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Fan Fiction

The Day Before Tomorrow by Azrael

The Day Before Tomorrow: Part 1
Date: 7 November 2008, 5:43 am

submitted for "You're doing it write."

The Day Before Tomorrow
A Prequel to the "Minutemen" Series

Harvard University
City of Boston
United North American Protectorate
October 20, 2552

      Dylan was having sex again.

      Jesus, Tim McManus thought to himself as his top bunk bed shuddered rhythmically, does he really think he's alone at nine in the morning? Tim closed his eyes tightly and tried to block out the squeaking and pleasured grunts and muffled moans beneath him. The Harvard University Junior did everything he could to try and put himself into a comatose state, but with the early morning sunlight streaming in through the large bedroom windows, it was an impossible task. McManus rubbed his eyes vigorously, took a deep breath, and rolled over so he hung over the edge of his bed and violated the airspace of the couple beneath him.

      "There's something to be said for morning sex," Tim said nonchalantly, as Dylan and his girlfriend jumped backwards in shock and attempted to burrow underneath the sheets. "The light's nice, kinda romantic, you feel like you're getting some kind of start on the day, you wake up your roommate better than his alarm clock…"

      As if on cue, Tim's clock blinked to life, showing the time in big blue holographic numbers and began playing a futuristic indie rock tune. Upside down, with unkempt, brown hair hanging from his head, McManus attempted a smile and nod. "So could you finish up? I have a big paper due." Tim broke out a mischievous half-grin. "Unless you guys need a hand."

      Six minutes later, the nameless girl left the dorm room in a huff, making sure she slammed the door on her way out. Tim could almost hear her angry footfalls echoing against the painted brick of the cheap hallway. He hopped down onto the floor lightly like he did most every morning and broke into a quick set of twenty pushups to get his blood flowing. Dylan Winters, his roommate, was in little mood for the routine.

      "Dude," Dylan said as he gestured at the door, intending the single word as both question and statement of dissatisfaction.

      "Dude." Tim replied as he fixed a furrowed brow in Dylan's direction, intending the single word as both rebuttal and firm disapproval of his roommate's discretion. The point taken, Winters retreated to his desk and booted up his computer, lazily shifting holographic displays as he checked his mail. Tim grabbed a well-worn crimson towel off the back of the door and checked his appearance against the mounted mirror.

      "Whaddaya got goin' on today?" Dylan asked absent-mindedly.

      Tim stripped off his t-shirt and wrapped the towel around his waist. "Proofing my geometry paper and dropping it off to Dr. Gibson."

      "Geometry?" Dylan raised an eyebrow. "Since when do you take math?"

      "Uh, last semester. Do we not talk?"

      "No, you just change your major with every phase of the moon. You do realize you have to graduate in a little over a year, right?"

      "Jesus, who're you, my dad?"

      "I'm just sayin'. You're hoppin' from one thing to the next and you haven't accomplished anything."

      "Are we really having an intervention here, or you are just pissed about me interrupting your morning glory?"

      "No, I'm pissed about that gun bag you keep around here. I'm serious Tim, stash that shit somewhere else before the RAs do a room safety check and we all get expelled."

      McManus rolled his eyes at his longtime roommate as he slipped out the door to one of the bathrooms. "Christ, you're cranky when you're cock blocked." Tim got out just in time to avoid the thrown towel.

      Another half-hour of jawing back and forth with his other three roommates, Tim McManus slipped out of the mass of Harvard University students and walked his own path across the grass of the famous Harvard Yard. Even in the morning hours, the Yard was alive with platoons of tourists trooping from statue to building to statue like penguins waddling from point to point. He side stepped and slipped around pockets of scholars huddled in discussion and engaging in debates both pretentiously intellectual and downright petty. They were all just background noise to the thoughts shooting around in Tim's head. The third-year math major had the body of a frequent mountain hiker and moved with the fluidity of an athlete, though he had not touched intercollegiate sports since his failed attempt to go out for the Harvard Crew team. Though Tim was a morning person, practices every day at five in the morning just didn't appeal to him, especially with Boston's notoriously long winter.

      Tim considered himself an intellectual, and in a school such as Harvard it was difficult to be anything but. As he crossed the center of the yard, he felt an urgent desire to stop and take in the Yard. Though Harvard's most well-known landmark did command attention, McManus had been walking through this Yard for years and had become accustomed to its splendor. Brilliant red brick dorms formed a perimeter around oddly shaped pentagons and trapezoids of grass, each a larger or smaller island of green sprouting old, proud trees every now and then, leaves fueled by the carbon dioxide of humanity's most intelligent.

      Academic buildings boasted facades unchanged by hundreds of years of human civilization, though their insides were composed of cutting edge architecture and design. From Tim's location, he could take out a data pad and access systems anywhere on campus, giving him instant communication with universities across Boston, Earth, and to a lesser degree, the Sol system. Something about the moment, about where he was and what he was doing, gave Tim McManus pause, and he turned toward the bronze statue of John Harvard, his left foot a gleaming yellow from the rubbing of millions of hands, and took a moment to take it in. No sooner did he do this than a busy tour guide walking backwards knocked him down, and they dropped awkwardly to the pavement.

      "The hell is wrong with you?" The prim and immaculately dressed sophomore girl hissed at Tim. She adjusted her now slightly less than perfect hair, recharged her thousand watt smile, and motioned for the group of tourists and prospective students to continue. McManus gathered a few notepads, threw them in the bag slung around his shoulder, and muttered an obscenity as he trudged toward the dining hall.

      To say Annenberg Hall was massive was to say water was wet. The hammerbeam trusses, the stenciled ceiling, the rich walnut shell that embraced the hall was both outrageously intimidating and oddly comforting. Tim always imagined he was comically out of place in such a space, it always seemed as though some medieval king should have been seated at the end of the hall, feasting with knights and jesters and ladies in waiting, and that his presence would have to be announced by a portly man with a booming voice. McManus chuckled at his own imagination and tried to snap back into reality, and that reality was the alarmingly long line for breakfast. Tim craned his neck to try and catch a glimpse of what awaited his appetite, but the steaming goal beyond was obstructed. With a grunt, the jacket and sweatshirt clad Junior abandoned his dream of scrambled eggs and tried to get psyched up for a roast beef sandwich. As he approached the sandwich counter, he realized today was not so miserable after all.

      "Hey smart kid, what's goin' on?" The blonde-haired, blue eyed sandwich "artist" asked. Tim had to hand it to him; the guy had a way with bringing meat, bread, and various other ingredients together. To date, Tim did not know his full name; only that he was a few years older than him, just as quick with a witty comment, and bored as hell working for Harvard Dining Services.

      "Cock blocked my roommate this morning, got scalded in the shower, knocked over by a plastic tour guide, and had to abandon my dreams of scrambled eggs."

      "Karma's a bitch." The server sighed, and Tim picked up that perhaps similar circumstances might have happened to the food wizard as well. "What overpriced lunch meat can I throw at you?"

      Tim ordered the roast beef and was served a truly mouth-watering piece of culinary bliss. With expert hands, the chef wrapped the monstrosity in foil, sliced it cleanly, then swept up the excess foil and flipped it into a trash can that lay a preposterous distance away. McManus whistled.

      "Nice throw."

      "You should see me shoot," The man across the counter replied with a shrug.

      "You shoot? At the Boston range?"

      "Until they started posting UNSC at the door and conscripting good target shooters, yeah."

      The conversation had taken a strange turn for McManus, and he took a split second to figure out what he was saying. "That's a myth," Tim countered, a disbelieving smirk rising on the corner of his mouth.

      "Tell you what," the sandwich guy said as he waved in the next customer, "the next time some oddly hot chick asks you if you want to grab a drink after shooting, slip out the back door and see who's waiting outside."

      "You're not serious."

      "I'm still here, makin' the big bucks," He chuckled, gesturing grandly around the meager surroundings. "See you around, smart kid."

      "Yeah, see you Ron." McManus waved over his shoulder, suddenly feeling like he lost his appetite.

      The brisk Boston wind started to kick up off the Charles River as Tim left Annenberg. He thanked his foresight and distrust of New England weather as he zipped up his jacket against his neck and tried to keep the hard breeze off his body. The wind tussled and shifted his hair in all directions; McManus tried desperately to swipe his fingers through his brown locks to keep them some semblance of style. He trudged on past numerous buildings and students and dodged shiny, bullet-like cars that rolled on into the heart of Boston. The city was alive, buzzing and eager to get into the business of the day, but McManus still couldn't shake the feeling that today was special. Ahead of him, his destination commanded his attention with awe, as it always did.

      The Pace School of Mathematics was an imposing structure. White marble, steel, and glass formed an enormous bubble rising from the ground; the students and faculty gained entrance up wide stone stairs into a dozen large doors bookended by twisting ornate obelisks in the University's colors. What made the structure even more remarkable was the building housing classrooms and offices was a perfect sphere, a feat that had been celebrated in countless journals and the final straw that made Tim attend the University. The things men have made, he always thought as he approached. His head was still in the clouds when a voice grabbed him and threw him back to Earth.

      "Excuse me, do you know where the Political Science building is?"

      McManus was no stranger to lost tourists or freshmen wet behind the ears who were illiterate when it came to maps. He turned to dispense the information but found that his mouth refused to work. He blamed his female questioner.

      By no means was she the drop dead gorgeous girls who graced sky banners with Gazelle-like grace, but all the same she took away Tim's breath and then his concentration. Everything about her, from the way her long, autumnal red hair framed her face, to the perfect nose that complimented her sparkling, inquisitive green eyes, every piece glorified the whole into what Tim could only call his own personal perfection of the female form. That perfection was now expectantly staring at him, and Tim's brain promptly went on strike, citing terrible working conditions.

      "Uh…yeah. You said, uh, Poli Sci?"

      "Yeah, sorry, I'm kinda in a rush."

      Tim stole a glance toward the Math building and wondered if he'd have time for a detour. Screw it, he thought to himself. "Yeah, I'm heading that way, too. Follow me." Tim tried to figure out a way to start normal conversation, but not matter how hard he tried, he could not turn down his own voice in his head, repeating do not fuck this up. Do not fuck this up. Do not—

      "I never realized this campus was so big," Perfect Girl said in a voice that rose and fell in harmony with the dancing leaves, "I totally thought I could just jump on the T and find my way, and I was way off."

      Do not fuck this up.

      "You're not…a student here?"

      She gave Tim a playful sideways glance that could conceivably knock him to the ground. A hint of a smile played at the corner of her petite mouth, and she looked at him with a look that said, "Are you kidding?" in the cutest way possible.

      "If I went here, do you really think I'd be lost?"

      You're fucking this up. "Oh, no. It's just a lot of new students…get…turned around and stuff…when they're starting out."

      She diffused the situation with a small giggle that turned McManus' heart to oatmeal. She switched her books to her other arm to give a tiny, quick punch to Tim's shoulder. "I'm just messing with you! God, and I thought Boston College kids were uptight."

      "Oh, you go to BC," Tim remarked, more to himself than anyone else. "What're you doing here?"

      Perfect Girl rolled her eyes. "I overslept. I stayed up all night finishing this paper and I thought I could grab an hour's sleep. When I woke up, I was screwed. I had to bribe two TAs and hold a secretary hostage to find out where my professor was going today."

      "Could be worse," Tim heard someone with his exact voice say out of his own mouth, "you could have been woken up by your roommate having sex below you again." WHAT? Why did I just say that? What in blue fuck is wrong with me? You're fucking this—

      If Tim's heart melted from a giggle, it exploded from her laugh. It was pure, loud but not piercing, and lasted just long enough to make Tim rack his brain for another joke. Her eyes were wide with disbelief.

      "Shut up." She said, now standing still in front of Tim.

      "I'm serious!" McManus said, arms open wide in a gesture of surrender.

      "Shut up!" She was laughing again, and Tim wanted her to stay in those spirits more than anything in the world.

      Tim was on the cusp of a great follow-up when his data pad beeped angrily at him. The display read in angry red letters, "Exam paper late. Full letter grade penalty." McManus looked up in exasperation and realized they were both on the steps of the regal McGoohan Building of Political Science. Perfect Girl was standing a few steps above him, arms crossed over her chest, holding her books.

      "Well," she said, "this was fun, tour guide…"

      "Tim!" McManus said a little too excitedly, extending his hand to shake hers. "Tim McManus, tour guide."

      Her hands were smooth and gentle, but her handshake was firm and purposeful. "Rachel Lynch, lost Boston Collegian." Tim was perfectly fine dying in this exact moment. She took a couple backwards steps up the stairs, bold for a girl who had never climbed them before. The moment felt a bit strange for Tim right now, as if no one else around them was moving. "I'll see if I can help next time you're lost at BC," she said with a half smile.

      "Yeah," Tim replied as best he could, mimicking her retreat, "I'll get lost."

      She gave him a final look that said she didn't completely know what he meant, but she was ok with it all the same. "Nice meeting you, Tim."

      "You…you, too."

      The two students turned and began walking their separate ways, though Tim realized after four steps that he was making the biggest mistake he'd made in years. He wheeled around and called her name, but found nothing but closed doors and students standing still in small groups.

      Tim spotted a falling leaf tumbling end over end toward him and thought frustrated thoughts about his horrific timing. With a vengeful step, he crushed the particularly crunchy piece of foliage underfoot and swept it forward to inspect the damage. As he took a moment to observe the shredded cellular layers and the three-pronged intact veins, a long shadow swept across his field of vision. Now he became aware of what had been bothering him for the last few minutes: there did not seem to be any sound coming from anyone or anything. He slowly shifted his gaze up and took in his surroundings. Everywhere around him, Bostonians had stopped dead in their tracks and were staring up at the sky, jaws open and personal belongings dropped. McManus jerked his eyes up to the sky and did exactly the same.

      Tim was no stranger to the UNSC newsfeeds and the constant "Know Your Enemy" broadcasts that, though heavily edited and censored, gave humans an idea of the kind of enemy the species was facing. As the giant, bulbous, purple and blue monstrosity blocked out the sun, McManus knew he was looking at a CCS-Class Battlecruiser, and he further knew humanity was doomed. It was extremely high in the air, but it still commanded Tim's view for much of the sky. If its presence did not broadcast that the war was lost, the brown-haired Harvard student would have said it looked graceful moving effortlessly through Boston airspace. The incredible moment was broken, however, by a car colliding violently into another stopped car, the resulting crunching crash sending everyone in the immediate vicinity to cover. Tim put his hands over his head, got into a desperate crouch, and scurried as fast as he could to a digital newspaper download stand. As he put his back to it, he realized he had left both his book bag and rifle bag in front of the stairs and sprinted to retrieve it. He took stock of the area again and noted just how quickly everything had changed in just a few seconds.

      Hundreds of people were now fleeing in every direction in streams of bodies; no one knew where they were going, all they wanted to do was follow the most basic instinct of fight or flight. That flight, Tim knew, would not last long. Now he found himself in an inner conflict. What the hell do I do now?

      In that moment he looked inside his bag, where the half-eaten sandwich was still waiting to be consumed. He thought back to the conversation he had just had with Ron the sandwich guy and made a snap decision, maybe his last. McManus began sprinting toward Annenberg Hall.

      The campus was utter chaos. Tim tried to wrap his mind around all that was occurring, but between the civil alert announcements, the cacophony of running people going every which way, and the wailing of people mourning the imminent loss of the human home world, McManus' vision was limited to about five feet around him and no further. More than once he had to dip a shoulder and shove his way through the crowd, keeping a vice grip on the handle of his gun bag before he finally slung it over his shoulder with the book bag and used both arms to move obstacles out of his way. Annenberg Hall loomed large over the press of humanity, and not surprisingly, Tim found it locked. As he started to search for a back door in, he heard the eerie whistling roar of Covenant dropships being disgorged from the Battlecruiser.

      "This isn't fair," Tim said to himself. "This isn't fucking—"

      "Fair, we get it." An angry voice said to McManus. The Harvard student jumped back, startled, as he regarded the business end of a large knife pointed at him by Ron the sandwich guy. "Stop blabbin' and get in here, smart kid." Tim complied immediately, jumping in and placing his gear on a table as Ron locked the heavy metal entrance. Ron turned and chuckled darkly, laying the knife down on top of a pile of crates by the door. "Guess this means we lose."

      Tim should have felt it coming before, but now that he had a moment to gather his thoughts and consider what all of this meant, he felt the fear and anxiety and adrenaline and nausea come up in one smooth rush of panic. He only stumbled a few awkward steps before he threw up on the kitchen floor. He heaved for a second, caught his breath, wiped a hand across his mouth, and stammered out, "I—I'm sorry…"

      "Forget about it. I did the same only a couple minutes ago. This'll take the edge off a bit."

      Tim looked up in disbelief as Ron tossed him a chilled bottle of beer and gestured a toast with his own half-finished brew. Who the hell is this guy? McManus twisted the cap off slowly, put the beer down, and started to open his gun bag.

      "So you got a full name, smart kid?"

      Tim looked down at the assembled pieces of his rifle and reflected for a brief second about how only a few minutes ago his introduction to Rachel had been the highlight of his semester. "Tim. Tim McManus."

      "Ron Parsons."

      Tim turned and awkwardly shook Parson's hand. It felt incredibly strange to do all this as echoes of explosions started to register in the distance. Ron glanced over his shoulder. "Guess this'll drive down real estate value."

      Tim took a swig of the brew and looked warily over the bottle at Parsons. "Are you…ok?"

      "Come on, Timmy. Dark humor's the classic defense mechanism. Would you feel better if I told you the world's really, honestly, no-shit ending?"

      McManus shrugged and downed the beer. "Guess not," he muttered as he slipped in the rifle's magazine with a final click and attached the sling. Parsons stepped up to Tim's side.

      "Sweet gat. How'd you get a BR-55?"

      "Ordered the parts from different vendors." McManus said matter-of-factly.

      "You built the thing?"

      "Yeah, but I'm not great at it. The scope's not calibrated, I just fixed the barrel, and the trigger pull's a little light. Otherwise, she shoots like the UNSC's."

      Ron pointed over his shoulder at the door. "Better than a knife."

      "Better than a knife." Tim agreed. He turned to face Ron, but staggered for a moment as the ground shook with an explosion. The bombardments were getting close, and the sounds of people in pain began to make it through the hall's walls.

      "Shit," muttered Parsons as he grabbed Tim's book bag and turned it upside-down, emptying the contents on the table.

      "What are you doing?" McManus demanded.

      Ron looked at Tim with frustration, as if the answer was exceedingly obvious. "We're not staying here, Tim. I don't know about you, but I don't plan to get killed hiding in a meat locker. There's a whole buncha people out there who need help, and if I'm lucky, I'm gonna take a few of these alien bastards down with me while I'm at it."

      Parsons hustled over to a cabinet and threw open the doors, piling sealed packages of food inside the bag. "I'm not the smartest guy in the world, Timmy, but I don't think you came here with that gun after our talk earlier to order some cordon bleu. So get your head in the game, grab my bag over there, and fill it with peanut butter and anything high in protein. We're going to need energy to do this damn thing."

      McManus snapped out of his funk instantly and joined Parsons in gathering provisions. He stopped for a second, turned on his heel, and grabbed a med pack hanging by a cutting board. He shook it in Parsons' view and received a quick, affirmative nod, and began shoveling food into the bag. "How do you know all this stuff?" Tim asked.

      "My brother's a Marine. We did stuff like this all the time. He thought it was fun."

      "Where is he?"

      Parsons stopped working for a second, and turned to Tim. "Look," he said, locking eyes with the shorter student, "I'm sure for the short time we're alive we're gonna trust and bond and whatever, but I don't like talking about the fam, ok?"

      Tim gave a slight shrug and a look of minor confusion. "Ok, sure," he replied, and zipped the bag shut. He threw on the pack, slung the Battle Rifle over his shoulder, and handed the large knife to Parsons. "What're we gonna do about your weapon situation?"

      Ron began unlocking the back door, fiddling with chains as he spoke. "I've got stuff at my apartment. It's not far, once we cross the Charles we're money." As he opened the door a distant Banshee shot off a fuel rod cannon into a running crowd across the street. The wash of crackling ionized air and the heat of the green blast knocked both of the men backwards into the doorway. As they picked themselves up, dazed, Ron looked at Tim with wide eyes and said, "That plan might be ambitious."

      Tim kept his eyes on the sky and scurried out of the dining hall, scrambling to the cover of a large oak tree and waving for Parsons to follow. The sky had now become dark with rising clouds of smoke and plumes of red flame; Banshees and Phantoms owned the sky, taking down fleeing Pelicans and approaching Hornets with impunity. It was breathtakingly disturbing to Tim, and he knew Ron was probably sharing his thoughts. The tallest buildings in the city were gutted and belching smoke as if a giant hand had viciously ripped down their sides. A ear-splitting shriek tore through the air and caused everyone to clutch at their heads and stare in fear as three of the Battlecruiser's pulse laser turrets fired into the John Hancock Tower, decimating it in an incredible explosion. Debris rained over the entire area, a large portion splashed into the Charles River in giant chunks of steel and concrete.

      A section of the roof hurtled overhead, flipping end over end, whooshing and whistling as it careened through the air. The jagged piece of the tower ferociously smashed into the façade of the McGoohan Building and plowed through the structure, finally coming to rest like a piece of glass embedded in flesh. The dull glow of a fire starting began to emanate deep inside.

      "You all right?" Ron shouted over the din. Tim nodded vigorously and noticed his hands were shaking. He balled them into tight fists and realized why the scene in front of him was so disturbing. "What's wrong?" Parsons asked, trying to get Tim's attention. McManus wiped sweat from his brow with a trembling hand.

      "There's—there's a friend…a…someone I know is in that building, I think."

      Ron shook his head, brow furrowed. "They're fucked, then."

      "We gotta go over there."


       "I can't just leave her!" Tim yelled over the din, taking Parsons aback. "She's not supposed to be there!"

      Parsons threw his hands up. "For the record, this is stupid. You better not get me killed, dude."

      The pair got up and ran as fast as they could towards the wreckage, joining a handful of students and faculty who were risking life and limb to assist anyone who needed medical attention. Those around Tim and Ron were double-taking at the slung Battle Rifle, and Tim could not tell if they were frightened or relieved by the weapon. He decided he did not care. The fire was starting to spread, fueled by paper, solid wood desks and chairs, and the brisk Boston wind. The heat alone would make efforts difficult; the accompanying smoke would make the trek inside life threatening.

      Ron reached inside his bag and took out his dining services uniform, tearing the shirt into long wide strips and soaking them with one of the bottles of water he was carrying. He handed one to Tim and they wrapped the cloth around their mouths to allow them a slight ability to breathe in the growing inferno. They left the packs behind but McManus did not want to risk leaving the rifle unattended. They took the steps two at a time and put hesitant hands on the door handles to make sure they weren't too hot. Satisfied, they shared a nod and stepped inside.

      The lobby and hallways looked like a giant tornado had just blown through. Blood had begun pooling from unseen bodies in the hallways and smoke was beginning to build from the fires upstairs. Tim took a glance inside the faculty/department lounge, where presumably people had gathered to watch the news instead of fleeing. They had all met their end in this room, crushed on impact from a smaller piece of debris that had broken off on impact. McManus felt the urge to vomit bubble up again, but fought it off.

      This is crazy, Tim kept repeating in his head as he stalked down the crackling hallways. You have no idea who this girl is. Why don't you save Dylan or anyone else on this fucking campus? McManus kept his ears open for the creaks and groans that would signal a ceiling collapsing or other calamitous event.

      "This place is gonna go up!" Parsons yelled over the din. "Wrap it up, dammit!"

      Tim was giving up. He finally resorted to sacrificing his vocal cords in the smoky environment. "Rachel!" He screamed, feeling his way through hallways and obliterated classrooms. "Rachel Lynch!" He continued down the last hallway on the first floor, and finding nothing, lost all sense of self-preservation. He ran past Ron, who was helping another student carry a body out, and carried on up the stairs to the second floor, where the fires were raging and the section of John Hancock Tower had torn the roof off.

      "What's wrong with you?" Parsons shouted after McManus, almost dropping the body he was carrying. He laid the lower half of the body down and sprinted after the seemingly suicidal student, yelling after him the whole time.

      If the first floor was bad, the second floor was worse. There was no possible way of continuing down the hall without being incinerated, and McManus resorted to checking the small library in the front of the building, which afforded students a view of the campus and Cambridge Street. The force of the impact had knocked over stack after stack of books, and bodies lay on the floor, bleeding or worse. The glass had been completely shattered, and those who had been watching the invasion had been killed instantly. They all lay face down, indicating they had tried to run after seeing the debris heading for the building, but they had fled far too late. Tim fought to keep his composure and stammered out one last scream for Rachel. He turned to leave, but then heard a hacking cough and a breathless, "I'm here!"

      McManus nearly slipped as he ran to the other end of the library where he found Rachel Lynch, her hair matted against her face and dark with sweat, her teeth grit in pain, her shoulder trapped between two stacks of books.

      "I'm stuck!" She gasped. "This fucking hurts!"

      Ron arrived on the scene just in time; his face scrunched up, affected by the situation in front of him. "What happened?" Tim asked urgently.

      "My professor and I saw the roof coming, we ran before anyone else did and hid behind this stack. When the stacks started falling, he fell and got…" Rachel's right shoulder rose with a dry heave, "A stack fell on him. I almost got out, but this stack trapped me here."

      "We gotta get out of here," Ron said, looking nervously back in the direction of the fires. "All these books, this place is gonna go up fast."

      "We can do this." Tim said, confidence growing. He pulled off his smoke mask and positioned Parsons next to him to move the stack. "We can move this."

      "Are you kidding me?" Parsons said. "We can't put this back."

      "We can lift enough for her to get out. Here, come on. Come on!"

      The two men braced themselves against the stack as best they could and pushed with all their might. They groaned and heaved and almost lost their footing on the bloody carpet, but the stack budged just enough for Rachel to worm her way out ahead of the falling books. Her left arm hung limply from the shoulder. A crash of wood on cinder mixed with shouts echoed outside in the hallway and Ron ran to the library's exit. He cursed loudly, slammed the library doors, and ran back to the group.

      "We've lost the stairs," he shouted back at the two students. He ran to the edge of the now shattered windows and yelled down to the people who escaped, "There's three of us up here! Get a ladder! Get anything!" Tim and Rachel came to Ron's side, all of them sweating profusely, reeking of smoke, and breathing shallowly. McManus took a look at the injured redhead's scratched and cut face, then inspected her shoulder.

      Tim frowned and blinked hard to clear his vision, touching gingerly around the collarbone of the tattered jacket. "It's dislocated, way dislocated. I don't know how you'd climb down from here like this."

      Rachel bit her lip as if she was staring at a particularly difficult exam question. Next to her, Ron nearly jumped with excitement. "They got a ladder!" He shouted, promptly dissolving into a coughing fit. "We're getting out of here!"

      Tim put a hand on Lynch's good shoulder. "We'll get a doctor up here or winch you down—"

      "Pop it back in," Rachel said, setting her jaw and looking at the floor.

      "What?" Ron and Tim asked incredulously.

      Lynch's head snapped up in anger. "There's no time! Fucking do it!" Rachel shouted. Parsons and McManus traded glances before Lynch hit Tim with her good arm. "Are you listening? I know it's gonna hurt! We don't have a choice!"

      Tim grabbed a thin journal and offered it to the girl. "You're gonna want this." Lynch accepted the journal and bit into it hard, observing her rescuers preparing to place her arm back into the shoulder socket. Both men were preparing themselves to violently shift the limb back to its normal position. Ron tightly gripped her arm at the elbow and bicep. Tim braced under her upper arm and collarbone; the position brought Tim and Rachel nearly cheek to cheek and put McManus' hand in almost compromising position. The injured student tried her best to flip her hair out of her eyes and flashed a courageous semi-grin at McManus.

      "Don't get any ideas," she quipped in the din.

      Tim attempted the same look. "Wouldn't dream of it."

      Rachel shut her eyes tight. Ron counted down softly, then jerked her arm up and into place. They heard a sickening but correct pop, followed immediately by Rachel screaming in blinding pain and almost dropping to the floor in shock. McManus supported her as she regained her footing. She tried to move her arm but pushed the boundaries of the injury, earning her another grunt of pain. She tested her limits again and flexed her hand as the ladder came up to the trio.

      "That hurts like a bitch." She said through grit teeth, then pushed her matted hair back and set it in place with an elastic from her good hand. Tim and Ron could not believe what they were watching.

      "Tough broad," Parsons noted under his breath. McManus nodded and joined them in climbing down from what would have been a fiery grave.

      The trio gingerly walked away as McGoohan now began to be completely engulfed in flame. Tim and Ron were relieved to find their backpacks had not been stolen, and they hurried back to Rachel, who was now standing alone amongst the other Harvard residents, watching the building burn despite the destruction of Boston playing in the background. Tim did his best to put up a gentle but strong front.

      "Come on," he said, trying to lead her away, "we're not safe here."

      "One more second." Rachel said with resolve, blinking away a tear and trying to get whatever handle she could on the moment. After a minute, she turned and looked McManus in the eye. "Thanks for coming back for me, Tim." She said. McManus scratched the back of his neck sheepishly and did his best to shrug it off.

      "It was Ron's idea." He said, looking at the ground.


      McManus chuckled and met her gaze again. "Yeah."

      Ron now jogged up and joined the group. "Just talked with some of the folks back there," he gestured back half-heartedly to the huddled masses gathered in pockets around the quad. "They say the trains have been stopped but Marines are escorting people out of the city. What do you think?"

      The trio turned away from the burning building, feeling fatigue and exhaustion gnawing away at their legs and bodies. Tim took out another bottle of water and, after a long swig, offered it to his newfound friends, who gratefully drained it. In front of them, dozens of Phantoms under Banshee escort were touching down around Boston, setting up legions of troops whose only desire was to purge this planet of the species that called it home. Between them all, they had five working arms, two backpacks of food, minor protection from the elements, a kitchen knife, and a do-it-yourself Battle Rifle. But two liberal arts educations, McManus chortled inwardly, that's gotta count for something on post-apocalyptic Earth.

      Tim now became aware of two hands on his shoulders; Rachel's good arm rubbed his left shoulder as Ron patted his right in a spontaneous moment of reassurance and hope. For a second, the three of them felt connected and they drew strength from each other's reserves. Above them, the giant bulbous Battlecruiser drifted lazily toward the center of the city. The frightening light of countless fires reflected off the shiny hull like a raised guillotine over Boston. At the very edge of the group's vision, tiny Pelican dropships, only two or three at most, were sneaking into toward Back Bay, and back, they all dreamed, to the last safe places on the planet.

      "Well," McManus shrugged, returning the reassuring gestures and tightening the straps of his backpack, "if we're gonna go out on a suicidal journey to escape the end of the world, we better start with a bad ass opening line." A massive explosion echoed in the distance and the wind howled over the conflagration behind them.

      "For Boston," Rachel said, nodding in determination and striding off, leaving the boys in her wake.

      "I'm digging on this chick, Tim."

      "I saw her first."

The Day Before Tomorrow: Part 2
Date: 26 December 2008, 4:06 am

The Day Before Tomorrow
A Prequel to the "Minutemen" Series
Part Two

Harvard University
City of Boston
United North American Protectorate
October 10, 2552

      For Christ's sake, your school, your city, and your planet is being bombarded and invaded by Covenant forces, and you're really thinking about sex right now?

      Tim McManus had tried everything he could to keep that revelation buried in back of his consciousness. Despite being covered in soot and breathing in the rich stench of burning paper, wood, and smoldering brick, it had made its way into the front of his mind. McManus shook his head vigorously as if he could physically jettison the thoughts from his head, but once again, he failed.

      Rachel Lynch, the object of Tim's untoward thoughts, tapped him on the shoulder a step behind him. "What's the matter with you?" She asked, concerned. Two hours ago Tim would have done handstands to command her attention like this. Despite her beautiful face and sparkling green eyes showing genuine concern and eager to hear his thoughts, Tim knew these particular thoughts would be a distraction that could get both of them killed.

      "Nothing." Tim lied, tightening the straps of his backpack and checking his Battle Rifle for what had to be the hundredth time.

      "You sure?" Ron Parsons chimed in, falling in step with the pair and shooting a glance Tim's way. "Ever since that library burned down, you've been fidgeting like a retard sitting on an ant hill."

      Rachel laughed out loud at the off-color joke and Tim did his best impression of an appreciative chuckle. The trio was doing their best to not be depressed at the noticeable decrease in human noise and the marked increase in Covenant machinery in the distance.

      "You notice that?" Ron asked, nodding toward the smoking city of Boston. "There were sirens about ten minutes ago. Cops, ambulances, fire. Now," Parsons paused, letting the silence hang over them like a cartoon anvil, "nothin'."

      "I can't help but feel like we're being followed," Rachel responded, addressing the feeling that every one of them felt. One by one, they turned around and took in a remarkable sight.

      At least two-dozen people; students, faculty, staff, and bystanders, were walking about ten feet behind them as if the three dirt-caked, exhausted kids had any idea where they were going. Tim sighed, and while he did not believe what he was saying to his new friends, said anyway, "I'll take care of it." To McManus' relief, the other two fell in behind him.

      Tim had no earthly idea what he was going to say. He tried to think thoughts of leadership, of inspiration and courage, and instead only blurted out, "What's up?"

      A history professor, a tall, rail-thin man with wispy gray hair and dirt streaked across his face, looked wide eyed at the Harvard student. "We thought you had a plan."

      McManus could feel Ron sigh with exasperation behind him and knew Rachel would be feeling quite the same. Tim gave a slight shrug of helplessness and tried not to panic. "You gotta have us confused with someone else. We just rushed to that building because my friend was in there and we had to get her out."

      "So now what?" Someone piped up from the back of the group. A murmur of agreement followed.

      "So now—" Tim glanced over his shoulder at his friends with a look that begged for help, and seeing none there, returned with the same confused expression. "Look, I just don't know. You people said the Marines were getting folks out of here. Why don't you go there?"

      The group now started to look menacing, as if Tim was keeping something from them. The professor pointed angrily behind McManus. "You're going to help the people back there, but you're just going to forget about everyone else?"

      The brown-haired Harvard Junior put a hand to his forehead, squeezed his eyes shut tight for a moment, and reluctantly turned around to look where the faculty member was pointing. What had once been called Harvard Yard was now a funeral pyre. Freshman dorms lit the sky and belched smoke up into enemy airspace. Bodies littered the ground in various macabre poses. Between splintered trees that once shaded scholars, a bewildered, bloodied, and broken male student stumbled from point to point. "Lost cause" did not begin to describe it. McManus once again shook his head, and whispered to himself, "You gotta be fuckin' kidding me." The large group behind him took it a gesture of abandonment.

      "Hey!" The academic shouted, desperation creeping into his voice, "We're talkin' to you!"

      Rachel now stepped up and got between McManus and the group. "Whoa!" She shouted, getting too close and stabbing a finger at the taller man, "No one said we'd be your tour guides!"

      "But those people in the yard—"

      "Are probably dead!" Lynch was almost screaming now. "You want to stay out in the open and wait for them to find you?" Rachel whipped around and thrust her hand in the air, pointing at the giant CCS-Class Battlecruiser dominating the Boston skyline, its pulsing purple gravity lift thrust into the city center. The statement echoed off the surviving walls of the campus, leaving the group in silence. The injured girl exhaled sharply and joined her newfound comrades, revealing an expression of hopeless fatigue that hit Tim like a punch in the gut. Ron and Tim traded uncertain looks.

      "Whaddaya wanna do?" Parsons asked.

      Tim put a hand on Rachel's good shoulder and took a deep breath. "We could take quick look," he offered. "It is on the way to your place."

      Ron shrugged helplessly. "If my place is still standing."

      "Good point." Tim did not like being thought of as a leader. Only hours ago he was a carefree college student whose only thoughts had been on schoolwork and where he was going to eat lunch with his friends. Now he was running into burning buildings to save people he did not know and, though he was feeling strongly about the girl next to him, was not in the least bit qualified to be trusted with their lives. This isn't fair.

      McManus gave himself a few extra seconds to try and make sense of the decision. A group like this, tired and scared strangers in the middle of a Covenant invasion, would not last long trying to move together. But they deserve a chance to get to safety, he told himself, and apparently we're the best candidates to get them there. If I was in one of those buildings, and I was still alive, he reasoned as best he could, I'd be hoping and praying for someone to save me. McManus balled his hands into fists, knowing that what he was about to say was at best foolhardy and at worst a death sentence. "All right," he said to no one in particular, "we'll take a look—a look—and see if there's anyone we can save. We don't take stupid chances, and we get out here as soon as possible."

      McManus searched the faces of the two people he trusted in the group. Ron, despite reluctance to save Rachel before, nodded in agreement. Rachel's face showed the opposite reaction. McManus leaned in and whispered in her ear. "I came back for you," he pleaded, "others deserve at least a chance."

      Lynch had apparently been just as torn as Tim, and he saw the dull streaks of small tears on her cheek. "But I'm a lot better looking than them," she sniffed through the joke.

      "We'll see," Tim smiled, rolling his shoulders and walking toward the blaze. "C'mon, let's go."

      The journey from McGoohan to the Yard was short and silent. Everyone was on edge, casting nervous glances into the sky and scanning for places to hide should hostile aliens suddenly emerge from the shadows. The leading trio realized as they got closer to the site that their view from farther away was much more pleasant than their current vantage point. Of the dozen or so buildings that surrounded the Yard, ten were completely demolished or gave no hope of a safe entry. Two seemed remotely feasible, the only two moderately intact dorms by the front gates. Both roofs had caved in, and the fires around the buildings were getting closer by the minute. As the group got closer, the rightmost dorm gave a low groan and leaned heavily on one side like a drunk. The mass of civilians gasped and took a big step back.

      "Bit of a fixer-upper," Parsons joked. "Flipping it will be a bitch." Tim did not appreciate it.

      "That dorm's a death trap," he stated, crossing his arms and then tilting his head toward the leftmost building. "The other one's Harding Hall. Two stairwells on either side after you get through the front door."

      "How do you know that?" Rachel asked.

      "I used to live there."

      "Oh. Right."

      Tim walked toward the bulging front doors, darkened with soot and splintered from the stress of the structure. Before he could make any other statements, the doors smashed open and a heavyset man in a Boston Police uniform emerged, carrying the limp body of a Harvard co-ed out of the building. The kids could not help but notice the M6C Magnum holstered on his thigh and Tim took an instant to wonder if maybe this scene was not as chivalrous at it first appeared. The cop paused, fires crackling and popping around him. He looked around in angry confusion at the crowd assembled in admiration and fear around him.

      "Who do I have tah fuck to get some help 'round 'ere?" He roared. Tim, Ron, and Rachel jumped to assist him in easing the body down to the ground where Rachel laid down a blanket.

      "How is she?" Rachel asked, concerned.

      "Found 'er passed out tryin' tah break through a bathroom windah. Inhaled a lot o' smoke," the burly figure responded. "She flicker'd on for a sec on the stairs, says she got a roommate trapped in 'er room. Need a spare pair o' hands." He looked back and forth between McManus and Parsons. "Suppose you two wanna 'elp out an' she can tend ta' this one?"

      Ron nodded vigorously. Tim did not seem so sure. "That building gonna hold?" he asked pointedly, casting a skeptical eye toward the dorm. The police officer laughed.

      "Maybe. Maybe not. One way tah find out, 'eh?" He clapped a hand hard on Tim's shoulder and walked back toward the doomed dorm, chuckling. Tim stared, wide eyed, at Ron.

      "Great. The one cop we find and the dude's fucking insane," he pointed out.

      "Right, like we aren't." Ron answered back, tossing his backpack on the ground and following the hulking man.

      Rachel shrugged off her backpack and began to stand. "I'm coming with you," she said. McManus grabbed her arm.

      "You gotta stay here," Tim tried to say as forcefully as possible. "I can't bring my rifle in there and you've gotta look after this girl. Trust me." The brown-haired student did his best attempt at a wink and got up to join the two men at the entrance. Lynch smacked McManus on the back.

      "The hell do you think you're doing?" She asked. Tim turned around, confused. "You're going in there without any way of staying in contact with me? What if you get hurt? What if you need help?"

      Tim scratched his head, embarrassed. Lynch faced the group behind her. "Hey," she shouted, "anyone got radios or any kind of two-way communication?" A janitor sporting a bandaged head wound and a nametag that read "Harold," reached inside a tool kit and tossed two small radios to the red-haired Boston College student. Tim lunged to catch one device so she did not have to use her bad arm. The two students looked at each other for a split second until Tim raised the radio to his mouth. He clicked the transmit button and locked eyes with his newfound friend.

      "Take it easy on me," he said. "It's my first time."

      "Never," she answered. "Now get."

      McManus smiled, nodded at the sassy remark, and took off toward the building where Ron and the mystery hulk were waiting and in the middle of conversation. Parsons looked very impressed.

      "This is Officer Walt Merriweather," Ron introduced the cop to Tim as Walt crushed McManus' hand in a viselike hand shake. "Formerly Private First Class Walt Merriweather, UNSC. Purple heart recipient, and apparently wasn't bright enough for any other job than bashing criminals' heads in."

      Merriweather laughed appreciatively as he tightened an improvised smoke mask around his mouth. "Do some recruitin' on thah side nah," he added, smashing the dorm doors in for entrance and shielding his face from the heat. " Follah me. Floor three, let's go!"

      The trio ran in a tight group, now suddenly experts on the dangers experienced in structure fires. Merriweather, though resembling an ox, was surprisingly agile, jumping missing steps and shouting instructions to the rookie first responders. The entire building was pulsing with the heat of outside fires, the licking flames begging to meet the tinder of the dorm. The moaning and creaking of the residential building was growing into a dull roar around the group as they started advancing upstairs two at a time.

      "You know anything about architecture, Walt?" Tim yelled from the rear.

      "I know wha takes 'em down, if tha's what yah mean." Merriweather said, coming to a brief rest at the third floor's double doors.

      "How do we know when we should get out?" McManus asked earnestly as Harding Hall groaned beneath their feet.

      "If yah heah popcorn poppin' and there's no movie on, tha's windows smashing and tha's yah first bad sign. When thah roof caves in, it's a good time tah make yahselves scahce." Two floors below them a beam snapped suddenly, a crisp clap that made everyone flinch. "Structrah fiahs," Walt snorted, "Gimme dah creeps."

      "Let's not stand on ceremony then," Parsons said, patting both men on the back then checking the handle of the doors for heat. Satisfied, he put his weight into a sturdy kick that smashed the doors wide open, revealing a sickening sight.

      A portion of the fourth floor had buckled and dropped straight down on the far end of the hall, pinning what looked like three students underneath. Only the odd limb stood out from the wreckage, a grisly juxtaposition to the relatively intact dorm room doors that sported cheery, colorful messages, funny pictures of friends, and names written in perfect female penmanship. Walt stalked down the hall checking room numbers as Tim and Ron tried not to stare.

      "Was that before or after you were here?"

      "Aftah." Merriweather said simply over his shoulder, indicating he did not want to continue the conversation. "Three-fourteen. Zoey and Maribel." Merriweather grabbed the handle and jiggled it, but it would not give. He swore aloud, backed up to the other side of the hall, and rammed a shoulder into the door. The door refused to buckle and the ex-Marine swore again and looked up the down the hallway. Seeing nothing that could help, he motioned McManus over.

      "Group effort?" Tim guessed.

      "Hell yeah," Walt nodded, putting a python-like arm around Tim's comparatively slender shoulders and grabbing him tight. "On three." Merriweather counted down and the two ran as hard as they could, giving a rousing shout as they hurled themselves into the solid surface, and yelling with exertion as the frame splintered in and conceded, sending the pair sprawling out into the mangled bedroom. Parsons was right on their heels, helping Tim up as Merriweather picked splinters out of his side. Ron flicked on a spare flashlight and swept it around the room.

      "Zoey?" He called out. "Maribel?" Only the roaring of a fire about to jump into Harding Hall and the anguished sounds of a distant building collapsing answered him. McManus inspected the room quickly, noting one of the puffy pink duvets was stained with streaked blood, leading toward a smashed window. "Shit." Parsons breathed, motioning franticly for the others as he came to the other side of the bed.

      Lying there, gasping in rasping breaths, was a young Harvard freshman. She was staring up at the ceiling and clutching around the stomach of her white t-shirt, which was rapidly becoming red. Merriweather swore again and dropped to his knees, checking the girl's pulse and breathing.

      "Fuck," he said through grit teeth over his shoulder, then put on a reassuring face and put both hands gently on the girl's cheeks. "Ok deah, I'm with the Bowston cawps. You're gonna be fine. Don't move and try not ta speak. Relahx, relahx. We're going to stay with yah and get yah out of heah lickety-split. Blink twice if yah can heah me and yah understand."

      Tim was heartened by the two blinks in response, but not by the slight cough and red bubbles that formed in the corners of her mouth. Walt motioned for Ron to watch over the girl and made a quick huddle with McManus.

      "Internal bleedin', probably's got blood in her lungs. She's gotta be moved ASAP," Walt whispered.

      "Can you call an ambulance?" McManus whispered back, feeling anxiety and fear creep into his chest. Tim did not feel any better at the police officer's laugh as Merriweather only pushed him out the door.

      "You get me medical supplies right nah so we can move 'er. If we can make a stretchah, tha's bettah. Got a radio?" Tim nodded, eyes wide open. Walt slightly slapped Tim on the cheek reassuringly. "Get on the horn and make it happen."

      McManus fumbled with the radio for a second, mashing the transmit button and nearly shouting with the adrenaline flying through his veins. "Rachel, we need any med bags and a stretcher right now." McManus waited for two seconds, hearing nothing back. "Rachel?" Tim now felt himself being forcibly pushed out of the room and into the hall.

      "Signal's prolly fucked!" Walt chastised the student. "Try it out theah!"

      Tim squeezed his hand tight around the radio and tried again, but he could only get out Rachel's name before he felt the odd sensation of the world shuddering and a loud crack that sounded like thunder ten feet in front of him. He flinched and cowered for a second, watching helplessly as the ceiling in the hallway started to buckle again.

      Overwhelming fear rooted Tim to the spot; the student could only passively observe the bulge in the ceiling tiles getting bigger and bigger. He heard his name being screamed by Ron, but it seemed as if it was being said underwater. McManus was in the middle of a worldwide sports broadcast, and he was in slow motion, about to take the ultimate hit. As Tim scrunched his eyes shut and prepared for the pain, he felt the air rush out of his lungs and his eyes popped wide open in shock. He felt a slight breeze through his hair and he realized his was speeding backwards from the cave in; Tim's eyes flicked down to catch the Boston Police uniform that had him in a perfect form tackle.

      In that instant, time normalized and he hit the ground hard, his ears ringing from the crash of the collapse, then adjusting to the scream of pain from Walt Merriweather. McManus scrambled back with his hands, terrified of the scene in front of him. The selfless ex-Marine was pinned from the knee down under the heavy weight of the collapsed hallway, and despite his efforts to wriggle free, the ox of a man was trapped. Ron ran into the intact portion of the hallway and rushed to Merriweather's side.

      "Can you move?" Parsons asked, trying to lift the obstruction.

      "Ah'm fuckin' pinned," Walt moaned, eyes shut tight in pain. "Gawd damn it."

      Only then did Tim become aware of the staticy voice shouting his name. He lifted the radio to his mouth and called back, "Yeah, I'm here."

      "Are you ok?" Rachel asked, worry evident in her voice. "What was that sound?"

      "Rach," McManus said, joining Ron, "We've got a big problem. The cop's pinned and we've got a girl in critical that we've gotta move out of here. Grab the packs and get up here right the hell now."

      "On it," Lynch replied, and the radio squawked off. McManus looked down at his savior, nearly speechless. "You saved my life," Tim said, his mouth suddenly dry.

      "Shut up," Walt replied, wincing again. "You've gotta get that girl out nah. She's not gonna make it if we don't."

      "Can you call any police or medical units?" Parsons pleaded. "We can't help all these people, and we need help to get you out of here."

      Merriweather shifted his weight and his face blanched with pain. "When," he gasped, gritting his teeth through the anguish, "are yah gonna figure it out? This's the end of thah world. Anyone who could get out has gotten out. All those folks got is you." Walt tried his best at a smile. "Poor bastahds."

      Tim and Ron's attempt to comfort their fallen comrade was cut short by the unmistakable sound of popping underneath them and down the hall. The Boston cop swore loudly and tried to sit up, reaching into his vest. He shrugged off Tim's attempts to stop him and pulled out a slim black device from inside his vest. Walt lay down then and sighed, catching his breath. He passed the handheld device over his head into McManus' care.

      "Lissen, shut up, just friggin' lissen," Walt said. "That's my old data pahd. I got it synced ta UNSC freqs and you'll be able tah get to thah Marines through that. They'll get you all out of this shit. Ron," he instructed, trying to look down his body and get a good view of his predicament, "my M6 still ok?"

      Parsons glanced down and nodded as Rachel, huffing and puffing, arrived on the scene, dragging backpacks and the Battle Rifle. Everyone ignored Lynch's hushed, surprised cursing in the background.

      "Take the holstah and the piece. You shoot?"

      "Yeah, but—"

      "Take it, but it's only good 'gainst thah small bastahds and us. More'n likely you're gonna use it on yahself." Harding Hall made a very subtle shift to the right, and the splintering of beams and snapping of supports started to echo in the structure. "Get the girl and get out," Merriweather's demeanor changed, suddenly angry with the group for listening to him. Ron grabbed Rachel and the two scrambled into the room, leaving Tim pedaling backwards, still looking at Walt.

      "Thank you," Tim said, knowing what was about to happen.

      "Get those people out of Bawston," Walt replied, turning his gaze to ceiling. "All o' them."

      The three friends did their best to stabilize the girl in their care and lift her safely clear off of the floor. The building was now beginning to sway as if the ground underneath them were made of shifting sands, and caution was beginning to give way to the demands of survival. They quickly shuffled out of the door, Rachel and Ron balancing the freshman's head and shoulders while Tim turned his back to his friends and carried the girl's leg under each arm. As they passed Merriweather's body he yelled with all his heart and soul over the din. "Get 'em outta thah city!" He roared. "You have to!"

      Ten feet before the door to the stairs, another clap of thunder sounded in the hallway and the distinctive shuffle of collapsing ceiling filled the space behind them. McManus fought the urge to look back to see if Walt was ok. Sensing Tim's desire, Parsons roared, "Tim! We've got to keep moving! The door!"

      Without breaking stride, McManus shoved a foot perfectly into the double doors, banging them outwards and clearing space for the girl's head and shoulders. The trio could feel the building coming down around their ears, tiny pieces of debris raining down on them as they hustled, wheezing and huffing, down the stairs. The blistering heat of flame was rushing toward them, but Tim could feel the relatively chilly air of Harvard Yard sneaking out from the front entrance.

      "Almost there!" He yelled over his shoulder, kicking open another set of double doors and yelling aloud in jubilation as he caught sight of the outside world. The team nearly sprinted the remaining distance as whole portions of the dorm fell behind them like a crashing wave. With only feet to spare, they cleared the front entrance of Harding Hall and very nearly tripped down the four brick stairs outside. Finally, they found a few seconds of peace and laid the severely injured girl on the singed grass of Harvard Yard, clear of the growing blaze. It was in that moment of respite that Tim noticed no one in his group, or in the gang of followers apart from them, was speaking. McManus looked up from the Freshman quizzically, then tilted his head.

      "Hey Ron?" Tim said, suddenly very aware of the Battle Rifle slung across his chest, "what the hell's going on over there?"

      Tim, Ron, and Rachel now focused their eyes from the direction they had originally come, and so had the rest of the surviving group. Pockets of new survivors, two at first, then groups of six and seven, were running down the small hill toward the Yard. Parsons took a few hesitant steps toward the oncoming crowds, still several hundred yards away. Ron adjusted the knit cap on his head that hid his blonde hair and squinted in confusion. "What the hell are they running fr—"

      The answer, with its haunting wail and thumps of sizzling plasma weaponry, suddenly became obvious.

      The hunting party of four Banshee attack craft screamed over the fleeing masses, streaking into view right after they deposited simultaneous fuel rod cannon blasts that vaporized most of the panicked mob. Even from farther away, the Covenant light fighter/bombers were purple blurs that left faint contrails behind glowing wingtip turbines. Tim was shocked at just how nimble the Banshees were. Their payload away, the aerial fighters engaged in formation loops that brought them right back into perfect attack position to kill everyone in Harvard Yard, including Tim, Ron and Rachel. To McManus' surprise, the feeling of fear that had gripped him in the hallway had suddenly lessened, and he found himself running toward the petrified group that had wanted to follow him in the first place.

      "Scatter! Get into cover right now!" He screamed, waving his arms wildly at the dumbstruck mass. Before McManus could get himself killed, however, Rachel and Ron both grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him toward a still intact fountain, glittering with numerous lucky pennies and only a vague film of spilled blood. The trio ran headlong toward salvation as the Banshees unleashed purple and green hell on the civilians that seemed to growl and shriek before separating humans from their lives. Those who had figured out how to run were blown several feet up in the air as plasma bolts exploded turf and bodies, raining wet sod soaked in water and blood across the quad. Panicked Bostonians were gunned down savagely as they ran with no destination in mind, tripping and falling over each other to find some kind of safety in burning buildings.

      Tim could smell the burning brick and his nose tingled with the ionized air as one Banshee zeroed in on the three friends. Before the trio could meet their maker, however, a single missile streaked through the sky, corkscrewing and swerving on a hard lock toward its target, slamming and exploding against a knobby purple wing and sending the Covenant air fighter into a sickeningly fast flat spin over the heads of the young adults. The gleaming violet craft smashed into a nearby dorm like a discarded toy hurled by a toddler into a pile of blocks, burying itself into the steel and brick and raining debris across the yard.

      Tim could not even hear his own panicked exclamation as the event happened, but he did manage to catch out of the corner of his vision a dark green Pelican transport that had undoubtedly sent the alien attacker to its doom. Before McManus could point it out, he crunched his shin against the raised granite edge of the fountain and plunged face first into the lukewarm water, right next to Parsons and Lynch. The chaos and murder and stench of destruction around him disappeared in a hazy blue of chlorine, tiny dirty tiles, and discarded coins.

      It was heaven on Earth.

      The Harvard junior had no clue about the passage of time. Perhaps he had jumped in that fountain seconds ago, perhaps he had been in that dirty water for hours. There was no way for him to tell. Despite past experience, Tim opened his eyes in the fountain and fought to keep them opening in the stinging chlorine. On either side of him, Rachel and Ron lay perfectly still in the shallow water. Were it not for the air bubbles occasionally drifting to the surface, McManus would have feared them dead. It was a surreal experience, as if he were back in the womb.

      He did not dare move, did not dare disturb the tranquil peace that the war outside could only try to shatter. Muffled explosions and muted cries of pain only became soothing reverberations in the granite pool, even the shooting pain in Tim's shin was only an afterthought, locked away in the back of his mind. After an eternity, the thuds and booms of the Banshee assault melted into nothing, and the group began to feel the burning urge to breathe fresh air again. Tim fought hard to stay down there, but the will to live finally overcame his desire for tranquility, and he pushed hard against the slick tile and shoved himself out of the water, gasping loudly for oxygen.

      Two minutes ago Tim had fallen into a fountain in Harvard Yard. When he got out, he stepped soggy foot onto Mars.

      Deep, wide craters from the Banshee's plasma bolts dotted the quad. Bodies lay strewn around the space, and not a single person was moving. Buildings that had half a chance of remaining standing were now rubble. Everyone who had counted on Tim and his friends for guidance and safety had been slaughtered. Harding Hall lay in ruins, collapsed upon itself. Only the two rescued Freshmen were intact, lying still several feet from their former dorm. The now soaking trio trudged across the space, shaking themselves free of water like dogs. Rachel wrung her deep red hair out over her shoulder, shivering in the strong autumn breeze. Ron checked on the girl that Walt had carried out while Tim and Rachel knelt by her roommate. McManus heard Parsons mutter a swear word and punch the ground.

      "She's gone." Parsons spat in anger.

      "Ours too." Tim replied sadly. McManus and Parsons sat down, miserable. Rachel instead stood up and shrugged off her backpack, slamming it down on the ground in rage.

      "Fuck!" She screamed across the quad, collapsing to her knees. "Fuck this shit! It's not! Fucking! Fair! Give us a goddamn chance!" Lynch would have screamed until she passed out if Tim and Ron did not jump up and huddle around her for warmth and comfort. The Boston College co-ed began crying uncontrollably, rocking back and forth. McManus stroked her head and tried to soothe her, but his mind had now changed somehow. He could not put his finger on it, but he became aware he was scrutinizing every detail. Every sound, shadow, even faint smells were becoming minute and detailed. His awareness of the land was heightened, and he felt a tingling feeling in the back of his skull that told him this place, even though it was now quite devoid of life, would not be safe for long. His green eyes scanned the sky and shifted to his partner, Ron. In a stronger voice than he had previously used, he stated, "We've got to go."

       "No way," Parsons said. "She's in no condition and we don't have any idea where we're going. We wouldn't stand a chance."

      "We don't stand a chance here." McManus insisted, gesturing around the obliterated Yard. "Boston's a lost cause, Ron. We gotta get outta this city. That cop—"

       "Walt," Ron interrupted, chastising Tim. McManus put his hands up in concession.

       "Walt had that data pad and he said the Marines could get us out. I saw a Pelican fly over Harvard when the Banshees hit us. They know there's still people here. They've gotta wait for us. See if the pad's still working."

      Parsons shrugged off his backpack and left Tim to care for Rachel. Digging into the pack, he pulled out the dripping black device and shook it once in a futile effort to clear off excess moisture. "This thing's effed." Ron muttered to himself. "Taking a data pad for a swim and expecting—" Parsons rant was interrupted by the soft blue light of the personal digital assistant winking on, silencing the smart-ass dining services employee and earning a slight laugh through his nose. "How 'bout that?" He said to himself, shaking his head. "UNSC makes some tough stuff." Parsons reached over and handed the device to Tim, who was still holding Rachel close. As McManus took hold of the data pad, Rachel disengaged, stood up, and rubbed her arms self-consciously.

      "Sorry," Lynch sniffed. "It's just, you know."

      Tim and Ron nodded understandingly. McManus looked over toward the girl's backpack. "We should eat," he said. "Take my pack and figure out what's still viable, okay? I need a second to look at this thing and figure out where we're going."

      Parsons cleared his throat and wrung water out of his knit cap. "We, uh," Ron lowered his voice. "We might wanna think about getting some dry clothes off some of the, uh," Ron subtly nodded toward the bodies in the Yard, but Lynch caught the look.

      "No," she stated emphatically. "No we're not doing that. I'm not about to strip dead bodies. I won't. I don't care if the world's ending, I'm not going to let us stoop to that level." Rachel looked to Tim for backup. McManus nodded sadly with the girl.

      "I can't do that, Ron," he said. "There're enough fires around to warm us. Let's give 'em at least some dignity." Parsons shrugged and dropped the topic, opting to join McManus in scrutinizing the digital map in front of them.

      "Is this real time?" The tall, blonde-haired Harvard employee asked. Tim grunted in the affirmative.

      "Covenant ass-raped us," the student frowned. "All the bridges near us are out, but there's a route that looks ok right over the Charles River."

      "Ok," Parsons said, confusion creeping into his voice, "but you said all the bridges are out."

      "I tried out for crew two years ago," McManus said, scrolling along the bird's eye view of the city with his middle finger and thumb and settling on a crimson and white roofed building along the Charles River. "There's a boathouse that we can get into and ferry across. We'll be exposed, but I doubt the Covenant will be patrolling the area again so soon."

      "Bet your life on that?" Parsons half-joked. Tim looked over his shoulder at his friend with a very serious look on his face.

      "We gotta get outta here, Ron." He said in a level voice. "We're gonna have to take some chances if we want to reach the Marines, and we gotta trust each other." Parsons reached down and gave the student a hand up and the two men walked toward the now-recomposed Rachel Lynch, who handed them both beef jerky and bottles of water.

       "What's the word?" She asked as Parsons attached Merriweather's holster to his right thigh.

      "Well," Ron said, racking the slide on the M6C and checking the magazine before placing it in the holster, "Timmy's winning the 'willingly going into deathtraps' competition two to one."

      "Do I want to know?" Lynch asked McManus, who took one last look at the data pad before shutting it off and stuffing it in his pocket. Tim shook his head.

      "I'll tell you on the way," Tim said, taking the lead and pressing his Battle Rifle to his shoulder.

      The attractive redheaded college student wiped her nose with a damp sleeve and traded trusting nods with both men. Rachel secured a drier cap over her head once more and focused on the sturdy frame of McManus to ground herself back in the moment.

      She caught Tim looking back over his shoulder at her and the two locked eyes for another moment, McManus immediately going back to scanning the path ahead of them as if he were embarrassed to be looking anywhere but straight. Lynch jogged a few steps up and adjusted Tim's backpack, wiping soot off his jacket and patting him on the shoulder reassuringly. She was delighted to get a smile out of him.

      Parsons brought up the rear, looking ahead into an increasingly creepy silence of a murdered city. In the distance, the giant Covenant Battlecruiser hung overhead with no intention of leaving.

      "What could possibly go wrong?" Ron sighed.

The Day Before Tomorrow: Part 3
Date: 30 January 2009, 3:46 am

The Day Before Tomorrow
A prequel to the "Minutemen" Series
Part Three

Charles River
City of Boston
United North American Protectorate
October 10, 2552

      "So I'm railing this chick from behind, right?"

      Tim McManus and Rachel Lynch warily looked over their shoulders from the front of a tiny motorboat. Behind the water craft, Harvard University burned. The three survivors had gone through collapsing buildings, the assumed deaths of all their friends, and failed miserably in their mission to save other survivors on the campus.

      The path ahead appeared no better.

      The rickety craft they were trapped on sputtered and puttered along at an agonizingly slow pace, weaving past partially submerged chunks of high-rise office buildings, floating sections of obliterated trees, and bobbing corpses. Until Ron Parsons had spoken, the group had sat in soppy silence for upwards of fifteen minutes. Tim's brown eyes narrowed in a look that asked just what Ron was on about.

      "We're going at it for, like, forty minutes. Intense stuff."

      Rachel tilted her perfectly proportioned face in utter disturbed confusion.

      Parsons looked at his two companions like they had grown extra heads. "Come on, at the forty minute mark you start to get bored unless you're changing it up."

      McManus turned his attention to the approaching river bank and the smoking, demolished city of Boston ahead. "I'm not entirely sure why we're sharing this, Ron."

      Parsons threw his hands up. "You know what? Fine. Let's just sit here in silence while I putter across the River Styx and we can just stew in our thoughts about Boston being destroyed and our friends being dead and Earth being invaded by the goddamn Covenant…which, if you do the short math, means we're going to die, by the way."

      The antique gas-powered outboard motor took over the conversation as Ron proceeded to pout in the back of the boat. "Don't know why I'm driving this friggin' thing anyway," he muttered to himself.

      "All right," Lynch sighed, turning her body toward Parsons but staring up at the sky. "So what happened next?"

      The blonde-haired, slightly lanky Bostonian brightened. "So I decide I'm going to just go for it and put it in her ass." Ron ignored the disapproving looks his boorish tale was receiving and kept on. "So she gives me the fish eye, right? She asks, 'The hell do you think you're doing?' I say, 'I was gonna put it in your ass.' She gets all high and mighty and says, 'Well that's a bit presumptuous,' and I go, 'Presumptuous?' Damn, that's a big word for a nine-year-old."

      Tim knew that he should not laugh, but it bubbled up from a dark place in his gut and blew out his mouth in a shameful guffaw. He clamped a hand over his mouth and was relieved to see that Rachel had a dirty sense of humor, too. "That's fucked up, Ron." McManus chastised.

      "Yeah, but it's a decent pick-up line."

      Tim and Rachel finally gave in, bursting out laughing and nearly doubling over. It felt good to laugh, and to Tim it seemed as if he had not laughed in years. Parsons adjusted course to avoid a submerged car in the shallows and faked a wistful sigh.

      As Rachel wiped away a mirthful tear and sniffed for a second, McManus turned around and wagged a finger toward the boat's pilot, who was wearing a satisfied, wily smile.

      "No more jokes," the Harvard Junior said in a low, angry voice, though the broad grin on his face betrayed him. Ron nodded back.

      "Yes, sir," Parsons mocked Tim. "Not even my best stuff anyway."

      The bottom of the crew team's pace craft scraped up against the silty bank and ground to a halt. The relatively happy go lucky mood inside the boat fled the scene as the three survivors jumped out. Ron had his M6C Magnum pistol out already, but it probably would have done better in his holster as he slipped and scrambled up the bank to join Lynch and McManus taking cover behind an overturned bench. Tim had his Battle Rifle slung across his chest but was focused on frowning at the late Walt Merriweather's data pad that he had out and working.

      It was hard for Tim to come to grips with the events of less than an hour ago. Officer Merriweather, a veteran of the UNSC, had entrusted him with the powerful military-grade COM system as a dying gift. It was even harder to forget that Walt's last selfless command, made while he was pinned in a burning building saving Tim's life, was to escort desperate Harvard survivors to the safety of a Marine escort. Less than an hour ago, Tim and his friends failed Walt Merriweather completely. That wasn't fair, McManus told himself for the hundredth time. I'm just a kid. I can hardly take care of myself. I didn't even know those people. He should have known I couldn't do it…I should have known I couldn't do it. Jesus. Oh God…

      A firm hand gripping the top of Tim's head brought him out of himself and he became aware that he wasn't breathing and his face was turning a bright red. Rachel and Ron were looking at him with trepidation, Ron's hand still on Tim's head and twisting it so he faced them.

      "What's your malfunction, smart kid?" Parsons asked.

      McManus took a breath. "Nothing," he said, more to himself than anyone else. "Nothing's wrong."

      Neither of the two looked convinced, but they chose to ignore it. "So what's the story?" Ron questioned.

      McManus shook his head. "There's a whole lot of red between us and the evacuation zone, I assume that's Covenant. Everywhere else that's clear to travel looks treacherous at best. So many buildings went down this thing's having a hard time seeing through the smoke."

      Lynch was on the other side the Harvard student, looking over his shoulder. "So many buildings," she whispered in a hushed, awed voice.

      McManus peered over the fallen bench into the war zone. "It looks kinda better on the edges of Boston. What's your address?" He poked at his taller, blonde companion. Before Ron could answer, Lynch pushed Tim's data pad down and tried to shove them down with her good arm. Both men glared at their female accomplice.

      "What are you—" Tim tried to say, before the surprisingly powerful Boston College student clamped a hand over his mouth. McManus now noticed Parsons was pressed against the dirt, eyes wide, mouth agape. As Tim hugged the ground with them, he saw through the wooden slats of the outdoor furniture what had thrown his friends into a panic.

      They were short, almost comically squat, and waddled like babies, babies with hooves and methane rebreather tanks. Tim almost squeaked in surprise, but found that Rachel's hand was still clamped hard on his mouth. It smelled like sweat and the last gasps of an expensive perfume, but McManus did not have time to let his mind wander. Five Grunts were clopping past them, and despite their size they were the scariest things Tim had seen in his life.

      Each of the kids stared in absolute awe, their first encounter with the genocidal aliens that had burned their planets one by one. McManus could not believe that these things were the one of the races that were winning battles hand over fist. They clutched weapons in their hands that looked like purple and black remote controls linked in their middle, ending in two glowing green tips that stood out like highlighters under black lights. They jabbered back in forth in a language Tim did not understand, and for a few terrifying seconds that felt like hours, they stood around not ten feet from the petrified humans.

      McManus looked over and noticed Parsons ever so slowly bringing his pistol to his side, preparing to fire if he had to. Tim cursed himself for having dropped to the ground so clumsily, pinning his Battle Rifle between his chest and the ground. He did not dare move to adjust it. He wondered if that was the last mistake he would ever make in his life for another few seconds until the Grunts trooped off, satisfied that nothing was amiss on the banks of the Charles River. As they turned their backs to the water completely, the group gave a collective, relieved exhale. Parsons rolled over on his back and stared at the autumn sky for a second.

      "We don't need to go to my place," he said. "I just need to get out of this city. There's nothing for me back home."

      "Don't you have a gun at your place?" McManus whispered, still afraid to talk at normal volumes. Parsons looked at Tim as if he had spoken in Chinese.

      "Covenant are here," Ron hissed, "on the ground. I've got a gun now. We need to get the fuck out of here."

      "They're gone," Rachel said, keeping an eye on the scouts' progress. "We should move."

      They each rose slowly from their prone positions, never wanting to pry their eyes away from the direction their enemy had gone. McManus willed the Grunts to continue on their patrol as the three kids hustled, low and fast, among the spotted trees until they came to the edge of a six-lane highway known as Soldier's Field Road. Tim scrutinized the intact roofs across the wide space of the road and grunted.

      "What?" Ron asked, arriving last and watching the group's back.

      "If they're on the ground," Tim explained, taking a knee behind the guardrail, pointing at the ground and then gesturing towards the city, "then they could also have guys on the roofs, snipers and stuff."


      McManus was now scanning the rooftops with the help of his rifle's scope. "So we've gotta cross that road and there's not a lot of cars! We're in the open, like, forever!"

      Ron heaved his shoulders up in a sigh, sliding his pistol into the black thigh holster and securing it tightly. As he adjusted the straps on his backpack, Tim now started looking at Parsons more carefully.

      "What?" Tim questioned him, "What are you thinking?"

      The tall blonde cafeteria worker tightened the laces of his shoes, turned himself around so he was facing the city, bent down until he nearly touched the ground, and launched himself over the guardrail of the highway. He landed nimbly and took off in a dead sprint for the other side of the road, weaving around cars and vaulting hoods when he had to, and finished up his no-cover run by jumping on the trunk of a small, abandoned sports car and used it to clear the adjacent guardrail to safety. Tim and Rachel's stared in surprise as they peeked over cover, then Lynch's eyes narrowed in consternation.

      "I think he did that last part to show off."

      "He's a fucking idiot." Tim spat. "But I didn't see anything on the roof so I guess it's clear. Let's stay low and get this over with."

      Ninety seconds later they caught up with Parsons, who was lounging with his back against the guardrail, nibbling on the remnants of his beef jerky. Ron looked up at Tim's annoyed expression and offered some of the dried meat. Tim slapped the hand away.

      "The fuck is wrong with you?" McManus demanded.

      "We had to cross the street," Parsons offered. "I crossed the street."

      "You get shot and we don't—we can't—help you get out of here, Ron."

      "Never asked you to."

      "Are you joking right now?"

      "Hey, you came to me, smart kid."

      "Will you two just shut up?" Lynch halted the brewing argument, kicking dirt at them and bringing the group's attention to her. "Ron, have some patience. Tim, stop trying to put all this on yourself. Can we get the hell out of here now?"

      The familiar, comforting blue light of the data pad glowed in McManus' face as he switched it on again. Tim pointed straight ahead down a street towards a major intersection littered with waves of paper debris and overturned cars. "We go to that intersection and head northeast," he said. "We stick to alleys and make sure we can hide quickly."

      "Any other way than that?" Parsons asked, still munching thoughtfully on his snack and sitting on the ground. Tim accepted a bottle of water from Rachel and looked back.

      "Why?" He asked, irritated.

      Parsons stood up slowly, fatigue creeping into his muscles like doubt. "Because," he pointed out, "Right before you guys crossed the street a whole bunch o' folks tossed themselves off the roof of that apartment building onto the intersection and I imagine it's gross." Off his partners' disgusted expressions, Ron shrugged. "You asked," he said simply, following behind as they detoured toward a nearby alleyway.

      As the trio entered Boston city limits, Tim became aware of yet another enemy: the city itself. The Covenant had taken the place that he had called home and had turned it against him. Streets or alleys that would have given him safe passage were blocked. Houses and buildings that could be used for shelter were in danger of collapsing around them or risked being consumed by nearby blazes. The crumbling husks of structures meant that the threesome was not only watching their front and back, but also above and below.

      As another pile of bricks fell from seven stories up and landed ten feet in front of him, McManus became more and more angry at the thought that his city was more likely to kill him than the aliens that destroyed it.

      The echoing growl coming from the main street ahead of him immediately wiped that thought away.

      "Hide!" Tim whispered franticly, pushing and shoving his friends into a small alcove that served as a restaurant's loading dock. Rachel and Ron were about to protest before they heard it again, a series of barked growls, short aggressive roars, and the occasional "wort." McManus dared to sneak another peek around the wall and down the alley, but the sight he saw caused him to lose his breath and duck back to his fellow survivors.

      "Are they the big ones?" she whispered, petrified. "Are there Elites out there?"

      McManus nodded, eyes wide but with a resigned expression. Ron swore and ran to the doors leading into the restaurant but found them locked. There was no advancing, no retreat. On either side, brick structures towered over them with no chance of climbing out. They were truly trapped, and the sounds of the Covenant were getting louder and clearer. Tim suddenly realized Rachel was grabbing his arm, and her hand was shaking.

      "We're going to die," Lynch breathed, her eyes misting. "I don't want to die."

      The unwilling leader of the survivors snuck one more quick look around the corner. Tim had seen videos of Elites in news broadcasts, but they had always been piles of corpses from very far away and never lasted for more than a few seconds. Never had they put the hostile alien species up in a comparison of humans, and McManus had been hard pressed to find even an illegal pirated video of real battlefield footage. Therefore he, and the rest of his ragtag group of survivors, had never seen backbone of the Covenant military as they really were.

      The videos did not do them justice.

      They were massive. They were twice as tall as Tim and broad as an ox; their hooves alone were as big as McManus' head and their armor, when it was not streaked with human blood, gleamed along smooth curves and glinted off sharp edges. The Grunts had scared Tim, but these behemoths petrified him with fear, and they were heading straight for his hiding spot.

      The Harvard student knew he and his friends had been lucky by the river, but this time they would surely be found and there was no conceivable place to run. As the squad's Grunts came ever closer, they suddenly stopped and started scanning the area, sniffing loudly and hopping from leg to leg. Parsons had found a sliver of glass from the dock and was using it as a crude mirror to see what was going on.

      "What the fuck are they doing?" Ron whispered to Tim. "What the fuck are they doing?"

      "Shut up," Rachel hissed, and Tim waved a hand for them both to quiet down. He dared to sneak a glimpse down the street again. The Covenant had now split up from their tight formation and spread out across the entire street, inching forward and looking in all directions for a hidden menace only they could sense. For the life of him, Tim could not figure out what it was, but he knew it was keeping the aliens from finding him and he was not about to complain. McManus withdrew back into the alley to consult with Rachel and Ron, but found the two of them staring at the brick wall they were hiding behind.

      "What?" Tim hissed. All he got in reply were the two survivors pointing at the wall, and McManus had to take a step back to discover what they had found.

      In large, dripping blue letters, someone had spray painted a message. "Hazard: 40 feet ahead."

      Tim squinted at the freshly painted letters. "What the hell is this?" He whispered to himself before the answer became quite obvious. The boom of twin fragmentation grenades shook the street, accompanied in bloody harmony by the roars of Covenant troops in agony. The party ran to the edge of the wall and witnessed a scene of carnage; the entire line of Grunts had been obliterated, shredded by the grenade booby trap, and the Elites were just starting to pick themselves up when the second wave hit them.

      From behind Ron, Tim, and Rachel, a whole squad of men sporting urban camouflage and UNSC armor melted out of the scenery, organized in pairs, unleashing withering fire into the invaders down the street. They wielded MA5C Assault Rifles, Battle Rifles, and two did their best with M7 submachine guns. The Elites attempted a tactical retreat, only to run into another soldier who whipped around the corner with a nasty-looking shotgun, pumping round after round into the chests of the towering warriors. Purple blood splattered up and down the street as the ghost soldiers advanced quickly, shouting brief instructions to each other and passing by the awestruck kids as if they were not even there. They sounded tired, but each man's speech was clipped and efficient and they obviously knew what they were doing.

      "I count one!"

      "Charlie down."

      "Clear left."

      "Clear right."

      "Clear up."

      "Oorah! Get some!"

      "Reynolds, police those bodies and take everything they're carrying."

      "Nice clean-up there, McHale."

      "Now that's what I call a close encounter."


      "Need a mag."

      "Anyone got more frags and line? I'm out."

      "Three more blocks to take Copley."

      "No way we take Copley. Not like this."

      "Ibanez was plus four with one block to go."

      "Love this job."


      "I'm serious, who's got frags and line?"

      "Jesus McHale, I got your fucking frags and line. Just stop bitching for two—"

      "Cap, Master Guns. I spy friendlies in the alley."

      The three kids had been so mesmerized by what they had just seen they had not realized the soldiers were talking about them. They only snapped out of their daze when seven men materialized right in front of them, all dressed in light armor and only discernable by their bright, intense eyes. Every one of them was sporting a balaclava, and their breath was misting in the cool approach of evening. Though none of them were talking now, they all grouped around and deferred to a tall, well-built soldier wearing Captain's bars and minding a custom urban camouflaged Battle Rifle slung across his chest and an impressive suppressed M6C strapped to his thigh. He took a step forward, his flashing eyes scanned all of them thoroughly in the span of two seconds.

      "Are any of you hurt?" His voice, though muffled from the mask, was all business. The survivors shook their heads silently. The imposing man in charge pointed at Tim's Battle Rifle.

      "Where'd you get that?" He was not demanding the answer, but McManus certainly felt compelled to answer quickly and truthfully.

      "Assembled the components. It's mine. We got the pistol from a Marine vet when we were rescuing people from a collapsing building. He died."

      "Did you fight any Covenant?"

      The trio nervously exchanged looks. "No way," Rachel piped up. "We've been slipping around them all day."

      Her reply seemed to get a positive reaction from the soldiers. Their posture became a little less rigid, they seemed to relax just a hair more. The leader nodded very slightly. "Good job. They own this city now, any engagements just attract more of them, sustained firefights are a good way to end up dead." He pulled down his balaclava and revealed his face; gray stubble across his face defined a strong jaw, straight nose, and an expression that seemed to always be assessing the situation. "Where are you kids headed?"

      Tim took out Merriweather's data pad. "The vet gave us this. Told us the UNSC's ferrying people out from Back Bay and Rowes Wharf to safety."

      The mention of the United Nations Space Command seemed like a particularly dirty word to the group in front of McManus. Immediately their eyes narrowed and a chill came over the street. One of the men whispered no-so-discreetly, "Fuck that." In the distance, a group of unseen Wraiths were opening fire.

      "The UNSC is no longer in Boston," the head soldier informed the group. The kids looked at him with intense confusion, but he waved his hand as if to dismiss the topic from conversation altogether. "Trying to leave Boston is suicide right now."

      "Wait wait wait," Tim said, putting his hands up and shaking his head, "but we saw Pelicans—"

      "The Pelicans aren't going to take you. Everyone who reaches that zone is going to be detoured to God knows where until the Covies find them." A dark-skinned soldier to the right of the leader interjected forcefully. "The Pelicans are picking up high-value objects left behind and extracting essential personnel."

      "Then who are you?" Ron asked with concern.

      "Non-essential personnel." The leader deadpanned. The soldiers all had a brief, grim chuckle at the unintentional dark humor. "I'm Captain Jack O'Shea," the leader finally introduced himself, letting a very quick, small smile show as a welcome. He put a hand on the shoulder of the tall dark-skinned soldier next to him. "This is my XO, Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds." Reynolds nodded to the kids.

      "I'm Tim," McManus said, trying to put up a front of comfort, "this is Ron and Rachel."

      An urgent beep broke up the welcoming party as Reynolds put a hand to his ear. "Ibanez has casualties," he informed O'Shea with a frown. The Captain grunted and put his mask back on, muffling his voice slightly and putting a hand to his ear.

      "Ibanez. O'Shea. Go ahead." Tim tried to discern meaning from the Captain's eyes, and from what he saw, he was not pleased with the news. In the middle of the unheard conversation, O'Shea's piercing eyes flitted over to McManus, now aware he was being studied. McManus felt his face go flush with embarrassment, as if he had just been caught checking out a girl bending over to get her books. Getting over the initial shock, Tim realized that it was not a look of accusation leveled at Tim, but instead one of evaluation. If he had felt self-conscious before, it was surely doubled now.

      "All right," The Captain said tersely. He turned to Reynolds and Gus tilted his head toward his commanding officer, never taking his eyes off the students. "Ibanez is minus two."

      "He was just plus four."

      "Copley Square's worse than we thought."

      "We'll have to scrap it." Gus exhaled angrily.

      "Agreed. We'll go to bravo, see if we can salvage this. Ibanez, strip two and a half of gear and regroup at Newbury. I need two males and one light female. Good. O'Shea out."

      Ron, Tim, and Rachel all exchanged glances. Had they just been drafted? The imposing Captain took a step toward the trio and Tim fought the desire to take a step back. To Tim's surprise, Ron Parsons stepped forward and crossed his arms over his chest.

      "What's the deal?" Parons asked, chin tilted up and trying for all the world to look like he belonged in the company of these men.

      O'Shea's brow furrowed under the balaclava. "I know you've been through a lot, but my men and I need all the help we can get. I don't know if you can handle yourselves in combat, but unfortunately that doesn't matter at this point. My men are dying out there and we need armed forces badly."

      Though Tim had already deduced where this conversation was going when Jack started talking, he was still becoming more and more uneasy as O'Shea got to the point. Everyone had entertained fantasies of being a war hero, a leader of men, the bane of the Covenant and born warrior, but the truth was most war heroes were recognized after their "brave sacrifice," and McManus wasn't ready to sacrifice anything right now. Tim was pretty good at shooting, sneaking around, and other facets that were considered excellent urban warfare skills, but he doubted he could do it under fire, and he certainly did not consider himself a peer to these stone and shadow colored ghosts with guns. He looked down at his rifle in shame, afraid to meet O'Shea's eyes.

      "Look" Jack said, "we need your help and we're not going to send you somewhere that would be overly dangerous. I can tell you, right now, that leaving this city with your life is next to impossible, and staying put in one place is just as bad. We've prepared for this. If you want to survive, you fight with us."

      McManus did not feel inspired by the man's words, though he knew O'Shea believed them with all his heart. Before he could answer, a Hispanic soldier and three other fighters ran into the alley and came to a halt in front of Jack. Tim noticed the red cross on the man's arm as he spoke to the Captain.

      "Charlie owns Copley," Ibanez huffed, clearly out of breath, "and they don't feel like sharing."

      O'Shea grunted. "Get any intel on their intentions?"

      "Yeah, and you're not gonna like it." Ibanez said, taking out a data pad from a pocket in his body armor. The pad winked to life in the medic's hand and displayed a map of the immediate area. Several mean-looking red shapes blinked and pulsed in various rhythms all around Copley, and O'Shea swore loudly. Gus looked over the Captain's shoulder and repeated the obscenity.

      "They're digging in." Ibanez stated.

      "No shit," Jack replied, adding a low whistle. "This doesn't make sense. Covenant wouldn't commit ground forces of that scale on a location like this. Strategically, I don't get it."

      "Does that matter?" Tim piped up, drawing inquisitive looks from the soldiers in front of him. "Whether they're sticking around or stopping by, they'll kill us all the same."

      McManus gulped at the resulting silence as the men in front of him glared in looks that told him to shut the hell up. Ibanez tapped O'Shea on the shoulder with the back of his hand and nodded toward the kids.


      Jack nodded, keeping his eyes on Tim.

      "Fuckin' kid's got moxie, I'll give 'im that."

      "We'll see," O'Shea said, his mind already moving on to the next step. "Everyone on me!"

      Ibanez and the rest of the soldiers gathered around O'Shea and Reynolds. The trio stood, uncommitted, outside the circle of men and gradually stepped forward to join the conversation. Each of the urban-camouflaged warriors had a data pad out that was synced to Jack's; every slim black device flashed with the same images that the Captain's did, and after some tinkering with Merriweather's own data pad, McManus managed to get his synced up as well. Ron gave an appreciative whistle.

      "Guess you majored in hacking."

      McManus lightly bit his lip in concentration. "I never really settled on a major," he said distractedly.

      "Slacker," Ron jabbed. Rachel shushed them angrily.

      "Okay," O'Shea announced, tapping in commands and zooming in on a map of Boston, "Bad news first: Covies set up shop in Copley and they're not giving it up any time soon. That means they're buying long-term real estate and we don't have the force to make Boston a bad neighborhood. We scrap big assault plans starting now. Let's move to good news."

      Jack tapped his screen again and swept a finger along the smooth surface, flying across the digital city and landing on the east side of the city, where wharves spit out into Boston harbor like knobby fingers. "UNSC is telling stragglers to go to Rowes Wharf area for evac. We know that's bullshit, but survivors don't. We split into two squads. Reynolds takes Ibanez and Alpha, I've got McHale and Bravo. We'll go back where we stashed the two troop 'hogs and we motor to Rowes. Alpha will secure the site and Bravo will take first run of the wounded. Take no lip, load the worst into your hog and start running trips into the waypoint on your pads.

      "And word on what to expect at Rowes?"

      "High counts of unarmed civilians, probably all those who were too slow or wounded in the first surge to get out." Jack looked up briefly and made sure he made his point. "We double time it to the wharves and get those civilians to safety. It's about saving those people now. Questions?"

      "Rules of engagement?" A disembodied voice asked from across the huddle.

      "Engage all hostiles on sight, but don't stick around."

      "How likely is it the Covenant will hit the evac site?" McHale asked.

      "Very likely; so move as quickly as possible and stay out of sight every chance ou can."

      "Where do we take them?"

      O'Shea flicked his fingers across the data pad once more, pulling up rail schematics for the entire city, terminating at a central point and highlighted in an orange diamond. "UNSC evacuation protocols freeze all rapid transit movement after a certain amount of time. Right now there's makeshift blockades of maglev trains all around South Station terminal. We take the civilians underground, blow the tunnels and seal ourselves in."

      Tim felt ridiculous craning his head above the huddle, but he also felt it was necessary. "Uhhh?" He uttered, again feeling the heat of everyone around him, "Seal ourselves in?"

      "We'll be able to get out," O'Shea sighed.


      "Any other questions?" The Captain asked, expecting none. "Good. Form up and prepare to move. Reynolds, Ibanez, with me."

      The soldiers broke the huddle and settled into two groups of eight on each side of the alley. Ibanez tossed a large sack to O'Shea and the Captain began digging around inside. Tim and the kids looked all over the alley, each of them briefly entertaining the notion of just plain running away from these men with guns who wanted to run smack into the heart of the invasion. Jack withdrew two sets of grey body armor from the sack and tossed them to Ron and Tim, who, to their credit, only stumbled a half step when catching the plated protection. Both of them looked at the Captain questioningly.

      "People are going to die if we don't help them now," Jack said in his best no-nonsense tone. "They, and I, need your help."

      Tim and Ron took a very brief moment, then nodded at the same time, sliding their backpacks off and picking up the armor. O'Shea cleared his throat to get their attention and traded their jackets for more practical urban-camouflaged autumn gear. He handed them throat mics and COM transmitters and gave them a crash course on the devices. McManus tried his best to ignore the blood that came with his, or the plasma scorch marks on his body armor.

      After he was done with the men, O'Shea presented Rachel with a set of very light upper body armor, though he had to wait for Ibanez, who was examining the feisty civilian, and was both quite confused and slightly alarmed. He turned to his superior officer and pointed incredulously at Lynch's arm.

      "Do you know she just dislocated her shoulder?" The latino medic asked, eyes widening.

      Lynch made a half-smile/half-frown, and did her best to shrug. "Few hours and a bunch of miles ago. They put it back in."

      Ibanez shook his head admiringly. "The Hell are you made of, girl?"

      "Sugar and spice, and a hundred twenty pounds of division one girls pyramid ball." Rachel flashed a smile over Ibanez's laugh and accepted the armor from O'Shea gratefully.

      "If it's ok," she said, pointing in the direction of Ron and Tim, "I'd like to stay with them."

       "I understand," Jack said, as Rachel tightened the last strap on the armor, "just keep your head down." O'Shea reached in his back pocket and withdrew a dark gray jeep cap, giving it to Lynch who covered the top of her deep red hair with it and skewed the brim just a bit sideways.

      Gus Reynolds stepped into McManus' field of vision and looked down at the boy seriously.

      "So you built that BR?" He asked.

      "Yeah," Tim replied, wondering where this was going.

      "Not bad, but you could do better. You mind?" Reynolds held out a heavy hand that looked like it could batter steel. Tim frowned for a second, then relented and presented the Master Gunnery Sergeant with the firearm. Gus lowered his balaclava, expelling steamy breath into the crisp air and began working with the rifle.

      "Scope's off, charging handle's loose, magazine release is clumsy," he muttered, turning his giant fists into precision instruments of repair and improvement, "but she should be ok to you now." Reynolds reached into a pouch on his left hip and withdrew a long black suppressor. "Sound and flash suppressor. Sight in on a couple of those bodies and see how she feels."

      McManus placed the stock of the rifle firmly against his shoulder and remembered to squeeze, not pull, the trigger. The suppressor did not completely mask the report of the bullet, but in the ambient dull roar of urban warfare, it would be nearly impossible to identify the source. The rounds smacked into an Elite's fallen body downrange, and Reynolds nodded happily and clapped Tim on the shoulder. "Nice work, kid."

      Tim smiled along with the larger soldier and nodded, even though he knew he had been aiming for the body farther down the alley. I'll figure it out, Tim told himself, I'll figure it out.

      O'Shea now waved Tim and Ron over where another soldier had left his large supply pack. Jack began pulling out several tubes, mechanisms, and ammunition, and after several seconds of wondering what was going on, McManus and Parsons both came to realization that the Captain was assembling an S2 AM sniper rifle. Tim could have sworn he heard a whispered, "hot damn," from Ron Parsons.

      "Ron," O'Shea called over, gesturing to the now-assembled high-powered rifle, "do you know what this is?"

      "Fuck yes," Ron said, nearly breathless, "that's an S2. Military."

      Jack's eyes indicated a warrior smile. "That's right. Do you know how to—"

      "I've shot the civilian model hunting at least a dozen times." Parsons boasted. "I was a regular at the Boston shooting range."

      O'Shea's head tilted to the side. "If you were good," he asked, "how come recruiters never snatched you for conscription?"

      McManus' head whipped around to look at the Captain. "That's true?" He asked. "I thought Ron was bullshitting me."

      Parsons wore a self-satisfied grin and shrugged nonchalantly. "You sent hot chicks just out of basic and thought I wouldn't think twice when she saw my shooting and invited me out? If you had really wanted to get me, you shouldn't have sent tens who score headshots."

      O'Shea laughed as he hefted the rifle and several boxes of ammunition. "Fair enough," he said, convinced.

      As he passed the weapon on to the tall, newly acquired talent, O'Shea locked eyes with Ron and then on to Tim. "Our two teams are going to have to move down this block, and we can't do it blind. I need you on this roof and providing intel and support, and we will pick you up. If we survive today I intend to teach you two how to work together and use these to their full capability. I'm hoping you don't have to use these today, but in case you do, I want you both to understand something. This. Is. Not. A. Game. If you don't kill every Covenant you see, they will find you, they will call in support, and you will be killed. They do not take prisoners and they do not show mercy. Do you understand?"

      The two boys nodded, deathly serious. Jack held out a gloved hand.

      "The M6, Ron."

      Parsons, only too happy to trade, gave Jack the sidearm, which he handed to a thoroughly surprised Rachel.

      "I don't shoot," Lynch insisted.

      "You do today. Watch their backs when they're up there. They're your responsibility." O'Shea pointed around the alley. "Low and fast around this corner, first door on your left. The stairs are still intact and there's still roof access. Keep out of sight."

      "You got it," Tim replied, and the three took off on a jog between the two stacks of guerilla fighters. Upon reaching the end of the alley, McManus heard the shotgun-wielding soldier, McHale, clear his throat. Tim looked back inquisitively.

      "Don't fuck up," McHale breathed. Parsons shot him a withering look.

      "Don't trip." Ron responded over his shoulder, and he was gone into the street.

      The three kids ran in a crouch like they had done all day, their thighs burning with fatigue, backs aching from the unnatural position. Rachel was in the middle of the formation, keeping her good arm on Tim's shoulder as they scurried along the sidewalk to the building's stairs. A chirp sounded in the trio's ears and each of them found it more than a little weird.

      "This is O'Shea," The disembodied voice said. "You hear me ok?"

      "I think we hear you," Tim said, reaching the door and placing an unsteady hand on the knob.

       "Piece of advice: never assume a building is clear. Check and re-check."

      McManus took a deep breath and nodded to himself, turning the knob slowly and edging the door open into the foyer of a hastily abandoned townhouse. He entered the open space quickly and knelt down, sweeping the area with his rifle. As soon as he established his position, he was bowled over by Ron, who was running into the room with the bulky rifle. Both men tumbled to the floor, helpless to stop their motion with the heavy armor and gear on their bodies. Parsons was livid.

      "What the hell were you doing?" He asked incredulously, arms open wide before he retrieved his gun.

      "I was, uh," Tim found himself stammering, "you know, securing the foyer."

      "This isn't the fucking holo films, Timmy," the Harvard cook said in disbelief, "we gotta keep moving or we're dead. Jesus." Ron took off, taking the stairs two at a time to catch Rachel.

      McManus grit his teeth in frustration and jogged along, mounting the stairs as fast as he could to keep up. Three minutes later they had climbed the stairs and shimmied their way up onto the roof of the building. The setting sun combined with the thick haze of smoke had now thrust Boston into a dark orange dusk that seemed to coat every surface with a thin layer of rust. Even through her layers, Rachel shivered.

      "I'm sufficiently creeped out." She muttered. Ron crept along the roof, motioning for the group to get low. Once again the COM chirped a tone in everyone's ear.

      "We're in position." O'Shea informed them. "Where are you?"

      "Made it to the roof," Tim responded. "What now?"

      "North-northeast corner," the Captain informed them. "I need eyes on that street. Hurry up, the longer we stay here, the more danger we're in."

      "Gotcha," Tim said, taking his hand off his ear. He stood there for a few seconds, trading looks with Rachel and Ron, until Rachel huffed in frustration.

      "North-Northeast corner is over there," she pointed. Ron and Tim mumbled excuses as they crawled toward the corner of the roof.

      The two black and gray clad shooters scurried as fast as they could to their position. Tim already had his Battle Rifle high and tight against his chest and pointing out toward unseen threats. Ron looked like he was having difficulty with the bulky high-powered rifle already. McManus slid his backpack across the roof and it collided against the brick and mortar lip softly. The two newfound friends slipped into position, Parsons unfolding the bipod from underneath the S2 AM, Tim digging into his backpack and pressing binoculars to his eyes.

      "Are you set?" Tim asked.

      "Yeah," Ron muttered, tinkering with the scope, "think so."

      As Rachel crawled over to the pair and kept her focus on the roof access, Tim opened a channel to the Captain.

      "We're set and standing by," he called in, feeling more at ease with the position he was in.

      "Call out everything you see." Jack instructed. McManus could hear the Warthog's engine idling in the background and knew that time was short.

      Tim stared several blocks ahead, straining his eyes to take in every detail. He could see six Grunts and an Elite meandering back and forth across the road. In the middle of the street, two of the Covenant foot soldiers were putting together what looked like a purple metal snail shell. He relayed all that information to the Captain. Everyone in the group could hear O'Shea's voice growing tenser when he called back.

      "Tim, Ron, I need you to listen to me very carefully." The two shooters nodded, even though Jack was nowhere around. "That purple thing will make a road block that our vehicles can't cross, and we'll lose men trying to offline it. We're out of time and we must take this street. Keep them away from the device and kill every hostile that you can. Got me?"

      Ron gulped. Tim felt lightheaded. Both of them croaked, "OK," in response. Parsons settled in behind his rifle, stock nuzzled tight against his shoulder, hat off and right hand glove resting in his lap. Tim turned to Ron, now confused.

      "Do I start shooting, too?" He asked. "Or do I tell you what to hit through the binoculars?"

      Ron continued to stare through his scope. "I don't care, Timmy," he muttered. "I can see fine. Just…I dunno…do what you want to do."

      "Ok," McManus said, more to himself than as a reply. He tossed down the binoculars and did his best to rest the barrel of the Battle Rifle against the lip of the roof for stability. "Purple snail shell, start there. I'll take the one on the left, you got right."

      "I got right," Ron repeated.

      "Ok," Tim said, desperately trying to calm down his soaring heart rate. "On my mark. Three, two, one, mark."

      McManus almost jumped at the crack of the sniper rifle and did his best to keep his three-round burst even close to the target. Both men missed by three feet at least, the only consolation being Tim's errant shot miraculously dropped a Grunt farther up the street. Its partner jumped backwards, dropping its plasma pistol and running toward the Elite in charge of the operation.

      "Fuck!" Parsons hissed. "Missed. Good shot, Timmy."

      "I fucking missed, too," Tim said, trying to find a new target. "They're moving too fast! I can't get a shot!"

      "What's the situation?" O'Shea's concerned voice sounded over the COM.

      "Just—just be quiet for a second!" Rachel interjected, turning around and seeing the stress on her friends' faces. "We're in the middle of something!" The COM bleeped off and Lynch now grabbed the binoculars that Tim had dropped. "What do I do?" She asked, the stress of the situation making her frantic. "What do I do!"

      "Look at that purple snail thing! Middle of the street!" Tim shouted back as another rifle shot split the air with deafening force. "Tell us if any of them are getting near it! You hit anything, Ron?"

       "Will you just calm the fuck down?" Parsons yelled. "I'm doing the best that I can!" Another shot bucked the rifle back into the blonde shooter's shoulder, causing him to move errant strands of hair out of his view. "Yes!" He exclaimed. "Got one! Stay down, ya prick!"

       "Guys…" the redheaded Boston College co-ed stammered, "the big one, the Elite's running for the snail shell."

       "Oh God dammit," Tim said, snapping his aim back to the center of the street. "Ron?"

       "I see him," Parsons said through grit teeth. "Aim for the chest! We gotta drop it!"

      The two men began firing as controlled as they could, tracking the Elite's sprint from cover to the device but always missing by inches. Pavement spat up into the air as the armored alien warrior dashed toward its objective. Finally, one of McManus' shots found its target, igniting the Elite's energy shield and causing it to stumble slightly.

      "Convoy in thirty seconds!" Jack shouted over the COM. "You can't let them turn that roadblock on!"

       "Grunt sneaking on the left! Really close!" Rachel cried out, answered by Tim's Battle Rifle flitting to the left, tracking, and taking down the cannon fodder. In doing so, however, the Battle Rifle's bolt snapped back, indicating he was out of ammunition. McManus frantically thumbed the release and the empty metal box clattered to the ground. The Harvard Junior knew he could not get another fresh mag into the rifle in time to stop the Elite from reaching its destination.

       "Ron? Little help!" Tim said, panic creeping into his voice. In a quick glance, the Harvard Junior saw his partner reloading, slamming the magazine home and chambering the next round with dizzying speed. The newly appointed sniper took a deep breath.

       "No jaywalking." Parsons muttered as he squeezed the trigger, the discarding SABOT round tearing out of the barrel and slamming full on into the chest of the Elite. The blue-armored Covenant soldier's feet kept going as it fell backwards, hitting hard against the ground. Before the humans above felt too good about themselves, the alien propped itself up with its massive arms, roared at its unseen attackers, and charged with more ferocity than before.

      Tim caught a dark smile flash across Ron's face as he spoke again. "What did I just say, douchebag?" Another crisp shot of the S2 and the giant alien's head disappeared in a splatter of metal, concrete, and bone.

       "Convoy's coming in hot!" Reynolds voice sounded in everyone's ear. "Road better be clear, recon!"

      Two seconds later, the two Warthogs fishtailed onto the attempted roadblock's street, their combined firepower cutting the remaining Grunts to ribbons. Tim and Ron exhaled heavily, their shoulders sagging and wearing expressions like they had just run a 10K. Rachel was jumping up and down, cheering and taunting the fallen Covenant.

      The lead Warthog skid to a stop by the roadblock, and the new guerilla soldiers watched from the roof as the men below piled out, fast and low, securing a perimeter around the vehicle. The second Warthog pulled a long fishtail around the perimeter, sweeping the intersection before peeling off toward the snipers' townhouse.

      One of the men from the lead convoy attached what looked like a small shipping package to the purple snail shell and ran back to help the others, who were relieving the dead aliens of their weapons. A few seconds later, a small explosion obliterated the Covenant device. Immediately afterwards, the COM chirped to life again.

       "Captain, this is Reynolds," Gus' deep voice informed everyone, "street's clear and nav says they've got a good route to the wharf. You're good to extract recon."

       "On it, Master Guns. Kids, you're gonna miss the bus if you don't hurry."

       "Let's go!" Tim said, jumping up and remembering to grab his backpack at the last second. The two men helped Rachel down the ladder and almost fell down the stairs from the speed of their descent, adrenaline powering their weary muscles to clear creaking wooden steps. McManus risked a look back and caught Rachel's face lit up in the thrill of victory and adventure. Everyone was truly on a high.

      As the trio neared the door, the long gray Warthog screeched to a halt, engine still growling for more. Three empty seats in an roofless troop bay beckoned the survivors as they all burst into the open air of Boston's last afternoon. Whatever distance the soldiers had effected around the newcomers was now gone; helping hands and strong arms lifted the grateful students into Captain O'Shea's transport. In the front cab only the back of the Captain's helmet could be seen, but Tim imagined the leader had a look of satisfaction. Rachel and Tim piled in to once side as Ron sat in between two soldiers in their late twenties. They both smacked the tall sniper on the shoulders.

       "How'd it feel to kill?" One asked, a devilish smile spreading across his face.

      Parsons gave a nonchalant shrug and did his best at a cocksure smile. "I could do this all day," he replied, accepting even rougher gestures of approval from his new comrades.

      Tim stared up at the roof of the townhouse and wondered how much time had just passed. Two minutes? Two hours? He had no earthly idea. All he knew was the world was starting to spin and they had not even started to drive yet. Before he could think upon it further, however, McManus stared at a crumpled pack of cigarettes being thrust in his face. He looked over at McHale, the shotgun wielding trooper who looked better suited for hockey than war. McHale thrust his chin up and set his jaw in what must have been smile.

       "Solid fuckin' killin'," he stated, "gets a victory smoke."

       "No thanks," Tim said, trying to sound appreciative as the Warthog lurched forward down the street, "I don't smoke."

       "You will, kid." McHale chuckled, igniting his own with a lighter that read, "Sinn Fein."

       "What does that mean?" The brown haired sharpshooter could not help but ask. McHale tucked the lighter away.

       "It's Gaelic," the hockey player said back in a gruff voice. "Means, 'ourselves alone.' You'll understand, if ya live long enough."

      Everyone's heads started bobbing around as the two vehicles rolled hard down buckled and cracked pavement. Towering buildings sagged and leaned against one another as the new soldiers embarked on a dangerous tour of post-apocalyptic Boston. As the group took in the desolate scene, Rachel patted Tim's leg to get his attention. He turned and looked into sparkling green eyes and a look of sincere gratitude.

       "You did good, Timmy," Lynch smiled. "Thanks for getting us out of this."

      The world had ended, everyone he knew was probably dead, and he was traveling in a UNSC transport with soldiers he did not know to rescue wounded people in the heart of the Covenant invasion. Despite all that, Tim McManus could not remember when he felt this good.

The Day Before Tomorrow: Part 4
Date: 12 March 2009, 10:53 pm

The Day Before Tomorrow
A prequel to the "Minutemen" Series
Part Three

State Street
City of Boston
United North American Protectorate
October 10, 2552
Late Afternoon

      "Where are the seatbelts?"

      "Say again?"

       "I don't see seatbelts anywhere in the back of this Warthog."

       "That's 'cause there aren't any."

       "What? Why?"

      Captain Jack O'Shea frowned at Tim McManus like a disappointed schoolteacher whose star pupil had botched a routine quiz. "They're life threatening," he stated matter of factly.

       "That doesn't make any sense!" Tim said, fumbling to keep himself secure in his seat and out of the laps of his neighboring riders. O'Shea sighed.

       "At any point that this convoy has to stop, there's going to be incoming enemy fire, and you have to be out of the vehicle and shooting, not fumbling around with a seat belt and trapped in here with your nerves."

      Tim McManus' eyebrows arched up as if he were the only sane person in the vehicle, which he was beginning to believe. "This thing's almost punted me twice! If I'm not strapped in, I'm gonna be street pizza!"

      Captain Jack O'Shea barely shrugged, turning back around in his passenger seat and trying not to smile, "Welcome to life in the United Nations Space Command," he said grandly over the wind and dropping temperature.

      The veterans bumping around in the transport all laughed, low and appreciative, while the Harvard Junior started to worry about the drops of rain that had begun to fall.

      From the back of the large troop Warthog, McManus did his best to cradle his newly-upgraded BR-55 Battle Rifle while keeping a slippery free hand on the handle next to his seat. The last thing he wanted after hours of evading non-stop danger was to be ejected from the relative safety of the military transport and separated from these armed professionals and his friends.

      Inside the rear vehicle of a two-Warthog convoy, the passengers were shaking and jostling with each pile of fresh debris on the city's streets. The addition of the tiny, hard raindrops made an already doomed life miserable, and Tim grunted a discontented curse word as he risked swiping a hand across his face. With his mind occupied with not falling headfirst at thirty miles an hour, the nervous college student missed and scrambled franticly to catch the Warthog's handle, silently cursing his fate.

      A lighthearted giggle tore Tim out of his troubled mind as he felt a gentle hand wipe the spots of water off his forehead, nose, and face with ease. The owner of the comforting hand, Rachel Lynch, tucked a rebellious lock of hair behind her ear dismissively and looked at Tim with a bemused expression. She seemed to be faring far better in the slick conditions. The transport hit yet another pothole and bounced in the air, shaking the pair from their shared moment. The brown haired Harvard student-turned guerilla fighter turned to the stocky soldier on the other side of him, who, unbelievably, appeared to be dozing, leaning his head against the barrel of his shotgun.

       "How much longer until we reach the Marines' evac point?" Tim shouted over the engine and rushing of the wind.

      The armored hockey player opened his eyes, but did not look in any other direction than straight ahead. "Dunno," he simply replied.

       "Aren't you curious?"


      McManus was thoroughly befuddled. "Why?"

       "'Cause this is the only rest I get 'til Covenant start shooting at me again. I'm not gonna ask when I have to stop relaxing. Counterintuitive."

      Tim heaved a sigh and blinked hard against the light rain. McManus turned over his shoulder, where he conveniently had the ear of his new friend, Ron Parsons. The tall, blonde former Harvard dining services chef seemed to be worlds better than his counterpart, joking and fooling around with the other two soldiers. Tim took a seemingly life-threatening moment to tap Ron on the shoulder and got his attention.

       "What's up?" Parsons shouted over the din.

       "You're having a good time," McManus said, twisting his body around almost completely in his seat.

       "Yeah," Ron replied, "Just shooting the shit with Pace and Dunbar here. Hey," the freshly christened sniper exclaimed suddenly, remembering something and gesturing with no thought to their mortal struggle in the Warthogs, "these guys? All of them, turns out they're really good at killing Covenant."

       "What do you mean? How many—"

       "At least two hundred today."

      Tim could not contain his surprise. "Bullshit!"

       "They're all loyal to the Captain now, not the UNSC. Guess Cap used to be some hot shit in the military. Taught a lot of these guys apparently."

      Tim turned back around in his seat, "Fuck me."

       "No kidding."

      McManus, curiosity piqued, now twisted around completely, taking a hand off the safety of the roll bar so he could face his friend. "So if he's so awesome," Tim said, louder than he intended, "how come there's not more soldiers?"

      Before Parsons could reply, McManus felt a rough hand grab him by the shoulder and wrench him out of his twisted position back into a proper sitting position. The Warthog took a rough bump and would have thrown Tim out of the convoy if not for the impromptu arm bar. The soldier on the Harvard Junior's right made a face of annoyance.

       "Don't get tossed," the shotgun-wielder growled. "And questions like those are above your pay grade."

      Tim slipped the straps of his rifle tighter around him and grabbed both his seat handle and the roll bar above him. Feeling more secure, he took more time to look at the former UNSC soldier next to him. With the helmet on and balaclava slipped down from his face, McManus could see the craggy, no-nonsense expression paired with weary bags under sharp brown eyes. What he did not have was a name.

       "Getting shot at and stuff is kind stressful!" Tim said, voice raised. "What's your name again?"

       "Harry," he said, digging more shotgun shells out of a small bag and slipping them into his vest, "Harry McHale."

       "What's so bad about the UNSC?" Tim wiped a hand across his face to clear the light rain from his eyes. "Aren't you, you know, one of their Marines?"

       "Not anymore," McHale said, spitting pointedly onto the passing pavement.

       "So why do you all get pissed off when I mention UNSC?"

       "Fuckers left us to the Covenant, didn't you see?" One of the other soldiers across from Tim and Harry yelled over his shoulder. "Covies entered our zone and the 'SC took off like the house was on fire."

       "Ain't right." Harry said, echoed by the rest of the soldiers.

       "Really well organized for just deciding to split," Rachel noted, throwing herself into the conversation, "how quickly did you get all this stuff together after the Covenant landed?"

       "Cut the chatter," O'Shea's gruff voice ordered over the COM, "Eyes on the road." Tim could not help but notice that the professional soldiers in the vehicle took that chance to avoid any eye contact with the questioning kids. He shifted in his handed down body armor and tried to let his unease go, but it was an itch he absolutely had to scratch.

      McManus opted to whisper over the rushing air, checking the front of the transport like a child in school trying to pass a note. Tim poked McHale in the shoulder. "This plan, all those schematics in the data pads, this wasn't just cooked up as Covies entered orbit, was it?"

      Harry kept his shotgun pointed along the dark alleys of Boston. After a short silence, he shook his head. Tim's eyebrows shot up and his mouth opened, but before he could press the point, the COM erupted with voices.

       "Obstruction ahead! Obstruction ahead!"

       "Shit. Cap, this is Master guns. Covie roadblock ahead."

       "All teams, this is the Captain. Weapons free. Master guns, call the assault. Bravo's got your back."

       "Alpha wheel counts four grunts, one elite. They see us..."

       "Alpha wheel, swing us hot on my mark. Hang on, Alpha!"

       "Bravo, standby for—"


       "Bravo, brace! Alpha's swinging hot!"

      Tim, Ron, and Rachel were all shoved downwards by the soldiers around them, keeping their heads down as plasma began to fly out and barely over the Warthogs. From Tim's obstructed view, he could see the lead Warthog break away from the single line formation and veered hard to the left. Just before McManus could become concerned, the driver whipped the vehicle hard right at an insane angle and speed, taking the heavy troop transport on two wheels and parallel to the wall of purple light that blocked the entire street. In the middle of the road, Tim spied the device that looked like a giant purple metal snail shell. He assumed that was the origin point of the roadblock.

      The left side of the lead Warthog now faced the Covenant soldiers and the humans aboard began firing at will toward the barrier. Their shots seemed to be absorbed completely by the purple energy, dropping the rounds to the pavement. While the energy shield protected the enemy within, however, it also kept them from effectively defending their position, leaving them open on their flanks. The far side of Alpha's troop transport jumped from their seats before the wheels stopped turning, matching up in two teams of two and breaking off on either side from there.

       "This is Master Guns, Alpha's moving out. Go go go go!"

      Bravo's Warthog dipped low as the driver smashed his foot on the brake, throwing the occupants toward the cab and smacking them hard against all imaginable surfaces in the troop bay. The adrenaline in the occupants' systems refused to acknowledge the pain though, and the veterans surged into action.

       "Bravo's securing the perimeter! On the hop, boys!"

       "Fuck! This is alpha wheel. Elite called us in. Start the shot clock! Thirty seconds to reinforcements. Bravo, acknowledge."

       "This is O'Shea. Thirty seconds. Acknowledged."

       "Let's go, kid!"

      McManus was nearly thrown from the vehicle by the bigger heavy weapons soldier. He stumbled and nearly flopped on the ground as he found his balance, looking every which way to figure out what he was supposed to do. He turned back toward the vehicle, where Rachel was starting to disembark. Harry McHale wheeled around, jabbing an angry finger at the civilian girl. In his armor, his face covered, and gleaming shotgun at his side, he was absolutely frightening.

       "Hey!" He yelled. "Stay in the hog and keep your head down!"

       "Alpha front, take the middle. We'll soften 'em with frags."

       "Copy. Moving in."

       "Bravo, how's it lookin'?"

       "Clear so far. Hustle up!"

      McManus now understood as he saw the other three soldiers, Parsons included, jumping off the Warthog and fanning out a short distance from the transport to cover 270 degrees around the space. Each man had a piece of the invisible pie, each member of the team kept his weapon trained down the windy streets that reeked of death and imminent danger. The lack of any activity anywhere was worse than a road filled with targets, and Tim realized he had advanced too far. He shuffled backwards, praying he would not trip and trying not to look back at the cacophony of human and alien fire that echoed harshly against the broken buildings.

       "Elite's in cover! Keep it pinned! I need a frag!"

       "Tim!" Harry bellowed a short distance from McManus. "Closer to me!"

       "Bravo, shot clock."

       "Twenty seconds! Hurry the fuck up!"

      Tim McManus fell to a knee and pointed his rifle down the street, trying to will his hands to stop shaking. Several arms lengths away, Harry swore loudly.

       "Bravo, pop smoke!"

      As one, the soldiers around Tim and Ron reached to their chests and withdrew short gray metal cylinders marked with white electrical tape. They yanked pins and tossed them overhand in three directions, masking them from anyone coming down the road but limiting their visibility as well. From behind Tim, a quick thump of bass registered as a thrown fragmentation grenade.

       "Hostile's in the open."

       "He's down! Ibanez, C-6 on the power source!"

       "Alpha, get in that hog right now!"

       "Shot clock ten seconds! Bravo, back in your vehicle!"

      Suddenly, everyone around Tim had something to say, and somehow it was all constructive. He had never heard so many instructions all at once, but by some small miracle he could make out every distinctive piece of information that pertained to him. On the other side of the semi-circle, the soldier closest to the rear of the Warthog retreated from his position, slapping Parsons on the shoulder as he went, taking position in the troop bay and watching his partners' backs.

      Tim mimicked the action, and found Harry midway into coming to collect him. The former UNSC Marine nodded in satisfaction, getting back on one knee to cover Tim, yelling as the Harvard student passed, "Bravo, in the 'Hog now!"

       "Alpha's clear! Shot clock expired!"

      One by one the troops jumped in, yelling their names as they secured themselves back in the vehicle, never letting their guard down, weapons hot and scanning every piece of the scene in front of them.

       "Pace in!"

       "Dunbar in!"

       "Parsons in!"

       "McManus in!"

      Tim once again experienced a kind of lightness, a rush that powered every muscle to its peak physical performance and removed all doubt and cloudiness from his head. As the well-built hockey player ran for the vehicle, McManus already thought ahead to the more efficient way to do his job and tapped Rachel on the shoulder as he slid down a seat. Using Lynch's good arm and his own, both of the civilians hoisted Harry easily into Bravo's vehicle, where the support gunner landed heavily in his seat like he had undoubtedly done hundreds of times before.

       "McHale in! Bravo clear!"

      The collective torque of the heavy military vehicles buckled the pavement and nearly lifted the noses of the Warthogs into the air as the convoy squealed over the Covenant roadblock.

       "Convoy, Bravo wheel. I have long range enemy contact behind. Looks like Ghosts and they're gaining."

       "Master Guns, Captain O'Shea. Divert. I say again, divert."

       "Captain, Master Guns. Our only other route will bring us on intercept with the haulers."

       "We have to risk it, Master Guns. Divert."

       "All wheels, divert convoy on intercept route with haulers. ETA forty seconds."

      Ron Parsons turned to face Harry. "What are the 'haulers?' What are they talking about?"

      McManus could not help but notice that even McHale was getting a tighter grip on the roll bar of the drab gray military transport before he spoke. "We can't take all those civilians by 'Hog," he shouted, "so delta outsourced."

       "Delta? There's more of you?" Ron asked, one eyebrow raised and completely unaware of two very large trucks barreling down a commercial street on a high-speed collision course with Bravo's right side. "Where the hell are they?"

      Tim's face dropped in total shock, and Parsons immediately turned back to face the rapidly growing front grills of what looked like large mail trucks. Before Ron could react with a scream of warning, surprise, or fear, the Warthog jerked to the left, nearly rolling the vehicle. Harry and McManus twisted in their seats and fought against the force of the skid as Ron Parsons began to fly out of the transport. Both men barely snatched the arm holes of the tactical vest as Ron lost his balance and began to fall toward the rushing pavement and the huge tires of Delta's trucks. As Bravo's Warthog righted itself, Parsons managed to get a grip on his large sniper rifle, which was slipping out of his hands.

      Tim noted for the briefest of moments that the lead Warthog had fallen back to guard the rear of the now-doubled convoy. The trucks took just as hard a turn onto the main street, flirting with tipping onto two wheels, but righting themselves at the last minute. Eventually O'Shea's Warthog, now the head of the convoy, stopped listing to either side and found its balance. The trio in the back of the troop transport collapsed in their chairs, sweating.

      "What the fuck!" Parsons gasped, gesturing angrily at the trailing trucks.

       "Delta stole some trucks to move the civvies," McHale explained. "IFF tags occasionally go nuts and radios get tracked by Covenant. We're operating dark most of the time after we issue orders across town and we're trusting our sync to time ops right."

       "You gotta be fucking kidding me," Ron wheezed, finally finding his breath. McManus looked pale as well.

       "How many close calls have there been?" Tim asked, genuinely concerned.

      Harry looked away from the scene. "That was our first."

      Rachel looked relieved. "Well, that's not so bad."

       "…That everyone survived." McHale finished, shutting up the new recruits.

       "Twenty seconds to the docks." O'Shea instructed the convoy. McHale gripped his shotgun tight and looked at the new recruits with a tight, set jaw, as if even acknowledging the present situation was defeat.

       "Thing you gotta remember," Harry said, leaning forward and picking stray intact shells from off the troop bay floor, "we're not exactly favored to knock out the Covies. A whole lot of people died and are going to die today, but you suck it up. Doesn't matter what we have to give to win this fight, if we lose, we lose the whole damn thing. We're expected to give everything. Now, so are you."

      As he became aware of the demoralized faces looking back at him, Harry's face turned into a reassuring smile. "Look on the bright side," he chuckled, nodding at the obliterated buildings on either side of the street, "you're officially setting a record for longest time alive during Earth invasions!"

      The convoy roared up the remaining blocks, churning concrete and taking corners harder than advisable. Tim nearly lost his rifle as the drab gray transport went up on two wheels for what felt like an eternity. As the Warthog righted itself in a high-speed wobble, everyone, even the hardened veterans, heaved sighs of relief. Gus Reynolds 'Hog screamed up from behind the two trucks, eventually catching up and rolling alongside O'Shea's. Though the wind's rushing was nearly deafening, everyone heard the chirp of the COM.

       "Ten seconds." Captain Jack O'Shea shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth and turning around in his seat. "Let's show Alpha how the best of the best take a structure! Prepare to breach on arrival! Lock and load!"

      Harry McHale thumbed in several shells into his shotgun and pumped the weapon with enthusiasm. He looked over his shoulder to address everyone else in the troop bay, smacking a fellow Marine on the helmet to get his attention. "Soon as we hit it, stack up on me! Ginger, stay put 'til we give the all clear! Everyone else, hope for the best and expect the worst. Weapons hot on entry. Once we're clear, no matter what, we get all survivors on the transports. Longer we stay, the better chance we get dead. It's not a matter for discussion, you got me?"

      "Oorah!" One of the soldiers replied with gusto. McHale shot the man a mean look.

       "We don't do that no more, Dunbar," Harry scolded the enthusiastic comrade.

      Everyone was shoved meanly to the side as the Warthog braked hard and weaved to a stop, as if it really were an animal, trying to buck the stubborn riders off. The team complied and covered the distance in a full run to the gleaming, cavernous warehouse's main entrance. One by one, they stood behind McHale, who silently motioned for another soldier to join him at the front of the line. Tim craned his head to see what the two were looking at.

       "What is it?" Parsons whispered.

       "Big lock on the doors."

      Ron's eyes went wide. "They were locked in?"

      Tim frowned and exhaled sadly. "Yeah."

      The man out of line returned from his conference with McHale and pressed himself hard against the side of the warehouse. Tim and Ron looked at the man for a second in confusion before they realized what Harry was about to do.

       "Fire in the hole!"

      Both of the newcomers shoved themselves against the brine-crusted steel as the small explosive device obliterated the UNSC's lock. Tim and Ron felt the pull of the stacked soldiers advancing as if the whole group was attached to a line of string. McManus was noticeably surprised at how natural the feeling was for him. The second man ran to the middle of the doors while Tim and Ron ran up and covered him. Grunting with exertion, the soldier drew the door back on its tracks and opened up the vast dark space. Blood pumping, adrenaline flowing, and feeling the chill of the coming evening, McManus flicked his finger along the safety, readying his weapon to kill. Ron had opted to steal back his old pistol for the incursion, and so it was Parson's hand on Tim's shoulder that signaled the breach.

       "Watch my back," Tim said over his shoulder.

      Ron nodded after him. "You got it."

      The pair whipped around the open door, weapons up and sweeping the darkness. Their eyes took a second to adjust, but what they could initially see from the light of the outside world was enough to make Ron numbly drop his arms to his side and let his jaw go slack. Tim merely stood there, not entirely sure what he was seeing.

       "Jesus Christ," Parsons whispered.

      From five feet in front of the door to the unseen rear of the cavernous space, row upon row of wounded, bewildered Bostonians shielded their eyes from the flare of sunlight. With the sunlight from the partially opened door, the two kids could not see to the end of the warehouse. A few survivors were able to stagger to their feet and stand in front of the would-be rescuers, causing a ripple of bodies groggily standing in fatigued confusion at the mass of armed silhouettes at the door. Besides scattered coughing, muffled moans, and the quiet idling of trucks outside the building, the place was deafeningly silent. Tim and Ron continued to stare numbly at the sight until Harry McHale pushed roughly past them.

       "I've never seen anything like this," Tim said behind the stocky soldier as McHale stood on his toes, scanning the crowd.

       "You get used to it," Harry said dismissively before mounting a wooden crate, taking down his balaclava, and addressing the crowd.

       "Everyone please listen to me," the former Marine belted out into the space. "I speak on behalf of Captain Jack O'Shea, and we're going to bring you to safety. Is there a doctor anywhere here?"

      Coughing and moaning only answered him. Harry spat on the ground.

       "Folks, we're not UNSC. We did not lock you in here! We are going to bring you somewhere safer than here, where the Covenant cannot find you."

      A middle-aged woman in a tattered jacket and sporting a blood-soaked bandage over her forehead rose to her wobbly feet. She held up a thin hand before speaking. "Prove it."

      Without hesitation, McHale slung his shotgun across his chest and dug a hand under his armor. As O'Shea, Gus Reynolds, and the rest of the rescue party opened the doors wide and filed in, McHale drew two shiny silver dogtags from inside his uniform. Tim and Ron's brows both furrowed, wondering what he was up to.

      The former hockey player took the tags off his neck, looking at them scornfully for an instant. "I didn't sign up to leave my people behind," he said angrily, hurling his identification on the ground with all his strength. Even with a warehouse full of bodies, the clinking and clanking of the metal echoed throughout the space. "Now you either let us take you all to the last safe place in Boston, or I drag you out of here by your hair."

      The woman in front of McHale reached up to her forehead and took off the bandage, revealing no obvious wounds at all. She shrugged off the tattered jacket and adjusted the clean white coat of a medical professional. Any show of weakness melted away in seconds as the resident doctor of the refugees stepped forward with purpose. "Who's in charge here?" She asked firmly.

      Within ten minutes the warehouse had become a giant, organized line. Rachel, Tim, and Ron walked on patrol around the dock with Harry McHale while alpha and the rest of the soldiers tended to moving wounded into trucks. At the completion of their sweep, four men from alpha relieved them and left them standing next to Captain O'Shea and the civilian doctor. Both leaders were ending a conversation over their data pads. Satisfied, the doctor made her way to the first truck. Jack turned around as he became aware of the kids behind him.

      Harry McHale saluted the Captain. "Looks clear, sir," he said. "How's it coming in here?

      O'Shea put on his helmet and nodded toward the physician. "One of the bravest people I've met," O'Shea said admiringly. "Disguised herself and willfully went with these folks because she knew what was going to happen. She knew someone would help, but in the meantime she gathered data on every person in the warehouse, worst condition to best."

       "Efficient," McManus noted. Jack's expression, however, had changed from admiration to veiled frustration. O'Shea slid his data pad into a chest pocket with irritation.

       "She cut our deployment time in half, but we're still too vulnerable." As the well-built leader walked out of the organized chaos of the structure, the four behind him followed. O'Shea took in the scene, then put his hands on his hips and let his head hang for a brief moment. "The second the Covenant show up on our scans," he said, resigned, "we have to leave. No ifs, ands, or buts. There's no way we're getting all these people to safety."

      McHale took a step to his commanding officer's side. "Sir," he insisted, "I can find us another truck. Another set of wheels and we stand a better chance at a cleaner getaway."

      Jack shook his head in opposition to the notion. McHale refused to be denied.

       "Sir, we lose one of these trucks, we'll never forgive ourselves."

       "Which is exactly why I need you here to defend them, Mr. McHale," O'Shea said icily. "You're due to relieve alpha's patrol. Take the kids with you."

       "Aye, sir," Harry responded, grumbling as he turned away.

      Tim took the front of the patrol, nudging past and dodging around shuffling survivors and shouting soldiers. Ron and Rachel kept eyes on the sky while Harry brooded in the rear. Finally, the team made it to the main road where the trucks and Warthogs had entered the docks. McHale took a long look along the deserted roadway.

       "Hey, Tim," the soldier built like a brick wall asked, "how good are you with that BR?"

      McManus looked confused for a moment, looking down at his weapon. "Still need a lot of work. I could barely hit those Grunts at the roadblock before."

       "That's about what I figured," McHale said with a shrug, jogging away from the group and down the street. The three kids all shouted in confusion and Ron Parsons leveled his S2AM sniper rifle at the fleeing soldier.

       "Stop!" Ron yelled, thumbing the safety off. McHale only turned around.

       "You shoot that thing off and every Covie in earshot's gonna come running," Harry said, pointing angrily at Parsons. "If we don't get an extra truck, we're gonna lose the able bodied survivors, our future work force. I'm going to turn around and go get us some wheels right now, so you're going to have to shoot me."

      Rachel threw her hands up in frustration. "What if you get killed, asshole? Thought of that?"

       "Nope," McHale said, turning back around and starting down the road. As he started his jog again, he shouted over his shoulder, "must be why I'm still alive!"

      The urban-camouflaged veteran disappeared around a corner and left the trio to themselves, standing in the open with the sea to their backs and Armageddon ahead. Parsons lowered his rifle. Lynch put her hand on her hips and kicked at a newspaper page. Tim clenched a fist and muttered a curse through grit teeth. The COM chirping in their ears made them collectively feel like students getting a final exam they had not studied for.

       "Patrol, this is O'Shea." Jack said, his voice hinting at worry. "Where are you? Respond."

      Tim nodded angrily as if he was trying to psych himself up to respond. Finally, he pressed two fingers to his throat. "Patrol here. Captain, McHale just—"

       "Incoming!" Parsons shouted, pulling his two comrades down and pointing toward the sky. "Heads up!"

      From behind several large loading cranes, a magnificently large gray and black TC-77 Pelican Dropship banked into view, its thrusters flaring orange as slalomed between the structures and the occasional plasma burst. It's engines roared as it swooped over, fishtailing in the air and showing off the stenciled white "MARINES" on its side before beginning a vertical descent several blocks away. Tim was the first to get his jaw off the ground, sprinting toward the trucks. Rachel and Parsons were close behind.

       "Did you see that?!" Tim shouted to O'Shea, weaving past soldiers and wounded alike, pointed back toward the sky. "There's a Pelican landing over there! UNSC's still here!"

      O'Shea and Reynolds broke their conference for a moment and shielded their eyes with their hands, catching the Pelican just before it passed out of view. "Landing close," Reynolds noted, "maybe we could convince them to take some of our worst."

       "No." Jack said flatly, cutting his hand across the air. "We waste time taking people from here, we'll risk getting our men separated and exposing all of us to attack." The Captain scrutinized the shorter McManus for a moment. "Where's McHale?"

      Tim needed a second to catch his breath. "He took off to get a truck. We tried to stop him, but—"

       "God damn it!" Captain O'Shea exclaimed. The Master Gunnery Sergeant put a hand on his friend's shoulder.

       "They don't know what we're doing here, sir. Until a few hours ago, you ran this city for the UNSC, you can make them help us."

       "If they saw this, or Command tells them we're supposed to be in New York, there will be consequences for our extracurriculars."

       "What does it say about us if we don't do everything we can to get the civilians to safety, Jack? We knew the risks when we did this."

      O'Shea considered for a second, holding his chin between his index finger and thumb, then glanced at Reynolds with narrowed eyes. "You know I hate when you're right and I'm not."

      Reynolds allowed a brief smile into his answer. "I have everything under control here, sir. Check back every two minutes, and don't take no for an answer."

       "Never do." Captain Jack O'Shea slipped his balaclava back on and threw a spare pack into the passenger seat of his Warthog. He pointed toward the Ron, Tim, and Rachel as he loaded spare magazines into his tactical vest.

       "You saw where the Pelican landed?" Jack asked, all business. Tim nodded.

       "Give or take a block."

       "Good enough." O'Shea reached in the back of the cab and traded Ron Parsons his sniper rifle for another Battle Rifle. Ron looked much more comfortable with the smaller weapon for now, checking the magazine and inspecting the case ejector. The imposing leader of men pointed at Rachel's makeshift sling.

       "If you still want to follow these guys around, lose the sling."

      Without hesitation, the strong willed redhead slipped the medical apparatus off. Jack gave each of the new recruits a very hard, searching look. "You three are coming with me to take control of a Marine LZ. It will be dangerous. Anyone have a problem with that?"

      The three friends fought the urge to trade glances between them, completely unaware of what was about to happen. Tim felt a gulp coming but masked it by clearing his throat, pushing his shoulders back a bit, and locked eyes with their commander. "No, sir."

The Day Before Tomorrow: Part 5
Date: 27 March 2009, 2:46 am

The Day Before Tomorrow
A prequel to the "Minutemen" Series
Part Five

       Ron Parsons was about to die. One minute the red-lit troop bay of the Pelican transport was shuddering with the stress of escaping the extraction point, the next it was screaming with stress and twisting with multiple G's, throwing his stomach into his throat and choking him with fear and dread. One minute red light illuminated the steady faces of his comrades in arms, the next harsh natural sunlight flooded terrified faces as the rear hatch shrieked open and hurtled into open hostile air. Sky and earth became one steady blur until Ron controlled his eyes and stared at the unforgiving ground rushing up to meet them. He tried to listen for instructions, but the howling wind drowned out any other noise.

       The Pelican slammed against the side of an apartment building and starting a sickening flat spin, turning the edges of Ron's vision red and black. Food was starting to force its way back up his throat. The dropship hurtled to the street, spitting the lucky ones out onto the pavement and enveloping the unfortunate in a flaming tomb. Parsons smacked against the rough street and actually skipped along the ground for several feet, feeling each separate impact, feeling the helplessness of becoming a rag doll tossed away by a bored child, feeling the joints twist and bones break until he finally came to a miserable, painful stop.

       Ron gasped for air in rasping gulps and looked up groggily, his trained eyes catching two pairs of Jackals walking leisurely toward him, not a care in the world as they leaned down and locked eyes with him. Ron tried to yell out a warning, but found something blocking his airway. As one Jackal put its glowing plasma pistol to his head, Ron's eyes opened wide and he flailed to get away but it was never enough and the Covenant were too strong and—

      The passing maglev train shook the dingy apartment with a firm hand, bolting the young man out of his nightmare. Parsons sat upright, chest heaving, shaggy blond hair hanging just in range of his vision, matted to his scalp. His eyes swept the room as they did every day, searching out phantoms in the morning light. A cheery girl with an upbeat voice informed him that it was nine in the morning, it was a beautiful day in the city of Boston, and he could look forward to a new single from a generic pop group right after this.

      "See you there," Ron breathed, and shut off his alarm.

Coolidge Corner Apartments
City of Boston
October 20, 2552

       The lithe Bostonian put both feet on his hardwood floor and padded across the bedroom to the open window. There, he took three deep breaths and banished the fresh dream from his mind once again, focusing instead on the South Boston streets in front of him. It was indeed a beautiful day in the city of Boston, and Ron took in the sights and sounds of a major city getting into the flow of its morning. Tall structures of glass and steel rose into the skies, men and women in form-fitting business suits bustled about the streets, dodging cars that looked more like bullets than anything else. The occasional civilian 'Hog made its dominance known, and Parsons scoffed at one particular yellow-colored monstrosity.

       "Douchebags," he sighed, and turned toward the bathroom. He did not make it more than halfway there before his home phone rang, a neutral tone that sounded in all three of the rooms that made up his modest apartment. Ron gave it the finger and entered his bathroom.

       "Incoming call from...Gunnery Sergeant Peter Parsons." A robotic female voice stated. The young man grunted and began to brush his teeth. Another lighter tone sounded and a strong, firm voice entered the small apartment.

      "Ron, it's Peter. Pick up, little brother. I know you're there." An extended middle finger answered from the bathroom. "Fine," Peter sighed, "whatever. Mom and Dad wanted me to call again to tell you it's time you came back to Portland. Everyone understands why you left, but come on, Ron. It's been three years. Three years and...what? You make sandwiches for spoiled yuppie kids. Do something with your life, do anything—"

      Ron spat toothpaste into the sink with venom. "Answer call," he commanded, and yet another tone beeped. "Don't tell me how to live my life, Pete," Parsons said, voice rising testily as he walked toward the sparsely decorated living room.

       "Thank God," Peter said. Ron could almost see his big brother's eyes roll. "At least you picked up this time."

       "What do you want?"

       "Mom and Dad want you back, don't ask me why. They say they can forgive you, and I want to see you, too."

      "Are you reading off cue cards?"

       "Don't be a dick. We're the only family you have, Ron. Don't throw it away."

       Ron now stood in the middle of his living room and pointed angrily with his toothbrush. "You were only too happy to see me go, Pete. Or has your little time of playing soldier made you think that you've got some sense of honor or perspective or some shit?"

       "You told us to go fuck ourselves as you ran off with that Lisa chick, who, as I recall, left you to join the Marines a year ago."

       Ron angrily swiped a single pair of pants off the back of a cloth couch. "When the phrase, 'we'll disown you' is said with a straight face about 'that Lisa chick,' maybe it's not so unexpected to hear 'go fuck yourselves' as a reply."

       The eldest Parsons brother sighed again, this time betraying exasperation. "Just come home, Ron. We need to talk."

       "About what? About the UNSC calling me every day saying you've put my name up as 'Marine candidate?' You want me to come home so we can sit down and talk about our feelings, or are you just going to get me off the train and throw me into conscription?"

       The voice filling the room now turned decidedly hostile. "You listen good, you scared, ungrateful little ass. Mom and Dad want you back, and even though I tried to talk them out of it, they still want to see you. Just because I left home to defend our fucking species doesn't mean you get to leave with some slut and think it's acceptable. You don't want to join the Marines, that's your choice. Keep living your life in that glorified shoebox while real men save the fucking human race."

       Ron swiped his hair back as the words sunk in. "Hey Pete," Parsons asked, voice dripping with disdain, "did they ever find your arm out on Harvest?"

       "Fuck you, Ron."

       The call cut out suddenly, leaving only the ambient noise of the city streets below. Ron Parsons stood alone, head down in a nearly bare living room. Morning light streamed lazily in from the window and illuminated a cracked picture frame of a happy, smiling couple. For the one hundred and forty-second time, Ron backhanded it angrily into the wall.

       "Good talkin' to you too, big brother."

Rowes Wharf
Late Afternoon

       "You ok, Ron?" Tim McManus asked over his shoulder.

       Parsons nodded, picking up the pace of his walk as the group tried to stay in stride with Captain Jack O'Shea. The professional soldier had taken point as the team of four navigated their way out of the refugee loading area, heading in the direction of the D77H-TCI Pelican that had landed just out of view on the other side of the docks. "Yep," he said distractedly, keeping an eye out for more airborne surprises. "I'm a peachy ray of sunshine."

       Ahead, O'Shea hesitated for a moment, taking stock of the terrain the team would have to navigate. He looked back at the three kids, then waved for them to follow hurriedly. "Stay low and keep up with me!"

       Ron Parsons, Tim McManus, and Rachel Lynch all nodded silently as they hustled to stay with the Captain. Large shipping containers formed narrow steel canyons, dark and foreboding and causing the kids to lose time as they checked every corner for danger. The Captain did not seem to share their concern for safety as he slithered over and around discarded crates and sprinted through open areas in a low crouch.

       After hours of already doing this, Ron Parsons' back was beginning to ache. Somewhere ahead of the squad, they could hear the sound of a busy air pad. Men's voices echoed off blackened facades, and the diminishing whine of an airship's engine idling made eerie reverberations along the trail. As the group neared the end of the shipping containers, Jack got on one knee and held up a fist. The group stopped and mimicked the stance. O'Shea beckoned for the trio to come closer to him.

       About a hundred feet away from their position, a high chain link fence topped with razor wire separated Boston from what might have been the last working airport in the city. Ron was surprised to see a second Pelican next to the one that had just landed, which was unloading at least a dozen armed Marines. The UNSC soldiers proceeded to secure the area, running into a small pillbox next to the raised landing pad. Once the Marines were clear, the Pelican immediately lifted off and cruised away at a blisteringly fast pace over the harbor. Jack looked at the scene like a child across the playground watching a bully who just stolen his bike.

       Parsons tried to focus on the scene, but for the first time all day, he was not able to smell the burning structure fires or freshly dispatched bodies or plasma burns or rubber or gunpowder or sweat. All that filled his senses was the smell of the ocean in the wind, the safe blue sea where he could see anything coming for miles and the cold wet that would refresh his body and mind. For those fleeting moments, Ron lost himself in the fantasy of running off the docks and plunging into the safety of the water like he had done only a while ago in the mass grave that was Harvard University.

       "Lesson one."

       The three kids paid rapt attention as Jack pulled out his data pad and began tapping it with his finger.

       "Observe the situation, orient yourself with what you have to do, decide what you have to do, and act on it. First to do and continue to do that will always win a firefight. You get me?"

       "Huah," Tim said. Jack looked at McManus strangely.

       "What did you say?"

       Tim was taken aback slightly, mind racing, wondering if he had heard correctly. "Back in the Warthog," he explained, trying not to stammer or stutter, "one of the guys said 'huah' to answer a question."

       "Not in my Marine Corps, son. It's 'oorah' or shut your trap." Jack said with a harshness born from years on parade and drilling grounds.

       "Sir?" Ron asked with a mixture of confusion and trepidation. "Aren't 'your Marines' the same guys who left you and all of us behind?"

       O'Shea looked as if he were about to punch the blonde cafeteria worker, then in a split second became withdrawn and somber, as if he had just heard a particularly heartbreaking song. "You got a point there." Jack snapped out of his funk and pointed toward the scene.

       "Pelican's already landed and it'll take some time to get it back in the air. They're loading equipment right now, maybe civilians we didn't see, but let's not give them the benefit of the doubt. We get in there, take that Pelican, and make them load some of our wounded. Do not, I repeat, do not fire your weapon. You impressed me at the barricades, but these jarheads will tear you apart."

       Rachel numbly nodded, not at all comfortable with the images playing in her head. Satisfied, Jack twirled his finger around in a small, tight circle and took off across the open, followed closely by the rest of the team. They mantled over the occasional crate and slipped around small forklifts until they slid into a portion of fence between an abandoned car and a shipping crate. Content that none of the Marines had caught their approach, O'Shea observed the area quickly and caught his breath.

       Ron snuck a glance at the patrols and smiled to himself as he tried to anticipate Jack's plan. "We're not gonna ring the bell?" He asked slyly.

       O'Shea let his urban-camouflaged BR-55 Battle Rifle hang for a moment. "Better to ask forgiveness than permission, I always say."

       Rachel's eyes now went wide as she fully realized what they were about to do.

       "This is trespassing on UNSC grounds in wartime. That's shoot on sight."

       O'Shea pointed toward his Captain's bars to reassure her. "Technically."

       Lynch took a swig from her water bottle with a shaking hand. "That's all open ground, and even if we make it, how are we going to take control of a Pelican—?"

       The Captain took the water bottle from her hand, looked her square in the eyes, and said in an even voice, "Ready for the second lesson?"

       The former Boston College women's Pyramid Ball player nodded slowly.

       "Use your fear."

       O'Shea reached into his vest and took out a tiny cylindrical aerosol can. After shaking it briefly, he began spraying the chain link fence, making a rough rectangle with the ground as the fourth side. As the Captain sprayed the wire, the links began to crackle and crinkle as if a sudden frost had come through. While Jack was working on the fence, Ron noticed Tim taking a second to squeeze Lynch's arm in support. When she looked back, Tim tapped her jokingly on the back of the head and flashed a quick smile. Ron wondered if that would be enough.

       "Here we go," O'Shea announced with a whisper.

       The line of fence that had been sprayed had become a snowy white outline in front of the group, and Jack wrenched open the weakened frozen portions of the barrier, tossing it to the side and creating a small opening for the group to slip through undetected. The trio wriggled through and then followed Jack in a jog across the gray and white painted landing pad. The idling Pelican loomed huge in front of Parsons, its engines still tossing around loose dirt and the odd leaf in lazy floating cartwheels.

       Now that the squad had entered the Marines turf, they could feel the panicked rush of men behind enemy lines and short on time. No one was walking anywhere, and any uncertain noise brought eyes immediately to the city and sky while hands went right to holstered side arms, rifles, or heavy weapons. Ron wondered for a moment what they would do if they caught sight of the group sneaking in, and whether he could defend himself in time. Though he felt confident he could, the wiry sniper hoped he would not have to.

       Jack, Tim, Ron, and Rachel had now thrown all thoughts of well-being away as they started running into the chaos of the LZ. Boots pushed against pavement and Parsons checked the sky as Captain O'Shea fell into step with four Marines pushing wheeled pallets of servers toward the waiting Pelican. The group slowed its pace so they would not overtake the loaders, affording Tim a moment to visually scan the area. Try as he might, he could not find a single civilian around.

       "They really aren't taking people." He said to himself.

       "What?" Rachel asked over the din.

       "They're not taking anybody!" McManus shouted back, but was instantly instructed to shut up by O'Shea.

       "The minute they see us, you put on your best 'don't fuck with us' face, understood?" Jack said pointedly. "They're not going to listen to 'please.'"

       Within ten feet, the Marine in charge of the loading, a Corporal, became aware of the extra personnel and turned to face the intruders. Despite the stern shouted warning and a palm thrust in their faces, the wide eyes of the young Marine crew chief failed to complete the picture of intimidation.

       "Halt immediately! You're trespassing on UNSC property! Show ID now!"

       O'Shea stabbed a finger at his Captain's bars and nearly shoved the Marine as Jack got in his face, barking out an order as moving too close for comfort.

       "Do you know who the fuck I am, boy?" Jack pulled down his balaclava and looked down at the now docile crew chief. To leave nothing to chance, Jack twisted his face into a snarl. "I'm the goddamn CO of this city and you're directly interfering with my command! You keep this bird down or you'll be shoveling shit so long—"

       "Belay that order, Corporal!"

       Now everyone's attention turned to the voice coming from the advanced Pelican's troop bay. From behind two stacked wooden crates, a tall man in head-to-toe dress grays and two gold stripes around the sleeve cuffs emerged and shielded his piercing dark eyes with a hat bearing the standard of the Office of Naval Intelligence. His long gray coat danced around his legs as he leaned out into the fading sunlight and locked eyes with Jack. Ron Parsons was not sure if the man was studying the Captain or sending a message, but the four Orbital Drop Shock Troopers that backed up the ONI spook definitely made the point clear. The coat clad officer gestured across the landing pad at each of the "soldiers" standing before him as the Helljumpers filed out down the loading ramp, weapons drawn and standing guard around their charge.

       "I'm not sure if you remember me, sir. So much has happened over the last few days, even I'm getting a bit…well, enough about me. Lieutenant Junior Grade Ricardo, Office of Naval Intelligence. UNSC High Command has hereby placed the city of Boston under 'evacuated' status. All Marine action forthwith is to be ceased and operations are now under command of ONI Section Three. You're dismissed, Corporal. Send your men to the CP and await my orders. My ODSTs will handle op sec."

       The Corporal snapped to attention. "Yes, sir!" The Marine followed his survival instincts and fled the scene as quickly and orderly as possible. Ricardo now lightly hopped down from the transport to join the rest of his bodyguard and cocked his head at O'Shea. "Were the UNSC's orders to report to the New York City vague in some way, Captain?" He asked with a half smile and a feigned scolding tone.

       Jack stared back and did not dare give an inch. Tim, Ron, and Rachel did their best to imitate him. "We swore an oath to protect the human race, Mister Ricardo, and I can best follow that oath here in Boston. I have wounded civilians who need immediate evac and medical attention," O'Shea said pointedly over the whine of the engines. "You told them to come here, and you're going to take them with you."

       The Leiuteant Junior Grade slowly removed his hat and shook his head. "That's simply not going to happen, Captain," he answered calmly, examining the lining inside the head cover. "UNSC told the civilians to come here. This is an ONI mission now. What was told to the residents of the evacuated city of Boston is no longer relevant."

       Ricardo tucked the hat under his arm and nodded inquisitively toward Tim and Ron. Ron returned the spook's look with a cocksure wink and the finger. "And," the shadowy ONI member continued, "how do you think you'll serve that oath when you're conscripting civilians? Captain may sound fancy to them, but we're both aware you don't really know how to command so many soldiers. Do these youngsters know that you lost half your company in the first hour, despite me giving you advance knowledge of the invasion?" He chuckled then, a rumble that was both dark and condescending. Ron caught the man in gray looking over Rachel and felt a cold shiver go up his spine.

       "But it doesn't matter how you handle your kids now. All that matters is making sure ONI doesn't leave intel behind. If you interfere, I will rightfully identify your little samaritan efforts as insurrectionist activity led by a traitor. I will order my troops to engage you, and we know your efforts would be hampered if you had to drag another wounded girl with you. Or maybe you'd leave her behind?" The three kids were sickened to read the smirk playing across Ricardo's face. O'Shea looked like he was about to explode.

       "I will not stand by and let you issue a death sentence for a whole—"

       Another man dressed in an ONI Ensign's uniform ran across the landing pad and crossed behind the Lieutenant Junior Grade, looking worried. He jogged into the troop bay and smartly turned on his heel. "Lieuteant Ricardo!" He shouted, gesturing for the ODSTs to join him, "Overwatch reported contacts."

       If Parsons had not been studying the face of the ranking ONI spook, he would not have caught the flash of disappointment mixed with fear that played across Ricardo's face. "Chawla hasn't reported in, Ensign Phillips."

       "Section Three says that's no longer our concern, sir." Phillips then disappeared completely into the troop bay, leaving his CO to give his regards.

       "That's my cue," Ricardo shrugged, taking a step backwards and giving a playful bow before bounding back into the Pelican. "If it makes you feel any better, Jack, I failed my mission, too. They might kill me for it. Well, your sake, I hope they don't." The four ODSTs followed wordlessly behind, keeping their weapons trained on the enraged people in front of them. For a moment McManus wondered if O'Shea would order them to storm the transport, but for the time being the Captain was examining the retreating Lieutenant Junior Grade's expression.

       "What are you talking about?" Jack demanded, taking a step toward the Pelican and the ODSTs weapons. "What does that mean?"

       The thrusters answered with a powerful whine, then a throaty roar as the group on the landing pad shielded their faces from the downwash of debris. The dark Pelican eased off the ground, lazily drifting up in the opposite motion of a leaf falling to Earth. The troop bay was still open and Ricardo walked to the edge of the hatch, never taking his eyes off Jack and never dropping his smug smile.

       "You tell everyone in the UNSC to stay out of my city, you hear me?" Jack screamed in rage, pointing with fury and vengeance at the ascending gray Pelican. "You ever come back here, I'll kill you!"

       Whether the ONI officer heard Jack or not, Ricardo simply waved back, disappearing as the rear hatch closed.

       Tim, Ron, and Rachel looked bewildered, turning around and trying to figure out just what had happened. Ron leaned his head to one side, cracking his neck, then looked to the Captain for guidance. "So what do we do now?" He asked.

       O'Shea spat on the ground in disgust. "We figured we'd lose the Pelican anyway, but I'd hoped they'd have half a heart and at least take the worst of the remaining survivors." Jack gestured toward the ad hoc Marine command post and opened a channel. "We're going over to talk with the Marines for two seconds. They're probably more pissed than we are. Master Guns, this is O'Shea. ONI showed up, screwed the Marines. Maybe they'll—"

       Jack's sentence was cut off by the horrific force of the Marine post exploding from within, knocking everyone on the landing pad over and leaving them scrambling for cover while bits of debris rained into Boston Harbor and fresh flames sprouted from the ruined post. Ron's head hung and his ears rang as he crawled on his hands and knees for a few feet. Finally, coughing, groaning, and his head swimming, he flipped his body over and sat heavily on the ground. He checked his weapon and slowly stood as he scanned the area around him.

Tim McManus was intact; the brown haired Harvard Junior was a few feet away, shaking dust and debris out of his hair as he supported a woozy Rachel Lynch. Everyone seemed ok, but judging from the grisly smoldering heap the command post had become, any UNSC Marine that had been near it was undoubtedly dead. The COM chirped in everyone's ear, followed by a very concerned Gus Reynolds.

       "What the hell was that?" Reynolds asked, extremely worried. "Cap, answer me!"

       Jack coughed and checked his armor for damage before calling back. "We're here. Uh, the Marine post is gone, Gus. They're all dead. Looks like a bomb."

       "A what?"

       "The ONI spooks from before were here. Ricardo. Phillips, too."

      "Are they dead?"

       Jack motioned for the group to head back toward the fence, talking as he moved. "See the Pelican that just lifted? They're on it. Can't prove it, but I think Phillips planted the bomb."


       "Gus? Gets worse."

       "Covenant coming."

       Tim did his part to spread the hole in the chain link fence for the others to slip through. Ron took off in a quick jog to scout ahead in case more surprises awaited them. "That's what it sounded like. The spooks left in a hurry. Could've been a signal that the bomb was planted, but we can't take that chance. How're the loads?"

       "I've got Alpha's Hog escorting first truck while we load the other, hopefully we can get it out of here in time. Good news: McHale just called in and said he found another clean truck. His return is imminent."

       Before O'Shea could reply, McManus tapped the Captain hurriedly on the shoulder. "What?" Jack asked, before the answer became clear.

       The ONI Pelican was banking hard, too hard, its boosters burning bright orange in the sky and screaming in protest of the strain. A half second later, an unmistakable punch of sound echoed off in the distance and a sleek, gray missile flew in from an unknown position in the city, first flying off away from the airship, then whipping around and hunting the larger, slower target. The drab olive D77H-TCI surprised everyone on the ground by deploying chaff, earning a rare, slack-jawed reaction from O'Shea.

       "I've never seen a Pelican do that," he said to no one in particular.

       The anti-air projectile took the bait and exploded behind the Pelican in crackling boom that Rachel and the men felt in their teeth. No sooner did the transport right itself than another missile snaked from out of everyone's vision and veered toward the left side of the dropship. With no surprise countermeasures left, the Pelican banked into a suicidal turn and dropped altitude like its namesake diving into the sea. None of the evasive maneuvers did any good.

       The projectile slammed into the ship, exploding one of its engines in a plume of black and orange and causing it to spin wildly between decimated buildings and, belching a trail of oily black smoke, eventually fell out of sight. Through the din of the Covenant's war, the explosion of the crashed ship could not be heard. Jack could not believe what he had seen. Before he could attempt to put his thoughts into words, Gus came back to him on the COM.

       "Did you just see—?"

       "Yeah." Jack replied dumbly.

       "Was that—?"

       "ASGM-10s. That was a textbook UNSC anti-air strike, either there's a turret in my city I don't know about, or there's guys running around with UNSC missile pods acing friendlies."

       "What the hell is going on here, Captain?"

       Ron Parsons looked up at the scene on the verge of trembling fear. His dream from before seemed even more vivid now, and the sheer reality of what was happening had finally sunk in. What was worse, Parsons did not know which to fear more: the overt alien enemy in his city, or the hidden ones keeping him caged in with them.

       Beside the new sniper, O'Shea rubbed the back of his head and looked back up at the scene of the attack.

       "I don't know, Gus." O'Shea said. "I don't know."

The Day Before Tomorrow: Part 6
Date: 10 April 2009, 5:41 am

The Day Before Tomorrow
A prequel to the "Minutemen" Series
Part Six

Rowes Wharf
Evacuated City of Boston
Late afternoon

       The scene at the warehouse was now the embodiment of chaos. While everyone at the scene had witnessed their fair share of violence and destruction over the course of the day, the Pelican being shot out of the air in full view of the civilians was the equivalent of a match being thrown on a long trail of gasoline. Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds and the rest of the soldiers were doing their best to get everyone out before the wharves went up in flames.

       Captain Jack O'Shea, Tim McManus, Ron Parsons, and Rachel Lynch jogged back into the tumultuous loading area only a minute after the airship went down, but they hardly recognized the scene now.

       What had once been orderly lines of shuffling wounded refugees was now a wobbling, pulsing, bending and breaking mass of desperate people clawing for a chance to board the last available truck, a salty cargo vehicle that, while quite large, did not stand a chance of fitting everyone. The soldiers on hand were on the verge of losing control of the horde and looked like they were considering using their weapons to maintain order. The Captain craned his head and searched the crowd for his second in command, and upon finding the Master Guns directing a pair of soldiers back into action, picked up the pace and ran the rest of the distance to the tall, dark-skinned leader.

       "Captain!" Reynolds shouted over the growing noise, "COMs were a mess after that Pelican got—well, truck two's safely away, we're loading up Mr. McHale's commandeered vehicle and throwing the rest on truck one's return."

       Jack turned around and jumped on the back of Harry McHale's commandeered mail vehicle, which was sitting lower and lower to the ground with the sheer weight of the refugees. O'Shea frowned. "We're going to need an escort Warthog right the hell now. Where's the doctor?" O'Shea began snapping his fingers, trying to recall something. "What was her name again?

       Gus glanced down at his data pad. "Meryl. Dr. Meryl Alper."

       "Meryl Alper. Where is she?"

       "Truck two. Said she wanted to get to camp ASAP to take care of the worst. Didn't see any harm."

       Jack grunted, taking the pad from Reynolds' hand. "I would have felt better keeping her in sight."

       "She wasn't taking 'no' for an answer, sir, and I wasn't about to restrain her in front of all these folks."

       "For a smart woman, she wasn't exactly thinking about the mess she left behind." The Captain shook his head in brief exasperation, scanning the crowd again. "All right," he yelled to huddled masses, "we're locking down this transport and loading the remainder in the returning truck, warthogs, wherever we can fit people! It's a short ride, so sit tight!"

       Rachel groaned, doing a mental headcount of the remaining soldiers and civilians. "It's going to be a hot meat locker in that last truck," she said, tilting her head toward Tim, "I think I'd rather walk."

       "We might have to," McManus replied, checking his watch. "No way we fit all these people. But if push comes to shove," he said, patting Ron on the arm, "We've slipped by Covenant already, we can do it again."

       "And please don't diss meat lockers," Parsons interjected, still looking up at the sky where the Pelican had been shot down. "At this point, I kinda miss my pride-swallowing, soul-sucking sandwich gig."

       "So you're cool getting packed into a container?" Lynch turned toward Ron, tilting her head at the people crowding into the truck. The lithe amateur sniper shook his head, finally taking his eyes off the sky.

       "It beats flying, apparently," Parsons took a step back as the truck fired up its engine and began rolling away from the docks.

       "Step back!" Jack O'Shea yelled, making sure no one could be hurt in the departure. "Step back right now! The next transport will be here soon!"

       As the crusty white transport pulled away, each of the kids tried to figure out if the departure was a sign of their salvation or the signal for the next big test to begin. Tim could not help but look over his shoulder to make sure that nothing was happening over the water. As hard as he tried to think positively, he just could not shake the feeling that something bad was about to happen.

       "McHale," O'Shea's voice sounded over the COM, "this is O'Shea. We can't risk any scouts right now, I need you to report once you lose visual on us."

       "McHale copies. I'll sitrep you, standby."

       As the third truck crested the hill, Harry McHale responded back in an alerted tone. "I see a truck on approach. One of ours but he's not answering my signal. Coming in fast!"

       Everyone on the COM jerked upright and looked toward the road where they had just lost sight of the truck. It was unnerving to hear what was going on close by but not be able to see it. Ron even went so far as to hop up and down, craning his neck, trying to catch a glimpse of anything playing out over the hill.

       McManus could feel his jaw starting to clench as the throaty growl of McHale's truck accelerating was joined by the snarl of another large engine, distant but definitely approaching at speed. Though they were a fair distance away from the hill and near the end of the wharf, the kids started taking wary steps backward until they joined the bulk of the soldiers. Jack put up a hand to keep everyone in their place as he replied on the channel, "McHale, Cap. Do you see any Covenant?"

       "Don't see any, sir. Guess he's just in a hurry to get to you."

       The tension in the immediate group lessened considerably. Even Jack's shoulders became a little less bunched together. "Give him as much space as you can, McHale," the Captain said with as much comfort as possible, "once we get eyes on the incoming truck, it's my hauler, acknowledge."

       "McHale copies, sir," Harry said in a clipped, professional tone, "your hauler, aye."

       O'Shea nodded and motioned for the men standing by to reorganize the civilians. "Get the line back together!" He shouted, for both instruction and morale, "we're all getting out if we keep this orderly!"

       Tim felt genuine relief for the first time in hours. It had been miles of hiking, untold loss of life, and enough traumas to last a person for decades, but through it all he had led two new dear friends through hell and back. Finally, after so much risk, they would get out of this certain deathtrap—

       "Cap, McHale! All hands be advised, I see weapons fire coming from the truck and it's starting to swerve!"

       Jack grabbed his throat to make sure his message would be sent clearly. "Truck on approach, this is the Captain. Ident and report status."

       The squelch of the truck channel responding, coupled with the background noise of the overworked engine, made everyone on the COM grab their ears in a moment of discomfort.

       "This is Hakata," the anxious person stammered, "we got hit en route. Heavy Covenant pursuit, they're all over me!"

       The COM chirped as Harry McHale immediately jumped on the feed. "Cap, McHale. No hostiles anywhere. Say again, no Covies in sight."

       Jack looked at Master Gunnery Sergeant Reynolds with confusion, only to see Gus with a hand on his head with a concerned, worried look on his face.

       "Gus?" O'Shea asked expectantly. Jack's second in command turned his head to face his Captain, putting pieces of an alarming puzzle together.

       "Hakata was just off the shuttle from Mars, no one sleeps on those crates," Gus said, more to himself than anyone around. "He's been up for more than forty-eight hours and fighting hard for most of the day…" Reynolds trailed off for a second before finally saying what everyone feared.

       "He's snapped. Christ, Jack, Hak's lost it.

       Captain O'Shea tried to mask his own alarm, changing his tone on the COM to try and reassure the cracked driver. "Hakata, McHale's there to back you up. Reduce speed and let McHale get it done."

       Over the hill, an echoing scream of rubber on cement chilled everyone on the dock to bone as Harry yelled back on the COM, "Jesus! Fucker almost clipped me! My truck's ok. We're all right."

       Whatever tiny shred of relief McHale's words gave, Hakata's transmission disintegrated. "Gotta punch it! Gonna try an lose 'em over this hill!"

       "No!" Jack shouted, uncharacteristically losing control for a moment. "You don't have enough room to brake!"

       Only then did the crowd see the approaching vehicle, tearing over pavement at such a speed that it even made the Master Guns gasp. From the moment the hill crested, the front wheels of the massive vehicle were off the ground. Before O'Shea could issue another order, the COM shrieked open:

       "Truck one, comin' in hot!"

       The truck flew up on two wheels at a severe high speed, keeping the trajectory of the vehicle in line with the side of an industrial crane. Hakata panicked in mid air, twisting his arms and turning at exactly the wrong moment to land. The moment the transport hit the ground it was swerving on to one side, only to be jerked in the opposite direction by desperate strength. Pale gray smoke swirled out from the shredding heavy-duty tires, mixing with the squeal of the brakes locking and chassis flexing dangerously. The momentum of the swerving only served to transfer the weight from one extreme angle to another, until the large vehicle yielded to gravity and completely tipped over on its side, still traveling at high speed.

       Just as the collapsing ceiling in the Harvard dorm paralyzed him before, time once again slowed to a laborious crawl for McManus as he watched the scene with horror. Screams and warnings shouted became distorted as if yelled underwater. Tim could feel the concrete and steel trembling under his boots as the truck skidded on its side, throwing up sparks and sliding roof first toward the crowd.

       A wall of scratched and spotted steel bore down on the terrified college student. Despite his brain screaming for action, he stood rooted to the spot once more, unable to resist the cold, fatal knockout punch that he seemed destined for. Tim had simply cheated death too many times today to escape the consequences of his last good deed. His mouth hung open, eyes wide, seeing every spot that a pigeon or seagull had relieved itself on. Tim wondered if his last thought was really going to be amazement at how many white spots of bird crap were on the roof of the dirty death truck.

       The choice was not left up to Tim McManus.

       Once again, Tim felt the air rush past his face, but instead of being tackled backwards by a heroic Boston cop, he felt the jerk of someone gripping either side of his combat vest and wrenching him sideways toward safety. The Harvard Junior was so transfixed on the screeching, wailing, sparking wall of metal sliding toward him that he never even thought to look over his shoulder to see who was dragging him away. It was only with a foot to go that Tim realized the mortal danger he was in. McManus found himself with just a little more muscle control, and that control went directly toward screaming in terror.

       Just before the air could leave his lungs, Ron Parsons, the man throwing Tim to safety, did his best to shove his friend even farther out of the way. The new sharpshooters were clipped at their feet, by the hood of the cab swinging them like a bat into the front grill, both of them bouncing off in cries of pain. The crowd behind them was not nearly as lucky.

       Though the very last batch of survivors were the most able-bodied, they were still immensely fatigued, hurt badly, and had been subjected to inactivity for hours. Once their tired minds were able to process that the truck was still coming at them, they did everything they could to scramble out of the way. A few on either side of the gathering stood a slight chance, the rest were struck with vicious force from the overturned civilian transport. The ruined truck wiped out the remaining survivors, either crushing them from the initial force, from unprotected skulls shattered on the pavement, or being dragged over rough concrete for dozens of feet.

       As the world began to fade to throbbing black, McManus could make out an anguished screech of steel on concrete, an inanimate cry of panic and pain before groaning in defeat. A heavy splash followed after a split second of silence and everything finally went dark and quiet. As the college student slipped into unconsciousness, he ceased caring about grinding out survival in a city that was very obviously, stubbornly doomed.

       What's the point? He thought as his limbs relaxed and his head finally settled on the dirty dock. Why fight it? His last thought as the lights went out was hazy, the best he could guess was that it had something to do with Rachel, but before he could clarify it, his eyes shut and blackness was all he knew.

       When he woke up, Tim McManus was exactly where he did not want to be.

       His vision wavered between hazy, wavy, color, and black and white, but what he could not see from his worm's eye view, he could gather from the sounds of men shouting to each other. Through the fading moans behind him, Captain O'Shea's voice rang clear.

       "Gus? Gus?"

       "Yeah, I'm here! Anyone got eyes on hostiles?"

       Tim's vision was swimming and pain was shooting up his legs in searing electric currents. Even if he could see back where the ill-fated truck had come from, McManus could not find the strength to speak. The blurry shape that Tim assumed was O'Shea was moving quickly across his field of vision.

       "I saw two of ours in the cab, Master Guns! Secure the transport and get me a headcount on survivors!"

       A big gray splotch covered up the light in front of Tim. The just conscripted soldier recognized the voice as the Master Gunnery Sergeant.

       "Kids look hurt, Cap!"

       "They'll keep! I need you here!"

       McManus got up, facing away from the water, stumbling to his right, trying to keep his balance. Between the pain in his body and the sheer strain of the day, his legs gave out and he tumbled heavily to the street, joined soon by Ron Parsons.

       "If," Ron gasped, struggling with wobbly arms to prop himself up, "I don't somehow, someway get laid for this, I'm going to be pissed." The two new friends shared a weary look and Parsons offered a hand to support his comrade. Tim reached to accept it, but instead found both his and Ron's arm grabbed by a strong, determined hand with chipped fingernail polish.

       Rachel Lynch grunted, face dirty and loose locks of red hair defiantly dropping out of her jeep cap. "Come. On!" She implored, getting them to their feet and supporting them for a few steps. "Don't you watch the news? The girl can't be the only new kid, there's, like, hazing and stuff."

       The trio finally regrouped with the rest of the urban-camouflaged warriors who were gathered at the edge of the dock, lying on the ground and reaching down toward the harbor. The kids were amazed to find the Captain already in the water, frantically trying to get inside the cab of the truck, which was partially submerged on its side and rapidly filling with water. Finally O'Shea wrenched the passenger side door open and started calling out names. After shouting inside the cab for only a second, O'Shea abruptly shut up and started slamming a fist against the side of the truck in rage. Jack looked up at his second in command after venting his frustration.

       "Two bodies, both KIA!" He shouted, swimming toward a few bobbing refugee bodies. "Hakata and Owens. We've got to get these survivors I need some help down here!" When no one immediately responded or jumped in after him, O'Shea looked back angrily.

       "Do I stutter, Master Gu—"

       "For Christ's sake! They're dead, Jack! They're all dead!"

       O'Shea splashed in a quick circle, noticing the swirling tide of red and the bobbing bodies meanly tossed over by the truck. Tim turned slowly, trying not to press his body too much. The truck's path to the sea was marked by deep gouges and grooves, streaks of red, brown, and shredded rubber and metal defaced the surface of the dock. On either side of the destructive path, a handful of civilian bodies lay still; a violent end that none of them deserved. A few soldiers were checking them, but only had to look for a moment to be assured that there were no civilian survivors left. Once again, Tim felt the crushing weight of inability, the detachment of sitting on the sidelines while his team suffered loss after loss. He was back at Harvard Yard, looking blankly in stupefied horror at a massacre. He shut his green eyes tight and opened them again, trying to mentally reboot himself to deal with yet another disappointment, but only felt numb. He could not decide if that was a good thing.

       At the edge of the dock, Jack O'Shea had finally given in and climbed back up to rejoin his men. The kids moved over to help as quickly as they could, supporting the tired commander until he shrugged them off. The Captain looked around the scene hopefully, trying to catch at least one survivor in the entire mess, but it only compounded the defeat they all felt when O'Shea finally turned around, looked at his second and command and simply said, "All of them."

       "All of them," Gus confirmed.

       "Shit." A stiff breeze blew through the impromptu huddle as Jack shivered slightly and ruminated on what to do. "We can't take the time to get Hak and Owens out. Where do we stand with the rest of transport?"

       "There's a troop Warthog and a M41 'Hog inbound. Should be here in two mikes."

       Jack nodded and looked toward the warehouse that had housed the refugees. "All right. Take two scouts and post them over that hill so we don't get surprised like that again. Everyone else takes cover in the warehouse 'til the Warthogs arrive." Everyone, including the kids, began to move out until Jack called the trio of friends over. They approached cautiously at first, then fell into step with O'Shea as they walked toward the warehouse. The Captain did a brief visual examination of the youngest soldiers in his tiny army, then looked back toward the city.

       "Telling the Master Guns to leave you back there…don't take it personally."

       "Yes, sir," they all replied softly.

       Jack sighed. "Are you all ok? I know seeing something like this can—"

       "When this whole thing started," Ron interrupted, looking down as he walked, "a bunch of people followed us from Harvard, they made us feel like we had to protect them." Parsons kicked a piece of tire out of his way. "We didn't do so hot with that."

       The COM chirped and the kids all instinctively put a hand to their ears. Jack, who had shucked his gear before jumping after the truck, stopped and waited to be updated.

       "'Hogs are here," Tim informed him, and just as he said so, two Warthogs leaped into view, fishtailing to a perfect stop right in front of the warehouse. The remaining guerilla warriors came out of the structure and secured the area. Jack and the kids ran to the scene, stopping briefly by O'Shea's equipment. The Captain tossed his gear into the passenger seat of the larger troop Warthog, fished a dirty towel out from the front of the vehicle, and then walked to the back where Tim, Ron, and Rachel were securing their effects and preparing for departure. They stopped what they were doing as soon as they saw the big Captain standing in front of them, toweling off until he had their attention. O'Shea looked tired, concerned, and a little bit guilty.

       "I want you to know that I'm sorry for all this," Jack said, trying meet all their eyes at once, "but I didn't know another way to keep you safe. You have some skills, but you don't have any training, and it's unfair and irresponsible of me to expect you to do all the things we're doing."

       "Sir," Ron said, leaning over the roll bar and resting his chin on his hands, "speaking for all of us, we've been playing fireman, doctor, and soldier all day. We'll do what you need us to do, but you can't put us in charge of civilians."

       "Losing all those people at Harvard was our fault," Rachel Lynch added, "and we shouldn't have that responsibility again until we're ready."

       Before Jack could reply, he became aware of Gus Reynolds' broad figure behind him, standing at attention but obviously there to have an audience with the CO. Drying off the last wet patch of hair behind his ear, O'Shea nodded at his XO. "What's up?"

       Reynolds passed Jack his throat mic and earpiece. "Just got a call from truck two for you."


       Reynolds nodded in affirmation.

       "It's about damn time." O'Shea said as he fastened the device around his neck. "Did he say what about?"

       "He's holding for you."

       "Thanks," the well-built Captain said, putting a hand to his ear and signaling for the kids to give him a minute. "Ibanez, O'Shea. Go ahead."

       "You should have let them go."

       Jack and Gus both looked at each other, thoroughly confused at the female voice on the COM. Even though they had only met for the first time an hour ago, they both recognized the smooth, educated, strong tone of Meryl Alper.

       "Dr. Alper?" O'Shea started, trying to figure out what was going on, "what are you talking about? Where's Ibanez?"

       "I'm holding your men and the refugees for myself."

       "Excuse me?" Jack demanded, anger seeming into his voice.

       "Things were moving so fast back at the warehouse," Meryl continued, "we didn't have enough time for formal introductions. My full title is Dr. Meryl Alper, Office of Naval Intelligence. You and your men shot down my colleagues."

       "No." Captain O'Shea said forcibly, jabbing a finger at ground as if she was right in front of him. "That wasn't us."

       "Regardless, my function was a safeguard for agents Ricardo and Phillips, and in the event of an attack on them, these were my orders. Consider this a small price to pay for betraying the UNSC."

       Jack and Gus started moving for the front of the troop Warthog, waving for the rest of the soldiers to follow. "What did you do?" O'Shea demanded.

       "I've left your men and the refugees with some leftover contacts. I'm sure you've heard of the Winter Hill gang?"

       "You left civilians with gangsters?"

       "In exchange for safe passage out of this city, yes. They can get more use out of a labor force than I. The refugees have been quite docile and none have been harmed. Your men, however, have been…less than helpful. I'm not sure they have much utility in this new world Winter Hill's planned."

       Jack looked up at a gesture from the Master Guns, pointing at his eyes then down at his palm. The Captain looked down at his data pad, which was showing a wireframe map of the city with a blinking green dot and the words "COM traced," right above it. O'Shea nodded gravely in acknowledgement.

       "If you or any of those two-bit thugs touch my soldiers, I swear you'll wish the Covenant found you first. I'm coming to have some words with you and your friends, Alper."

       "Even if you reach them in time, Jack, I think you'll find I'm quite difficult to get a hold of."

       "I don't give a damn what you think," O'Shea growled through grit teeth, pointing around for the soldiers to mount up. "I'm getting my men."

The Day Before Tomorrow: Part 7
Date: 1 May 2009, 8:23 am

The Day Before Tomorrow
A prequel to the "Minutemen" Series
Part Seven

Black Rose Bar
City of Boston
United North American Protectorate
October 19, 2552
Night before Covenant invasion of Earth

       It was illegal to look that good in the Black Rose bar. It was sacrilegious. The establishment simply did not deserve the beauty that was casually strutting through the front door and over the bouncer's jaw. Autumnal red hair, meticulously blown and teased with an artist's touch, sashayed and swayed along the middle of her back. A short black dress drew attention to her figure without being obnoxious or desperately showy. Subtle jewelry caught the dim light of arcade games, a dingy vending machine, and a single fritzing holo panel that was doing its level best to broadcast a professional sports game.

       To the clutches of blue collar Bostonians gathered in islands of bar stools and the midday drunks hunched over the horseshoe-shaped bar, she was gliding over the dark stained hardwood floor. The three attractive girls at the top of the horseshoe turned around on their stools to stare at incoming Aphrodite. A petite young girl with short blonde hair and a look that screamed preparatory schooling took a courageous sip of her martini, spilling a few drops on her jeans and making her curse softly. After dabbing at the drops with a cocktail napkin, she turned her attention back to the gorgeous redhead.

       "I thought you were going on a date."

       "I am," Rachel Lynch replied, a sly smile forming in the corner of her lips. The bartender was already standing at attention when the Boston College Junior perched herself on her bar stool. She could not be sure, but Rachel could have sworn the barrel chested barman was holding his breath. She put her elbows on the bar and leaned forward, craning her graceful neck to examine the arrangement of bottles, even though she knew the layout by heart. The bartender looked like he was about to pass out.

       "Vodka soda," Lynch said, locking eyes with her server. "Make it cheap and hard."

       The bartender's legs buckled ever so slightly as he turned to fetch the beverage. Rachel now turned to face her friends as they threw her mildly disapproving looks.

       "That's just not fair to the new bartender," the blonde said, swirling her olive around in the martini glass as the rest of the attractive girls in the group turned back to their conversations. "So when's this date?"

       Lynch glanced at the ancient clock above the bar. "Should be…any minute now."

       Each of the girls turned as one and gave their well-dressed "bestie" a collective sideways glance. Blonde spoke for the group.

       "He's coming…here."

       Rachel nodded, avoiding eye contact and draining her cocktail hastily.

       "R. Lynch! You're breaking the rules!"

       Lynch spun in her bar stool and stared at the ceiling tiles with feigned exasperation. "Am not."

       A striking girl with long, wavy, raven black hair fixed pleading eyes on Rachel and reached to put a soft, manicured hand on her arm to get Lynch's attention. "R. Lynch. We. Like. This. Bar. We like that no one else from BC comes here. We like that us girls can be ourselves where no one can find us, and no strange guys hit on us. We like drinking here for next to nothing. You're breaking rule number one: no boys, and rule number two: don't dress to impress."

       Rachel shot a look at Raven like she had just been stabbed in the back. "I am not that dressed up," the Boston College Junior declared.

       All the girls swivled on their barstools like a Broadway musical chorus line. Their eyes flitted across the bar and locked on to the only cute boy in the entire establishment: a moderately built bar back sporting a backwards Boston Red Sox cap with a shock of red hair slipping out from underneath it. He was casual to the point of scruffy and shier than a nun at Mardi Gras. He was the girls' favorite target. Their voices turned to honey while his knees turned to jello.

       "Seamus," Raven and Blonde cooed, "Seamus Conner, come here."

       Seamus looked over his shoulder, a schoolboy being called on in a class he never studied for. He seemed to be taking a second to answer the Sirens' call. Finally, he stammered, "Yeah?"

       "It's all right," Rachel said in a reassuring tone. The Irish import flipped a bar towel over his shoulder, thought better of it too late, then grabbed it again and began nervously wiping his hands as he approached.

       "Seamus," Blonde took over, "is Rachel overdressed?"

       Seamus looked over his shoulder, then quickly examined the other rough-looking patrons around the bar. He looked at the girls uneasily and responded as if he detected a trick question. "…We don't really have a dress code here." His face was doing its best to match his hair.

       "When Rachel walked in," Blonde prodded, "did you notice her?"

       "Oh hell yes," Seamus blurted out, realizing simultaneously that he had indeed said those words and he was indeed staring at the girl in question. These thoughts caused a four-car pile up in his mind, and as the mental conflagration blazed, the young bar back beat a hasty retreat to a phantom emergency that had to be tended to immediately. The rest of the girls turned to Rachel with serene satisfied looks on their faces. Rachel was quietly amused.

       "It's not nice, or fair, to pick on Seamus."

       "Rach," Blonde said, perfectly plucked eyebrow raised, "we're picking on you."

Rowes Wharf
Evacuated City of Boston
October 20, 2552

       "What's wrong?"

       Rachel jumped with a start, jerked out of her thoughts by Tim McManus' voice. The handsome, brown-haired, hazel eyed Harvard Junior looked up at the tired girl from his position next to the Warthog and tilted his head in concern. Rachel shook her head, putting on the grey jeep cap that she had been wringing in her hands a few moments before.

       "Nothing," Rachel said with an unconvincing smile, "just zoned out, is all."

       "Must be nice," McManus said, unconvinced. He tossed up a large white object to the now unencumbered Rachel. "Here, stow that for me, will ya?"

       Rachel examined the large, white and red painted plastic octagon. "What is this?"

       "It's a medkit," Tim explained, pulling himself up into the Warthog next to Lynch, "Cap wants them out and ready to use as soon as we hit the target."

       "That wasn't a worrying conference at all," Ron Parsons added as he tossed his Battle Rifle in and hopped aboard behind the pair, "there's a pretty good chance that the gang could use our captured COMs to listen in on us. Maybe our tech guys'll be able to block the compromised units, maybe they won't. In the meantime, recon thinks the windows are boarded up so they won't shoot out at us, and they don't think Winter Hill has rocket launchers."

       Three more soldiers entered the vehicle with the kids as the transports activated their engines. Though not deafening, it was definitely a sound that got the students' adrenaline going. The two Warthogs accelerated into combat turns and bounded back into the obliterated city of Boston. Ron sighed and checked the magazine in his rifle. "This should be fascinating."

       "All units be advised on updated coordinates," Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds said in a clipped tone, "Rendezvous point is now 1167 Commonwealth Ave. The, uh, Black Rose bar in case you need a visual."

       "What?" Rachel asked to no one in particular, bolting upright in her seat. "Why are we going to the Black Rose?"

       "Uh," Tim gave a sideways look at Rachel, "best guess, that's where they traced the signal?"

       "Well what are they going to do when they get there?" Rachel asked, eyes getting wider by the second.

       "Calm down." Tim said, putting his hand on Rachel's shoulder. "What's the big deal?"

       "They—it—the Black Rose…I used to go there all the time."

       Ron Parsons turned around his seat and fixed a look at Rachel that asked if she was kidding. "You used to drink at Black Rose."

       "My girlfriends and I…it was like our secret place. No one else from Boston College went there."

       Parsons nearly guffawed. "That's 'cause the Black Rose is a Winter Hill bar. I wouldn't go in there."

       "They weren't like that!" Rachel insisted, voice rising testily. "They were always nice to us, all the time."

       "Look," Ron said, putting his hands up in defense, "don't take this the wrong way, but you're a good looking chick and you all tend to travel in packs. If a bunch of hot girls wanted to drink in my clubhouse, I'd make 'em feel right at home, even if I was a bunch of murderers and drug runners."

       "Take that back!" Rachel yelled, startling Tim and Ron.

       "Whoa!" Tim said, putting a hand on Rachel's good shoulder and calming her down. "What's with you?"

       Lynch shook off Tim's hand angrily and stared darkly out at the passing apocalyptic neighborhood, refusing to believe that the people who were so kind, sharing, and considerate could be capable of the things she had read in the news. "Just—just leave me alone for minute."

       "Captain," One of the soldiers said over the COM, "In case we have to block COMs, what's rules of engagement on arrival?"

      "The Winter Hill gang was an organized crime group until they took UNSC Marines hostage. Protocol says they're Innies now."

       "Innies?" Ron asked.

       "Insurrectionists," Tim explained, turning over his shoulder. "Rebels. Terrorists. Bad guys. You don't read military thrillers?"

       Ron shrugged. "Never enough character development."

       Captain O'Shea came back on the COM. "It's full assault, weapons free the moment we get there."

       "Wait!" Rachel blurted out, instinctively joining in on the communications channel. "They're not insurrectionists!"

       "The law says otherwise," O'Shea responded curtly.

       "But, by law you're all deserters," Lynch said, disbelief creeping into her voice.

       "I don't think I like your tone, miss," The Captain said coldly. "but if you think those sons of bitches won't shoot the first thing that walks in the front door, then I'll be happy to let you take point."

       "Christ, Jack," Gus said from the lead Warthog, concerned. "Take it easy."

       "No, we're not 'taking it easy,' any more," Jack growled, glaring out his front windshield as though he were looking at his XO, "Everyone, listen up. I'm sick of playing by the rules and losing time and men every time we do the right thing. I won't let Ibanez or anyone else die because they tried to help innocent people. If I have Innie supporters on my Warthogs, I want you off now. Switching COM traffic to command transmissions only. Cease chatter."

       The Captain turned over his shoulder in the passenger seat and looked hard at Rachel, who was nearly pouting at this point. "I can understand you might have some kind of rapport with these men, but they are not the people you think they are. I'm sorry. I know it's hard to accept with everything else that happened today, but it's the truth."

       Rachel retuned Jack's look as the rushing wind whistled over their heads and chilled them through their body armor. "I think I need to stay out of this one," Lynch said loudly, blinking against the wind.

       O'Shea nodded, helmet bouncing slightly as the Warthog bumped over a crater. "Fair enough, but there's an off chance I'll need you to talk to these people. Wait for our all clear then enter."

Black Rose Bar
October 19, 2552

       The girls had to hand it to Rachel; she had picked a winner. He walked into the Black Rose in a dressy but understated outfit. His square tie was tied expertly and hung at exactly the right length, the lapels of his futuristic blazer stopped just an inch or two below his chiseled jaw, he looked every inch of the huge promotional posters Boston College hockey had hung around the campus and the city. The senior defensemen looked slightly confused as he took in his surroundings and compared them to his getup, but once he saw Rachel at the bar, he brightened considerably and he put purpose back into his stride.

       Rachel knew he had arrived the minute Blonde stopped speaking mid-sentence and stared behind Lynch. The BC Junior smiled out of the corner of her mouth and whispered, "He just came in, didn't he?"

       Blonde was still dumbstruck, "You didn't tell me you were on a date with—?"


       Lynch's friends forgot about their rules as he made up the distance between them. Rachel offered her cheek as he took a place at the bar next to her, taking an extra few seconds to shake hands and introduce himself to the rest of the group.

       "James Madigan," the hockey star said, offering a hand that only yesterday had pummeled Boston University in an exhibition game. Blonde did her best to affect disinterest, but her tongue betrayed her.

       "I know who you are!" Blonde stammered, instantly realizing what she had done. She occupied herself with her martini as the rest of the girls followed suit, stealing glances with the subtlety of a fifth-grader.

       Madigan turned to his well-dressed date with a look of amusement. "When you only told me the address," he said, eyebrows up and making a show of looking around the faux wood paneling, "I thought it was some new trendy restaurant or something."

       Rachel laughed, and the room seemed to brighten. "James," she said, patting the muscled arm of the athlete condescendingly, "I don't know if you checked lately, but we're college students. The last really good meal I had was back home on fall break, and my parents paid for it. This," Lynch said, gesturing grandly around the meager furnishing and twirling expertly on her bar stool, "is much more my speed."

       "And it's hard enough to keep up with these ladies," a ruddy-faced, balding Irishman with multiple tattoos and the body of a longshoreman interjected, taking position behind the bar with a smile and refilling Rachel's drink. He offered a large friendly hand to Madigan. "Frank Walsh. Owner; operator. Welcome to the Black Rose, Mr. Madigan."

       James shook hands with Walsh and glanced, surprised, at Rachel. "Thanks, Mr. Walsh."

       "Please! For a certain first round pick for my beloved Boston Bruins, it's Frank."

       Madigan chuckled appreciatively. "It's a long season, Frank. I'd be lucky to play for Boston if I'm not pressed into military service."

       Frank popped open a beer and took a generous swig, wiping his mouth with a bar rag and pointing the bottle at James. "Ain't nothin' in this world that's luck. Don't you worry about them jarheads stealin' you from my Bruins. You'll wear the black and gold, sonny," Walsh slid a shot of Irish whiskey to the burly player with a wink, "don't you think otherwise."

       The three clinked vessels and took a long drink, enjoying the moment and feeling the warmth of the alcohol course through them. "Now," Frank said, popping another beer open and nodding at the gorgeous redhead across from him, "what's it gonna be?"

       "Did you eat?" Rachel asked her date, who responded no with a shake of his head. "Excellent!" Lynch said with delight, bringing her palms together as if to start a ceremony. "What do you say we go one for one?"

       Both Madigan and Rachel's friends all looked at the well-dressed girl with disbelief. James composed himself for a second before answering. "Not to be rude," he said, still trying on the words for size, "but you…want to go drink for drink…with me."

       Rachel nodded enthusiastically, smiling. The BC hockey star shook his head, then shrugged off his blazer and loosened his tie. "All right," he said in a near-resigned tone, "but I warned you."

       Lynch absent-mindedly tossed her hair over her shoulder and downed her drink, slapping it against the sturdy wood and wiping stray drops with the back of her hand while signaling Frank with the other. "You certainly did," she replied coyly.

Commonwealth Avenue
Evacuated City of Boston

       The two Warthogs raced west down the street toward the gleaming, black painted façade of the Black Rose. A third 'Hog fishtailed into view up ahead and flew along the deserted road to meet up with O'Shea and Reynolds' vehicles.

       "This is Delta," one of the soldiers announced from the third Warthog, "are captured COMs blocked?"

       Captain O'Shea put a hand to his throat. "Captured COMs are blocked. Go ahead, Delta."

       "Delta standing by for orders."

       "Move your team into position at the rear entrance, Delta. Wait for my signal, then breach and clear."

       "Wilco. See you inside."

       Delta's Warthog then slipped out of sight, skidding expertly into an alley and continuing to the bar's rear. The rest of the vehicles braked to a hard stop in the middle of the road, relieved to see that recon had been right about he boarded and blocked windows. They left the business end of a M41 mounted gun pointed directly at the front entrance.

       "Quick thought, Jack," Gus said as he and his driver jumped out of their transport and scanned the area, "we could ping the hostages' transponders and get their location inside the bar and leave the heavy lifting to the M41."

       "No good," O'Shea said as he and the others disembarked and crouched by their Warthog. "We can't be sure they haven't packed that place with refugees and I wouldn't put it past them to use 'em as human shields. Nope," Jack sighed quickly, "this one's on us."

       Gus nodded. "Copy."

       The COM chirped in the leaders' ears. "Delta, in position."

       Jack put two fingers to his throat. "How's the alley looking?"

       "Clear. Waiting for your go."

       Jack nodded. "Stand by. We'll give peace one shot." O'Shea tapped a Private First Class on the shoulder to get his attention. "Open Ibanez's COM unit for a second," he instructed, hearing a quick tone in his ear to let me know the channel was opened. The Captain fixed his gaze on the façade of the bar and spoke loud and clear over the COM.

       "This is Captain Jack O'Shea to all Winter Hill members holding my Marines. This is your first and last warning. Bring my Marines out, unharmed, and return the refugees to us immediately. If you do so, you will be allowed to leave peacefully. If you do not comply, you will be killed."

       A soft hiss of static followed the declaration. Rachel peeked over the cover of the Warthog with pleading eyes, deathly afraid of what was about to happen. The answering beep of Ibanez's COM reply made her flinch.

       "This is Frank Walsh. We killed your Marines five minutes ago," the disembodied voice said very matter-of-factly, "you come in here and you'll get the same."

       Rachel felt the air leave her entire body as she slumped against the side of the troop transport. She was looking through a tunnel, head down and in utter disbelief of what she just heard. The innocent faces of the men who poured her drinks, joked with her and her friends, looked out for her and hailed cabs so she would not have to go outside alone, all those faces were now shattered, marred with the red blood of murder.

       For her, it was the final straw, the very last thing she held on to that had not been destroyed. With just that sentence, everything she knew had changed. All that was left were two boys she had only known for hours, and though they were closer than any of them had imagined, Rachel Lynch felt achingly isolated and alone. She looked off into space, sitting on the cold concrete as Gus Reynolds marched past her to lead the other half of the soldiers.

       Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds' face was fixed with barely controlled raged as he held up his data pad to the soldiers in front of him. Rachel looked up slowly as Gus got his team's attention. The imposing ex-Marine stabbed a finger at a pulsing red dot in the middle of a wire frame schematic. "Check your pads quick and memorize that signal's location, that's where this Walsh motherfucker's hiding. Mind your corners, and don't take chances in there. It's one in the chest, one in the head, and you drop every single one of those Innie fucks 'cause you're the best. You get me?"

       Tim, Ron, and the rest of the men nodded gravely. Rachel could not find the strength or desire to protest. The life she led only hours ago had finally ended. All that remained was the present with no assurances about the immediate future.

       Jack's voice became low and dark as he opened the COM and pointed two fingers at the front door. "Stack up. Prepare to breach."

       There were no shouts, war cries, or vengeful declarations. The sheer efficient movement of eight men moving silently toward the building was scary enough. They broke off into two teams of four, Ron and Tim were at the rear of each team's stack. The gunner at the M41 swiveled slightly to the left, fixing his sights on the hinges of the front entrance. He looked down at Rachel for a moment, aware of the shivering girl on the ground for the first time.

       "You might want to cover your ears," the gunner offered. Rachel never heard him; she was numbly crawling on all fours to the corner of the troop Warthog, watching what might very well be the end of every friend she had left.

       From her spot, Rachel watched as one of the soldiers took what looked like an aerosol can and sprayed a light gray foam along the hinged side of the large, red, wooden door. The foam hardened into a bulging mold as the soldier jammed what looked like a stainless steel meat thermometer into the substance. The eight black and grey clad warriors pressed themselves hard against the wall as the COM chirped open.

       "All teams, breach."

       The two gray molds exploded outwards with surprising force, making Rachel flinch and put more weight on her bad shoulder than she wanted to. She cringed with the shock of pain and fought to keep her eyes focused as the two teams moved in swiftly, staccato flashes of their weapons creating a strobe light effect and giving Lynch instantaneous snapshots of what little she could see of the interior. Cracks and bursts of weapons firing could be heard, accompanied in rhythm with muffled shouted instructions.

       Rachel watched breathlessly, heart rate skyrocketing as questions flew through her brain. It was maddening to have to wait for the all clear; the redheaded Boston College student did not even know if the all clear was ever going to be called. Rachel rose up from her position and caught sight of a first aid kit stashed away in the back of the troop 'Hog and stared at it for a moment, paralyzed with instructions to stay put and the voice in her head screaming for her to get into that building.

       "Fuck it," she said aloud, grabbing the bag and running as fast as she could into the firefight. The Warthog gunner's surprised exclamation did nothing to keep her there. Her legs churned cement and she gripped the heavy pistol in her good arm as the gaping black hole of the Black Rose bar became ever larger. She squeezed the grip in her moistening palm and swung her arm to the left, recalling vaguely some trivia that right handed enemies would hide to the left side of a door to get the drop on intruders. She flew across the threshold and left the last of Boston's sunlight behind as the darkness engulfed her.

October 19

       "Wha's yer trick?"

       Rachel looked bemused at Madigan, who was now completely laying his face and chest on the surface of the bar, a sizeable pyramid of shot glasses, highball glasses, and beer mugs next to him. "What do you mean?" Rachel asked with a smile, her speech a little fuzzy but nowhere near as bad as the intoxicated hockey player's. James pointed unsteadily at Lynch, seeing three of her and taking a guess at which one was talking.

       "You…must haf a supah power."

       "Yep," Rachel said, "I do. Do you want to know what it is?"

       Madigan, head resting on the bar like a pillow, nodded slowly.

       "I have super hearing," she leaned over and whispered into James' ear. "Do you know what my super hearing heard last week in the trainer's room?"

       Madigan only gurgled; an indication, Lynch assumed, to continue. She stroked the hockey stud's thick brown hair reassuringly, her words dripping with honey.

       "I heard you talking to your boys about how you could ask me out and fuck me on the same day. I believe the phrase you used was 'no contest.'"

       Lynch looked cheerily over her shoulder at her friends, who, just hearing this news for the first time, looked fully prepared to rip the jock apart. Rachel nodded calmly at her best friends and teammates, staying their hands. Madigan, deep in a haze of alcohol, did not seem to appreciate the point.

       "Is 'cause…'cause yer hawt."

       "I know, I know," Lynch said as she went back to her drink, still talking in a sickly sweet voice. She stared straight ahead, only occasionally looking over at James. "I clean up well, I like to hang out, and I'm a pretty great lay. That's something you'll never get to experience with me, and if you ask me out again, I'll tell all your buddies about the time a hundred twenty pound girl drank you under the table, you got me, stud?"

       James nodded as best he could, though it was more like dragging his chin toward his chest. Rachel smiled sweetly and reached inside her bag.

       "Great! And just so you don't forget," Lynch took out a large black permanent marker and took off the cap with flair, "I'm going to write down a few reminders. On your face."

       For the next five minutes Rachel and the girls took turns signing the unconscious hockey player's face with their names, slogans, and all shapes and sizes of male genitalia. Once they were done, Blonde stumbled for a half-step.

       "Whoa," she said, holding on to the bar for a second, "Rach, how are you still standing? I've never seen you do that."

       Lynch shrugged and waved at Frank, who jogged over from watching the Red Sox playoff game on the holo panel, bottle of vodka in hand. "What'll it be?" Walsh asked with a half grin.

       "We're gonna kill the bottle," Rachel replied with a mischevious look, taking the bottle in hand and upending it, taking a long pull. Her friends stared on, bug eyed, until one of them grabbed it and took a sip. They put the gleaming glass vessel down and wagged their finger at the gorgeous mastermind.

       "There's no vodka in this," Blonde said, thoroughly impressed. "You planned this."

       "Yep," Lynch said confidently. "You know me; I like to win."

       Frank poked Madigan and cleared his throat. "So what do I do with this piece of work?" He asked, tilting his head toward the back of the bar. The Black Rose was made up of the horseshoe shaped bar, assorted raised circular tables, and a pool table dangerously close to an old basketball arcade game in the back right corner. On the right side of the bar were the bathrooms, the left side had a door marked, "kitchen." Frank Walsh pointed a meaty thumb backward at the kitchen door. "I got a private space we can stash 'im in," he winked theatrically at the girls.

       The girls laughed. "Is that where you keep the bodies, Frank?" Rachel asked, egging him on.

       "Under lock and key," Walsh said, making a show of sizing up the BC defenseman, "he won't bother you any more."

       Rachel patted Frank's hand and smiled at him as she turned around toward the front door. "You're sweet, Frank, but I think we'll throw him in a cab. Wouldn't be very ladylike to kill him, would it?"

       Frank nodded amicably. "Reckon not."

October 20

       Rachel never even considered the slickness of the Black Rose's floor, so she was surprised when she slipped on the blood pooling by the front entrance. Pure luck and a rush to turn a paper in was the reason the Boston Collegian was wearing sneakers and not heels, but the slippery surface of the hardwood and the energy of Lynch's entrance would have made a mockery of any footwear. Luckily, the fall caused a soldier's knee-jerk reaction shot at the girl to miss high and wide.

       "Hold fire!" Jack O'Shea shouted, looking like he was about to punch the nervous ex-Marine. "Rachel! You want to get yourself killed?"

       This is blood, Rachel thought, frantically wiping her hands on the white med kit. I'm in the Black Rose and I just fell in blood. Lynch turned around and let her eyes adjust to the darkness. She immediately wished she had not run into the fray.

       The fight was over. Jack O'Shea and his men had wiped out the Winter Hill gang. In front of, behind, and draped over the bar were the bodies of Boston's last major criminal element; stolen and smuggled UNSC weapons lay by their limp hands and were being collected by various soldiers. Rachel saw several men she recognized and one or two she might have known had their faces been intact. Lynch was suddenly very afraid of the soldiers who had saved her life several times today.


       The redhaired college student looked up from the floor and into the face of Tim McManus, who looked just as spooked as she did. Rachel did not even think, she only felt so relieved to see one person she knew who was alive that she jumped at the Harvard Junior and smothered him in a vice grip of a hug. A perplexed Tim patted the attractive survivor on the back and looked at Ron Parsons with a look of vague panic. Parsons only shrugged and resumed stripping a gang member's pistol of ammunition. Everyone stopped what they were doing when the Captain approached.

       "Rachel," O'Shea said, sliding a fresh magazine into his customized Battle Rifle and pulling down his balaclava, "I need your help for a second."

       Lynch put a stray strand of hair behind her ear, realized she had marked herself with blood in the process, then decided to deal with it later so she could answer the Captain who had killed every single patron in her favorite bar. "Yeah," she said, swallowing hard, "what do you need?"

       "We took a prisoner in the kitchen."

       Gus Reynolds looked up from stripping a criminal's assault rifle, "Lucky fucking coward. Bastard was wearing Ibanez's body armor."

       O'Shea silenced his XO with a raised hand, then returned his attention to Rachel, gesturing toward the kitchen door. "Winter Hill's notorious for concealing their leadership. This guy wouldn't be wearing armor if he wasn't important, but he didn't have Ibanez's COM on him. I need you to identify him and see if you can get anything out of him."

       "I'm not gonna torture him!" Lynch blurted out, panicked. Jack immediately put his strong hands on her shoulders.

       "That's not what I'm asking you to do," he said, his voice level and incredibly calm for someone who had just killed several humans in the middle of the invasion of Earth. "We just want to know his name and maybe he'll talk to you instead of us."

       Rachel nodded, then looked back at Tim and Ron. O'Shea anticipated her question.

       "No, they can't come with you. I need it to be as few people as possible."

       "O—OK," Lynch replied, following behind Jack as they disappeared behind the swinging door misted with blood. Everyone else was left to his own devices.

       Ron Parsons motioned for Tim to follow him to the horseshoe shaped bar at the back of the room. Tim, eyes still on the kitchen door and wondering what was happening in there, slowly followed behind. Ron leaned against the bar and, struck by inspiration, reached behind the bar and grabbed two bottles of beer that were still somewhat cold. He passed one to a grateful Tim McManus and the two new soldiers took a sip in silence.

       "You shoot any of 'em?" Ron asked.

       "Nope," Tim said, trying not to look around the bar, "you?"

       "Nope. Kinda glad I didn't."

       "Me too."

       Rachel was shocked at how many gang members were strewn around the kitchen with no apparent casualties to O'Shea's men. Lynch could not help but ask the question.

       "Did any of you—?"

       "One Delta wounded, one of Gus' got hit, too." Jack answered, never breaking stride as they entered the kitchen. "The one bit of luck we've had all day."

       The stainless steel kitchen area was a wreck. Pots, pans, and all sorts of utensils were tossed around, and pools of blood were collecting by drains, fed by splatters and mists of red on the clean white walls. As they turned the corner of one serving station, Rachel felt herself go rigid and she took a step back. She had been anticipating and preparing herself for this moment, but now that she was here, it was completely different. There, on his knees, wearing torso armor with a bullet deflection in the center of his chest, was Frank Walsh. As shaken as Rachel was, Frank was worse.

       "What the fuck are you doing here?" Frank demanded, his ruddy face almost bright crimson. This was not the same man that Rachel had conspired with not twenty-four hours ago. She hardly recognized him. Lynch felt O'Shea looking at her, and she turned to face him.

       "You know him?" O'Shea asked. Rachel nodded, and Frank fought against his restraints.

       "Don't tell him anything! You don't know who he is!" Walsh began shouting. "You don't know what he and these fascist bastards are going to do to you! You owe me, Rachel Lynch! You owe me!"

       For half a second, Rachel actually wondered whom to trust. Then, just as quickly as doubt entered her mind, she remembered that this man in front of her had killed five soldiers who were putting their lives in jeopardy so she and innocent refugees might live. Frank read the conflict playing across her features and played his last card.

       "You tell him who I am," the burly bar owner growled, "and I'll kill you. I promise you that."

       Rachel took off her jeep cap and looked Frank in the face. It was time to show her friends that she was not afraid to put her life on the line, either. "His name is Frank Walsh. He owns this bar, and yesterday he mentioned something about having a room in here where he keeps bodies."

       Frank's head quivered with rage. Rachel wondered if it would actually explode. Instead, the Winter Hill gang leader let out an animal cry of rage and yelled at the top of his lungs, "Kill them! You hear me? Kill all the refugees and the Marines! Do it! Do it now!"

       The Captain did not waste a second. As soon as Walsh started to open his mouth, Jack marched over to the leader, grabbed him by the collar of Ibanez's armor and began dragging him across the kitchen back to the bar.

       Tim and Ron had moved on to their second beer as ex-Marines continued to search bodies and pilfer booze from behind the bar. They loaded material into sacks, packs, whatever they could stash provisions and supplies in. The two friends leaned against the bar, feeling weary and drained. Ron chuckled to himself.

       "She hugged you."


       "She hugged you. She was happy to see you."

       Tim took a longer pull from the beer. "I guess."

       "Cut the shit, Timmy. You got feelings for her. She's hot and you came back for her when she was trapped in a burning building. Don't have to be a professor to figure this one out."

       "Harvard seems like a year ago."

       "Yeah." Ron finished the last of his beer and tossed it over his shoulder, listening to it smash on the floor behind him. "She likes you too, dude. Hold on to that one. She may be able to hold her own, but females are gonna be in short supply real soon. Protectin' people now's a matter of life and death."

       Before Tim could reply, the door to the kitchen slapped open and Jack O'Shea tossed Frank Walsh into the middle of the room. Gus Reynolds and the rest of the soldiers in the bar looked at their CO for instructions.

       "This is Frank Walsh," Jack said with venom. "Strip the armor, keep him restrained on his knees, but do not—do not—shoot him. Our boys might still be alive."

       Rachel and the soldiers of Delta team turned the kitchen upside down trying to find the room that Frank had bragged about the night before. The fact that he was actively trying to give instructions to someone only gave more urgency to their search as they scoured high and low. Frustrated and angry, one of the soldiers kicked a dishwasher with tremendous force and to everyone's surprise the dishwasher nearly flew backwards into the wall. Where the dishwasher once stood, a flat wooden trap door now appeared. Everyone now took a step back as Captain O'Shea entered the room, pointing a gauntleted hand at the plank as the walked toward it.

       "There's no time," Jack said as he gripped a piece of rope attached to the trap door. "Get ready to flash and clear."

       A member of Delta instinctively readied a grey cylindrical grenade in his hands, prepared to throw on the go order. In one smooth motion, Jack jerked the trap door open and the other man tossed the flash grenade inside. O'Shea immediately shut the door tight as the loud bang clapped against the planks and a flash of light escaped through two of the looser slats.

       With no hesitation, Delta nearly jumped into the abyss, tactical lights switched on and yelling in their loudest, most intimidating voices for everyone to get down on the floor. It was over in seconds, and Rachel did not hear the sound of any gunfire whatsoever. She strained her ears to hear anything, having no idea how far down the room could be and unable to see anything underneath the kitchen. Suddenly, Jack's voice echoed from what sounded like forever away.

       "Rachel! We've got a prisoner! I need you down here now!"

       Lynch nearly slipped on the moldy wooden stairs as she scrambled down to meet up with Captain O'Shea and the men. The vague odor of mildew invaded her nostrils and she sneezed instinctively, losing her tenuous grip on the ladder and falling the remaining distance to a hard packed earthen floor. She got up as soon as she could, shocked that such a large earthen cave could exist in this day and age in this city.

       The ceiling was nearly ten feet tall, over thirty feet long and twenty feet wide. The walls were bare brick and the ceiling was some kind of wood, Rachel guessed pine. From what little should could see, a few wooden crates dotted the space, but with Delta's flashlights moving rapidly across the wide space, Rachel could not get her bearings and felt very disoriented. The darkness was truly frightening, an inky void that covered Rachel from head to toe.

       She could not shake the feeling of heat coming from nearby and took several hesitant steps forward. As one of Delta's weapons moved with Rachel's movement, it swept across the faces of the missing refugees, very much alive but trapped behind the bars of what looked like a rudimentary holding cell.

       Lynch let out a shrieking yelp and fell backwards, tripping over something and landing hard against the packed earth. Immediately, four lights focused on her and she could hear O'Shea's voice barely filling the acoustically dead space.

       "Dammit," the Captain grumbled, "that's Alper."

       Rachel scrambled to her feet and stumbled backwards to the far wall. "Dr. Alper's—she's dead?"

       "That's frustrating," Jack said, backlit from his comrade's weapons. He leaned down and checked her vitals, sighing heavily. The leader of the survivors turned and walked away from Rachel, racking the slide of his suppressed M6C. "Tell me who this is before I kill him."

       As the beam of O'Shea's tactical flashlight settled, Rachel was shocked to see the light fall across the terrified face of Seamus Connor.

       "Wait!" Rachel cried out. "Wait! He's not one of them!"

       Jack did not even bother to look over his shoulder. "We found him with guns, and he hasn't told me where to find my Marines, Rachel. This is how it's going to go."

       Seamus's face contorted in confusion as he squinted against the light. "Rachel?" Connor stammered. "Rachel Lynch?"

       "Seamus!" Rachel shouted, running to his side and squinting at Jack with pleading eyes. "Captain, whatever this looks like, Seamus wouldn't hurt anyone. You've got to believe me."

       Jack was unconvinced. "Where are my Marines, Seamus?"

       Connor was a nervous wreck, his voice breaking and on the brink of tears. "I've been trying to tell ya! They've put 'em inside the wall with me brothers!"

       "Where?" O'Shea demanded. Connor pointed a shaking finger over his shoulder, where a stack of crates stood, blocking the wall.

       "F—Frank said if I didn't do what I had to when the time came, he'd blow up my brothers and the soldiers."

       Jack and two soldiers immediately shoved the crates aside, revealing a large metal door in the middle of the brick wall. As Jack tapped on it, everyone in the secret basement heard a sound that made their hearts leap with joy.

       "Cap?" Harold Ibanez called out, his voice muffled behind the heavy metal. "Anyone?"

       An audible release of tension could be heard and the sound of hands clapping on shoulders sounded against the hastily constructed walls. O'Shea shut his eyes with a quick prayer of thanks. "Damn good to hear your voice, Ibanez."

       "You too, sir."

       O'Shea motioned for a Delta soldier to help him with the door. "We're going to get you out of here."

       "Wait!" Ibanez shouted. "The door's rigged. We've got three kids in here; brothers, last name's Connor! They say they've got a guy on the outside!"

       O'Shea looked behind him at the lanky figure of Seamus Connor. The boy looked two parts relieved and three parts petrified. Rachel put her arm around the former bar back and nodded at the Captain, vouching for the kid.

       "It's an amateur device, Cap!" Ibanez instructed him. "Any one of us could defuse it from outside."

       Two minutes later the heavy door swung open and both soldiers and brothers had a tearful, joyous reunion. Ibanez and the Captain shared an embrace as Seamus and his three younger brothers joined in a mass of tears and smiles. Despite all this, Rachel did not feel like she could keep it together. The extremes of emotions, the certainty that someone she had trusted had killed those who tried to save her and then threatened to kill her, the sum of the parts was just too much for the young college co-ed to process. The man was willing to let children die so he might get out alive. She turned in a circle in the dark and finally found Seamus.

       "Why?" Lynch asked, tears forming in her eyes, "why did he do this?"

       "Frank Walsh is not the person you think he is," Seamus said, anger starting to glow in his eyes. "He doesn't operate with reason. He kills indiscriminately. He could have stopped this whenever he wanted, but the only thing the man wants is death."

       Rachel shook her head, unable to come to grips with this. All her mind could do after so much strain was lock on to the fact that she had an outlet for the pain, loss, and fear she had felt today. She had a target, and that target was sitting right above her, going nowhere until Captain O'Shea said different. Everyone's doing something about their problems, Rachel thought, now I can, too.

       Without so much as a warning, Rachel marched to the kitchen ladder and began climbing it with rage-fueled energy. Jack caught it just in time.

       "Free those refugees and get me solutions for getting them to South Station!" Jack shouted over his shoulder as he ran after Rachel. "Ibanez, you need to come with me right now!"

       The trip up the ladder and through the kitchen took Rachel less than a minute. She nearly took the kitchen door off its hinges as she burst through it. It took her two seconds to find Frank Walsh on his knees in the middle of the floor, where the soldiers had him at gunpoint. They had just removed Ibanez's armor and were about to cuff his wrists as she marched across the space with her fists balled and chest heaving with anger. Tim and Ron barely had time to react to Lynch's sudden entrance before she was on top of Walsh.

       "Why?" Rachel screamed, putting her weight behind a furious punch that connected brutally with the side of the unarmed prisoner's face.

       "You could have stopped this whenever you wanted! You stupid! Fucking! Liar!" The surprisingly strong girl had to be pulled off the man by Ron and Tim as the Winter Hill gang leader laid on his back, breathing heavy, blood running down his nose, forehead, and ear.

       "Grow up," the gangster muttered, glaring at the Boston College co-ed. "This ain't a world to live in." His eyes now flew around the room, staring at the soldiers with absolute certainty. "You think you're saving yourselves? You're never getting out of this city! You're going to die here! For nothing!" In his vindictive declaration, he never saw Rachel wrestle her way out of the kids' grip and he certainly never saw the raised leg coming at him at full speed.

       "Shut up!" Rachel yelled at the top of her lungs, driving a leg full of anger into the criminal's chest. All of the soldiers could hear the wet crack of the man's ribs breaking as he tumbled into one of the ex-Marines. In the confusion, the soldier fumbled with his M6C side arm, and the last member of Boston's last gang took his chance with zeal, snatching the weapon and leveling it at the completely exposed girl's exhausted body.

       Rachel had never had a gun pointed at her before. Even though she had witnessed unimaginable carnage first hand all day, seeing the bleeding, broken, crazed criminal point that gun was the scariest thing Lynch had ever seen. Her muscles locked up and she instinctively shut her eyes tight.

       "No!" Tim shouted reflexively, bringing his modified Battle Rifle up and squeezing off a three round burst in no direction in particular. Luckily, he had been right next to Lynch and was facing the action as the pistol came up. Two of the three rounds smacked into the gangster's exposed chest and pushed the pistol to the leader's right. McManus' lucky shot was immediately followed by a barrage of fire from the soldiers, tearing into the criminal with dozens of rounds and filling the room with a echoing blast of sound that faded away just as O'Shea and Ibanez reached the scene. Jack put a hand to the side of his head in disbelief.

       Tim glared at Walsh's body, enraged at the coward's final act. Before he or anyone else could say anything further, McManus's eyes flitted down to the M6C lying in the limp hand of Frank Walsh and noticed a very faint trail of smoke wafting lazily from the barrel. Confused and afraid, Tim jerked his head toward Rachel and visually scanned her body armor in a panic. Lynch returned his look with equal confusion until she looked past Tim, eyes opening wide in shock. The color left Tim's face as he heard the unusually shaky voice behind him.

       "Uh…guys…?" Ron Parsons asked hesitantly, withdrawing his hand from the right side of his chest and revealing his gloved palm glistening red with fresh blood. As the group rushed toward the blonde cafeteria worker, Ron's legs went slack and he collapsed on his side, still looking at his hand in bewilderment, hitting the dirty floor with a heavy thud.

The Day Before Tomorrow: Part 8
Date: 28 August 2009, 7:57 am

The Day Before Tomorrow
A prequel to the "Minutemen" Series
Part Eight

       "Ron? Ron?"

       Ron Parsons opened his eyes lazily, squinting in the light and wincing as he rubbed a hand over his face. His chest, ribcage, and back burned in pain. He gave a very slow thumbs-up to indicate he was all right.

       "Jesus," the disembodied voice said out of Parsons' vision, "you scared us. How do you feel?"

       "I'll live." Parsons croaked.

       "What the hell were you thinking, dude?"

       Ron thought about rolling over on his side, but the weightless feeling and the lingering pain in his chest made him think twice. Ron chuckled to himself. "Seemed like a good idea at the time."

       "Seriously, you okay?"

       Ron gave another thumbs-up and motioned for the voice to come closer. "How'd it look?"

       "Get back on the boat and we'll tell you."

       Parsons lazily spun his body around and began paddling toward the red, shiny new speedboat bobbing in the middle of the largely empty river. The sun beamed just over the distant mountains and bathed Ron in gentle yellow light. Ron sighed wistfully as he fought his wakeboard's resistance behind him. "Be right there."

Portland, Oregon
United North American Protectorate
August 4, 2550
Two years before Covenant invasion of Earth

       "So why'd you wipe out?" A busty, black-haired beauty purred over the edge of the Togokhan watercraft. Ron shrugged mid-stroke.

       "The freecam was right in front of me," Parsons explained over the smooth hum of the vessel's fusion drive. "I thought taking a bow would be too douchey. Gotta keep it fun."

       Ron Parsons climbed the short ladder up to the sleek boat, shaking the water from his shaggy blonde hair and deactivating his lifevest as he had done since he was old enough to stumble. The sleek black and gold floatation device disengaged with a moist hiss of air, straps retracting into the suddenly baggy device automatically, followed immediately by the vest itself separating around the ribs and compacting into a tiny dry square of what looked like plastic. The soggy Portland native tucked the lifevest into his back pocket, sat down in a heap on a comfy captain's chair, and swiveled around to face the rest of the boat's occupants.

       Despite the craft's size, a small convention had gathered composed of kids in their teens and early twenties, wearing swimwear that walked the fine line between revealing and indecent. With bodies and builds like theirs, though, no person would complain. On either side of the Togokhan VF-13 speedboat similar boats were idling, full of admirers of close age, build, and awe. They all looked up at Ron like Greeks at the temple of Apollo, and their sun god took a long pull from his bottle of beer before speaking again.

       "How'd I do?" Parsons asked, beaming.

       "Looks ok," replied a nonchalant, heavily tattooed twenty-two year old who withdrew a data crystal from the hovering dark gray freecam.

       Ron gave the cameraman a jovial finger. "Lisa?" He asked expectantly.

       "Not bad." Ron's raven-haired girlfriend shrugged in her shiny black bikini as she slipped on sunglasses big as plate glass windows. As she flipped her long black hair over her shoulder, the sunglasses' color shifted constantly, like looking through a kaleidoscope underwater. Parsons winked in her direction.

       "A tumbleturn 720 into an Harvest Orbital! It was freaking extreme!" Bellowed an intoxicated fan that stepped up to the local wakeboarding hero and delivered a palm-deadening high five. The rest of the boat's "crew" gave a big laugh over the popping of beers and the rhythmic slap of the craft's hull against the cold, dark water.

       Unsatisfied even with that outpouring of admiration, Ron shifted his weight in the chair and draped an arm confidently over the back. Across from the rising star a beautiful, angelic face framed by shimmering golden curls made a show of keeping an eye on the river.

       "What'd you think, lil' sis?" Ron jabbed playfully, mussing her hair with an outstretched hand. Katie Parsons smacked her big brother's arm away and exaggerated a pout that lasted a grand total of ten seconds. As she did every time Ron asked her what she thought, she flashed a big, blissful smile and looked admiringly at her role model.

       "My brother's the best wakeboarder in the galaxy," Katie said with all sincerity. "You're gonna wow 'em all, Ronnie."

       The tattooed cameraman took a glance at the images racing across his media player and shook his head in disbelief. "They're gon' be cryin' fer help once Ron gets in the water with 'em."

Black Rose Bar
Evacuated City of Boston
October 20, 2552

       "Help!" Tim McManus yelped as he and the surrounding soldiers rushed toward a fallen and unconscious Ron Parsons. Captain Jack O'Shea unnecessarily motioned for their chief medic, Harold Ibanez, to treat their wounded comrade.

       "Get in there, doc," Jack instructed in a hasty and grave voice. He tried hard not to wear an expression of resignation, but it was almost impossible after an entire day of watching people die.

       "Everyone, back up!" The Captain bellowed. "Back! Up!"

       The medic slid a short distance on his knees and inspected the young sharpshooter's condition visually at first as he pulled off his gloves with his teeth. He pressed his fingers against Ron Parsons' neck, checked for breathing, and after a split-second consultation with himself he began conscripting assistants, starting with Tim.

       Ibanez locked onto the Harvard student's eyes and spoke forcefully and clearly. "You. Medkit. Now."

       Tim shoved past soldiers to the last place he saw medical supplies. Ibanez then pointed a finger at Rachel Lynch, who was still staring, nearly hyperventilating, at Ron's body. Considering the bullet in Ron was meant for her, she was handling it well. For now.

       "Hey," the medic commanded, snapping his fingers to pull Lynch out of herself. "Hey! Look at me." The traumatized Boston College co-ed finally tore her gaze from Parsons to Ibanez as the medic pointed two fingers at her eyes and then to his own. "Right here. Good. Find me towels, anything relatively sterile that can keep his wound clean."

       Lynch nodded numbly and headed for the back of the bar. Ibanez then started to remove Ron's body armor, talking the whole way.

       "What was he shot with?"

       One of the soldiers looked up from the body of Frank Walsh, holding the gangster's stolen pistol.

       "Pistol. M6."

       Ibanez looked at the soldier with a face full of frustration and twirled his fingers around angrily as if he were calling traveling on a miniature basketball player. "M6 what?"

       "Oh! Uh, C. M6C."

       "Thank God he didn't have a D. At least the C's caliber gives us a chance. Captain, he's gonna need blood."

       Jack O'Shea shook his head, frowning. "South Station's got everything."

       Ibanez gestured purposefully at the slow ooze of red coming out of Ron, who's breathing was becoming shallow. "That's not gonna be good for us."

       Tim took a knee on the other side of his fallen friend and passed the large white medical kit to Ibanez. McManus did his best to look helpful, his green eyes flashing with desperation. "I'm universal," he offered.

       The white of Ibanez's eyes contrasted sharply with the darkening bar, his stone-colored uniform, and his tan skin. The contrast only magnified the flash of confusion in the medic's eyes. "What?" he distractedly asked Tim.

       "I'm O neg," the student explained. "I can give to all blood types."

       "It's a start," Ibanez muttered absent-mindedly, glancing up from Ron to look at an approaching O'Shea. "Yeah?" Harold asked.

       Jack O'Shea frowned at the scene and tried his best to not appear coldly pragmatic. "Is he going to make it?"

       The busy medic sighed irritably. "Considering I haven't even begun to administer care, I'd say it's bad that he's unconscious but good that his vitals aren't terrible. Looks like the armor took a lot of the bullet's energy, but a semi-armor piercing round could have torn right through the plates and be God knows where in his body. There could be internal damage I can't even see yet—"

       "Ibanez." Jack interjected sternly to cut off the medic's rant. The ex-Marine's shoulders sagged as he composed his thoughts for his Captain.

       "I can't do anything for him here."

       McManus' body went rigid. "What?" He stammered, reaching over his fallen friend to grab Harold. "But he's still breathing and—"

       "I can't do anything for him here," Ibanez shot back, pushing Tim's hand away and looking annoyed at the concerned student. "If I can find the bullet, we can stabilize him and hopefully not kill him in transit. If I can't…"

       "Then what?" Rachel and Tim asked nearly simultaneously.

       "Then it doesn't matter." Ibanez said matter-of-factly. "So get someone in the back to start drawing blood from you, kid. Girl, get ready to assist me here."

       Tim leaped to his feet and sprinted for the back door to the kitchen, nearly kicking through the swinging door and slamming it against the wall.


       The door to the modest Portland home swung shut with a metallic hiss that harkened back to a simpler time of screen doors in country homes on lazy summer evenings. The bright late morning sun shone down across an idyllic blue sky, one that was mercifully free of transports, warships, and space elevators. The whole scene was the picture of simple, carefree bliss.

       Mrs. Meredith Parsons was the exact opposite of that carefree image, however, as she stood in the doorway of her middle-class home and scrunched her face in concern. A light breeze blew strands of her short, sandy brown hair across her face, and she swiped the errant hairs away irritably. She felt a heaving sigh building up inside her, but she swallowed it with no small amount of effort.

       At the end of her driveway a civilian Warthog, painted hunter green with yellow racing stripes, was parked but still swaying with energy. The wakeboards secured to the vehicle's roof rack was more than enough proof of where her son and only daughter had gone, and it wracked her heart with grief that her youngest son Ron was now so brazenly defying her wishes.

       The son in question nimbly jumped out of the back of the 'Hog, laughing about some unheard joke inside. A tattooed boy about Ron's age stuck his head out of the passenger's window, holding a data crystal and gesturing for Meredith's youngest son's attention. As Mrs. Parsons descended the stairs from her home, she could hear the exchange clearly.

       "Oy!" The tattooed boy shouted, pointing at the data crystal. "This footage is incredible, man. I'll have a rough cut for distribution tomorrow!"

       "Cool!" Ron shouted back, and then recalled something from the back of his mind. "Oh! Hey! The music on the cut!"

       "Yeah?" The inked apparent director eagerly asked.

       The shaggy haired blonde star grabbed his sister's backpack off her shoulder to carry it for her. Ron turned back and shouted at the Warthog, "Make it a local band."

       "All right," the boy replied, giving a thumbs up to Parsons as Ron got closer to his mother.

       "I mean it!" Ron said one last time. "Local band." The 22 year old wakeboarding prodigy now reached his mother's side and kissed her on the cheek in greeting.

       "I'd say good morning," Meredith Parsons said with a measured tone, still staring at the car, "but you weren't here when I woke up."

       "I love you, mom," Ron said in a warm, slightly guilty voice, "I wanted to get out early, didn't want to wake you."

       "Go straight into the kitchen and do not leave until I say you can." Ron's mother replied, pointing at the front door. "I am so angry with you right now." She watched as her traitorous children trudged to the front door, Ron holding the door open for Katie and letting the screen door slam behind him to broadcast his displeasure. The civilian 'Hog beeped jubilantly, and Meredith fixed a hard glare in its direction, prompting it to beat a hasty retreat off her property.

       Despite the cool reception and the certain heated discussion incoming, the Parsons' kitchen was warm with natural sunlight, inviting and calm. Katie Parsons, knowing she would probably get off scot free from her mother's rage, took a left through the doorway and nearly skipped to the large wood dining table that was ringed with hand-carved chairs, slightly creaky and worn from years of meals, homework, and socializing. Ron trudged off to the right, dragging his feet toward the cooking area. The stove, oven, cutting, and serving areas were all contained in one central island, a gleaming metallic silver that winked merrily to life as Ron approached.

       Ron reached into the middle of the island where a small organic garden was growing fresh herbs and vegetables. On one end, a miniature orange tree, imported from the Harvest colony, was bearing fruit for the tenth time this season. The younger Parsons son reached absent-mindedly toward the fertile black soil and plucked a piece of tiny, succulent fruit from the tree and started peeling it, his mouth watering already from the trace scents of eggs, bacon, and toast that Ron's mother had undoubtedly thrown away in anger.

       The blonde-haired wakeboarder pushed the thought aside and sat heavily in the chair next to his little sister, offering a slice that Katie gladly snatched and popped into her mouth before Ron could change his mind.

       Ron thought about saying something to Katie so their stories would be straight, but immediately cut himself off as Meredith Parsons stalked into the kitchen and marched straight toward the refrigerator. Mrs. Parsons let the silence hang, knowing from over twenty years of parenting that the anticipation was always worse than the punishment. Well, almost always.

       Ron and Katie kept their eyes down, Ron busying himself with his orange while Katie picked at a rogue string on her hooded windbreaker. They went out of their way to not look up at the clinking and clanking of plates, afraid to meet their mother's eye and signal the beginning of their punishment.

       It surprised both of them when the frustrated sliding of plates gave way to the merry beeping of the stove and the fading scent of a robust breakfast suddenly increased and flooded their nostrils with rich, hearty aromas of home. The room brightened considerably and the kids looked up in hungrily.

       Meredith glided gracefully across the kitchen, her movements trained out of years of plate balancing and dodging running children. She effortlessly slid the plates the short distance to her children and picked at her own slightly burnt toast. After a brief moment of almost contented silence, Mrs. Parsons folded her hands in front of her and looked at a famished Ron with infinite patience.

       "Ronnie, we need to talk about the wakeboarding."

       The eating, and the artificial feeling of comfort, ceased immediately. Ron continued to look down at his plate. "Why?" He asked darkly.

       "You know why," Meredith replied calmly, indicating that she had already had this conversation in her mind at least a hundred times. Katie pushed her chair back a little, the scraping of wood on ceramic tile trying to derail a conversation that was heading toward war. "Peter."

       The single word prompted Ron to toss his fork across the plate in disgust. Katie Parsons dug her chin into her chest, obviously upset with the way the talk was going. Meredith reached an arm across the table and lightly touched her only daughter's arm. "You're excused, Katie," Mrs. Parsons said softly. The short but athletic teenager got up wordlessly and fled the scene, kissing her mother on the top of the head before she made a beeline for the door.

       Alone with her son, she faced the surly 22 year old and tried to soften her expression. The truth was Meredith hated having to deny her children the things that made them happy, and she had seen Ron out on the water. What she was asking was nearly criminal, and she knew it.

       "You know I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important," she said softly, doing everything she could to avoid raised voices. It was the last thing Katie needed.

       "It's important to me," Ron muttered, tracing his finger along grooves in the wooden table.

       "I know it is, sweetheart," Meredith tried to reach across the table and take Ron's hand, but he pulled it away angrily, "and I know you're good at it."

       "I'm not good, mom" he said, looking up at his mother with contained fury, "I'm one of the best in the worlds."

       That's what frightens me the most. "Peter's out fighting a war, Ron." Meredith's voice dropped ever so slightly, fearing the words and the certainty attached to them, "A war that already took his arm." Even Ron's icy cold demeanor changed at the mention of the cost the Parsons family had already paid. "He's still out in harm's way, just try and think of others. If we lost him and you, too—"

       Ron had enough. "He loses an arm in battle and stays out in space!" He said, banging a clenched fist against the table, "and I'm the one who's selfish?"

       "That's not what I meant," Meredith said, low.

       "Think about what I can do, mom!" Tim said, raising his voice and sweeping his hands around the room. "I'm going to get sponsored! I can pay for Pete's medical costs, maybe even pay off the house! I can make us all be together again!"

       "Damn it, Ronnie!" Meredith finally let her restraints go, eyes blazing with the fire of a parent who would give anything to keep her children safe. "You could make a billion credits and it wouldn't make up for you dying out there! You can yell at me and your father about Peter all you want, but he's already gone. Like it or not, you're what we have left."

       Just as soon as her fiery temper rose, it was instantly extinguished. Meredith's shoulders sagged in her dull blue blouse, and her glacial blue eyes dropped to the table once more. "And we couldn't live if we lost you."

       Ron rose from the table, hushed by his mother's words. He walked slowly out of the kitchen, pausing to wrap his arms around his sniffling mother in a tender embrace. "If I can't do what I love," he said sincerely, "you'll lose me anyway."

       A dark storm cloud hovered over the wakeboarding phenom's head as he entered the homely living room. He sat down on the plush, memory foam sofa just in time to catch sixteen-year-old Katie Parsons dancing down the stairs, her small manicured hand tracing light patterns on the banister as she descended. Ron could not help but notice the black duffel back under her arm.

       "Where are you going?" Ron inquired.

       Katie's laugh was bright and fleeting, though it filled the room with carefree bliss. "Going over to Trevor's."

       Ron was off the couch so fast it stunned his little sister. "No, you're not."

       The youngest Parsons immediately crossed her arms over her chest and tilted her head in annoyance as she rolled her eyes. "I'm not hooking up with—"

       Ron clutched his hands to his ears as if a fire engine was passing two feet away from him. "Okay! Great! Enough! Enough of the two words I don't need my sixteen-year-old sister to say when referencing my 22 year old friend."

       Katie's radiant blonde curls bounced around her head as she swung her duffel bag into her idol's side. "You're such a prude!"

       Ron caught the bag as it smacked into his muscular ribcage. "Again! Another word I don't need to hear from little sister!" He was about to lay into her again when he felt the odd, hard, familiar shapes inside the black duffel. Confused, Ron unzipped the bag despite Katie's attempts to pull it from his grasp. The big brother's eyes opened wide when he caught Katie's wakeboarding boots in the bag. Ron immediately shoved the bag away from him and grabbed his younger sister by the upper arm, dragging her the short distance to the front door and away from their mother's excellent eyes and ears.

       "What the hell are you doing?" Ron hissed.

       Katie zipped the bag up angrily. "I told you. I'm going to Trevor's."

       Ron grabbed the bag out of the weaker girl's grasp. "Don't talk to me like mom. Don't. If you think you're going back out on the water today of all days, you're out of your goddamn mind."

       "Why not?" Katie said, her voice barely above a whisper but filled with venom. "Mom tells you not to go and you still do it."

       "It's differe—," Parsons said a little too loudly, checking briefly to make sure Meredith had not heard them. "It's different. I'm really good. You're just learning. Kate, we talked about this. I said I'd train you when we had free time—"

       "And you'll never get out of the house with the way mom's watching you."

       Ron's mood soured further. "Mom isn't going to tell me what to do."

       Katie's data pad beeped cheerily. She glanced down at it, faster than Ron could, and stole her duffel back from her betrayed brother. Katie heaved a sigh and irritably ran a hand through her hair. "Look," she said, her voice full of concession, "I'm going over to Trevor's to edit your reel, and if we have time, if we have time, we're going to hit the river and be back before sunset. Just…go hang out at Lisa's if you don't want to be here."

       The larger Parsons sibling looked like he was about to punch through the door, but he knew it was a losing battle. His little sister was every bit as crafty as him; she was going to get out one way or another.

       Ron kicked a stray pebble down the drive with barely contained rage. "Don't even think about doing tricks," he said in a stern voice, trying not to get angrier at Katie's growing delight, "You stay on the board and don't take it over twenty, you got me?"

       Katie Parsons was already skipping down the gravel driveway toward a hunter green Warthog hidden past the front bushes that ran on either side of the entrance.

       "Promise me!" Ron shouted after her.

       "I promise!" Katie beamed back, her voice full of excitement and joy. "Tell mom I said I love her!"

       Ron stood, livid, on the front steps with his hands on his hips. He glanced over his shoulder into the house before turning back to Katie and throwing one hand into the air in exasperation. "You're totally screwing me here!"

       "I love you, too!" Katie shouted back, dancing backwards and looking happier than Ron could recall. She's sixteen, Ron, he said to himself. She makes up her own mind. Parsons trudged back into the house, but only far enough to snatch his car keys and an extra light, black and gold windbreaker off a hook by the door.

       "Love you, mom!" Ron called into the house. "Going to Lisa's!"

       Another stray piece of gravel laid on the front step just before the driveway, and Ron stooped to pick it up, examining it with bored curiosity before flinging it in a sidearm motion as far as he could down the drive.

       I'm useless at this big brother thing.


       God, I feel useless.

       Tim McManus knew that he was doing his part to save Ron. He knew he'd do more harm than good if he was assisting Ibanez, but being strapped to an improvised IV and watching his friend bleed to death on the floor a bar made him feel utterly helpless. Until his own blood entered his hurt comrade, he was not contributing whatsoever. McManus clenched his fist again and again until his fingers turned white, willing himself to bleed faster. The irony of the moment was lost on him. The hushed, urgent conversation transpiring a few feet away between Captain Jack O'Shea and Master Gunnery Sergeant Gus Reynolds was not.

       "Did you find any intel on Alper?" Jack asked, turning his back to the makeshift ER.

       Gus looked even graver than usual; hard, deep creases lined his bare forehead and his frown was prominent. "Found a data pad and a few effects." Gus answered, holding out a few trinkets in his palm but noticeably missing the mentioned data pad. "I've got McHale and some guys cracking it, but it's an ONI pad, sir. We'll be lucky to even turn it on."

       Jack leaned in closer to his second in command and Tim craned his neck as far as he dared. O'Shea's tone was barely above a whisper. McManus could not be sure he was hearing everything correctly.

       "We need to know what's going on in our town, Master Guns," Jack urged. "That Pelican getting shot down by UNSC rockets, those spooks from last week showing up today, the broken off evacuation, the Covenant occupying a city…we should be glass, Gus. None of this makes sense."

       Reynolds nodded darkly, not saying a word. "I don't trust the body being here, Jack."

       O'Shea grunted in agreement. "She made a deal with Winter Hill and they screwed her big time on it. She's ONI, she must have at least considered this scenario and formed a contingency plan."

       "If I were her," the large Master Guns theorized, nodding along in agreement, "I'd have insurance."

       "She did," Jack muttered, nodding his head back at the front door and the obliterated city beyond it, "and it got blown out of the sky with human missiles."

       "Did it?" Gus asked, shoulders hunched and hand strategically placed over his mouth. "Did anyone actually see that Pelican crash?"

       Tim imagined he could see Jack roll his eyes at the ludicrous implication. As the Captain answered, Tim felt himself drawing closer to the pair as if pulled by a hidden magnet. "Old friend, you're being paranoid. Speaking of paranoid," Jack said in a louder voice, looking over his shoulder accusingly at Tim, "do you have anything you'd like to add to this, McManus, or would you like to just pull up a stool?"

       McManus' mouth refused to close despite his brain screaming for the orifice to comply. After what seemed like half and hour, Tim managed to force out a, "No, sir."

       Satisfied the newcomer had learned his lesson, Jack turned his attention back to his second in command. As soon as O'Shea did that, however, Tim shot his good hand out and extended one finger to ask for a moment. "Wait!" the Harvard student blurted out in a bad whisper. "What if she's nano'd?"

       Now the Master Gunnery Sergeant joined the Captain in looking perturbed at McManus. Gus shook his head in disbelief, hands on his hips. "The hell are you talking about?"

       Tim spoke quickly, too quickly, trying to make a hasty point on a situation he had no business talking about. "In—in the cop thriller/drama holo films. Bad guys are always worried and checking people to see if they're nano'd…you know, the cops listening in?"

       Sensing his welcome was long worn out, McManus raced for the big finish. "No one's going to think to scan people if the world's ending, right? What if Dr. Alper was nano'd by ONI to keep track of her and what she's doing?"

       Reynolds reflexively opened his mouth to let the young upstart have it, but at that same moment his brain caught up with the boy's words and the strong possibility that Tim was right immediately shut Gus' mouth. He opened it again after a few seconds to the same result. The rookie had a point.

       "Gus?" Jack asked simply, years of friendship and hard combat conveying the commanding officer's wishes simply from his tone and context. Reynolds was already heading back toward the kitchen and the hidden cave underneath that held the corpse of Dr. Alper.

       "I'll check it out," the XO said begrudgingly, putting a hard forearm to the swinging kitchen entrance, almost knocking over a careless soldier coming in the opposite direction. Captain O'Shea resumed his vigil over the organized chaos around Ron Parsons.

       "Come on," Jack whispered urgently, "come on…"


       "Come on!" Ron pleaded in vain, groaning in disappointment as his girlfriend began putting her clothes back on.

       "Nope," Lisa Turner said vindictively, throwing her legs back onto the hardwood teak, sitting on the opposite side of the bed and turning her bare back to her boyfriend. She slowly slipped a black lace bra over her shoulders, coyly looking over her shoulder and taking her time to properly weaken Ron's defenses. The sleepy summer afternoon breeze drifted lazily through the curtains, leading in the calming scent of lilac and cotton. Try as he might, Ron knew he was powerless to leave the bedroom and would have to relent.

       "Fine," Parsons muttered, falling back onto the queen-sized mattress with a defeated huff. The muscular wakeboarder put his hands behind his head and examined the ceiling with feral intensity. "I'll tell you."

       The provocative undergarment flew back through the air and hit Ron in the face. Satisfied, Lisa came back to Ron's side, curling up next to him under the sheets and tracing French manicured nails across his chest. The blonde watersport star could feel her satisfied smile outside of his vision. "So tell," Turner purred. Ron made a show of rolling his eyes.

       "Trevor sent Togokhan the reel we did last month."

       Ron felt Lisa move her head to stare at him. "But," she whispered to herself, now confused and staring at the same spot in the ceiling that Parsons was, "why did we film today if you're already sending your reel? Did they…" The busty raven haired girl reached up and toyed with an errant strand of blonde, "Did Togokhan say no?"

       Now it was Ron's turn to wear the satisfied smile. "Quite the opposite. The first check came yesterday."

       Parsons felt the wind whoosh out of his lungs as Lisa jumped on top of him in ecstatic surprise, throwing her soft, smooth hands on his chest and slapping them on him in excitement. Ron could not complain about the view. The grin grew wider as his jubilant girlfriend kissed him congratulations.

       "Then why film this morning?" Turner asked, her face flushed with elation.

       Ron traced his fingers along Lisa's bare upper arms and kissed her wrist. "For the Seattle Open."

       Lisa Turner squealed like a preteen at her first pop concert. "You're going to be in the Open?"

       Parsons calmed her down. "Nothing's for certain. The Open's real hard to get into—"

       Lisa huffed through her nose in disagreement.

       "—Hard for a first timer who just got sponsored," Ron qualified, leaning up for a quick kiss. "Besides, Mom wanted to shoot me out a MAC gun when she saw the wakeboards this morning, never mind if she finds out I actually got sponsored and didn't tell her. I've actually got to compete if I want to keep earning checks."

       "You haven't thought this through."

       "When was the last time I thought something through?"

       All the possible roadblocks flew past Lisa and her softly shifting long black hair. Ron chose not to press the point; he saw a storm brewing in his girlfriend's eyes, and it was a storm he absolutely, positively, 100% wanted to be around for. A small smile crept in from the corner of Lisa Turner's full lips.

       "My boyfriend," she purred, "is the best pro wakeboarder in Oregon."

       "Togokhan said the United North American Protectorate," Parsons softly corrected before he was shushed with Lisa's mouth by his right earlobe. He obediently shut the hell up.

       The most sought-after vixen in the Portland High class of '46 sat straddled across the well-defined body of Ron Parsons and bit the corner of her lip seductively. If Ron had been trying at all to concentrate on anything else besides the soft squeeze of Lisa's toned legs, he would have failed incredibly.

       "The newest pro wakeboarder for Togokhan, who does tricks no one's ever thought of, going into the biggest watersports competition in the Sol System." Lisa's chocolate brown eyes were nearly aflame. Ron felt a gulp coming on. "Who also dates the hottest girl in Portland."

       "Amen," The blonde Portland native breathed expectantly, feeling the warmth of desire growing with his partner's.

       "Do you know how proud she is of you?"

       "I can think of ways she can show it."

       Tuner smiled and laughed, not a laugh that one would give to a particularly good joke, but a quiet laugh that formed at the top of the throat and prowled out through closed lips. It was a laugh that seemed out of place in the daylight, but neither of the hormonally-charged kids noticed.

       They did notice the jangling ringtone of Ron's personal datapad, indicating an incoming call.

       "And…" Ron said, twisting his torso just enough to reach the bedside table and silence the device, "…that will be quite enough of that."

       Parsons turned back to face his girlfriend expectantly, reaching behind her head and slipping his fingers through the smooth ebony fibers. As their lips met again, the data pad vibrated harshly on the table, its ringer chirping and beeping in angry protest. Both of them sighed, exasperated. Ron grabbed the phone with such energy of action that Lisa wondered for an instant if the impulsive boy would simply hurl the slim black data pad through the open window. It would not be the first time. Instead, Lisa looked at her boyfriend with concern as he spoke.

       "It's…the police," Parsons said, disbelief and confusion creeping through his voice, holding the phone from his face and looking at it like a tiny foreign animal. Ron sighed and put the phone to his ear warily. "Hello?"

       Lisa strained to hear the voice on the other side. It certainly had the deep, clipped, hard tone of a police officer, but the words were indistinguishable. Turner then focused on reading Ron's face. She was an expert at reading the 22 year old's expressions and the meaning in them. She did not like what she saw.

       "Yes, I'm Ron. What—?"

       Turner's brow furrowed as Parsons' did.

       "Is this about my brother? C'mon, just tell me—"

       Lisa suddenly felt very self-conscious being on top of Ron like this. She dismounted, an apologetic expression on her face, as Parsons finished the obvious one-way conversation.

       "No, I don't need to be picked up. I'll be there right now. I'm on my way. Yes, I'm on my way now." When Parsons thumbed the off switch, he spent a few spare second staring at the device, his shaggy yellow hair partially obscuring Lisa's view of his face. At the window, the breeze picked up and the smell of freshly cut grass mixed with the flowers; an early indication that rain was on the way.

       "What is it? What did they say?" Lisa asked, feeling left out and vulnerable. She had already mostly dressed. Ron grunted in reply.

       "I'm sorry," Ron said, his mind clearly elsewhere, "I've got to go."

       "Did they say if it was your brother?" Lisa reached out verbally, trying to find some sort of traction in the swift turnaround.

       Parsons had already hopped into jeans, the fly and waistband already automatically zipping up and forming to his body in a whisper of fabric. He grabbed his shirt off the floor and headed for the door, pausing only for a moment to kiss the top of his lover's hair. "I'll be back after."

      Lisa could not help but notice that Ron pushed through the door of her bedroom with more urgency than she had ever seen before.


       "Sir?" Gus asked urgently as he barreled through the kitchen door and into the bar again. Behind the well-built Master Guns, two young soldiers carried the limp, lifeless body of Good Samaritan imposter/ONI operative Meryl Alper. Ibanez glanced up at the commotion and held up his palms like a soccer player appealing a particularly bad call.

       "Hey!" The medic's voice rose in complaint. "What's with the bodies? I'm working here."

       Captain O'Shea silenced the petulant caregiver with a pointed finger, turning his back on the scene and facing his worried right hand man. Reynolds took that as the signal to begin. "Had a sweep scan done of the body," Gus said, sweeping his hand dismissively across the dead woman. "She's nano'd all right, but not how you think."

       One of the soldiers laid down Alper's legs and held up his data pad. He thumbed a button and a series of clicks, high pitched tones, and a warbling stacatto burst of spoken sounds came forth in tinny playback. O'Shea's head tilted to the side, confused.

       "We didn't know what to make of it, either," Gus said, pulling open a vest pocket to retrieve his pad, "until I thought to run it through my translation/encryption software."

       The sounds melted from an incomprehensible mess to a heavily filtered but manageable series of words.

       "This is a Captain Ultra distress call. In the name of the Prophets, all available Covenant forces are required for immediate reinforcement and assistance on penalty of death. Message repeats…"

       "It's linked to her vitals," Gus said with a frustrated frown. "And no, techs can't get it to stop."

       "She knew she was it," O'Shea muttered, crouching by the body and picking up one of Alper's arms by the wrist. "She knew no one was coming back for her, so she just made the best deal she could, knowing it would probably go wrong, and knew just how to fuck 'em if they crossed her." He let the limp appendage drop with a thud to the ground and resumed standing, arms crossed and chin buried in his chest. His dark eyes glared at the corpse. "That's a real dirty move."

       Reynolds nudged the body with the toe of his boot, as if he was still prodding for an off switch. "We'd do the same thing at the end of the world."

       "Didn't say it was a bad move," Jack replied, turning around and pointing at the front watch to take another look outside. "Iban—?"

       "Fifteen seconds!" The Latino medic suddenly yelled. "Can you give me fifteen fucking seconds without an interruption, extra bodies, or creepy Covenant distress calls coming from dead people? Jesus!"

       Jack and Gus shared an exasperated look. O'Shea took the allotted fifteen seconds to direct the men around him.

       "Tim, assist Ibanez. Master Guns, have a tech ask the Superintendent to keep an eye on the area." Jack's hand then slipped up to his right ear. "Delta," he asked, his voice all business, "how's that load out?"

       "This is Delta actual. Getting the last in now," the harried, disembodied voice replied, the echoing background noise of organized chaos nearly overwhelming the transmission, "Drivers need a course."

       "Super's working on it," O'Shea responded, trying to sound positive of the fact.

       "With respect," the Delta operator nearly groaned, "City's Superintendent could probably go down any second now.

       Reynolds voice was tinged with doubt. "City's fried, sir," Gus said, "we don't know if the city's Superintendent is even functional."

       The Captain's head twitched to the side. "Last time I checked," He instructed, "We don't have eyes all over the city, and the city Superintendent does. It will be up, it will tell us what's coming and where to go, and if it doesn't, you're still going to get the job done because you're my soldiers. Be ready to deploy in sixty seconds, that's one minute. No excuses."

       The Captain crossed the distance between the dead body and the badly wounded body in seconds, taking a moment to stand over the shallow breathing body before he addressed the team huddled over Ron.

       "Ibanez, kids," the Captain said, trying to sound reassuring without being downright cold, "if we hear the Covies are coming and he's not out of the woods," O'Shea pointed directly at the prone gunshot victim, "we have to leave him here. It's not up for debate."

       Harold Ibanez looked up at Tim and Rachel's faces of trepedation with complete assurance. "We can do this," he told them calmly, "but we can't drop the ball."


       The supposedly shatterproof dish cracked and chipped as it clanked on the hard tile floor of Lisa Turner's kitchen. Above it, Lisa waved a hand past the faucet and shut down the kitchen, still rooted in fear and staring out the front window and listening to the short gasping scream's echo dissipate. She had not seen the figure standing alone through the now streaming rain, but the moment she looked up to put the spent dinner plate away, the unfamiliar silhouette shifted ever so slightly, catching her attention.

       Now Lisa was running towards her large living room, where two housemates were lying in various states of repose in front of the holo tank. Turner clutched her thin sweatshirt around her neck, calling out her housemates' names as she burst into the room. She thanked God the large, wide front windows that faced the yard were in the holo watch opaque setting. When confronted with her friend's questioning, lazily stoned expressions, Lisa pointed straight outside, trembling.

       "Oh," one housemate replied, apparently miles ahead of the easily frightened girl, "you mean Ron? He's been out there a couple minutes. He was annoying us out there, so we turned on the window screen."

       "What?" Lisa asked, shocked, her arms falling to her sides. "Why didn't you say something?"

       Slow shrugs were all she received in reply. Fuming, Lisa grabbed her rain jacket and ran barefoot out into the soggy front yard. Parsons stood out by the end of the brick walk, head down, rainwater coming off his hood in miniature streams, pooling by his feet. The miserable figure was soaked in the cold evening's dark green and blue. Lisa held up a hand to shield herself from the rain, putting her hood up as she jogged out to him.

       "Jesus, Ron, you look awful! What's wrong? What's going on?"

       The shaggy-haired wakeboarder looked up from underneath the hood of his jacket, red eyes betraying any attempt at normality. Lisa stared, scared and confused, at her disturbingly silent boyfriend.

       "Ron, what's wrong?"

       The voice that responded was thick with grief and Lisa felt disturbed at the words. "If I left Portland…right now…would you come with me?"

       Lisa looked around her front yard as if she expected some people to jump out and say the whole scene was a prank. All that happened was Ron continued to look up at the black-haired beauty, tears slipping from the corners of his eyes, or rainwater, Turner could not tell.

       Lisa looked back into her house, where the blurry silhouettes of her roommates could be seen through the artificially frosted glass. She felt her attention being tugged back to Ron, who had resumed his stance of boring holes into her front stairs with his eyes. Lisa crossed the distance between her and Parons and gently put her palms on Ron's cheeks, searching his face for something, anything that could help her understand why her carefree boyfriend looked like he was a million miles away. Parsons' eyes flitted up to meet hers for a second, then immediately darted away.

       Lisa's mind and heart were racing with confusion, bordering on panic. "Ron, please. Please tell me what's wrong." Turner had to strain to hear Ron's dry whisper.

       "It's all…she's gone."

       "What are you talking about?"

       Ron's shoulders shifted to lift an incredible burden once more. A silent shudder passed through his body. "Katie…Katie's dead."

       Lisa's hand shot to her mouth as she felt a wave of disbelief and nausea sweep over her. "H—how?" She managed to croak out, immediately regretting the question as soon as she heard it. Ron's tears started anew.

       "They…they said…She just wanted to go out on the river, practice and show off for me the next time we went out. They thought she'd be fine…didn't know any better. They said she tried something out they hadn't seen before. She…" Ron sniffed loudly and he clutched the bridge of his nose to try and hold back the oncoming tears. Lisa grabbed Ron by the head and shoulders and pulled him in tight before he could keep going. His shoulders heaved with sobs and Lisa held on for dear life, soaked. After what seemed like hours, she tried to reach up to Ron's face and tilted his chin to get a look at him. Water fell from Parsons' hood and splashed against her face, making Lisa blink through the mist.

       "Ron," Lisa pleaded, "please come inside."

       Parsons only shook his head. "I can't stay," he said, now suddenly absorbed in the dark green of the pines that surrounded the modest house. "You don't understand. I knew what this would do to my family if I kept going, but I didn't think about what if Katie…" Lisa was now very afraid that Ron would just sink into the ground if she did not continue to hold on. Instead, the soaking wet wakeboard star pushed her away.

       "I didn't know how Mom felt. I know now. I know. I know, and she'll never forgive…I wouldn't want her to…I can't face them, Lisa. This is hell that I made, and every day I'm here I'll have to look at it and smell it and taste it and I just can't deal with that. I'm leaving; I'm leaving and I'm not coming back."

       Ron turned around then and stared at Lisa with pleading eyes. "You're all I got left. You're all I need. Come with me, please."

       Lisa bit her lip again, this time in pure apprehension. She turned back once more and looked at the modest house that she shared with two friends from a botched try at college. She had never seen her normally bulletproof boyfriend like this, and she was equally torn as to whether run to him and tell him he would never, ever be alone; or run screaming into the house, lock the door, and leave this soon-to-be train wreck alone. Turner came around and looked at Parsons again.

       "Ron," she started apologetically, "Can you just—?"

       Parsons glacier blue eyes pierced her heart again, showing her a man that she loved who needed her more than ever. More than once a simple look from Ron could do that to her. Ron's gaze now turned anxious but expectant. Lisa did not have the heart to break Ron's.

       "—Can you just give me ten minutes to pack?"

       The slight brightening of her boyfriend's face told her she was making the kind, if irrational, choice. Fifteen minutes later the two of them were sitting in the cold dark of Ron's Snow Leopard Fusion 850, the steady drizzle plinking off the alloy roof in what would almost be comforting, if situations were different. Finally, Lisa spoke.

       "What are we going to do for money, Ron?" She asked. Parsons wordlessly reached into the back seat and threw a duffel bag full of bills into Lisa's lap.

       "I told you I got sponsored," he said with the very briefest flash of a smile. "There's enough to take us anywhere and start over. What do you think?"

       "I, uh, have old college friends who live in Boston," Lisa offered. "We can start going in that direction and see where we end up."

       "All right," Ron said, still slightly choked up. "Boston."


       The two lovers held hands in silence through the entire drive through Oregon. Neither of them looked back as they crossed the state border. Ron did not want to. Lisa could not bear to.


       "Just listen," Ibanez said, locking eyes with a near-petrified Rachel, trying to calm her down, "Do exactly what I say, and we can save this guy."

       Lynch simply nodded, looking down at the black hole ringed by sticky red and peachy, curling flesh. She took a moment to be grateful for her empty stomach and said with a suddenly dry mouth, "Ready."

       The medic wiped sweat from his brow with his forearm and grabbed a scanner with one hand and a pair of pliers from his set of medical tools spread across Ron's stomach. He scrutinized the body scan as he traced it along the bullet's path through Parsons' body.

       "Short path," Ibanez sighed in relief, "shallow, too. Okay, girl, hold tight to those arms and don't let him get in my way." The medic then looked over at Tim, whose face seemed to be getting pale from the loss of blood. "Kid?" Ibanez asked once.

       McManus met the man's look with as much courage as he could muster and nodded. Tim could make out the bleachy smell of the biofoam between them. Ibanez nodded toward Parsons' still legs.

       "On those," Ibanez motioned toward Ron's feet. "Pretty good chance this guy's gonna wake up when I get inside 'im and wrench this sucker out."

       "Long range ping!" A startled ex-Marine at the front windows called out. "Super reads incoming hostiles."

       "From where?" O'Shea demanded, putting a hand to his ear and running toward the front windows, custom Battle Rifle slung across his chest and bouncing in the motion.

       Tim and Rachel both looked up instinctively, frozen in panic. If not for Ibanez's barking shout.


       Both of the kids snapped back like misbehaving dogs. The medic grabbed the pair roughly by the shoulders, causing a surprising amount of pain.

       "You stay right here and you help me get this bullet out," a fiery temper brewing in his growl as he put a thick leather strap in Parson's mouth. "This guy's gonna be my first save, and I'll be goddamned if you're gonna fuck it up on me."

       Tim tried as hard as he possibly could to forget that sentence had just been said. What'd he mean, "First?"

       "It's airborne," the guard stated, trying not to let his anxiety come through his official tone, "Super reads a Phantom carrying heavy mechanized. Route solution's going to take longer."

       "Secure and fortify the structure," Jack said through grit teeth. "That truck's got to get out first, so we've got to hold this building."

       Over the scattered outbursts of concern, Ibanez's breathing had slowed and he stood poised over the pale body of Ron Parsons. He held his scanner just above the wound; it gave the combat physician a clear view of the area he would be working in. Miraculously, the semi-armor piercing round had missed the lucky cook's major organs and arteries, and was still in one piece. Ibanez tried not to show his elation and he positioned his tweezers and tiny spreader.

       "Here we go," Ibanez nearly whispered, Tim and Rachel's eyes clued to him. The signal to begin was hardly any louder. "Spreader."

       Tim and Rachel both threw all their weight on Ron's limbs as the miniature spreader pushed the flesh aside and gave Harold a clear path to the bullet. However, it also caused searing, white-hot blinding pain to course through Parsons' body, and the lithe blonde's blue eyes shot open like a man waking from a nightmare.

       "I see it!" Ibanez exclaimed, plunging his tweezers in to grip the round, fresh blood pouring in anew. Ron's thrashing and muffled scream of pain caused some ex-Marines by the body to turn around in concern, but despite the bucking wounded, the medic's "staff" had it under control.

       In one swift motion, Ibanez withdrew the tweezers and gingerly wrenched out a large, wet, red and silver bullet. Its tip was mashed and slightly mangled, but no sharp edges protruded out. Before the Latino doctor could properly examine it, though, Parson's right arm broke free of Rachel's bad arm's grip and involuntarily shot toward Ibanez.

       In a blur, the medic deflected the hand and transferred all his weight to his left leg, trapping the renegade limb and freeing up Ibanez to reach for the biofoam.

       "Hold! Still!" The short but well-built physician grunted, grabbing the white and red canister and applying the squat nozzle directly to the wound. In moments, a foamy gray substance expanded out like a marshmallow in the microwave, covering, disinfecting, and spreading powerful pain killers through Ron's bloodstream. In half a minute, Ron's panicked eye's dulled and his eyelids fluttered closed.

       Concerned and afraid, Tim misread the relaxed pose of his friend Ron. "He—?" McManus stammered. "He's not…dead…?!

       Ibanez put a firm but gentle hand on Tim's arm. In the other, he held the intact bullet that, despite its best efforts, could not kill Ron Parsons. "He's gonna make it," Harold Ibanez assured him, a smile creeping across his face, "He's better than 'make it.' He's stabilized already, the armor took nearly all of it. He's fine! He can probably walk!"

       Tim and Rachel stared at each other for a minute, both of their eyes flashing with elation. For that moment, Harold would never have guessed in his life that the three kids before him were anything other than best friends. The medic grabbed a bottle of water that one of the soldiers had taken and unscrewed the cap merrily.

       "Not to ruin the buzz," Ibanez said, meaning to be serious but incapable of hiding the self-satisfaction in his voice, "but we better revive my first save before the Covies get here and turn us into the past tense."

       The medic then overturned the filtered water bottle and dumped a half liter of water on the newest sharpshooter in the team. Parsons soon started to blow the water out of his nose and groaning like a surly teenager woken from his sleep.

       Tim could not stand waiting any longer "Ron? Ron?" He called.

       Ron Parsons opened his eyes slowly, squinting in the light and wincing as he rubbed a hand over his face. His chest, ribcage, and back burned in pain. He gave a very slow thumbs-up to indicate he was all right.

       "Jesus," the disembodied voice said out of Parsons' vision, "you scared us. How do you feel?"

       "I'll live." Parsons croaked, his tongue searching for the stray drops of water that streaked down his cheeks and chin.

       Ron felt the delicate grip of Rachel's hand on his arm. Her voice was full of worry and guilt. "What the hell were you thinking?" She implored.

       Ron thought about rolling over on his side, but the weightless feeling and the lingering pain in his chest made him think twice. Ron chuckled to himself. "Seemed like a good idea at the time." His head clearing, Ron listened to the words and replayed the short conversation in his head for a moment. The exchange was strangely familiar, and Parsons felt oddly disturbed by it. Before anyone else could say anything, Parsons waved them off weakly and grunted.

       "Sorry, I'm just…having some déjà vu."

       Ron tried his new legs out slowly, bracing himself against his two friends as soldiers scurried around them. Despite his vision going slightly dark for a moment, Ron could sense the urgency and apprehension in the scene around him.

      "What'd I miss?" Parsons muttered through grit teeth, the wound stretching against the hardening biofoam and causing their comrade unknown amounts of pain.

       Tim did his best to improve his grip on Ron without jostling the victim. He and Rachel moved as quickly as they could behind the sturdy bar and placed Ron gently in a sitting position, out of sight and out of the line of fire for the moment.

      "You know, same old," Tim said, trying to act nonchalant as he stole a moment's glance over the serving space, "there's a bunch of refugees in the basement, we fell into a dead woman's booby trap when she turned out to be a spy—"

       "—I hate those," Ron muttered in mock sympathy.

       "—And now Covenant are moving to surround us before we can get out in time."

       "So we're probably going to die," Rachel finished, only slightly surprised at how normal that sounded.

       Ron tried his best to chuckle, wincing noticeably. "Well, I guess I get to go out with my two new best friends, huh?"

       Tim and Rachel both exchanged brief glances through the corners of their eyes. Then the three all laughed in the slow exhaling chuckle of the exhausted.

       "God, this is messed up." McManus shook his head, smiling quizzically.

       Ron smiled to himself in a serene way that none of the kids had seen yet. "It's actually kinda nice to have friends again."

       "Super's got a route solution!" A soldier with sophisticated looking equipment strapped across his back and chest exclaimed. "Download to Delta…complete!"

       "—elta here," the COM chirped to life immediately. "We verify route solution download. Heading out with precious cargo."

       "Sync with tech!" O'Shea jumped to life, shouting orders as the soldiers still within the building started showing signs of hope. "I want an escort 'Hog out with Delta now! Everyone else, get sync'd and stack up with your transport teams! I want smoke on hand and prepare to prison break!"

       Ron accepted a lift from his new friends and propped himself up on the bar. Tim gave the injured blonde a wary look.

       "I was shot in the chest, Timmy," Ron rolled his eyes, "not in the legs. Let's get outta here."

       "You're not going out there without armor, Ron," Jack O'Shea called over his shoulder, signaling the end of the honeymoon phase of Parsons' recovery. The Captain pointed a stern finger at the torso protection that Ibanez had shed. Parsons loped over, masking the pain, and slipped the chest plates on gingerly.

       "I'm a big boy, sir." Ron replied through a set jaw.

       "What's a prison break?" Rachel Lynch asked to Ibanez, securing a spare pistol to her thigh as she had seen the professional soldiers do.

       The medic strapped his helmet on tight and delicately slipped a holographic eyepiece into place over his right eye. "Prison break's when you're defending a low-priority structure, you're significantly outnumbered, you have means of retreat," he explained mechanically. "Defending the structure is impossible. In an urban environment, you send all your units in different directions all at once with a common rally point. It confuses the attackers and buys the most units the most time to escape."

       "Most?" Ron asked, already sensing where this was going."

       "You're significantly outnumbered," Ibanez looked back over his shoulder with an incredulous look on his face. "They're not gonna not shoot. It just knocks 'em off balance for a second or two."

       "Remaining Warthogs are secure in the alley behind the bar, sir," Another soldier's voice informed the group bunkered down in the building, "and, uh, a couple Deltas who seem to be left behind."

       "Delta," Jack requested, upset, "explain why you're not with your hauler and escort 'Hog."

       "This is Delta," a hardened voice that oozed combat replied, "Frankly, sir, you ordered us to come and assist you. We're finishing the job, sir, and we have rocket launchers to make that job easier."

       Before the commanding officer could give a proper reprimand, a giant ray of stark white light swept past the boarded up façade and back again. The searchlight threw thin streaks of white across the bloodstained hardwood floor, passing over perfectly still faces filled with composure.

       "Phantom must have slipped above the short range pings," the soldier in the high-tech equipment mused while taking cover behind a fallen wooden table. "They know we're here. We can't leave now while they're chilling overhead or we're meat."

       "Hang tight," The Captain hissed, checking the magazine of his Battle Rifle and motioning for everyone to keep their heads down. "They gotta put that mechanized heavy on the ground at some point, and when they do, we'll go the other way."

       "If it's any consolation," Tim offered, putting a hand on Ron's shoulder, "You're my new best friend, too."

       "You're a shitty best friend." Ron grumbled playfully. "You couldn't have woken me up after the shooting and killing." Parsons reached over his shoulder and gave a quick punch of thanks to Tim's arm.

       The rumbling hum of the large, unseen aircraft thoroughly intimidated the three kids cowering in the bar below. Everything in the place seemed to vibrate from the anti-gravity engines: loose chairs, ammunition casings, and Tim's teeth.

       Jack came out of his crouch by the hastily constructed barrier and pointed at his eyes. "She's committing," O'Shea said in a low, urgent voice. "All hands, gather smoke and prepare to prison break on my mark."