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The Seventh Battalion: Chapter Two
Posted By: Ajax<swordfist14@cox.net>
Date: 8 July 2004, 1:23 AM

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      The four shining craft unleashed a storm of wind on the weathered landing pad. The Martian dust spun away in tendrils of swirling red, blowing the stone-gray metal clean, and howled into the face of a tall Marine casually leaning against the back of a Troop Warthog. He winced, thankful for his Oakley's, and pulled a cap low over his forehead. He studied lettering painted in faded white over the dark green steel, and waited for Pelicans Echo 316, Bravo 929, Charlie 215, and Alpha 503 to touch down. With a deep bass roar the ships slowly lowered themselves to the ground like swollen cows about to give birth. Landing struts extended with a shrill mechanical whine, and they settled on the landing pad. Air hissed as the backs of the Pelicans opened, and dozens of figures leaped out.
      With a satisfied sigh the red winds gusted back into place and left a fine layer of dust on the once-gleaming paint. One Pelican's occupants ran towards him. Sunlight glinted off matte black assault rifles and shotguns and shone on silver handguns and polished steel. He straightened and uncrossed his arms, licking the inside of his suddenly dry mouth. The ten Marines wore dark black ninja suits and carried enough firepower to supply a small army. Emblazoned on their shoulder armor was the silver outline of a howling wolf, perched above crossed swords. Sleek black helmets and visors covered their faces. He swallowed. "You guys Charlie Team?" he yelled over the howling wind.
      "All day," one said.
      The Marine nodded. "She's your ride then. Get on and we'll get the hell out of this."
      He turned around, grabbed a cross-beam and effortlessly swung himself into the driver's seat. The one who had spoken, probably the leader, rode shotgun, and the hog rocked as the rest piled in the back. With a throaty rumble the vehicle came to life. The Marine gunned it, accelerating and shifting until they were racing along the wind-slashed road in fifth gear, the Warthog purring contentedly. Three other Warthogs roared along behind him.
      The black-suited leader turned to the Marine. "Thanks for the ride. What's your name?" he yelled over the wind.
      "Corporal Ryan Bauer, sir."
      "Lieutenant Commander Michael Delhomme. Nice to meet you." The leader paused. "Not that I'm complaining, but wouldn't it make more sense to have us land at the base?"
      Ryan laughed. "They tried that already sir. Lost two Pelicans against the cliffs. Wind's a bitch here."
      The soldier nodded. "You can say that again."
      "This? Hell, this is fuckin' apples compared to the storm we'll be getting in a few hours." Bauer nodded to the horizon, where lighting seethed in a roiling black soup of thunderclouds.
      "Jesus," Delhomme breathed.
      The lanky Corporal decided to ask. "You know what the hell's going on sir?"
      "I was hoping you'd tell me. Practically all Admiral Durant told us was to get our asses to Mars ASAP. Something big's going down."
      Bauer laughed again. "Ain't that the understatement of the century. Lieutenant, in the past few days I've seen the whole goddamn 105th jump in system, more Helljumpers than you can shake a stick at. African Reccondos, Army Rangers, Russian Stormtroopers, French Paratroopers, the SAS, Marine Recon Units, Japanese Black Dragons, and now you guys. Every Special Forces Unit you've ever heard of and their grandmas are all here."
      Delhomme could think of no reply.
      "An' on top of that, you've got some of the best ships in the fleet getting fitted out in the shipyards. Ammo, supplies, vehicles, you name it. Like they're leaving, and soon."
      The lieutenant was silent.
      Bauer shook his head and drove. The sun began to dip below the horizon. The Corporal flicked on the headlights, whose bright beams lanced like knives through the darkening dust clouds. Stone cliffs loomed out of the sky in front of them.
      At the cliff bottom, a brightly-lit garage waited. Just before they entered the base, Ryan cleared his throat. The lieutenant turned to face him, the setting sun dancing in his visor like fire.
      "Like I said, sir, I don't know what's happening. But I'm pretty good at figuring things out, and I can tell you this." The Corporal's tone became dead serious. "What happens next could turn the tide of this war."

      Delhomme hopped out of the Warthog, and said goodbye to the Corporal. He joined his men and the three other teams as they strode casually out of the garage, dodging mechanics and several dust-covered Warthogs, and into a hall crammed with Navy personnel. The warm, dusty air billowed in with them, mixing with the frigid, metallic-tasting stuff produced by the base's A/C. Like the others, he took off his helmet and breathed deeply. "You know where we're supposed to go?" he said to no one in particular.
      Jimmy "Hoot" Cavanaugh laughed softly as they dodged pilots and mechanics. "I thought you were the guy in charge here."
      "And they still didn't tell me."
      Eddie "Doc" Cash shook his head. "Inconsiderate bastards. We get a night's leave, don't we? I'd give my right leg for a cold beer right now."
      Jason "Santa Cruz" Vinateri laughed. "Don't count on it Eddie. Why should they give us a rest? You know how it works. These asswipes don't remember how to have fun."
      A short, muscular man wearing an ODST uniform made his way to them through the crowd. "You guys Delta Force?" he asked in a deep baritone.
      Michael nodded.
      The man smiled and extended his hand, and they shook. Strong grip. "Major Pearson. About time you boys showed up. Party's ready to start."
      "Mind telling us what's going on?" Angelina Biggs asked.
      "That's not my job, though I'll be going with you. This is Admiral Durant's show, and I wouldn't want to steal his thunder. At 1900 hours you'll be debriefed in the auditorium, after which you'll get a night off. 0600 hours tomorrow, we're a memory. Enjoy the break. It'll be the last one you'll have for a long time."
      "Spooky," Kate muttered.
      Major Pearson grinned and started to say something. He never got the chance. Speakers on the ceiling crackled with a loud burst of static. "Attention, all military personnel," a female AI droned. "The debriefing has been cancelled."
      "Sweet!" Santa Cruz whooped.
      "Due to the impending storm, everyone must leave now."
      "Fuck," he muttered.
      "Recent analysis of the storm's movements indicates it will reach the base in approximately 56 minutes. At that time any ship in the air will be lost, and nothing will be able to lift off for more than 72 hours. Speed is of the essence in this operation, and such a delay could mean failure. Report to your assigned hangar immediately. You will be debriefed in Slipspace."
      The speakers hissed and were silent.
      Pearson paused, and turned to them.
      "Don't say it," pleaded Cavanaugh.
      "You heard the lady. Let's go."
      First Lieutenant Jonathan "Hawk" Riemer, Echo Leader, frowned. "With respect sir, why did we even come down here in the first place?"
      Pearson scowled. "I'm not sure I like your tone, son."
      Hawk ignored him. "Seriously, though, who's running this army?"
      "Not me, so don't get your panties in a bunch."
      Staff Sergeant Andrew "Red" Denton crossed his massive arms. "What hangar are we supposed to go to, anyway?"
      Major Pearson took out a small handheld, glanced at it, then put it away. "G5."
      "How far?"
      Pearson glared at him. "About three minutes."
      Red smiled. "I'd say that leaves enough time to grab a couple, wouldn't you?"

      They crowded into the large room. Helmets and weapons were left in boxes by the door. The bar was mostly sleek black metal, with oak tables and a wall covered with bottles. Soft jazz played from a stereo in the corner. Bright lamps shone over every table, and a single window revealed the thrashing red winds outside. The burly bartender set the glass he had been polishing down and, with a bemused grin, snatched the wads of cash everyone waved at him and served a round.
      Michael grabbed a frosted mug and plopped down into a booth. Jimmy slid next to him. The lean lieutenant took off his dust-covered jacket. His black hair, which always stuck out in every direction, was covered with red dirt, and he shook his head like he was at a rock concert. He heard a giggle, and looked up to see Kate and Angelina sitting down across from them.
      "Trying out for a band, Scarecrow?" Kate asked with a grin. He laughed and shook his head. The two women shrugged off their jackets and brushed themselves off. Delhomme watched, his body thanking him for sitting down. His throat was dry, his ninja suit covered with red dust. The frosted mug felt like heaven in his palm.
      Angelina grabbed her mug. "A toast. To Andrew, for telling that hardass where to shove it."
      They whooped, clanked the glasses together, and drank. The bitter liquid surged down his throat like fire and warmed his stomach. Michael grinned. Now that was good stuff. Jimmy gurgled enthusiastically and slammed a half empty jug on the table, burping with a satisfied air and a frothy mustache. Angelina raised her eyebrows, leaned across the table, and wiped it away with her finger. She sucked on it, and smacked her lips appreciatively. "Not bad. Not too bad at all."
      Jimmy looked weak and swallowed. Delhomme bit his tongue to keep from laughing. He caught Kate's eyes and they grinned at each other.
      The cute blond continued. "And I'm German. I know beer. They must have imported this stuff straight from Earth, in chilled storage. But whatever."
      Michael looked at his friends. Corporal Angelina "Siren" Biggs was the ice-blue-eyed scout of the team. The tips of her white-blonde threaded hair caressed her bare shoulders, exposed by a white tank top. She'd kicked major ass on the Divine Eye, getting five kills with her throwing knives and two elites with her silenced battle rifle. Staff Sergeant Kate "Fox" Malenfont sat directly across from him. She'd netted six kills with her sniper rifle and two stealth kills with a combat knife. Her dark brown hair fell to her shoulders - normal military regulations hardly applied to their unit. Light blue eyes danced with intelligence. High cheek bones, pale lips, olive skin. Damn, she was gorgeous. They were both gorgeous.
      Jimmy "Hoot" Cavanaugh held one of the most coveted ranks in the military: Gunnery Sergeant, as high as you could go while remaining an enlisted man. The tall, lanky sergeant had been his best friend since he was a teenager. He was one hell of a sniper but an even better pilot. Frustrated without a Warthog or Longsword, he'd taken his anger out on nine bad guys. The surrounding walls and floor would have to be washed off with a hose.
      They talked more about the op. The room got noisier and rowdier as the alcohol started taking effect. Jimmy got up to get them another round. When he came back, they relived the op, laughing in certain parts, somber in others. The conversation lingered on the sphere for a few minutes - none of them had the least idea what it could be. Admiral Durant had been annoyingly vague in his message, and the bastard still wasn't telling what was up. Yes, they agreed, it was unfair. Those ONI spooks probably had him by the balls, Kate thought. Angelina shook her head, saying she didn't think he had balls. Delhomme laughed until his chest hurt, and took another sip of his beer.
      He almost spilled it when he felt a foot caress his leg. He coughed to cover it up and gingerly leaned back. Whichever one of the girls was doing it had taken off their shoe under the table and was now stroking his calf. Angelina was leaning over the table, talking to Jimmy alone now. It had to be Kate. He stole a glance at her. She was casually leaning back, arms crossed, watching Angelina talk to Jimmy. She glanced at him and smiled. They locked eyes. The foot moved north, now rubbing the inside of his thigh.
      Damn, he thought, and clenched his beer so tightly he thought he'd break the glass. Her eyes danced with mischief. The foot went crazy. The mug trembled.
      "Scarecrow?" Angelina said. His eyes snapped up. "You ok?"
      "Fine," he said as casually as he could. Where'd she learn how to do it like that? He wondered for a second.
      She smiled. "Me and Jimmy are gonna walk around for a while. You guys'll be ok by yourselves?"
      Fine, he thought. Just absolutely fine. "Yeah," he said.
      "Don't get into any trouble now," Angelina said with a grin.
      Kate smiled. "Right back at you, Angie."
      They left, dodging Lieutenant Will "Romeo" Riley, perched precariously on top of a table as he led his men in a loud chorus of raunchy beer songs.
      Kate leaned forward. "So what do you think all this is about, anyway?" she said innocently, with a trace of an English accent. The foot was still there.
      "I don't have the slightest clue. I keep seeing that sphere in my mind, and I just don't know." He paused. "The marine that drove us in said this place is crawling with Special Ops. Every unit you've ever heard of."
      "Crap," she said. "Bloody ODSTs."
      "You don't like them?"
      "Oh, they're great guys, overlooking the fact that they're arrogant, cocky assholes who think that because they're stupid enough to get in an HEV and plummet several thousand feet into a combat zone, their shit don't stink."
      Michael grinned. "You know, I was in the 105th for a couple years before Delta Force called me."
      "Really? Where's your tattoo?"
      "On my right arm."
      She leaned forward, and pulled up the sleeve of his T-shirt, revealing the traditional Helljumper symbol. Above was stenciled, Feet First Into Hell. Her slender fingers stayed on his bare skin longer than necessary. She traced the letters with her hand, then stroked his bicep. He flexed, his heart skipping a beat.
      "Do you remember when we were kids, Scarecrow?"
      He smiled. "How could I forget?" When they were thirteen they met in the basement of an abandoned house nearly every night after dark. The make out sessions had been violent and passionate. Kissing had been the ultimate, and they practiced it diligently.
      She grinned. "My mouth was sore for hours."
      She leaned forward, her breasts resting on the table. Her slender, beautiful face was inches away from his. His heart thumped like a drum. Locks of dark brown hair hung and brushed the table. Her mouth became a frown, and her eyes probed his like searchlights. "What happened, Michael? We were so happy. All the girls were jealous of me. Then, after your brother-"
      He jumped suddenly. "I don't wanna hear it, Kate."
      She went on. "You left, and I didn't see you for years. When I did, things were... different. Are... are you seeing anyone?"
      "No," he said firmly. "No one."
      They were both silent for a moment. He went on. "I had a girl once, though. She was great."
      She stared at him. "If she was so great, why'd you leave her?"
      Major Pearson shouted over the clamor, "All right boys, that's all the time I can give you. We have to leave, right now."
      The room slowly emptied, some soldiers complaining but most sated. Overall they held their liquor pretty well, and the group staggered more or less in the direction of Hangar G5.
      She didn't move.
      Delhomme thought of a thousand responses and rejected them all. Finally she slowly shook her head and slid out of the seat, shrugging on her jacket. He stared at the oak table for a second as she walked away. He mentally kicked himself, drained his mug, and followed.

      The silver blastdoor hissed open, and the calm of the base was drowned out by a bone-shaking rumble, as a massive DBC-19 transport ship lifted off the ground. Landing struts whined as they retracted. Its thrusters glowed ice-blue as they kicked in, and the silver craft screamed out of the hangar and into the wailing duststorm. The last rays of the sun illuminated miles of crimson sand dunes and rocks in a faint orange glow. The terraforming project had made the Martian atmosphere breathable, but the endless expanse of rocks and sand remained.
      Only four dust-covered Pelicans remained out of the dozens of ships that had, minutes ago, decorated the titanium floor. The squat major ran through the roaring winds, his silver-black hair buffeted by pounding dust, and forty D-Boys sprinted behind him, assault rifles slung over their shoulders. Delhomme and his men clambered up the ramp into the nearest bird. Their fingers danced over the complicated safety harnesses as the pilot, Lance Corporal A.J. Armstrong, ran through the pre-flight check. Straps buckled tightly shut as the pilot turned around and yelled, "'Bout time you guys showed up! If we don't get out of here in five minutes we'll get to know what a fly feels like in a hurricane!"
      He laughed as the cockpit door and the ramp slid shut with a hiss. The Pelican vibrated with a throaty roar as it floated several feet off the hangar floor. The engine thrummed hungrily, begging to be unleashed. Armstrong punched it. The bird leapt forward like a snarling beast and flew out of the hangar. Slashing winds slammed into his ship, rocking it back and forth as it left the base behind in the growing darkness.
      It was then that Armstrong saw the storm.
      "Holy Christ," he breathed.
      Less than a kilometer away was a wall of seething, blood-red storm clouds thousands of feet high. Lightning lanced and cracked within their depths as they raced forward to swallow the ship, the wall's face twisting to form something like a grinning skull.
      "Motherfucker..." he yelled, his mouth as dry as sandpaper.

      Santa Cruz clenched his harness in a vice grip. Glancing around the cabin, he saw everybody, the El-Tee included, calmly sitting back, their eyes closed. His fucking harness was too big, so his ass was being pounded into a pulp by the bouncing metal seat. Great fucking luck. Out of ten fucking seats, I pick the broken one. The Pelican gave a particularly loud lurch and the Corporal crossed himself. Looking up, he saw Lara "Dynamite" McKnight grinning at him. She shook her brilliant-orange hair.
      "'Fraid of flying, Italian stallion?"

      Armstrong aimed the Pelican straight up, trying to hold the shaking craft steady with a white-knuckled grip on the stick. His trembling thumb found the nitro switch on the top of the stick. Three words were stenciled around a glowing red button. He muttered to himself as he flicked off the plastic covering with his thumb. "You wanna play it soft, we'll play it soft. You wanna play it hard..." The white lettering glowed. It read Go-Baby-Go. "Let's play hard," he said with a grim smile, and pressed the button. High-octane fluid gushed into the engine. With a ear-splitting scream the Pelican leapt forward like it had been kicked in the ass by God. The G-force pressed him back into the seat.
      The radio crackled. "What the fuck are you doing up there?" someone yelled. Sounded Italian.
      "All right, all right, keep your pants on," he muttered. His viewscreen darkened as wisps of the storm clouds reached out, grabbing at him. It was going to be close. The Pelican shuddered all down its length, trembling furiously. "Come on, baby, hold together." To port he could just make out the other three craft, fighting the winds as they screamed upward. Then cloud completely swallowed them. The lights flickered and the Pelican shook so violently he feared it'd be torn apart. "We'll clear it! Ten more seconds!" he yelled over the COM.
      "How the fuck do ya know that?"
      "'Cause any longer and we're fucked!" he yelled back, licking his dry lips.
      "What the fuck?" the Italian yelled. "What was this guy before pilot, a fucking comedian?"
      Armstrong flicked off the COM, clenched the stick so hard his fingers turned numb, and prayed.

      Calm ruled above the topmost storm clouds. Their red expanse stretched out for miles. Lightning and thunder clashed distantly, but here was silence. Then a dull thrum rudely broke the peace. It sounded like the hum of machinery. It grew louder and louder until with a triumphant roar, four small craft leapt out of the hell below and climbed into the open sky.

      The darkness of the room faded away, replaced by a silver-blue glow. "Admiral?" a silk-smooth voice ventured.
      He stared out the viewscreen. Mars hung in space serenely below his ship, the giant celestial body resting on a bed of black velvet, studded with diamonds. A steady procession of gleaming transport craft - carrying troops, vehicles, ammo, and supplies - screamed away from its surface, rocketing towards the waiting fleet docked at the shipyards. The blanket of red clouds cloaking the surface swirled and twisted, with gathering menace.
      "Admiral?" the AI said again, this time with more force.
      Durant turned and gazed at the hologram. Its body cooled to a deep navy, the scrawling lines of code shards of electric pink. "It is time," she said.
      He nodded. "I'll address them soon, Clotho." He paused. "I don't know whether to be euphoric that we're saving the human race or depressed that we're sending our best men to their deaths."
      Clotho's eyes flickered bright green and narrowed with concern. "Sir?"
      He exhaled loudly, and suddenly felt his age. He was so tired. Tired, deep in his bones. "We're dealing with forces we cannot begin to comprehend. Like a child discovering his father's gun in the closet. This is a desperate, all or nothing gamble. If we fail, the deaths of dozens of billions of people are on our shoulders. Hell, if we fail, humanity is gone."
      He clasped his hands behind his back and slowly shook his head. "It should never have come to this. They beat us at every turn, outsmarted us in space, overpowered us on the ground. Are we really so weak as to be brought to our knees this quickly?"
      The AI was silent.
      "The fact that they've broken our will is like a knife in my gut that keeps on twisting and burrowing deeper. I've seen it in my men's eyes time and time again. Despair. We've lost hope, Clotho. And if we're going to survive, we need to reclaim it. We need a victory. A big one. One that shows that we can defeat stronger and more advanced enemies by sheer will. By the fire in our hearts."
      Durant felt a quiet resolve settling deep within him. "This mission is that victory."