Minutemen: The Crucible -Chapter 17-


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Minutemen: The Crucible

Chapter Seventeen: “The Life and Death of Tim McManus.”

McGoohan Hall
Harvard University
Boston, United North American Protectorate
September 1, 2552
Two months before the invasion of Earth

McGoohan Hall’s largest classroom was a hundred-seat cathedral designed to worship academia. Beige and baked red bricks towered over the students from every side, reaching up the impressive, ancient-looking domed ceilings. The progressive sunlight of each day sparkled through installed filters that in turn projected soothing, soft, inspiring rays of multi-colored light during the day and real-time constellations relative to the sky at night. To counteract the possibly distracting natural light display above, the ten tiers of evenly spaced workstations were all designed to focus the pupils’ attention down toward the stage-like lectern and the rail-thin professor behind its distinctly alter-like holograph projector.

The teacher’s knee-length formal jacket and bizarre white pants coupled with his hands and arms moving like some manic composer gave the class a more cultish feel, but Tim McManus was too busy thinking about beer.

The hazel-eyed Harvard Junior leaned back in his small leather chair, feeling the responsive nanomachines in the leather shimmy and move to make his new position as comfortable as possible. Tim tapped the stylus of his study tablet against a denim-sheathed knee to the beat of an unheard song and he sighed as he ruffled his long brown hair in anticipation of his emancipation.

The Interstellar Politics professor’s voice echoed against the bricks like a tropical bird’s mating call. “Everyone in the faculty urges you to attend the relief concert Saturday night and to welcome the class of ’56. All proceeds benefit the war refugees of Tribute colony.”

On cue, the study tablet of all ninety-five students winked crimson and white, showing details for Saturday night’s concert along with three buttons forcing the children to choose between if they were attending, might attend, or had no intention to attend. McManus sighed and stabbed his stylus at the “maybe” box, waiting for his teacher’s reaction. The long jacketed-cult leader Professor frowned.

“Ninety ‘maybes’,” He grumbled, “You cowards might as well just say ‘no.’”

McManus rolled his eyes from one of the back tiers, whipping around in his chair as a flash drive knocked into the back of his skull. Tim pushed the high collar of his new crisp fall jacket to playfully glare at his roommate, Dylan Winters, no doubt the perpetrator of the classroom crime. Indeed, Winter’s bright blue eyes shone with mischief, both from his last act and the fact that he was sandwiched between two very well dressed girls that Tim thought he recognized from Harvard’s dance team.

Winter’s dark brown skin contrasted sharply but stylishly against the sky-blue chalk stripes of his tailored suit, the home and away uniform of Harvard’s population of old money students. A slick, form hugging pink shirt lay beneath the suit, accompanied by a dark holopin attached to the lapel of his suit that read in stark black letters, “Remember Reach.” Despite the enormous wealth of Dylan’s family, Tim did not hesitate for a moment to flick the flash drive back at his friend when the Professor restarted his lecture.

“What’re we doin’ tonight?” Winters hissed at McManus and not-so-subtly nodded toward his companions on either side.

Tim McManus stopped tapping his stylus and looked over his shoulder with a look of betrayal. The secretly brilliant student, who knew the Professor’s lecture backwards, pointed the sleek writing utensil at his rich friend. “Um, I’m sorry, is it not the first weekend of the first school year we can legally drink? Because I’m reasonably certain tradition demands we defile ourselves at The Foxhole.”

“It’s like you live in my head.”

Tim laughed to himself. “It’s spacious enough.”

Dylan’s bright eyes narrowed conspiratorially. “Hey,” he breathed, leaning forward cautiously to avoid the Professor’s attention, “Remember last weekend of Relative Physics?”

Tim wagged his head as if jostling the memory out of his brain, “Kinda.”

Dylan leveled a knowing look at his buddy. “Class dismissed.”

McManus’ eyebrows shot up in recollection. “Oh.” He replied, finally putting all the pieces together. “Oh!”

Winters’ eyes twinkled as he glanced down at the droning teacher and the pupil’s sagging postures of boredom. Tim shook his head vehemently.

“We cased that for, like, two weeks.” McManus explained, now actively monitoring the Professor’s position and tone, “The firewalls here are way more sophisticated—”

Winters leaned back and shook his head sadly at the two attractive girls on either side. “Sorry girls,” he apologized, “I guess he’s grown complacent in his old age.”

The two old friends exchanged a series of looks that were a conversation in their own right. Finally Tim rolled his eyes. “Gimme your tab,” he sighed. “If anyone’s gonna get busted for this, it should be the guy whose folks bought the gym.”

“It was a library,” Winters corrected, but Tim was already hunched over Dylan’s study tablet, hands twitching over the glow of its display. The trust fund playboy draped an arm over one of the co-eds as he watched his friend with pride. After two minutes of frenzied but masked movement McManus finally slipped the tablet back under his arm and toward the waiting manicured hand of his colleague.

Dylan glanced at the smooth, thin black data pad, chuckled as he showed it off to the ladies, then tapped it with his pinky finger. Instantly, every student’s data pad faded out the lesson and replaced it with a jovial green and orange glow, accompanied by a bright white invitation in Gaelic font:

First weekend of the school year, the text message glowed in the same manner as the relief concert before. The legend is back and legal for the first time. Foxhole happy hour. Right now. Class dismissed.”

Tim shrugged innocently and lightly tapped the “Attending” box as he stood up, followed moments later by the entirety of the large auditorium. Dylan Winters laughed out loud. “Ninety-five attendings,” he crowed, slapping his friend on the back. “A new record!”

“Ninety-six,” McManus corrected, tossing his backpack onto a shoulder and nodding down at the exit. “I think the Professor beat us out the door.”

“You,” Dylan Winters said with not a little pride, “are a legend, man. They’ll sing your song forever.”

Location Unknown
Evacuated city of Boston
October 20, 2552
Night

Get that armor off him right now!”

“Hold him steady…”

“Oh my God. Tim. Tim?”

“—One get that damn girl back!

“Fuck. Fuck.”

“How the hell is a civvie in armor like—”

“He’s one of those kids, dude.”

“Oh shit.”

“Oh, that is one big—”

“How the hell did they not see that in the crash.”

“It was pitch black! I couldn’t see shit!”

“I need this area crashed for surgery now.

“Yes, sir.”

Now!”

“It’s a goddamn mess. He’s not gonna make it.”

Tim!”

“Spreader.”

“Spreader.”

“Jesus Warthog-riding Christ.”

“How the hell did they miss this?”

“Scapel. Suction. Right there. Yes, there. You want me to hold it?”

“Pressure’s dropping!”

“I can see that. Make yourself useful and put pressure on the—”

“—Massive internal bleeding. Doc, this kid’s a reach.”

“Sixty over forty! We’re losin’ him!”

“We can save some of the others, doc. This kid’s gone.”

“Put some goddamn pressure on the goddamn central valve!”

“Tim!”

“Someone get the Captain on the COM. Tell him we’re minus one.”

“Tim!”

McGoohan Hall
Harvard University
Boston, United North American Protectorate
September 1, 2552
Two months before the invasion of Earth

Um, are you alive?

Tim huffed a sigh as he tapped an irritated response back to Dylan’s text message. It was hard enough for McManus to stay out of the hustle and bustle of hallway traffic, but he felt ridiculous leaning against the rough bricks of the Political Science building’s hall like some wannabe tough guy from the coming of age holos. He was being stood up. Again.

Danica said she’d meet me after class, Tim’s message finally went through the flurry of electronic messages scooting invisibly through the ether. He could almost hear his roommate groaning in mock anguish all the way across campus.

Tim’s shoulders sagged as a small video flipped onto screen, showing Dylan’s two companions from class executing a very sophisticated -if risqué- dance routine. Two italicized red words flew in underneath it. Dump. Her.

No, #582. We’re giving us a shot. Lay off, you know she knows you hate her.

I prefer that. Dylan’s response popped up immediately. If you will excuse me, I just realized I’m typing text messages to you while there are two exceedingly flexible babes in front of me. I must be losing your mind.

McManus shook his head, now oblivious to the scene around him. I’m sending them your STD screen, he threatened, then shut off his tablet to instill some fake fear in his old friend.

“Tim McManus?”

The Harvard student looked up in surprise from his tablet and ended up staring at a gleaming silver eagle perched atop a globe and the banner reading United Nations Space Command. The young, well-built kid was so surprised that he missed the easy maneuver of slipping his tablet into his open backpack and dropped it on the smooth polished hallway flood. McManus retreated into a crouch and collected his tablet immediately, all the while keeping an eye on the remarkably still military recruiter that was still staring at the Harvard student in bemused expectation.

Tim was no stranger to military recruiters. They were a constant presence, always appearing at primary school assemblies, posting ads with adventurous and heroic images all over high school hallways, and inquiring weekly about Tim and his friends’ latent desires to join officer candidate school. This one, however, was different; twenty pounds, two ranks, and three cup sizes different to be precise. McManus snapped out of it and he used all of his effort to stare only at her extended hand.

“Lieutenant Commander Nadine Ashra. You are Tim McManus?”

Tim’s head tilted to the side like a bewildered puppy as if he himself were not sure. “Yes?”

Nadine smiled triumphantly, bright white beaming out against smooth olive skin, her long elegant neck bare against her sterile regulation updo. It was only when Tim took the time to study her features that he noticed the faint pink scar running from the bottom of her left ear to the point of her chin. “Splendid,” she said. “May I walk with you?”

McManus took a wary look over his shoulder and scanned the crowd for some sign that this was an elaborate prank. All he saw were oblivious students and maybe one or two cheeky passerby checking out the way Ashra’s dress grays hung off a figure toned by active duty. Tim cautiously looked at the unassuming officer in front of him.

“Sure.”

One awkward door holding attempt later, the unlikely pair of Lieutenant Commander and Harvard student were walking briskly though crimson-clad masses and the invigorating scent of freshly cut grass. Nadine put her face directly into the warm sunshine and breathed in appreciatively before shifting to look at McManus. As she spoke, Tim detected the hint of an educated accent that he tentatively placed at the inner colony world Coral.

“Do you know why I like coming out to universities, Mr. McManus?”

Tim shrugged. “No one here is an eight-foot tall alien with genocidal tendencies?”

Ashra faked a chuckle. “Close. I like to look at all these bright, energetic, motivated students and know there’s another George Shaw, another Wallace Fujikawa, another Preston Cole walking around right in front of me.”

Tim fell back for a moment to hide his eye roll. “There might be another Picasso out there, too, but until you arm paintbrushes it’s not all that thrilling for you yet, is it?”

The striking Lieutenant Commander shifted her gaze from the meandering scholars back to McManus. She studied him for a moment, still keeping pace with Tim’s longer strides. “You don’t think much of the military, do you, Mr. McManus?”

McManus gave the UNSC officer as close to a scolding look as he thought safe. “That’s not what I said. Anyone who keeps the surface of this planet green and not a foot-thick layer of molten glass is ok in my book. I’m just not the soldiery type.”

Ashra withdrew a data pad from her pants pocket and glanced at it. “If you say so. Isn’t your next class in the other direction?” McManus’ eyes narrowed suspiciously as he sidestepped an oblivious blabbering tour guide.

“Study group.” The suspicious look quickly morphed into a puzzled expression and an incredulous tone. “Are you…watching me?” He laughed.

Ashra’s coffee brown eyes flashed fiercely even in the warm mix of golden sunshine filtered through auburn leaves. “Please, Mr. McManus. The fate of our species is at stake. If you don’t think we keep close tabs on potential high-value operators, you’re sadly mistaken.” Nadine stole a quick measuring glance at McManus. “By the way, this is usually the part in the conversation when you ask me to call you Tim.”

The Junior’s hazel eyes flitted around as he started to wonder what this was all about. “This is also the part where I remind you with respect that I just said I’m not the soldiery type,” Tim offered. “You wanna talk about the Red Sox?”

They walked on in silence for most of a minute, buffeted on all sides by impassioned academic conversations and the occasional whine of a majestic commuter shuttle passing overhead heading toward downtown. A dozen or so gawkers ceased their chatter to watch the striking pair stride quickly across the quad. Tim did not know if Lieutenant Commander Ashra was aware of the new curious looks. If she was she made no indication.

“I have to be honest with you, Mr. McManus. Whether you like it or not you have our attention.”

Tim put his hands up to stop the conversation. “Wait. Back up the bus. Whom are you talking about?”

Nadine looked at Tim with the calm expression of a chess grandmaster that saw victory ten moves ahead. “The Office of Naval Intelligence,” she smiled. “Who did you think I was talking about?”

McManus now openly looked around the quad, turning in a complete circle. “Okay,” he groaned, flustered. “I don’t really get it; but it’s funny. Who sent…Dylan? Was this his idea?”

The Lieutenant Commander continued her pitch seamlessly. “Your mental agility, your tenacity, your pure ability, you have great potential but you lack the means to realize it. You’re unfocused, Mr. McManus; you need to be put on a singular path and ONI wants to show you that path.  I can promise you if you work with us you’ll accomplish things you never knew you could. You’ll hardly ever see combat—”

Tim could not contain a quick burst of a laugh. “Says the Lieutenant Commander with the five inch scar on her face.”

Ashra put a slender hand to her cheek as if she had forgotten about the ugly stripe across her otherwise remarkable features. McManus’ eyes dropped to the pavement and he remembered that every scar had a story and few were pleasant. Tim had never been so glad to see the black painted façade and bright orange doors of The Foxhole.

“That was out of line,” Tim muttered in a half apology, “I have to go. Good luck with your recruiting.” He turned quickly and started purposefully toward the bar, though he only got three steps away before Nadine’s words stopped him dead in his tracks.

“We’re going to fail you.”

McManus looked over his shoulder, bewildered. “What’d you say?”

Lieutenant Commander Ashra seemed to grow a full foot with confidence, content to let clutches of unaware students walk through their conversation. “I know you better than you know yourself, Mr. McManus. You can’t be given a choice. You’ve changed majors six times in the last two years. Why? Because you’re bored? You have the raw intelligence to adapt and excel in new tasks, but you lack the focus and desire to see any of them through. Because of that lack of focus, you’re going to be six credits short at graduation and you will be immediately recommended to mandatory service.”

Any sympathy that Tim might have felt before vanished in a wave of hot anger. McManus marched back to the composed UNSC officer and stood over her ominously. He was standing so close to Nadine that he could smell the traces of a citrusy perfume.

Lieutenant Commander Ashra’s face remained as neutral as it had when they first started their conversation, and it enraged Tim McManus. The Harvard student fought hard against the creeping chill of panic combined with his skyrocketing heart rate.

“You listen to me.” Tim demanded darkly,  “You can’t make me do anything. I’ve got nearly two years left. I’m going to graduate and you are going to stay. The hell. Away from me.”

Even in the shadow of the larger, increasingly agitated student, the Lieutenant Commander returned Tim’s stern instructions with a look that mixed boredom with sympathy. Ashra knew it drove people crazy, doubly so with subjects displaying heightened anxiety or anger. She had worked on that look for days; Ashra had dozens of trained reactions and expressions in her arsenal, all designed to provoke or increase selected emotions. Psych said this one would work on Tim, and Nadine once again mentally congratulated the department.

“Mr. McManus, the simple truth is it’s not your decision. If you do get your act together and somehow get the credits to graduate, many of those credits will simply disappear. You’ll either sign up for service or you will be pressed into it. The less you resist, the more perks you can enjoy now. I suggest you start appreciating our personal attention and the opportunities you’re going to have to save humanity and simply walk this path.”

Tim threw his arms in the air. “Humanity? You’re threatening a kid! I’ll join the goddamned priesthood to get away from you people!”

Ashra glanced down at her beeping data pad, completely ignoring his tone and not in the least bit worried that Tim would suddenly leave. “There are seventeen members of the clergy in Special Forces,” she muttered before tapping the screen and returning her attention to the livid hazel-eyed kid in front of her. She wagged the ruggedized data pad in her hand and shrugged.

“Gotta run,” Nadine said brightly, ignoring Tim’s reddening features. “Nice to finally meet you in person, Mr. McManus. Looking forward to working with you.” With that, the Lieutenant Commander turned on her immaculately polished heels and walked away, leaving the incredulous student in her wake. After a few steps Ashra stopped, looked over her shoulder, and tapped her forehead with embarrassment.

“I forgot,” she said, cheerily chagrined. “The Office fronted your tab today at the Foxhole. We really enjoyed your stunt with the class-wide invitation. Consider it a signing bonus. Also, your girlfriend is cheating on you.”

Tim could only stare confounded as the boxy, powerful figure of Nadine Ashra melted into the crowd, her dress grays fading in a technicolor sea of backpacks, jackets, and suits. He stood there on the Harvard side of the street for a few more seconds before lashing out in rage, kicking a trash barrel so hard the people walking by him all jumped back in alarm. McManus could only mumble an apology as he crossed the street without looking and made a beeline for the bright orange doors of the bar. Through all the murderous thoughts surging through his head, one stood out like a nagging nightmare.

What do I do now?


Address unknown
Evacuated city of Boston
October 20, 2552
Night

Tim’s head was a bowl of soup wrapped in cotton balls that were soaked in gasoline and ignited with a road flare. Every second his eyelids fluttered open was filled with stinging white light that obscured his vision almost as much as the darkness. Even with his eyes closed, shadows played across the luminous crimson and filled him with anxiety and confusion. After what seemed like weeks he forced his eyes open and willed his vision to adjust. His lips seemed glued together and his body refused basic commands. McManus had to put effort into drawing breath for a stuttering question.

“Wh—What is going…Who…?”

A tense voice swam out of the blinding ether into McManus’ ears, urging calm but sounded like he believed none of it. “Tim, I need you to stay still. You’ve lost a lot of blood. You need to relax.”

The sentence had the opposite effect. McManus’ eyes opened wider and he blinked away involuntary moisturizing tears. He tried to move his head but it seemed about six times heavier than it should have been.

“Where am I?”

“You’re safe,” the voice reassured him. “Your Warthog wrecked in the lev tunnel—”

Tim sat upright so quickly the unseen caretaker could not get out another word. Multicolored stars flew across the Harvard student’s vision and his bowling ball head suddenly transitioned to the weight of a helium balloon as the traumatic memories of the day rebooted in his brain. He blacked out again for a moment, coming to like a student nodding off in class.

The man’s voice became urgent, and a large, rough hand did its best to ease him back into the squeaky discomfort of whatever was supporting Tim. “Easy now! Don’t push it.”

The student tried to keep his eyes open and focused as the room swam around him. Coughs and weak groans drifted all around the Harvard Junior; hastily erected construction lights flickered on and off as the ceiling shook from the impact of a distant blast above. McManus tried to protest against his still hazy caregiver, discovering in the process that someone had removed his body armor and his ribcage felt constricted. He lifted up the light gray UNSC t-shirt someone had put on him to reveal heavy bandaging around his torso. A long dull red streak reached from the top of his stomach to his hip.

“Wait,” Tim said with as much strength as he could. “My friends…I was with a—a guy and a girl. Did they make it? Are they…?”

“They’re perfectly fine,” Medical Officer Harold Ibanez reassured Tim, nodding his headbanded brow to McManus’ right. McManus turned his head to see Rachel Lynch sitting up straight on the edge of her bed with the expression of a person who had just woken up from a nightmare.

The beautiful redhead’s dislocated shoulder was once again nestled safely in a sterile white sling, and the other arm slowly came up to her slender bruised neck. At the moment her hand touched her neck Rachel had a brief emotional outburst, a burst of her signature bright laughter that lit the dingy field hospital while her face was filled with a sob of relief.

Row after row of cots and hospital beds with soldiers and refugees in various states of medicated repose were laid out behind the Boston College co-ed, but to the bright eyed student that had survived the end of the world, she was the only person in the low-ceilinged room.

“When they brought us in, they found something they missed in the crash,” McManus’ perfect girl said over a small sniffle trying to explain her emotional state. “You had internal bleeding all over from the wreck. I thought…they said you were going to die.”

“I feel fine,” Tim lied, but at least slightly relieved to put a name and cause behind the throbbing pain along his ribcage. He looked concerned at Lynch’s sling, memories of their struggle through Boston fighting for dominance in the front of his mind. “You ok?”

Rachel nodded enthusiastically before a sound of an irritated man clearing his throat sounded over Tim’s shoulder. McManus turned around as quickly as the stitching would let him to see his friend Ron Parsons; the lithe blonde sharpshooter lay in a small cot, long legs hanging over the edge, hands underneath his head and looking over at Tim with a face of mock anger and disappointment.

“Your mother and I were so worried,” He said, shaking his head. “You are grounded, mister.” Parsons would have continued his rant if he had not dissolved into a frightful fit of coughing. He covered his mouth with a white rag and stared at a splotch of greenish gray discharge.

Ron sighed and looked down at the layers of bandage wrapped around his chest and over the crusty gray of biofoam that saved his life from a gunshot wound. “You know they make the war holos look so cool, but for the last hour I’ve been coughing up bio-mucus, feeling sore in places I didn’t know I had, and my mouth tastes and feels like a gym sock. I didn’t get to pick up a turret and shoot while laughing my head off, like, once.”

Ibanez, satisfied with the readings on his pad, placed the data tablet back at the foot of McManus’ hospital bed and turned his attention to the motor mouthed Ron, gliding over to Parsons’ side on a short wheeled stool and taking his pulse before checking his bandages.

“Maybe if you would keep your mouth shut for thirty seconds you wouldn’t have to worry about rattling loose the biofoam and you’d actually heal faster.” Ron obeyed the command for twenty seconds, laying back down and letting the Marines’ combat medic examine him one last time, staring at the ceiling.

“Also,” Parsons said out of the corner of his mouth, “I accidentally saw some of your junk while they were doing surgery on you.”

“Gross,” Lynch frowned across the beds.

Harold Ibanez stood up with an optimistic look for the first time all day, snapping off his sterile latex gloves and expertly tossing them into a nearby trash can. “Mira,” he instructed, snapping his fingers once as if the kids were a pack of puppies, “This is very important, ok? No more combat ‘til I say so. No shooting, no running, no jumping,” Ibanez fixed a hard look at Tim and Rachel, “no humping.”

“Gross,” Now Parsons frowned from the other side of Tim, who had turned almost as red as Rachel’s hair.

Harold Ibanez bumped fists with the three kids, now openly beaming as he went down the line.

“What?” Tim McManus asked.

“You kids are my good luck charms,” Harold said, looking down at his own ruggedized, drab green data pad. “Gotta jet.” The amateur doctor took a few steps away, then turned to face them quickly, walking backwards in easy strides.

“We’re glad you made it.” He said genuinely, and then walked briskly down the long, depressing row of casualties. The gray and tan of his slimmed-down body armor shrank, dimmed, and finally fell out of view in the flickering, struggling light of the medical bay. Tim watched the whole way, head still swimming with conflicting emotions.

The former Harvard Junior first looked to Parsons since Ibanez had walked by his cot on his departure. The slightly shaggy blonde cook looked back at his friend with a relieved, yet resigned smile on his face.

“Dude, where are we?” Tim finally asked.

“Dunno.” Ron answered, looking around the space, “Not a whole lot to go on, but we’ve gotta be underground, right? They said we were going to a lev station.”

“Maybe they’re putting us on levs and evacuating the city,” Rachel guessed idly.

“So we made it,” Parsons said with as much pride as his burning chest would allow. “We did it.”

“We did something,” McManus replied, reclining back into his cot and squinting against the light from the improvised street construction light above him, “but I’m pretty sure we got our asses handed to us.”

“We lived,” Ron said, throwing his legs over the side of the cot and facing McManus, “us, a bunch of kids. We walked all over Boston. We fought in battles against Covenant and we fucking won.”

“‘One more such victory,’” Rachel quoted Pyrrhus from the other side of Tim, “‘and I will be lost.’”

“Whatever that means,” Parsons said dismissively, shaking his head.

“Rach’s right,” Tim said, eyes now scanning the ceiling suspiciously as a dull boom sounded far above and silt and dust skittered along the plastic roof above. “I’m not sure how we’re able to call this winning. The war’s over. We lost.”

“On the contrary,” Captain Jack O’Shea interrupted, causing the survivors to jump with surprise at his silent approach. The battered but sturdy veteran’s black and gray body armor was stained and its plates scorched; his face looked drawn and tired but his gray eyes flashed with renewed purpose. “The war just started.”

The Foxhole
Harvard University
Boston, United North American Protectorate
Evening of September 1, 2552
Two months before invasion of Earth

Tim McManus winced against the throbbing in his jaw and he tried to blink away the last of the popping, multi-colored flashes of pain scattered across his vision. The young Harvard student swiped the inside of his mouth to check for broken teeth. Satisfied, he swished the last of the coppery blood from his mouth and spat it out on the dark street with contempt.

“I’ve got a quick question,” he said with a slight groan, turning back around to face the five gruff, brutish-looking locals glaring down at him. “When you’re not out perpetuating the ‘Angry townie’ stereotype, what do you do for you?”

One hulking thug took a menacing step forward, pushing the soft upward curling bill of his Boston Bruins cap up on his head. Tim raised a pleading palm that stalled the tough guy for the moment.

“I’m serious!” McManus demanded with barely-concealed sarcasm, “Do you really spend your whole day beating up Harvard kids? Have you considered graffiti?”

Tim staggered to his feet, swaying but managing to steady himself against a discarded pile of beer kegs before holding his arms out in mock supplication. “You know what I’m talking about. Good old-fashioned, anti-authority slogans! ‘Screw the UNSC.’ ‘Screw Harvard.’ Stuff like that.”

McManus smiled a bit as the faces of the five angry young men twitched quizzically at the turn in conversation. He smiled even as he anticipated the result of his next sentence. “Just consider it. You’ve got to do something besides ganging up on drunk students and fucking each other in the ass.”

Tim barely had time to chuckle at his own joke before a lunchbox-sized fist smashed into his nose. The Harvard Junior fell back into the mass of empty metal beer vessels with a bouncing, ringing clash and dropped to a knee, grabbing at a gushing nosebleed.

“Id’s jud a suggedon!” He offered, taking a new fist to his chin that threw his exposed body to the ground. The bar’s heavy back door slammed open, flooding the dim open space with light and scattering the thugs like insects before they could really go to work on the chuckling, groaning Tim McManus. Seven incensed Harvard students charged out, two grabbing Tim by the shoulders and hoisting him up as the other five scrappy-looking students, all boasting Harvard Pyramid Ball holopins on their collars, grinned in eager anticipation of a brawl.

McManus winked at the enraged townies through a rapidly swelling eye, flashing a white smile smeared with spreading red. His roommate Dylan Winters looked down at his college buddy with a look of frustration and pity.

“Not that I don’t enjoy watching you make an ass out of yourself,” he chastised, “but you picked a fight with those dudes? You’ve been drinking since three! What’s got into you, man?”

Tim could only wipe a grimy sleeve over his bloody, slippery nose. “Bed nighd ever,” he sighed.

South Station Underground Refugee Camp
Evacuated city of Boston
October 20, 2552
Night

McManus tried not to hobble as he followed behind Captain O’Shea, passing dozens of improvised stretchers and hospital beds, his eyes twitching from the stuttering flickers of light from the lamps swinging above their heads. Even in the sporadic flashes of light and dark Tim could feel an unseen force pulling on him from all sides; he fought even harder to keep his eyes straight on the bobbing, heroic shoulders of the Marine Captain in front of them. Ex-Marine, Tim told himself for the twentieth time. Ex-Marine. Only Rachel’s voice confirmed what the former Harvard student felt.

“Anyone feel like you’re being watched?”

“You are.” Jack answered, never breaking stride toward the hanging strips of plastic that served as the field hospital’s main entrance and exit.

Tim’s resolve fell away and he glanced to his right, straight into the bandaged remaining eye of an elderly woman, her dutiful husband staring back and clutching to her hand as if letting go would hurl them apart and into space. McManus whipped his eyes back in shame, but not before meeting the stares of a half-dozen other wounded civilians.

“Why are they looking at us?” Tim asked in a barely-concealed whisper.

“Because,” O’Shea’s authoritative gravelly voice sounded regretful as he stopped at the exit and looked back at the children, “you’re heroes.”

“What?” Tim asked in near-shock, surprise still lingering in his throat and leaping out as a gasp as Captain O’Shea parted the strips of translucent material.

Jack and the three friends walked out into a massive underground cave, a thrumming cathedral of titanium, steel, sparks, glass, and flesh. Though each of them recognized where they were, none of the three survivors could believe it and none of them could speak.

“Welcome to South Station,” Captain Jack O’Shea declared with a small hint of pride, “Welcome home.”

The group stood in the center of the gargantuan transit hub and turned slowly around to attempt to take in their surroundings. The vaulted ceilings rose easily sixty feet above them, where uniformed Marines hung from cables and fastened towering light fixtures with fusion torches. The light sources were being assembled on the ground and raised to the ceiling via impossibly thin but flexible construction cables that were bolted into the ceiling and floor.

Though the lights were easily thirty feet long and looked like they weighed a metric ton, once completed they flew up towards the ceiling workers like balloons and were immediately soldered in place by the nimble, efficient hands of the Marines. Tim, Ron, and Rachel shielded their eyes as one panel blinked, sputtered, and then flared to life like creation itself.

“Time-of-day ambient lighting,” O’Shea answered their unspoken question as he shaded his eyes with a gloved palm. “Fights seasonal depression and regulates sleep cycles.”

A trio of Marines attached to thin, powerful cables rapidly descended from the towering ceiling, braking hard at minimum safe distance but still touching down lightly in front of the wandering group. One of them disengaged his harness with a bright metallic click, flicked up his welding mask, and handed over a ruggedized data pad to the Captain.

“Final patches are in place.” The shorter soldier reported proudly. “Timers and power sources are synced; we’ll be done a full fifteen mikes before sealing, sir.” All through the foreman’s report Tim, Ron, and Rachel could not help but notice the other two cabled soldiers were doing their best not to stare at the armored civilians.

The Captain saluted his approval and patted the Marine foreman on the shoulder before leading the group further into the cavernous maglev stop. If McManus had not witnessed the end of the world and took an extra moment to look beyond the surface, South Station would have appeared no different than any other day. Groups of people walked with unspoken purpose to unknown destinations, chatting about important details that the gifted student could not make out. Soldiers gestured animatedly at data pads and pointed at faraway interests around the humming space, fathers and mothers carried or led their bundled children away, instructing them sternly not to touch anything or dally around. It was only when the hazel-eyed Junior recalled that the Covenant had invaded Earth that the entire scene became bizarre.

Long, double-decker commuter trains ran through the station and separated the multi-acre platform into equal parts. O’Shea knocked on the side of a dormant car with the side of his fist as though it were a used automobile. “We’re hollowing out some of the lev cars for command and control posts, others will serve as civilian administration offices. The rest will be quarters to volunteer troops and officers. We’ve organized and effectively placed all the survivors in reasonably comfortable living quarters throughout the station and we’ve laid out the plans for a refugee camp. Storefronts and kiosks will let us maintain a semblance of trade.”

Parsons leaned back and scrutinized the ceiling once more. “But aren’t you afraid the Covenant will hear all this or detect that there’s something down here?”

Jack laid his palm against a smooth black surface next to a hastily armored subway car door. It slid open in a rattling grind of metal on metal as he led the group inside the car. The inside of the double-decker lev train had been gutted, seats ripped out and flipped to create individual work stations; the entire car had been converted into an ad hoc communications center. Organized chaos reigned in the narrow space as uniformed personnel hunched over flickering holographic panels and levitating wireframe maps of Boston. Occasionally the holos would splice and flicker out as the overworked, unseen power supply surged and fluttered; but the survivors seemed to be doing an admirable job. O’Shea’s black and gray armor and uniform blended into the backdrop as he walked the group through the communications car and a narrow metal stairway at the end.

“South Station’s shielded against radiation, insulated against heat, and thanks to taxpayer’s credits, completely silent to the street to reduce noise pollution.” O’Shea explained as he was handed yet another data pad from a Navy Ensign, the left arm of his gray duty uniform pinned at the elbow where the rest of his appendage was missing.

Jack returned the pad and nodded to the Ensign before turning back to the kids. “I don’t think the city council had an underground base of operations and refugee camp in mind when they made those modifications, but you won’t see me complaining.”

Ron Parsons looked over his shoulder as the subway door slid closed behind them. Through the sliver of light he could see a clutch of weary, battered refugees staring at him, dropping their gazes as soon as Ron’s eyes met theirs. He could not be sure if they were gawking at the scene inside or at him. The blonde, blue-eyed sharpshooter bit his lip in thought and fell in step with the commanding officer.

“Look,” Ron said hesitantly, making eye contact with McManus and Lynch as he spoke to O’Shea. “I know I’m good looking, but the gawking from strangers is starting to creep me out. Why does everyone think we’re heroes?”

“Because I told them so.” Jack answered nonchalantly. The Captain put gauntleted hand on the metal railing, his gray eyes looked up the dark, foreboding staircase. “Shall we?”

DUNSTER HOUSE DORMITORY
HARVARD UNIVERSITY
Morning of September 2, 2552
Two months before invasion of Earth

“It just dawned on me that going up here was a really stupid idea.”

Dylan Winters shook his head in disbelief as he hazily inspected his half-finished beer. Tim’s roommate hiccupped before shooting him a disapproving look, a look that the inebriated McManus could not see due to the cold can pressed against his swollen eye.

“Dude, you drank about four pitchers and called five aggro townies gay, but breaking into the roof of our dorm when you’re shitfaced with an eye swollen shut was when you realized you’re being a retard today? Does Danica know you’re up here?”

The question flew off with the crisp breeze coming off the ink black Charles River. Tim slouched forward and drank the contents of his cold compress, squinting toward the riverbank and the wavering platinum, gold, ruby, and emerald sparkles of Boston’s lights reflecting off the water.

“Danica’s cheating on me.”

Winters contemplated the scene and sighed, leaning back and putting his weight on one arm while he lifted the can to his lips and discovered after shaking the vessel that it was empty. “Think so or know so?”

“Both.” Tim said over the wet snap of Winters opening another can. “She’s hardcore pre-Astro Nav, I switch majors with every phase of the moon. She wanted to get a place in Boston over the summer; I couldn’t make a choice between here or home. She sees a future, I see Saturday afternoon…maybe.” McManus tilted his head back and drained the remainder of the alcohol, tossing the can over his shoulder. “Fuck, I’d cheat on me.”

“So what’re ya gonna do?” Winters asked, words beginning to slur together.

Tim spat off the roof before turning his heavy head back to the cloud-ridden night sky. “I dunno, which is totally appropriate considering me not being able to decide stuff got me into this. I want to confront her but I really don’t know anything for sure. I’ll probably sit around with my hands over my ears until she mails me her sex tape or something.”

“Oh, wow, just remembered,” Dylan suddenly straightened, reaching in his pocket, “there’s one piece a’ good news. This chick at the bar gave me this to give to you right as you were walking over to have a frank exchange of ideas with the goon squad.”

The corner of McManus’ mouth curled upwards, intrigued, as Winters passed his friend a small white envelope. “Was she hot?” Tim asked expectantly.

“I think so,” Dylan posited, “We had been drinking all day, so who knows. She was gone by the time we got you out from the back.”

Tim fumbled with opening the letter, nearly dropping it in the process. After a half minute of prying McManus finally reached in and withdrew a clear plastic identification card with his picture and full credentials etched within. Tim stared at it quizzically for a moment before he realized it was a Reserve Officer Training Corps ID badge. A note was taped on the back of the ID, and Tim tried to keep his hands from shaking as he read it.

“What is it?” Winters asked, shuffling along the roof to get a view.

Tim read the immaculate handwriting four times before he stuffed it into his pocket. “Good Hunting, Tim. –N.A.”

“Girl from my class,” McManus stammered, his body sudden cold and rigid. “Found my ID. Let’s get off this roof before we break our necks.”

South Station Underground Refugee Camp
CIC train
Evacuated city of Boston

Tim, Rachel, and Ron followed Captain O’Shea up the thin metal steps into a hazy conglomeration of indistinct voices engaged in a tense, hushed discussion. The trio of civilians stepped quietly and carefully, their dirty and ruined sneakers squished and squeaked against the brushed steel and contrasted sharply with Jack’s UNSC-issue combat boots that seemed to bang on each step with the subtlety of a gun. The conversation inside the crowded situation room caused the Marines inside to ignore the advance completely.

Nine stern Marines and one Naval non-commissioned officer stood around a sleek oblong holotank that projected a giant pale blue wireframe hologram of Boston. Dozens of angry red splotches and dots littered the translucent diagram, but none were more disconcerting than the purple Covenant Battlecruiser still parked over the city.

Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds peeked over his shoulder at the sound of O’Shea reaching the briefing area. As soon as his bright, alert eyes spotted the Captain he stood up straight and pivoted around smartly, drawing looks from the tired men around him, including Lance Corporal Adam McHale, his mauled, broken leg in a light metal exoskelton-splint that made him look like a tilting cyborg. His blood-red beret did its best to hide nasty bruising across the side of his face.

“Atten-tion!” Reynolds ordered, and the room came to order in an instant, all eyes on the Captain and then to the kids behind him. Despite having survived a full day of combat with an invading alien force, McManus had never felt more like a kid playing soldier. O’Shea approached the conference with the exact opposite feeling and looked at McHale with an expectant expression. The briefing began immediately.

The Lance Corporal tapped a command on the side of the briefing tank and the map panned, rotated, and zoomed to highlight each area of interest. After clearing his throat Adam spoke in a somber, efficient tone, only pausing once to grunt against the discomfort of his broken leg’s brace.

“Situation around the planet is a short hair away from total loss; the only consolation to the spotty reports we’ve managed to grab is the Covenant seem to be in holding patterns around the globe. This ain’t their MO; they glass the planet from orbit and move on. Right now in Boston we’re looking at a brigade-sized force fortifying positions to hold the city.”

“Transportation?” Jack asked.

“Out of the city?” Adam McHale fought the urge to laugh. “Sure, if you want to know what it feels like to explode. Nothing human’s getting in or out of Boston for a while, but we’re working on it.”

“What about inside the city?”

The point of view in the map zoomed down to street level and rapidly identified nearly two dozen check points and barricades. “With the shots we’ve managed to grab off the Super, we doubt our stunt with the Warthogs will work a second time. Isolated hit and runs with Mongoose support could work, but I’d suggest doing a fair amount of scouting before we try anything. Covenant own the airspace thanks to that big honkin’ ‘Cruiser over the middle of the city.”

“We’ve got a fireteam clearing the Boston police garage for munitions and material,” Gus Reynolds added, indicating a green square on the map. “From what we’ve seen so far it could be a safe staging area.”

Jack looked at his old friend and McHale with a face of consternation. The stocky Lance Corporal once again referenced the map.

“Covenant don’t think like we do; they’re arrogant…and frankly, judging by how quickly and decisively they smashed our orbital defenses I’m not surprised. They’re not interested in our former strategic structures. In fact, right now they’re conducting concentrated sweeps of small, specific areas that hold absolutely no tactical or strategic advantages whatsoever.”

“Why?” O’Shea asked, echoing Tim McManus’ thoughts.

“We’re looking into it, sir.” The Lance Corporal looked disappointed that he did not know the answer.

Gus turned from the map to look at the Captain with as close to an expression of hope as he could muster. “Maybe if we answer that we can answer the bigger question.”

“Why are we still alive.” Jack muttered, staring through the wireframe holograph with feral intensity.

Reynolds nodded gravely. “Yeah.”

“Or why they’ve decided to park a brigade in a city that means nothing to them or the UNSC.” Adam added gruffly. Jack O’Shea squinted at the holographic destruction and shook his head slowly.

“It doesn’t matter anymore.” Jack announced, changing gears and leaning against the tank’s railing. He looked confidently into his comrades’ eyes. “They’re here and for whatever reason, they plan to stay. I got a look at the construction and after-action reports on my way here. Fusion core is running at optimal, food fabrication plants will keep us self-sufficient for the foreseeable future, and our forces were able to rescue 12,613 civilians.”

There was no cheer, no chest-thumping, no wild exultation from the group of veterans; only a brief thumping chorus of fists against the railing of the holotank, which caused the map of Boston to quiver and shimmy.

“How many people lived in Boston?” Parsons whispered out of the corner of his mouth to Rachel and Tim.

Rachel’s bright green eyes looked up in momentary recollection. “Like, seven million.” She estimated.

“At least,” Tim followed, crossing his arms and trying not to think about the disparity of the two numbers and the satisfaction of the men in front of them. The dull thumping ended quickly after a nod from O’Shea.

“Twelve thousand,” The Captain’s voice turned into a shovel against gravel, “From eight million.”

The room fell into a deep silence. Adam McHale stared at the floor. Only the bustle of activity downstairs and the construction outside the train could be heard in the deathly quiet space. The weary Captain let the silence hang for a moment before continuing, his voice growing in resolve with each sentence.

“We cannot remember those numbers as reminders of those we couldn’t save, but as an affirmation of the fact that as the world burns around us and those we trusted leave us behind, we are still here. As long as they’re here,” O’Shea stabbed a finger at the purple abomination hanging over Boston, “We’ll be here. Despite all we’ve lost, despite all we’ve sacrificed, we cannot let ourselves forget we fight for something. We fight for the day we can walk the streets safely and rebuild our homes, rebuild our families.”

O’Shea’s voice turned into a dark murmur to fit the dim lighting of the room. “The Covenant have said they have one purpose: to wipe us out. As long as we’re still here, as long as we still breathe, they’re losing. Never forget that. Boston is our city, our home, and now it’s our crucible; it’s the vessel that will forge us together to make something better than the sum of its parts.”

The Captain stood up from the railing, all eyes fixed on him, including the surviving civilians who wondered if the battle-hardened warriors felt as moved as they did. The three friends were then shocked to see Jack look over his shoulder and point directly at them.

“If you need any proof of that, you need only look at these three. Two students and a cook.”

“Sandwich artist.” Ron muttered under his breath.

“These three survived the massacre at Harvard, trusting the UNSC would get them out to safety. Like us, they were deceived, they were left to die, but they wouldn’t give up on each other. They fought beside us and helped us get our brothers back when all seemed lost. We asked more from them than anyone should ever have to give and they survived. As long as we’re alive, the Covenant are losing. Because of these three, the Covenant lost today.”

The thumping of fists filled the room and Tim had to will himself not to become overwhelmed with emotion. Do not cry in front of Marines, he demanded. Do not.

Jack stepped up to the holotank one last time and opened his hand, the map zoomed in to a wide subway tunnel leading out from South Station to the streets of Boston. Tim noticed it was highlighted in orange with a yellow box of text branching from it, blinking the words, “Demolition.”

“These three became more than themselves,” O’Shea declared, “I ask you to do the same. Let’s finish this.”

The Currach Bistro and Pizza
Dorchester, City of Boston
September 21, 2552
Less then two months from the invasion


“Well I didn’t think you’d actually make a sex tape!”

Danica Farrish turned the color of the pepperonis on her untouched slice of pizza, her face hot with embarrassment and rage as the patrons of the popular lunch spot turned and stared at the now estranged couple. The Astronomy Navigation major touched the side of her large thick framed glasses and the lenses clouded over into an impenetrable tint. Her short cropped blonde hair bounced as she leaned over the counter at her recently dumped ex-boyfriend.

“Will you shut the fuck up?” She hissed in a smoky voice that Tim had once found unbelievably attractive.

“Will you stop fucking James goddamn Madigan?” McManus replied indignantly, spreading his arms wide in disbelief and almost knocking the food out of a passerby’s hands. “Actually,” Tim recanted, putting a hand to his mouth and looking up in feigned thought, “Don’t. Don’t stop having sex with Boston College’s best-known athlete. I’m sure that will go well in the long term. I mean, really? A hockey player. Look at me. A hockey player.”

Danica threw her paper plate and slice at Tim, shoving her chair backwards with so much force the light metal seat toppled over and clattered loudly on the tiled floor. The rest of the packed pizza place turned and gaped at the scene as Farrish stormed out of the restaurant in tears, leaving a heartbroken and confused Tim McManus in her wake. He picked stray toppings off his ruined tan jacket and lazily tossed them back onto his own plate.

“She gets all the sex and she gets to cry,” he muttered darkly to himself, slumping in his seat and rest his chin in one hand. “Someone explain how that’s fair.”

“You know, it’s not like I didn’t tell you.”

Tim stared up, equal parts startled and disbelieving at the surprising return of the light accent. His shock was quickly replaced by a double serving of anger while Nadine Ashra looked down at her recruit, quietly satisfied with herself.

“For an organization tasked with saving humanity from violent extinction at the hands of hostile aliens you’re spending a lot of time on one kid.” Tim turned back to his food, venom dripping from his words. Ashra only bent down, grabbed the fallen chair, and sat down in front of Tim to his obvious displeasure.

The Lieutenant Commander brushed a stray hair off the sleeve of her civilian jacket. McManus hardly noticed the intelligence operative was not wearing her military uniform. Ashra’s large, coffee-brown eyes scrutinized the dejected boy’s posture as she handed Tim a napkin to wipe the residual debris off his jacket.

“Have I told you ONI recruits only the best and brightest humanity has to offer?” She inquired gently, looking out at the front door as if Danica was still standing there. Tim still stared at the table as Ashra shook her head disapprovingly. “By our standards you’d be slumming it if you were still dating Ms. Farrish.”

“Can you please just go to some other table and die or something?” McManus sighed, leaning his forehead into his hands, hiding his face from the world. Tim would have stayed in the position for hours if Nadine had not suddenly reached across the table and taken Tim’s hands in hers. His lithe frame jumped in surprise at her touch, now staring at the gesture in suspicion and shock. McManus was surprised at how soft her hands were.

“Tim, I know you think you mean those words,” Nadine implored, looking vulnerable for the first time ever. “But you don’t. You may not realize it yet, but you are very important.”

The Harvard student pulled his hands away and leaned away from his recruiter. Ashra pressed on, reaching inside her jacket and showed him the screen of her data pad. A closed circuit camera feed played across it, clearly showing McManus at a shooting range, firing a military-issue Designated Marksman Rifle with skill at a paper target of a Covenant Elite. “If you hated us so much I doubt you would have used the ROTC card I gave you to test fire military-only rentals at the gun range.”

Tim grunted as he crossed his arms, closing himself off and distancing himself from the evidence. “Sadly they didn’t have targets of creepy government spooks who stalk conversations with your girlfriend.” McManus shook his head, correcting himself, “Ex-girlfriend.”

The vigorous motion cleared some of the self-loathing cobwebs from Tim’s head and he took a fresh look at the scene around him, finally noticing Ashra was not in uniform. He nodded toward the Lieutenant Commander’s fashionable clothes and dark locks that fell around her shoulders in loose curls. “What’s with casual Friday?”

Nadine looked down at her maroon autumn jacket, plunging white v-neck t-shirt, and black pants as if for the first time. She smiled conspiratorially at McManus’ observation and lifted one of the sparkling lapels of her jacket, revealing a small silver pin that gleamed in the cheerful light of the Currach.

Even the jaded student had to admire its craftsmanship. The pin was in the shape of a silver hawk, harsh, sharp, and angular, plunging in a dive toward its prey; the hawk clutched arrows in one talon and a comet in the other. It looked decidedly intimidating and, if Tim was being honest with himself, pretty damn cool.

“Do you know what this is, Mr. McManus?”

Tim shrugged dismissively. “ONI flair?”

“This is what they give you when you join the Special Forces. The hawk symbolizes vigilance paired with speed and lethality. The arrows stand for our ability to strike silently from afar and the comet illustrates our power throughout the stars.”

“That seems awesome until you consider the last twenty-five years of war we’ve been fighting.”

Ashra’s face darkened for a single moment, giving Tim a mixture of happiness to put his bad mood into someone else and a pang of guilt as he considered his pithy answer mocked the inability of humanity to defend itself. “For your sake, Tim, I hope you don’t mean that,” Nadine said in as neutral a tone as she could muster. She stood up after a moment of reflection, covering the pin with her lapel once more.

“One day you’re going to wear one of these. You’re a weapon, Tim. You don’t think you are because you won’t be honest with yourself.” Nadine dropped her act; she spoke plainly for the first time to a stone-faced kid who was beginning to show cracks. Sensing weakness in Tim, the veteran spook went for the heart.

“The simple fact is you’re a mess, Tim. You’re scary smart, dangerous, and capable of great things, but you’re a mess who will ruin his life because you’re incapable of deciding anything in your life. That’s what I’m here for, to make your choices for you and help you become a greater weapon than I could ever be. Enjoy sitting here and lying to yourself while you can; one day very soon I will be back and you’ll know this entire time I was right.”

Nadine Ashra moved to walk out the door but was stopped short by Tim’s hand shooting out and grabbing her wrist in a surprising tight grip. She looked down once again in pleasant surprise.

“One day you’ll be back,” Tim stated clearly, staring her dead in the face as a storm brewed in his hazel eyes, “and I’ll make sure you don’t threaten anyone ever again.”

The ONI operative smiled back. “That’s my boy.”

South Station subway tunnel
Evacuated city of Boston

Tim did not have time to think about the significance of the moment he was witnessing. Down the wide, dark, gaping blackness of the maglev subway tunnel, he could hear the fury of an invading force becoming an occupying army. Now he was about to seal himself and thousands of perfect strangers inside a station that he could not, in all fairness, claim he knew how to defend.

Thankfully the men in front of him setting explosive charges had a pretty good idea of how to start.

McManus retreated inside his mind, blocking out the sounds of those around him and making one last attempt to really make sense of everything that had happened in the last twenty hours. Once again, he felt the presence of his newfound friends Ron and Rachel by his side, staring mutely into the tunnel, lit dimly by the flickering funeral pyre that had once been Boston. Tim could see Ron shaking his head at the edge of his vision. Parsons seemed to be having a tough time with this all of the sudden, as if sealing the tunnels finally made all of this real, a nightmare they could never wake up from.

One of the soldiers waved Ron over to him, and the tall former dining services employee loped over to help secure one of the explosives. There were eight separate devices all rigged together and ringing the tunnel, small red and green lights blinked on and off, foreign machines that Tim knew nothing about and had no desire to learn.

McManus felt his hand being squeezed. He looked to the left and found Rachel holding his hand, her other arm secure in a sterile white sling. Tim nodded at her left arm.

“You all right?”

Lynch nodded. “Not bad for my first war zone. How you holdin’ up?”

Tim shook his head. “None of this feels—”

“Real?”

“Yeah. I mean, yesterday my biggest fear was what formula I was going to use in an exam paper. I got pissy when I couldn’t have eggs this morning. I was annoyed at my roommates for petty, stupid shit. I haven’t talked to my parents in weeks. Now—” Tim’s voice trailed off for a second and he sniffed. “I have no idea what’s going on, you know? I don’t even feel like me, I’m some other guy who speaks with my voice and does things I didn’t even know I could do. I’m just reacting, and every time I slow down I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack or pass out. It’s just—”

“—Bizarre.”

“Exactly.”

An urgent warning tone sounded through the tunnel. Captain O’Shea waved a hand at the men working on the explosives and they all hustled away, knowing that tone meant the devices were ready for detonation. Tim and Rachel were a healthy distance away and waited to see if the group was going to retreat farther.

Rachel idly kicked one of the rails between them. “I spent last night getting revenge on some stupid boy for some offhand remark. I thought going to Harvard to turn in a paper was the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. Two hours later I have a dislocated shoulder, I’m hiding like some kind of animal in a strange library, and I’m running for my life in the city I grew up. I used to cry about school and boys, now I wonder if I can go through the rest of tomorrow without going completely insane. It’s real, even if we can’t really wrap our heads around it yet. I guess all that’s left now is figuring out how to get through it.”

The Marines passed the two students and they promptly joined the retreat, walking another thirty feet back until the blinking red and green lights were the only indication that anything was in the subway besides them. Darkness crept in from every direction; McManus would have had a hard time knowing where Rachel was if not for her hand holding his and the clean white sling across her body.

“We made it this far.” Tim said into the black of the subway. “That counts for something, right?”

“Charges set.” O’Shea announced through the tunnel. “Sixty seconds.”

McManus heard the clinking of bottles and turned to figure out the source of the noise. No sooner did he do that than a long, thin bottle of whiskey was thrust into his hand. Tim looked up questioningly into Gus Reynolds’ face.

“You’re gonna want some of this,” Gus informed him. “trust me.”

Tim locked eyes with Gus and took a long pull of the amber liquid, feeling the fire pour down his throat and slosh around in his empty stomach. He tried not to make a face and failed. Reynolds chuckled as O’Shea called, “Thirty seconds.”

“Remember what it looked like,” The Master Gunnery Sergeant declared, toasting the doomed city with his own bottle, “we’re not gonna recognize the world tomorrow.”

McManus felt Rachel let go of his hand and watched as she took the whiskey out of his hand and brought it to her lips. Alcoholic warmth was washing over Tim as Lynch took a deep drink of the liquor, closing her eyes tight and swallowing hard, drinking to forget the horrible things she’d had to endure today. She offered the bottle back to Tim and looked him in the eyes as McManus squeezed her hand.

“It’s gonna be ok.” Tim reassured her. “We can look after each other.”

A smirk came to Rachel’s face. She made up the short distance between them and kissed Tim softly, letting her lips linger for a moment before pulling back ever so slightly, then thought better of it and went back in to meet his lips again. For a few glorious, fleeting moments neither of them thought about the burning planet outside or how they would survive come tomorrow.

Lynch finally pulled away and looked up at the boy’s stunned face. “That,” she said sincerely, “Was the nicest thing anyone’s said to me.” To his credit, McManus managed to compose himself relatively quickly.

“This boy you got revenge on,” He changed the subject, “Wasn’t your boyfriend, was he?”

Rachel laughed and Tim’s heart exploded again. “No,” she smiled dismissively, “Some dickbag hockey player.”

McManus laughed through his nose in hazy recollection. “What, was it James Madigan?” He asked, only looking over at Rachel after a long noticeable silence. The beautiful redhead was staring back at the Harvard student as if he were the mastermind behind some private practical joke. Tim immediately put his free hand up and shook his head quickly.

“You know what? Doesn’t matter.”

“Ten seconds.” O’Shea announced.

Once again, Ron materialized on the other side of Tim, just as they had done at Harvard earlier that day. Parsons took the half-empty bottle from Tim, took a drink, and wagged the bottle back and forth, sloshing the last of the booze around the vessel.

The animated sharpshooter put a hand on his hip and gestured toward the end of the tunnel. “The library had a better view,” he remarked.

“The library was on fire, Tim,” McManus pointed out.

Ron sighed and shook his head wistfully. “Good times.”

“Fire in the hole,” The Captain said into the darkness. Tim could feel every inch of Rachel’s skin as her hand squeezed his, it grabbed even tighter as the shaped charges detonated, punching with concussive force against the group standing downrange from the blast. Everyone, save Rachel, put a hand to their eyes and turned away to avoid the residual wash of hot wind and light, then tried to watch the rubble, eyes wide to take in what light escaped the cave-in. A cloud of dust swept past them and rubble skittered down the tracks, bouncing along train tracks and coming to a stop toward South Station. After countless lives were lost and thousands saved, the job was finally done. No one moved.

Everyone stood still and stared at the sealed tunnel as if they had just made a horrible mistake. Though the wording was different for everyone, each person in that tunnel was thinking the same thing.

What do we do now?

On the far right of the group, a jingle of thin metal in glass made everyone turn. Jack O’Shea had dropped his UNSC dog tags inside his now empty bottle and regarded the container with a look that Tim placed somewhere around resignation. The Captain then screwed the cap back on, flipped the neck of his whiskey bottle into his palm, and hurled the empty vessel into the wall of concrete, metal, and rock. It smashed with satisfaction against the barrier, and one by one, the rest of the former UNSC soldiers followed suit.

As the last of the bottles rolled to a gritty, grinding stop at the collapsed tunnel’s end, Captain O’Shea sighed.

“Dismissed,” he announced, looking straight ahead as the group dispersed behind him. Tim, Ron, and Rachel turned to leave as well, only to find the intimidating Gus Reynolds blocking the way home. The three friends looked around with questioning looks until Jack O’Shea broke the silence.

“I meant what I said before. It’s truly remarkable that you three survived this long.”

The three kids all traded nervous chuckles until they saw O’Shea’s very serious expression. They all shut up immediately. Jack took a step toward them and they all thought very seriously about taking a step back. The intimidating Captain looked at them strangely, then stood still as it dawned on him to consider his tone. He raised a hand apologetically and the hard creases in his face softened.

“I don’t mean for that to sound accusatory. God knows you’ve helped us more than we ever dreamed you could.”

Now it was time for the kids to look at Jack strangely. O’Shea reached into a pouch on his hip and withdrew a data pad. It lit his face in calming blue, fading into the dim light of the tunnel. “All projections for defending a direct Covenant attack were theoretical and pessimistic at best. We can’t know how many or how much we lost exactly but we think it’s safe to assume it’s biblical. Everything went wrong from minute one; everything went against us. I nearly lost my entire force but three kids with no combat training survived an entire day of direct contact.”

“We do sound pretty ninja when you put it like that.” Parsons muttered.

O’Shea continued scrolling through data that none of the kids could see. Tim even craned his head a bit to see if he could catch any of the streaming information. “Then I remember looking up Ron’s shooting range data and saw that it’s flagged. While Ibanez was working on you I took a few seconds to go through our recruitment logs.”

Rachel gave Tim a perturbed look. The Harvard student turned toward her and followed her eyes down, where he was startled to realize he had unconsciously tightened his grip on the beautiful girl’s hand.

“You were all flagged for recruitment.” Gus Reynolds informed them. “Actually, you were all flagged for conscription.”

Ron Parsons and Rachel Lynch chuckled again. Tim could only look straight at O’Shea, who seemed to be examining McManus with skepticism. “Parsons had extraordinary shooting range stats,” Captain O’Shea read. “Ms. Lynch was flagged along with every division one college athlete, and Mr. McManus had the attention of ONI itself.”

“Take it from us,” Gus stated, arms folded across his chest, “UNSC has very good scouts and when they want you they don’t ask. They take. Now all three of you show up as a group and make it through direct action that almost took my own damn head off,” Reynolds shook his head, equally impressed as he was suspicious, “It seems a little fortuitous.”

“So what are you saying?” Rachel asked, confused.

O’Shea’s voice became as neutral as he could make it. “Are any of you currently in contact or have been in contact with the Office of Naval Intelligence?”

“You think we’re spies?” Parsons replied, eyebrows shooting up as he chuckled. “Seriously?”

Jack crossed his arms over his chest, trying not to wince with the motion. “Five hours ago an ONI spook trapped herself in a warehouse full of refugees and instigated a series of events that led to you getting shot, Ron.”

Tim chewed on the thought for a minute. “He’s got a point. I wouldn’t trust anyone at this point.”

The Captain’s tone softened slightly. “I need you to understand that ONI is not an ally you can trust.”

“Don’t need to convince me,” Tim shrugged, “but don’t you play on the same team? Why do you hate them?”

“Because they knew the invasion was coming and they did nothing.”

Rachel chewed on the statement for a moment. “Back at the docks, one of them said they told you about the invasion. When did you know?”

Jack’s eyes grew cold being faced with the question. “Two weeks ago.”

The three civilians took a reflexive half-step back. Tim did not know how to feel at that moment; his mind was a confused jumble of ill-formed questions and a hazy feeling of betrayal. “Two weeks? You knew the Covenant were coming for two weeks?”

Ron’s arms flew up in the air as he shouted, incredulous and stuttering with emotion. “You could have gotten everyone—two weeks! Why didn’t you warn anyone? They could have evacuated the planet!”

Gus Reynolds took a confrontational step forward, pushing away the Captain’s restraining arm as he advanced. “And the Covenant would have followed us to wherever we went! The UNSC doomed the planet just like they doomed Boston! You’re only alive because the Captain—”

Enough.” O’Shea’s angry growl echoed down the sealed tunnel. The Master Guns relented and went back to his place behind his commanding officer. “I won’t ask for -nor do I expect- forgiveness for what we did. You just have to understand that it was our only option, and the preparations we made saved the lives of thousands of innocent people.”

“Thousands from millions.” Tim breathed, shaking his head.

“Billions,” Gus corrected.

Rachel Lynch’s face was scrunched up in thought, still trying to comprehend the new developments. “Why…Why tell us all this? Why now?”

“Because I meant what I said on the lev,” O’Shea replied seriously, eyes locked on the kids. With the collapsed tunnel in front of him and the light from the refugee camp behind him creating a radiant silhouette, the kids tried to remember the legendary soldier was human. “You’re more than refugees now. You’re heroes, symbols, and these people already look up to you.”

“You saw how dangerous and deadly our mission is. Frankly, nowadays our victories are just getting back to base. There is nothing but hardship ahead, I promise you that. From now on our mission will be to fight the Covenant and protect any human inside the city of Boston, and you’ve all demonstrated considerable skill in that mission.”

Parsons’ head tilted to the side, blonde hair held back in a dirty black bandana. Tim could feel the pounding of his heart, his pulse racing with the adrenaline of the moment.

Master Gunnery Sergeant Reynolds stood next to his colleague, arms crossed behind his back. “We need everyone to contribute to the mission. Most people will help us run South Station and ensure our continued survival underground.”

Reynolds’ eyes then crinkled with dark satisfaction. “But you’re not most people.”

O’Shea reached underneath the plating of his chest armor and took something out that Tim could not quite see. “Both missions are equally vital.”

Jack held out his hand. Despite the crushing darkness around them, Tim could make out the glint of three silver pins against the black leather and metal and he fought the urge to take a giant step back. The pins all depicted a silver hawk, harsh, sharp, and angular, plunging in a dive toward its prey; the hawk clutched arrows in one talon and a comet in the other. McManus recognized them immediately, and he could have sworn he heard Ron gulp. Rachel’s grip tightened on Tim’s though they all had seen the offer coming.

“I need you to understand that you do have a choice. Once you make it we will support it, no matter what. You can stay safe in South Station and help lead our refugees, or you can help us take Boston back from the Covenant.”

To Tim McManus it felt like the tunnel had suddenly dropped down and gravity had doubled in force. There was no hesitation, no conflict, and while he knew he would doubt the decision in his overly analytical mind at some point, most likely very soon, McManus knew deep inside that there never was a choice. His mind was made up the moment he saw the vast underground station. Tim ran a sore hand through his straight brown hair and took a short breath.

Rachel beat him to the Captain’s hand.

The agile young redhead nearly skipped forward and snatched one of the pins out of O’Shea’s hand, smiling brightly as she inspected the small trinket’s splendor. Jack’s straight white teeth flashed wide in the musty darkness as he caught Ron’s approach.

“Can’t say no,” Parsons shrugged. “I just have to shoot that giant rifle again.”

“That’s a promise, son.” Reynolds nodded, a chuckle rumbling from his torso. “I knew I was going to like these kids.”

All eyes turned toward Tim as he brought up the rear, his mind a bewildering cacophony of tumbling thoughts, yet he heard nothing but the drip of invisible droplets and the gritty crunch of his shoes against grimy sediment. McManus still could not figure out why Boston was so important or why ONI had tried to recruit him or if this small force of warriors had a snowball’s chance in hell of actually fighting the Covenant, but as he took shiny speck of silver from the Captain’s hand, none of that factored into his choice.

“For Boston,” Rachel Lynch mused, securing the Special Forces insignia to the strap of her sling. Tim and Ron’s shoulders rose once in an appreciative chuckle.

“For Boston,” Parsons nodded.

“For Boston,” Tim agreed, staring at the piece of metal in his hands like it was the entire world.

Captain O’Shea and Master Gunnery Sergeant Reynolds shook their hands and looked them square in the eye with looks of sincere gratitude as the dim, quiet ceremony concluded and they all began the short journey back toward the refugee camp. They could hear the hum of a soon to be bustling station coming online and light was beginning to glow in the space they would now have to call home.

Tim kept his hand in Rachel’s as they walked alongside the career soldiers, equals in mission if not experience. One thought popped into McManus’ mind and he fell back a few paces considering it. Despite enjoying the contemplative silence of the tunnel, Tim felt he had to ask.

“So if we’re not UNSC,” Tim said as he caught up and kept an eye on O’Shea, “what do we call ourselves?”

Jack O’Shea looked back at McManus over his shoulder, light streaming hopefully through a lazy filter of dust.

The Captain smiled. “What do you think of ‘Minutemen’?”

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11 Responses

  1. […] FINAL CHAPTER!  CHAPTER 17: “The Life and Death of Tim McManus” […]

  2. congrats woody! its finally over! the final chapter was rly well-done and easy to follow. i have been reading since the first chapter of the book and i have to say that this is even better than most of the halo novels i’ve read.

  3. congrats woody! its finally over! the final chapter was rly well-done and easy to follow. i have been reading since the first chapter of the book and i have to say that this is even better than most of the halo novels i’ve read. now by the looks of the rest of your website, and your recent messages on twitter, i you appear to be very busy. however, if it isnt too much time, i was wondering if i could ask you a question: in the first chapter, you stated that this was a series spanning over 3 books or so( sorry, i dont really remember the exact wording..=)). is this the first book of three or was this just an idea for a single novel that you had? thank you for taking time to read my comment.

    Sincerely,
    Jason

    • Hey Jason,

      Yeah, the series started a few years ago on halo.bungie.org as Battle of Boston and then I started a sequel, Cronin Protocol. I started writing a prequel because Battle of Boston was pretty amateurish and I wanted a fresh take on the characters and how the group got formed. That exists as “The Day Before Tomorrow” (silly title) and I changed it here to “The Crucible.”

      When I find time I’ll redo elements of Battle of Boston into a sequel and then maybe close out with finishing Cronin. Haven’t really thought that far yet.

      Thanks so much for reading and leaving comments Jason. I really appreciate it and I’m grateful for the praise. I know it’s a lengthy work.

      Woody

  4. Thanks a ton for writing this series. Read em all 🙂
    Used to check in every Monday to see if there was a new chapter available! :-P.

    Might wanna contact 343 Industries and point em to your page because I’m damn sure you’d be given a job offer. (Maybe not, but it’d be deserved if you did).

    Good luck in your future endeavors

  5. your very welcome.=) thanks forrepying to my earlier message. it sounds great that you might make a series. however, after all of this work, you deserve a serious vacation.haha im now, gonna print all of the chapters and read it before i go to class tomorrow. have a good one. 🙂

    -Jason

  6. I just wanted to write and say that I really enjoyed this read. I was only made aware of your blog on Wednesday by HBO but read through the entire thing. It is a great story and pulled me in.

    Now I may check out the other stories that you mentioned had been posted on the HBO FanFic section.

    I look forward to seeing more!

  7. Great series Woody, and totally understandable despite the fact that I’ve never played a single Halo game or read any of the books. A great work of fiction in itself.

  8. Wow, Woody. Words simply don’t do what you’ve written justice. It was a great story, and every single minute of time between each chapter was worth it in the end. I, too, am an aspiring writer, and hope that I can eventually reach the caliber of your narrative craft. Bravo, well done, and then some. This will be a story I’ll come back and read several more times, as well as (once again) recommend to my friends.

    Thank you, and good luck in your endevours.
    ~Mason “Jedi” Dowling

  9. What a pulling stories. They really got my intrest.
    Keep them coming.

  10. Hey Woody,

    Just re-read The Crucible for the 3rd time. It’s my favorite way to start the school year. Your stuff is so well written and has been an inspiration for me in my own writings (both Halo and otherwise.) Your characters are great. I hope to see more in he future!

    Thanks for the fun reads!!

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