The Tides of War
Posted By: Bastard<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 11 March 2001, 1:19 AM
It had been an amazingly quiet stay on Halo for Squad 427 thought Lieutenant Wolmak. It might have been suspiciously quiet, if it weren't for their orders to actively avoid any engagement, no matter what. Those had been the hardest orders to follow, as he and his four troops had watched from a distant hill as the Covenant had melted the flesh of half a dozen fellow soldiers during a chance encounter. But Headquarters had told Wolmak the reason for the caution, and he reluctantly understood.
Wolmak and his marines had set up camp for the night, under the dim glow radiating from the arch of the Halo. Lights (and unfortunately heaters) were not allowed on this mission of secrecy. At night the tents offered thermal protection, keeping heat in and not giving off an infrared signature. During the day, well... something about Halo put off enough heat to have the Covenant chasing rabbits in their free time.
One of the few pleasures of being an officer was that Wolmak got to choose his shift for watch. Being a "morning person", he woke up early the next morning, donned his equipment, and went out to relieve Rodriguez outside. To his dismay, Rodriguez had fallen asleep on watch. To be honest, Wolmak wasn't terribly bothered; a week of hard marching had worn down his squad and rest was hard to come by. Standing watch was more tradition than anything else. Were the Covenant to actually descend upon, a single sleepy guard wouldn't slow them. At all. One of the hardest parts of being an officer was keeping silent and stoic in the face of that kind of helplessness.
"On your feet, Rodriguez!" snapped Wolmak, fondly remembering his first boot camp drill sergeant.
Rodriguez jumped to attention. He had a lighter complexion than Wolmak, and his ancestry hundreds of years ago and thousands of light-years away might have been from South America, for all its current importance. What was important to Wolmak was that he was still a good 5 inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than Rodriguez, which meant that the good private would be the one carrying the heavy weaponry - or such weaponry as headquarters had graced them with on this particular foray.
"Rodriguez, get a few hours of shut-eye before we break camp."
"Sir, I was just resting my eyes... it's been a long week. I can finish watch..."
"Rodriguez, I don't think you heard me correctly. Let me rephrase: SLEEP! NOW!" He fumbled around for a second, then headed back to his tent, leaving the watch to Lieutenant Wolmak.
Dawn would be coming up soon, and in a few hours they'd break camp. But Wolmak needed his troops well-rested, as he suspected that they might reach their objective by the end of the day. Wolmak enjoyed standing guard for several reasons. The first was it reminded him that on these small special-ops missions rank may hath its privileges, however that DIDN'T exempt him from contributing his share, and the second was that it gave him time to think. Thinking was what Wolmak did best, which was good, because although he had a tightly muscled 5'10" frame, physical prowess wasn't what makes officers in these strange days; it was the ability to think and the talent of leadership.
Thinking is what Wolmak needed to do right now. As an officer, he'd learned to hide his worries not only from the men but himself as well. Several things were weighing heavily on his mind. Watching his breath condense in the cool morning air, Wolmak finally realized what was bothering him: He couldn't figure out why headquarters had chosen him for this particular mission. Wolmak was a capable officer, and, after arriving on Halo, he had been one of the few with actual battle experience (though at this point, EVERYONE had experience.) This mission didn't seem to fit Wolmak's strengths. Wolmak's performance reviews showed that he didn't march well, and he wasn't in quite the athletic shape some of his men were in. He'd worked as a battlefield engineer (among many other simultaneous battlefield jobs as most of his outposts hadn't been big on getting reinforced.) It weighed heavily on his mind.
Two hours later, the sun was shining firmly on Squad 427's patch of Halo. Rodriguez was packing up his tent while Pvts Lance and Ishama were taking down the meager perimeter defenses. Wolmak finished cleaning his m-rifle just as Corporal Svith came back with an advance scout report.
"Sir, it looks like the area ahead has not been disturbed in quite some time. Except..." Svith seemed reluctant to continue.
"Go on, Corporal."
"Well, sir, something smells different. I mean, aside from the showers we desperately need, the air ahead doesn't seem... right."
"Noted, Corporal. I'll take that into consideration. In the meantime, will you secure your gear to go and make sure that Ishama is READY TO GO in 10 minutes!" Wolmak raised his voice so that Ishama could hear. Svith turned around to see Ishama blink and resume packing, pretending that he hadn't been listening to every word that escaped the CO's mouth.
As Svith set about double-checking his gear, Wolmak leaned back against a tree and thought about the Corporal's words. Headquarters had told him that he was officially investigating "alien relics" on Halo, it had even been hinted ever so subtly that he might find something big. Something big enough that Headquarters would send a squad to investigate, and even go so far as to order the squad to stay out of combat, and out of contact. Something big enough that 5 men had to trudge over Halo without a Jeep, because any thing that might draw Covenant attention just MIGHT destroy humanity. Or at least that was the version that Wolmak had heard.
Wolmak doubted they would make it far into the forest today, as he was being cautious about Svith's warning. Only a mile into the forest and they could all sense that something about the area was different... something that set their nerves on edge.
Perhaps it was the fact that the farther they walked, the quieter the world was. The unnatural quiet was starting to spook Wolmak. Something was definitely different, and everyone could tell. He gave the hand signal for the group to come together.
"Sir, what's going on?" Ishama asked.
Corporal Svith answered as Lieutenant Wolmak watched Rodriguez and Lance silently rejoined the party. "Something strange is going on here in the forest. I mean, I'm sure you all noticed, but if you listen really hard, you'll note that there are no forest creatures around. None! Something about this place is giving them the creeps."
"It's giving me the creeps, too," said Lance. He was a pale, scrawny soldier, barely out of his teens. Wolmak felt sorry for him... he was a product of the war on Halo, a youngster forced to fight because everyone had to.
"Svith, have you seen anything like this anywhere else on Halo?" Wolmak knew that Svith was the resident expert on Halo, as much as anyone could be.
"In our extended scans we've found odd regions where local animal life seemed strangely absent, but we've never had the opportunity to check them out."
"Good to know..." Wolmak mused. "Svith, you take point, 20 meters ahead of me. Rodriguez, you're 20 to my right, Ishama to me left, and Lance... watch our backs."
"Aye, sir," was the collective response. The group broke up.
Naturally, they'd only gone 50 paces when all hell broke loose. A loud humming, then Svith gave a whoop of surprise as he vanished before Wolmak's eyes. A split second of surprise, then training kicked in, and Wolmak dropped to the ground as the rest of the Squad dove together. Weapons drawn, they crouched, alert for more enemy movements, but there was no attack.
"HELP!" came the cry, from where Svith had been.
Slowly the squad crept forward, Wolmak taking the point. Ahead, all looked normal, until they broke through some underbrush and came to a perfectly rectangular hole in the ground, about 5 feet wide. There was a staircase leading underground, and Wolmak could see Svith 45 feet down, sitting up.
"There's something down here, sir. Think you better take a look!" Svith winced as he hollered up to the rest of the squad.
"Ishama, you've got the medpack... take a look at Svith. The rest of you come with me." As they descended into the darkness, the hole behind them closed, immersing them in blackness. Everyone switched on their weapon-mounted lights, the only ones they had on the trip.
It was DARK.
By the glow of the light, Ishama bent down to examine Svith, who, aside from an ankle injury, seemed to be having trouble breathing.
"Looks like bruised ribs, Sir. You'll be okay, but you need to keep weight off the ankle until we can get back to HQ," Ishama told Svith. Meanwhile, Wolmak started to explore around them with Lance and Rodriguez.
"Rodriguez, come over here with your light. You too, Lance," ordered Wolmak. He stood peering into a doorway, beyond which the darkness consumed his meager light. The two privates joined him.
With their combined light, Wolmak noticed a toggle on the wall, and switched it. The transition from dark to glaring light was almost painful, but a harsh illumination spread across the room, which Wolmak could now see was a cylindrical chamber, etched cleanly out of dark stone. The chamber wasn't as big as it felt in the blackness. Now, however they felt a humming as computer terminals in the middle of the room warm warmed up, and another cylinder rose out of the middle of the room. In the rising tube was something sharp, something big. Something human-shaped.
It took Wolmak several seconds to identify it.
"Oh my God..." he breathed.
The tides of war were about to change.