Watch Over Me, Now
Posted By: J. D. Ford<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 12 December 2010, 8:32 pm
Halo: Watch Over Me, Now
J. D. Ford
12 December 2010
They nuked Hell, waited for it to freeze over, and dropped us dead-center in its coldest circle without a second thought. No hesitation, no moto speeches...nothing. Not one damned word of encouragement. Why? Same reason as always.
They knew we wouldn't be coming back.
Shrug, wasted effort, moving on.
I had layers upon layers wrapped beneath my body armor; a heavy cloak swirled around it. The armor's nice. Fancy. Lots of thermal widgits and whatchamacallits--I hate acronyms so I won't bother spelling them out for you. In short, the clam shell keeps you warm an' toasty.
Until the power runs out.
Needless to say, I'd found that out the hard way before. Wasn't planning on spending this drop babysitting the intestinal tract of some gutted alien pack animal, shivering my balls off. Not with the average temperature hovering somewhere between "damn chilly" and "fuck me, it's cold!" No sir. Or ma'am. Given that I'm a bit of a "hero" now, I suppose I should account for female readers. Seems only fair, and if the valkyrie war-maidens that dropped with me came back from the grave to comment, they'd surely punch me in the head for not being considerate.
Where was I? Oh yeah. It was cold. Damn cold. So cold it sank into your bones. I know that's cliché, but if you can imagine some asshole pouring ice water into your spinal column, well...that's pretty close. That is, if you add every other limb, and a few things that don't count as limbs, to the hyperbole. Is that right? Hyperbole? I flunked out of secondary. Why the hell do you think I joined the Corps? For kicks?
Getting kicked isn't fun. Especially when you're getting kicked out of a perfectly good starship in a tin can the size of a COM booth. No, smaller than a COM booth, and much less comfortable. The planet--I still can't tell you the name without it getting redacted, even though this memoir has been authorized--had a really thin atmosphere. Not much friction on entry, no pun intended. In that sense, it was one of the smoothest drops I'd ever had. Even crunchdown (you like that? I've got a million of 'em) was mild. Ice on top of snow on top of more ice. Winter wonderland, oorah.
Until the shooting started, and it started right away. Actually, it had started long before we dropped. In orbit, as our fleet punched through the alien bastards' in-system defenses. We were lucky they weren't prepared for an attack, or I wouldn't be writing this right now. In any case, as soon as my pod touched down I blew the bolts and rolled into a snow bank. At that point, my armor was still keeping me warm, so I didn't mind. Besides, it got me out of sight.
One thing I've always wondered about the Covenant: if they had used infrared optics at any point during the war, they probably would've won. Our armor doesn't really hide our thermal footprint. I could never figure that out.
We certainly made good use of it. A Grunt radiates like a motherfucker, not to mention Elites. And Hunters...they light up in infrared like wriggling blast furnaces. Weird looking, all the worms underneath the armor. Amazing how they hold together at all, much less toss warthogs aside like toys.
Sorry. I'm really distracted now, and prone to rambling. I swear it's the meds they have me on. Anti-psychosis and post-traumatic stress inhalers, mostly. They leave a bad aftertaste, but it's better than the nightmares and flashbacks.
Anyway...snow bank. I had my thermal optics cranked up to maximum. I could see pretty clearly who was shooting at me, even through a few meters of snow. Grunts and Jackals. No heavies. My BR55--that's a battle rifle, for you civvies out there--was hot-linked to my optics. That plus training means I can hit just about anything I can see. I saw three Grunts and two Jackals.
My first burst (the BR55 fires rounds, uh, bullets, in groups of three) took down two of the Grunts. I watched their blood splash away from their bodies. They seem to be at home in cold environments, and they breathe methane gas. It stinks, especially when you hit one of their rebreather tanks and it catches fire--which happened to the third Grunt I shot.
Its body pinwheeled through the air, leaking jets of flame that burned brightly in my optics. The little fucker knocked aside the first Jackal's shield, so I put a burst through its torso. Beautiful center-of-mass shot, if I do say so, m'self. The fourth Jackal caught on to me. I don't know how. Maybe blind luck, maybe muzzle flashes from my BR. In any case, he started lobbing green plasma my way. I can't describe the tunnels that stuff carves through a snow bank. At least, not when it's heading straight for your face.
I rolled. Kept rolling. Felt stupid, but hey...it kept me alive. The Jackal got off a few more shots before his head exploded. Three rounds (bullets) of 9.5 x 40mm will do that to pretty much anything with a conventional skull. Jackal bone structure tends to be more avian, which means more fragile. Not as hollow as birds, maybe, but it definitely crunches nice under your boot.
"Nice shooting, Hobo," Helane Bains, Lance Corporal, UNSCMC, called out to me on our fire team frequency. We called her "Lady," and no, I'm not going to explain how I got "Hobo." I enjoy explaining team names about as much as I enjoy spelling out acronyms, which is a level of fun just north of a colonoscopy.
I'm not going to sugarcoat it for you. Lady looked like a guy, and not even an attractive guy. She stood a little under two meters, and hailed from some bass-ackwards planet with high gravity.
For you slower types, that means she was built like a Scorpion tank and could probably bench one on a bad day. I will say this for her...despite all the muscle mass, she had the biggest tits I've ever seen. I mean, those suckers were huge. They had to custom-fit her armor. I'm serious. And broaching the subject was deadly serious in our unit. Doing so meant putting your life--or the theoretical lives of your future progeny, at the very least--on the line.
But Lady was one hell of a Helljumper. And a good friend. Saved my ass more than a few times, not including this one.
Hang on a sec.
Okay. Had to take my meds. I'm good to go now.
"Thanks, Lady," I replied, scanning for more targets to service (that means "kill, eliminate, exterminate, etc.", if you didn't know). "Nice triple-tap on that last one, by the way."
She chuckled. "That was nice, wasn't it? I think--"
"Cut the chatter," Sergeant Krall growled over the combat team freq. He hadn't ordered COM discipline before the drop, but it was pretty obvious he wanted it now. Krall was a man of few words, but those words were typically effective, informative, and clear as crystal. Even in the middle of a firefight.
I double-clicked my COM in acknowledgement and Lady did the same. There was a chance, albeit a slim one, that the Covies could track our positions by emissions. Even encrypted ones. They hadn't figured out the infrared yet, but that didn't mean they couldn't track our COMs.
An update pinged on my HUD. The techs call it a VISR, but my most memorable Drill Instructor called it a "HUD" (okay, this one time I'll explain an acronym..."heads-up-display," got it?). Hell if I'm gonna be the one to contradict the old bastard.
We moved as quickly as possible through the drifting snow. I hadn't noticed at first, but the plateau we'd dropped on was pretty windy. Not gale-force, but strong enough that the snow filled interesting contours in the ice and rock in very interesting ways. Lucky for us, the Covies had trouble hiding their heat signatures. Maybe because they didn't even bother to try.
I serviced more targets on that windy plateau than I care to remember. Okay, that's a little white lie. Forty-seven Grunts and twelve Jackals. For some reason, I can remember every single kill from that drop. None, specifically, from the others, but that drop--my last drop--is as vivid in my memory now as it was in the making.
I was carrying heavy. We all were. More ammunition than usual. We were expecting a long deployment, with little chance of resupply any time soon. If we didn't complete our primary objective within the time allotted, that chance would drop to zero.
I suppose I can tell you what our objectives were. They might rip them out before this gets published, but who knows? After all this time?
Our combat team was tasked with taking out a communications array supporting the Covenant force headquarters on the planet's surface. It was one of several arrays, and the ODSTs from our fleet were the troops sent in to neutralize all seven of them. Damn near simultaneously. For obvious reasons--ground-to-air defenses, mostly--the fleet couldn't just drop rocks on 'em from orbit. "Rocks" are kinetic strikes, by the way. Chunks of metal weighing hundreds to thousands of tons, accelerated to around [REDACTED] kilometers-per-second. In other words, pretty damn fast.
The ships dropping SOEIVs (our drop pods) had made a slashing run past the planet itself, launching us into orbit to knock out the bad guys' ground communications. Troop transports carrying the normal ground-pounders hung back, waiting for the offensive forces of the fleet to reduce Covenant opposition in near and far orbit. And, of course, waiting for us to destroy E.T.'s phone on the surface.
We neutralized opposition on the plateau within minutes. Lightning fast. Only difference was we could strike the same spot as many times as it took to obliterate it. Then Krall ordered us to the cliff edge. We're talking about a rock face five hundred meters tall (I checked it with my range finder). Lucky for us, our spider lines played out to precisely six-hundred and ninety meters. Don't ask me why it wasn't a nice, round number. I didn't build the things.
Let's see if you can picture this, shall we?
Imagine stepping off of a perfectly good ledge, over a terrifying fifteen-hundred foot drop, looking straight down into a blizzard...with nothing but a strand of nanowire as thick as a couple of your pubic hairs braided together holding you in place. And not just you, but your body weight and the combined weight of armor, weapons, ammo, supplies, and any specialized gear you were equipped with for the mission. Now imagine running down that irregular rock face toward an unknown number of enemies with unknown weapons, hunkered down in unknown defensive positions.
Sounds pretty scary, right? You have Zero. Fucking. Clue.
At least we knew the Covenant had burrowed into the plateau, and were using it as one of their COM centers. The array--think of it as a sort of huge antenna--was recessed about a hundred meters into the ground and the cliff wall at the base of the plateau. The Covies were using the fifteen hundred meters of granite overhead as a sort of shield. Like what you'd have capping a first-class bunker, only they didn't have to make the thing. And with cold-adapted Grunts to do the tunneling work, well. Let's just say that it's a Very Good Thing the alien fucktard who came up with the idea wasn't running their war effort. We'd have been screwed from the very beginning.
Then again, we thought we were screwed from the very beginning, back then.
So I ran down a cliff. Until the cliff ended, and I was hanging in open air, right above that big damn antenna I mentioned before. I could see all the little alien bastards running around a few hundred feet below me, and the light levels were actually pretty good, so I switched back to normal optics. We landed on the array. It was that big around. I could've danced a waltz with Lady across its surface without slipping over the edge. Not that I would have. I don't dance.
The Covenant still hadn't noticed we were there. I have no idea why. The sentries on the "roof" should have been screaming bloody murder as we scraped them from existence. For whatever reason, and I don't care to question good luck when it leans my way, the targets around the array itself were totally oblivious to our presence.
That is, of course, until an Elite in shiny armor spotted us. He was standing next to two Engineers...basically, living bags of lighter-than-air gas that look like a cross between a penis-headed snake, a hot air balloon, and a Portuguese Man o' War. Only with trippy bioluminescence.
Hey. I flunked secondary. That doesn't make me incapable of knowing and using long words. And no, I didn't have to look that one up.
A few Jackal snipers were set up on platforms around the Elite and its Engineers. They caught on pretty quick, since the tall alien commander was roaring at the top of its lungs. I guess they have lungs. In any case, those snipers shot Lance Corporal Travis Hardy ("Shaker") in the head. Some of his brains splashed on me, though I didn't know it at the time.
Well, that pissed me off, and they were only three hundred meters or so away, so I shot the Engineer on the left right in its most prominent gas bladder. Usually, they're armored, or shielded, or something. I guess part of my brain--the tiny little part not running on training and instinct--perceived that this wasn't the case here.
The Engineering careened into the Elite, which staggered as it fired up at us, and exploded. Quite spectacularly, if you ask me. The Elite didn't die. Not from the explosion. I think it was the fall from the platform to the base of the chamber that did it. That, plus all the rounds I poured into his chest cavity. I'm a pretty good shot, but that range was pushing it for the 2x scope on my BR.
The second Engineer exploded a second or two later, scattering the Jackal snipers on the right-hand platform. The two on the left were still blasting away at us, and another friend--"Doc," and yes, he was our medic--went down. I don't like to talk about the hole he had blasted through his gut. It took him a long time to die, and we lost more Marines than we should have because he wasn't around to patch them up.
I took a few rounds, mostly flesh wounds, as the rest of the Covenant in that huge chamber realized they had visitors. We slid off that antenna pretty quick, taking what cover we could in the gantry below. Despite my shielded and polarized visor, that light show was pretty dazzling. The vids don't do it justice. Plasma fire is hard on the eyes, up close.
We slapped charges on the gantry and visible power leads...enough C-12 to crack a battlecruiser. Krall, most of his left arm just gone below the elbow, called for extraction. They said it was too hot.
We were ordered to hold position until a Pelican could punch through the defenses, which other teams were still taking down. Well, that just seemed counter-intuitive to me, seeing as how these COM arrays were so important and all. I suggested we "di di mao," which means "get the fuck out of here" in some old Earth language...I don't know which one. Krall agreed. He'd lost a lot of blood at that point, and elected to stay behind to cover our retreat. Luckily, there weren't too many Covies out in the snow-covered plain around the installation. If we had enough covering fire, we might make it.
There was a sea of boulders out there. Ravines. Jagged canyons. A perfect place to play hide-and-seek with the aliens ("seek" meaning "kill", in this instance).
I tried to stay behind with Krall. It wasn't bravery, just a sense of obligation, and I was running on a combat high at that point...plus all the meds that my armor was pumping into me to keep my injuries manageable. We lost two more Marines--"Buff" and "Largo"-- while I argued with Krall. It ended up being a short argument, and he tasked me with getting the survivors (myself, Lady, and three others) out alive.
I have to take a moment to name those other three Helljumpers. Wouldn't be right not to. Corporal "Rooster" McLaren was the cockiest son-of-a-bitch I've ever known (and that's how he got his team name, incidentally), and we never really got along. "Sweet" was...well, I think you can surmise his sexual orientation from his team name. Really dependable guy, and no, my gate doesn't swing that way. "Vinny"--LPCL Vinessa Okuda--was a bad girl in every sense of the term. And yes, my gate did swing that way. Several times, in fact.
I miss her dearly.
As for Buff and Largo, who died before we retreated out of the chamber...I didn't know Buff as well as the others. He kept to himself, and contrary to your most likely mental image, he was as skinny as a rail. Largo was from Florida, on Earth. His given name was Louis Alvarez, and he was a card shark, and the only known person to have successfully wooed Lady in our entire unit. On shore leave, of course. He never talked about it, and it never messed with our team dynamic, so Krall let it slide.
How did we escape, you ask? It was pretty straightforward, actually. Krall lobbed all of his grenades, timing them for maximum effect. The rest of us made use of that extra spider line I told you about and dropped to the chamber floor. We dropped right on top of a squad of Jackals. The edge of one of their shields burned straight through my back armor. How it missed my kidney I'll never know. It was close range, and my BR55 ran dry on the way down, so I switched to my M6D. I know it's a cannon, and you can't carry much ammo, but I trained on it my whole professional life. I say stick with what you know.
Sweet died there, on the chamber floor. There was an Elite with that squad of Jackals, and the big bastard pretty much cut Sweet in half with its plasma sword. Vinny and Lady mopped up the other Jackals, and I hammered at the Elite's shields at close range with my sidearm. I was sure it was going to run dry when the fucker charged me, roaring so loud I thought I'd never hear Mozart again. The last round punched through its shields and took it in the throat. The alien managed to take a swipe at me, and I lost a few fingers off my left hand. Rooster put him down.
Please understand that all this was going on while we were moving. Running. Frankly, it's mostly a blur after that. I don't remember how we got into the boulder field. The next thing I can recall is the series of explosions that killed Krall. Plasma grenades. A shitload of them. I think the Grunts must have kamikaze-charged his position.
I responded with the C-12. The explosion collapsed the roof of the chamber and sent part of the array hurtling out over our heads. I could feel the heat of it even through my armor.
We four who remained ghosted through that field of stone. The rocks stretched up like monoliths, and the wind howled in the gaps like a horde of demons cackling at us. The snow didn't fly, at least, and we switched to night optics. It was a lot darker in there. I could hear Grunts hooting in the distance. The sound echoed in that maze, and it scared me half to death. They were a lot more spry in the cold than elsewhere, it seemed. Almost enthusiastic.
"Where to?" Lady asked me, panting. There were a number of choices, none of them good. The boulder field was a real labyrinth, and the same thing that was protecting us was also confusing as hell. We didn't know where the enemy was, other than "mostly behind us."
I shook my head, saving my breath, and led the charge down another path between the towering rocks. A Grunt popped out of the shadows to my left, and I serviced the target with my sidearm. The little fucker got off a few needler rounds, and they stuck in Lady's armor. The micro-shrapnel stung us all when the shards exploded. The blast knocked her down, but somehow didn't penetrate the armor. I think it broke ribs, though, because she had trouble breathing after that.
We were ambushed on both sides by shielded Jackals a few minutes later. Hell, it could have been hours later, for all the attention I was paying to our mission timeline. Vinny turned to the side to return fire and floundered in a hidden snow bank, up to her chest in the freezing white powder. Rooster lunged toward her, trying to drag her out. The Covenant chopped them up into a steaming pile of meat.
I grabbed Lady and dove into the snow. It swallowed us, and the Jackals fired at each other over our heads. I managed to turn on my back in the drift and lob a frag grenade high, covering Lady with my body. The grenade went off, and the concussion knocked me out. I woke up a few minutes later. Lady was dragging me through the snow, cracked ribs and all. I told you she was strong.
We made it as far as a small clearing near the middle of the boulder field. It reminded me of pictures of Stonehenge, back on Earth. I could have sworn there were ancient symbols scratched into the rock, but didn't really have time to inspect them. Lady and I went back-to-back there, crouched between two halves of a broken ledge of stone in the middle of the circle.
Hoots and reptilian squawks greeted us from all sides as the Covenant closed in. I was bleeding badly. Shrapnel from the frag grenade had pretty much flayed by back, though the armor protected my neck and head from serious harm. Lady was wheezing, and her cough sounded wet. Punctured lungs, I found out later.
I ran out of ammunition for my M6D. She passed me her backup, an M7 submachine gun. Lady was always more frugal with her ammunition, more disciplined with her fire, than I was. Then again, she was bigger than me, and could carry more. In any case, she was still rocking out with her BR55.
Something crackled over my COM. At first I didn't hear it over the snarl of the M7 as I put it to good use, servicing Grunts and Jackals alike. The range was close, and I was a decent shot with the sub-gun. In bursts it's a very effective weapon.
I felt Lady jerk behind me, and her backplate slid against mine as she slumped, still firing. I cut an unshielded Jackal in half, reloaded, and turned to check on her. An overcharged plasma round had punched through her chest armor, just below the curves of her impressive bust. It was still burning, still eating away at her insides.
Plasma bolts lancing over our heads reflected in her visor as it shifted from opaque to transparent. The COM crackled again, and I heard it this time. So did she, and she managed a faint grin, blood pouring out of her lips. I would have kissed her then, if I could have. She'd have hated me for it, probably. But then, I think we're all prepared to let things slide at the end. I know I was.
Her eyes rolled up into her head. That was about the same time a Covenant carbine round ripped through me. I didn't know exactly where I'd been hit at the time. Somewhere in my torso. Green bolts from plasma pistols slammed me over on my back, smoldering and pitting my armor.
I heard more than felt the jet wash of the Pelican that descended on us. They practically dropped the blood tray ramp right on my face. Dragged us inside, tail gunner blasting away with his MG.
I was slipping in and out of consciousness at that point. I was crying. Not too gung-ho to admit it, either. I'd lost everyone I really cared about that night. Everyone who truly gave a damn about me.
I suppose it's hard to put something like that into words, because I sure as hell can't. Not then, not now...forty years later. I'd like to think what we did on that frozen ball of rock meant something in the Great War. Maybe it did, and maybe it didn't. The brass certainly thought so, judging by all the medals they pinned on my chest afterward. I don't know where they are, now. Probably packed away in some box, somewhere. Don't really care.
Even with all the meds they still have me on, I can see their faces. Each one, as clearly as if they were standing hale and whole before me. Those faces smile wolfishly at me, and I grin back. What we shared transcends brotherhood (and no, I didn't have to look that one up, either). And though I survived, and suffered no small amount of guilt for it, I know they hold no grudge.
I am their memory, and they are the fragment of my soul I left behind on a cold, forgotten world. I go on living, lingering, waiting for the day I must join them. Not with fear, or dread, for I have stared into the face of death, and I know I am not alone.
Because they watch over me, now.