag alpha,” the COM crackled and fizzled, “This is conductor. We’re tracking a large airborne bogey in your sector, please acknowledge.”
“We’re taking care of it, conductor,” O’Shea stole a furious look over his shoulder. “McHale! Fire your weapon! Now!”
“I’ve got tone!” The Lance Corpral exclaimed, pulling the trigger decisively. “Rocket away!”
Everyone, except Gus at the wheel, watched the rocket’s path with equal parts helplessness and hope. The explosive projectile leaped out of the tube and immediately deployed tiny fins to aid the computer in reaching its target. At first the rocket veered sharply left and away from the Phantom, causing everyone’s hearts to drop into their stomachs. Then, just as it seemed their last hope was destined to fly off into the night sky, the rocket snapped right like a dangerous snake identifying danger, throwing itself into a tight short corkscrew before slamming into the open troop bay in the back of the dropship. Secondary explosions ripped through the Phantom and it immediately lost altitude, plunging nose first toward the harsh streets of Boston to the cheers of the humans ahead of it.
With only twenty feet left to impact, the Phantom disengaged the locks on the towed Wraith tank, blowing it downwards with the sound of a hundred pistons going off at once. The ejection gave the dropship a few extra seconds of lift, but its fate was sealed from the moment the rocket hit.
The Wraith hit the ground with the force of a bowling ball being dropped in a sandbox, colliding violently with the road and instantly destroying the tank’s propulsion system. The front support gunner’s head snapped downwards at the moment of impact, crushing the alien’s skull instantly but still leaving the main tank operator inside unaccounted for.
In front of the tank, the Phantom itself became a groaning, shrieking mess as it dove downwards at tremendous speed. Its left rear engine, a sleek, bladed turbine spewing bright electric teal that caused the air around it to shimmer and sway, blew out ten feet above street level and caused the craft to list hopelessly left. It smashed into the ground nose first, bounced like a discarded ball, then slid down the road and drove a deep trench into the concrete. As it came to its final stop, the right rear engine exploded as well, detonating ammunition stores and the main power supply, shattering the ship and tingeing Boston’s last light in a glacial blue.
“Did you see that!” McHale whooped, pointing ecstatically. “Did you fucking see that? That’s right, bitch! That’s right! That just happened!”
At that moment, the wheels of the Warthog hit a harsh bump, and Tim stared over the side of the transport to see they were now literally driving on rails. McManus could not help but compare the sound to the old timey roller coasters he used to ride as a kid. The COM jubilantly jumped to life.
“Warthog tag alpha, this is conductor. What the hell was that?”
O’Shea smiled to himself. “Conductor, McHale took out a Phantom with a rocket while in a moving Warthog.”
“You think cap’s fucking lying?” McHale crowed, taking off his helmet and tapping the side of the dark gray cover proudly, “ That’s hall of fame shit! I’ve got visual evidence right ‘ere on helmet ca—”
Lance Corporal McHale dropped the helmet in surprise as a white-blue Wraith plasma shell dropped twenty feet away, bucking the Warthog slightly and sending the protective cover bouncing away behind them.
“Tank fire!” Adam yelled, shoving the kids down as another shell landed closer.
“Warth- tag -pha, -his is conduct-,” the disembodied voice shorted in and out, “We have -isual on the Wrai-. It’s immobile—looks like…fire from the inside. Recommend…underground now and out of sight.”
“Copy that, conductor!” Jack responded, holding a hand to his throat while clutching desperately onto the Warthog’s door frame. “We’re last in! Seal blast doors behind us! Push it, Master Guns!”
Parsons looked back in horror as the Wraith’s damaged and corrupted power cells blew it apart from the inside just after the Covenant tank shot off its last plasma mortar. “Incoming!” He yelped.
“Everyone hang on!” Gus yelled, tightening his grip on the steering wheel and staring ahead like a man possessed.
O’Shea turned completely around in the passenger seat and started smacking the helmets of the soldiers up front. “Brace brace brace!” He screamed as confidently as possible before redundantly informing the driver of their situation. “Gus?”
The inky black entrance to the subway tunnel was expanding exponentially to swallow the transport, but Tim doubted they would make it. Reynolds agreed.
“I can’t turn or we’re dead!” Reynolds shouted over the rushing wind, stealing the briefest of looks over his shoulder. “We’re not gonna make it! I hate Warthogs!”
“Heads down!” Jack yelled at the kids in the back, who were now staring, stupefied, at the incoming blue sun against the blackened evening sky. O’Shea began punching the dashboard in anger. “Go faster, you son of a bitch!”
Tim risked a glance back at the incoming subway entrance and felt dread line his stomach like heavy ice. There was no way they were going to make it, and even if they did, the splash of plasma would take the rear off the transport, Tim and his friends included.
This isn’t fair.
McManus snapped 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.
McManus’ heart jumped into his throat and he instinctively flinched as he felt the back of the Warthog lift up with the searing heat and azure flash of the shell hitting the tracks. Rachel’s eyes were open wide with terror and her jaw was clenched tight enough for Tim to see the veins bulging in her neck. At that instant the ‘Hog’s front wheels jumped the train tracks and the heavy duty vehicle wrenched sickeningly to one side, jerking everyone’s heads toward the middle roll bar and pounding the sides of their heads against the metal. Tim’s hearing dropped to nothing and purple, gold, red, and green stars flashed across his vision for the briefest of moments before everything went black.