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Dustoff - From Tulane
Posted By: CaptainRaspberry<jptaber@gmail.com>
Date: 14 November 2009, 1:38 am

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Tulane was finished. Or, rather, everyone was finished with Tulane.

The UNSC was tired of the wasted resources, the money poured into a black hole, and probably somewhere in the back of the Admiralty's mind they were tired of the death. They stopped sending replacements, then they stopped sending supplies, and finally they stopped sending ships. Everything at Tulane was what they could commit, and even then it was subject to repossession and repurposing.

The Covenant was sick of it, too. In the last few months, there were less enemy patrols to deal with, and the few that remained were reduced in strength. When before we had to worry about a full clutch of Grunts, a handful of Jackals, and two Elites, now we considered it a busy day if we saw three Grunts and a Jackal trying to kill each other in the woods. LIDAR stations reported fewer of their dropships coming down and more going up. We were even once ordered to attack a small outpost five klicks from firebase Bravo Orca Six Sierra (the Boss), and when we got there, nobody was home.

We could feel it in our bones. Every day became more mundane, more routine. We loved it. Even drills petered out. The sergeants were tired of yelling, the enlisted were tired of listening, and the officers were tired of doing whatever it was that they did.

So, on December 14, 2551, ONI put out a general alert: the Covenant ships were pushing inward and trying to achieve tell-tale geosynchronous orbits. They were about to glass us.

It was time to leave Tulane.

The base was still in mourning, for a variety of reasons. First off, despite our best attempts, we couldn't destroy the remaining Mongooses. We hated them. They were deathtraps that the Colonel had mandated be used frequently "and to great effect," whatever he meant by that.

Relatedly, Dave Damian Clarke was dead. He had been killed by a hail of needles, blown to shreds on the back of a Mongoose. We didn't miss him that much. But Bettie Gibbs had been the driver, and though only wounded by the explosion, she had been medivaced out and we missed her a lot. She knew how to tell a good joke and was one of the only good drivers we had.

So we were sitting around, reminiscing, when Lieutenant Olivia Calhoun walked in with a mindful grimace on her face. A quiet took over. One look in her face, and we knew.

"Pack it up, boys."

Looking back on it now, it's surreal how we proceeded. For almost three years the Boss had been our home, where we laughed and cried, bled and died. We had seen nuclear explosions and heard of chemical warfare from this base, and now we tore it apart. Whatever was deemed necessary and/or too expensive to leave behind was taken and piled together; an hour later, an Elephant rolled up to the base to collect the larger things.

I had never seen one of these in person, only in a training video titled, "Things Not To Shoot At." This had been high on the list. It was large enough to house several Mongooses, which it fortunately would not be doing today: we filled it with racks from the armory, explosives, secured filing cabinets. Crates of extra gear that the UNSC didn't want to lose. A few people snuck personal items in, hoping they'd get the chance once we were off-world to find them again.

Personally, I didn't have much to my name. Just my Spanker launcher and a couple of books that I stuffed into the spare ammo pouches on my vest. I rarely used my M7 anyway, and sometimes kept extra rations or candy in them.

As I helped load surplus rockets into the Elephant, I heard yelling. Nobody else seemed to focus on it. On the other side of the Elephant I saw the Lieutenant and Captain Kendrick Graves arguing intensely about something. Graves seemed angry, maybe even hurt, but Calhoun was the one doing the shouting. He crossed his arms and looked sternly at her, said something so low his lips barely moved. She was shocked into silence. I watched in horror as her hand dropped to her sidearm, hesitated, and finally snapped up in a gloomy salute.

Then the Captain turned towards me. I yelped and pulled back, wondering if he had seen me. Hendrix was nearby. "Hey Holiday," he called, "what's up?"

I went over to talk to him, but the Captain stormed into the middle of the swarming Marines and bellowed for attention. Everyone dropped what they were doing and saluted.

He returned it, belatedly. "At ease," he said. "Before we get off-world, I'd like to take care of one thing." Calhoun came up softly behind him, but still his eyes glanced so-briefly at her. "At the moment, the plan is load the Elephant and send it off to a supply-evac point in the Bravo Papa sector, and the Pelicans will meet us here.

"However, ONI currently has no evacuation plan for Thomaston."

Shocked silence. People say that there's concerned or angry muttering at this point, when there's a frightening revelation like that, maybe even some outraged cries. But not in the military. Discipline, combined with the weariness of three years' combat, makes you quiet. We were horrified -- I kept thinking of Laura, the waitress with whom I had rendezvoused once and never spoken to again -- but we knew: either we were going to hear the worst order ever to be followed, or the worst order ever to be given.

Graves gestured his XO forward. "I am going to countermand that order temporarily. Intelligence Liaison Calhoun will brief you on your new mission."

Now there were surprised gasps. All this time, the Lieutenant had been a spook, one of ONI's lapdogs. I remember some angry faces, others just interested. My reaction was more neutral than anything; unlike most veterans, I hadn't been in a situation before when ONI tried to screw someone over "for the greater good."

She cleared her throat. "Thomaston may be small, but it's still home to five thousand people, and they're two kilometers away. First and second squads will ride out in our 'Hogs and commence the evacuation." Hesitation. "My superiors have estimated roughly three hours until the Covenant achieve the orbits they need to start glassing. The Navy has said they will keep up defenses for as long as they can, but HIGHCOM isn't willing to lose more resources than it absolutely has to.

"First squad, you will be in charge of keeping the route back to base clear. Intelligence has shown that, in situations such as this, the Covenant will assign special units to remain on the planet and harry our attempts at getting the hell off-world. Stay alert.

"Third squad, you will remain behind. I'll put in a call to ONI, see about getting more birds. We'll cut it close to the wire, but the entire operation should only last about two and a half hours.

"Move out."

Getting to Thomaston was easy enough. We had three chain-gun 'Hogs, a Gauss 'Hog, and a troop 'Hog. It was a short trip there, but would be longer on the way back.

Our problems began in trying to convince everyone to evacuate. Sergeant Charlie Ford, of second squad, used the town's PA system to announce the order while everyone else was sent around to bang on doors and urge people to get their asses in gear. I paired up with Valenzuela, and together we were spit on more times than I can count. A great many people weren't willing to leave; they hadn't evacuated when the Covenant first showed up and everything turned out okay, they said, so why should they do it this time?

Words weren't enough. We radioed for orders, and got them back fast from the Captain: if they won't leave, make them.

It was the worst part of the Tulane campaign, for me. I had been burned by plasma, seen friends die in explosions of gore, or worse, just slowly bleed to death on the ground -- no help in sight. I had blasted aliens to pieces with a rocket launcher and been showered with giblets I didn't know existed.

But when the Captain ordered me to take my M7 and point it at a person's head -- a fellow human -- if they didn't want to leave their home, and I followed it, I hated myself. I didn't know, and still don't, how we ever fought each other in the old wars.

The threat of violence was enough to motivate most people. Once or twice I heard the roar of a shotgun or the shattering of glass, shouting, but that was all: just threats.

But there were stories afterwards. In second squad, with the loss of Bettie Gibbs and Dave Damian Clarke, Fireteam Two-Bravo had been cut in half: there was only Corporal Darnell Farmer, a rocketeer like me, and PFC Saul Wells. They had to go it alone to tell people to evacuate, and Wells had been sent to a bad neighborhood. When he showed up, the story goes, the entire neighborhood turned out and told him to leave. They screamed slurs at him. But he was under orders. He called for help, but nobody could lend a hand.

So he made an example. Taking his M7, he selected a family at random and gunned them down.

Maybe they could have mobbed him, and some were probably thinking it. But Wells carried all the extra ammo for Fireteam Two-Bravo. He had a quick trigger and fast reloading time. And on top of all that, two adult bodies and three dead children were good motivators.

It's a tough story to believe. I might not have, if I hadn't been in the same unit, and if not for two minor details: the first was that I had picked up the request for assistance, and had returned negative on it. He was just too far away, and Valenzuela and I were otherwise occupied pounding on doors and pulling people into the street.

The second was that, a few days later, Wells died in an "airlock malfunction." According to the report, he had been suiting up for an EVA drill and the doors had opened on their own, before he was ready. It was called a tragedy. The report didn't say how there were no scheduled drills, let alone walking ones, and that particular airlock -- a service airlock -- had been identified as unsafe for untrained personnel: it's mechanism was independent from the computer network of the cruiser, and though the bridge would get a report of it opening, it neither required confirmation nor allowed override.

But it must have been a training exercise. Why would a lone Marine have been in that airlock, naked, staring out into the cold oblivion?

A tragedy.

Adam Valenzuela and I pounded on what we hoped would be our last door. It looked familiar to me, but I stayed quiet. My gut feelings had nothing to do with the job at hand.

A little boy answered the door. "Are your parents home, son?" asked Valenzuela.

He shook his head.

"Are you alone here?"

Another shake.

"Who are you with?"

He opened the door wider and let us in. In the cramped living room we found an older woman in a wheelchair, fast asleep. Adam and I exchanged a glance, before I stepped forward and shook her awake. Her eyes, swollen and yellowed, looked up at me without comprehension.

"Marcus, is that you?"

I looked back at Valenzuela, who just shrugged. "No ma'am," I said, "I'm Private Holiday. We're here to evacuate you."

She tried to wheel herself forward, but it was apparent her arms were too weak. "Marcus, what did I tell you about wearing that damn thing in the house? I don't like to see it!"

"Ma'am, please, you have to--"

"Grandma!" I turned at the voice, and saw a woman standing in the doorway. It took me a moment to recognize Laura, the waitress. She stormed in, apparently taking no notice of me, and went straight to the old woman, kneeling down in front of her. "Come on, Grandma, we have to leave. The military's here to evacuate us."

Her grandmother smiled. "It's so good to see you, dear. Tell your brother to take off his uniform, I don't like seeing him in it. Reminds me too much of your father."

Laura looked up at me; I couldn't tell if she recognized me or not, but she didn't keep eye contact. "That's not Marcus, Grandma. We have to go." She stood, got behind the old woman, and pushed the chair forward. "Paul, let's go." The boy nodded, and the three of them went out the door with Valenzuela and me close behind.

Laura turned to Adam. "Where's the evacuation?"

"In the town square, ma'am. Your grandmother can ride in one of our Warthogs, we have a larger one for the old and sick."

She nodded. When we reached the square, Valenzuela and I made a path to the appropriate 'Hog. People had already started walking down the road to the base, and here and there were the Marines from second squad. Only now did I realize how impossible the task was that we had: eight Marines had to manage an evacuation of five thousand.

The troop 'Hog was already somewhat filled, so we had to abandon the old woman's wheelchair and carry her into the back. Laura was adamant that she and Paul accompany her, and we weren't about to object. I helped her up and tried to catch her gaze, but she was focused on her grandmother.

Slowly the 'Hog rolled out of town, along the road we had for three years considered the safest ride. On either side of the asphalt marched a line of civilians, punctuated occasionally by an escorting soldier. Many looked angry or upset at leaving, like it was some small inconvenience, a waste of their time that they'd soon be without. Could've been true, for some of them, but the reports I heard said almost all the civilians were successfully evacuated from Thomaston without any major events -- excluding PFC Saul Wells.

Back at the Boss, the Pelicans had started arriving. Dozens touched down, ready to take onboard the civvies. Crew chiefs roughly shoved them into place, securing them on seats and lashing them to the cargo nets above in special harnesses. Some had brought luggage; anything that could be carried on their persons was allowed, but if it required its own standing room, it was tossed to the ground. More room for beating hearts, I heard one of the crew chiefs say.

A few Pelicans had been specially outfitted for transporting the old and infirm, which is where we took Laura, her grandmother, and the little boy. We had to drop a special ramp for the old lady's wheelchair -- despite Valenzuela's suggestion of trying to hook it up to the tail-underside magnetic carriage. Once she was in, we fastened her to the floor using the ordinance clamps and made sure she was secure in the chair. A few other elderly or wounded trickled in, but there was enough room that the little boy and Laura could sit. For lack of a better option, I chose to hook myself into the door-gun harness, not far from them.

Dustoff happened not long after. We kept the hatch open briefly, but closed it when it became apparent that there were no targets of opportunity and that if I started shooting -- even for no reason -- the old people could've had a heart attack.

The last thing I remember of Tulane as the bay closed was looking at the Boss growing smaller behind us and thinking how much it looked like a grey tumor on the landscape. Was that why the Covenant was so determined to kill us? Maybe they saw our influence as so putrid and untenable in the galaxy that we had to be excised, before we spread too far and choked the rest of the universe.

Maybe they were right.

I leaned back against the bulkhead. One way or another, it was done.

A hand took mine gently. I looked down, startled, to see Laura had scooted closer. She looked up at me and smiled. "It's okay, Walter," she said. "For better or worse, it's over."

One way or another, for better or worse.

It was over.

I didn't watch the Covenant glass Tulane. I don't even know if our ship stayed in-system that long. On the way up, our Pelican was diverted to the UNSC Upon a Midnight Dreary, and as far as I knew or cared we slipped out right away. I made sure Laura and her family -- I guess it was her family -- were taken care of, then looked for a bunk and slept.

A few days later, I and the rest of November company attended PFC Saul Well's shipboard funeral. There was no body. He had jettisoned himself between Slipspace jumps, and by the time anyone went looking for him, we were a few dozen lightyears away.

Time passes strangely on military ships, partly because of no visible night/day difference aside from your watch, and mostly because you can spend months in cryo-sleep while the AI or command crew or whoever obeys the Cole Protocol. All the doctors say you don't dream in cryo-sleep, that the only times your brain is active enough for it is just before you awaken, but I swear they're wrong. I had dreams, long dreams, that seemed to last months.

I dreamed of a planet without grey cancers and people and Mongooses. Nobody was there: not me, not the UNSC, not the Covenant, not Thomaston, not Captain Kendrick Graves, not the spook Lieutenant Olivia Calhoun, not Man-Man, not Bettie Gibbs back from the hospital, not Dave Damian Clarke back from the dead. Thomas Pope did not have Laura's panties, a rocketeer didn't babble his life away in the blood tray of a Pelican dropship, Man Hong Hendrix didn't take down two Hunters on his own, an Elite had never been knocked off his Ghost by a dud rocket painted to look like a football. Israel Bowen and Warren Langley and Myles Burnett weren't blinded for three days by a nuclear detonation, nor did Rocky Sharpe kill himself and traumatize poor Tameka Chapman.

And I had never gotten on the back of a Mongoose all-terrain-vehicle.

It was glorious.

Serviceman Walter Holiday -- and November company at large -- was one of few that managed to survive the entire Tulane campaign. The casualty numbers on both UNSC and Covenant fronts, while still classified, are estimated to be extremely high, as well as the approximate cost of stretching the battle for three years. It had never been released to the public why the Covenant were so interested in prolonging the conflict, though it has been theorized that they were testing the operational strength of the UNSC forces.

PFC Holiday also served on Earth, arriving after the Battle of New Mombasa and operating in Africa, particularly at the Battle of Voi. He saw frontline combat during the Battle of Installation 00, as well as in the joint-strike operation with the Sangheili Empire to reclaim several colony worlds from Covenant occupation. He was discharged in 2557, having completed a full tour of duty, at the rank of Lance Corporal.

Holiday went on to become a journalist for the
New Dublin Journal, and kept up relations with most of his squad-mates, including Man Hong Hendrix, Adam Valenzuela, and Myles Burnett. He died in 2573 from cancer, believed to have been caused by overexposure to Fuel Rod Gun and Covenant Carbine ammunition -- a common tragedy for many soldiers from the Great War.

The body of this work was discovered in his personal computer system shortly after his death. It was unknown if he planned to write of all his experiences in the war, or if he focused on Tulane for a particular reason. The chapters preceding are only the complete anecdotes, several lying in various stages of completion on his hard drive. They, and all relevant personal writings and materials particular to the Great War, have been donated to the Lantern Foundation.