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The Day Before Tomorrow: Part 8
Posted By: Azrael<sherwood.tondorf@gmail.com>
Date: 28 August 2009, 7:57 am

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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."