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To the Last Man Chapter 3
Posted By: John Gurule, Jr.<d3jsgurule@yahoo.com>
Date: 7 June 2005, 4:47 AM

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One Last Breath

USS Column of Light, Position Unknown

      Gutierrez ushered a groan as he approached his private quarters. Now was a particularly quiet time on the Column, something that was uncommon while evading the Covenant and something he would now take advantage of for some much needed R and R. He keyed his code into the lock and pushed the door aside. After entering he immediately went for his cot and sat on the edge.

      He rubbed his bloodshot eyes and groaned again. It had been a long day for him. He was grateful to have at least a few hours for sleep after the Covenant's relentless pursuit. He gave a dry cough, swung his feet onto the cot, and closed his eyes.

      He tried to sleep, but his restless mind prevented him from doing so. How could he only tell the half truth, especially to Cetra, his trusted AI colleague? He tried to reason with himself. The consequences would be worse if he didn't. ONI did keep that certain incident a secret for a reason.

      But then again, he didn't see himself coming back from this. After all, how long could he escape the Covenant's grasp? They would find him eventually. He couldn't run forever. Why not? he reasoned.

      The Captain rolled off of the cot and walked to his desk. After activating his computer, Gutierrez pulled his microphone to his mouth.

      "Cetra?" he whispered.

      "Hmm?" replied the AI.

      "There is a little more that I want to tell you."

Lift to Recreation D-103, Orbital Defense Station Sabre

      Johnson winced as biofoam was administered into his shoulder wound. It still shot slight pain through his burn as he got to his feet, but the stinging was manageable and it was nowhere near how the initial burn felt. "Thanks, Hapscom," he remarked.

      "No problem," the engineer replied. "You can probably put the dressing on yourself."

      The trek to the lift was slow and uneventful. Johnson took his time to search each and every hiding place the Covenant could use so that the group wouldn't walk straight into an ambush. The going was slow, but the results were satisfactory.

      They finally found the elevator by following the signs mounted on the ceiling. When they arrived, they were met with a ghastly sight. A man's body lay crumpled next to the open door, face first in a puddle of his own blood. His brains were spilled across the mopped floor and the walls nearby were smeared with crimson. Johnson had seen such carnage before at the hands of the sword-wielding Elites, so he was unaffected by the horror. He urged them on, but didn't leave without a proper salute for the brave man.

       The Lieutenant Colonel stuffed the self-adhering cloth into the wound. He would need a patch or sealant spray to make the suit airtight again, but for now it was fine. He turned his attention back to the floor indicator. The lift was nearly at its destination.

      The lift came to a halt at the top floor: Recreation D-103. According to the map uploaded to the MA5XA's computer, it was as close to the bridge as he could get. The door opened with a "ping."

      Recreation D-103 was set on a high balcony overlooking the larger Recreation F-117. It held a few luxuries- that the Marines were glad to have in their spare time: brightly lit vending machines filled with snacks and soft drinks, tables with chairs, sparsely cushioned sofas, a television, even a few monitors that the troops could challenge each other to combat games on. Some of the objects were pushed aside to make way for the olive crates that the Marines used to transport supplies. Attached to the railing was a light-machine-gun turret pointing down to the lower level.

      The door that faced opposite the lift opened. Two Marines walked in, carrying more of the crates. One of them set his down and ran over to where Johnson was standing and quickly saluted. Arnold returned the salute.

      "Sir," the Marine said, "Your commanding officer wants to see you. He told me to keep a look out for you, and if I saw you to take you to him." He waved his hand at Johnson. "Follow me. Just you, the others can wait here."

      The Marine led Johnson through the door he just came from. The loud buzz from the bridge hit like a freight train. Before he could look at the sights, however, his escort led him to a separate stairwell behind another automatic door to the left, which they clambered down. At the bottom was a door guarded by an MP in BDU fatigues.

      The Marine flashed an ID that he had pinned to his shirt. The MP waved them in through the door and offered a salute which Johnson returned. Past it was a stark hall with steel doors lining the sides. "Go ahead, sir, the one you want to go in is at the end of the hall, on the right."

      Johnson walked down the short length of the hall and turned to his right. He reached down to the outdated doorknob and twisted, opening the door. He pushed it forward. The room beyond was darkened, with only a lamp suspended above providing light. A long table extended from one end of the room to the other, while much of the opposite wall was taken up by an enormous flat screen.

      The chairs by the table were nearly all occupied by high-ranking officials, all of whom were higher than Arnold was. He immediately snapped to attention and saluted, until one of the men rose from his seat. "At ease," said a familiar voice.

      Colonel Froman strode to where he was standing and held out his hand. Johnson grabbed it and shook strongly. "It's good to see you back in one piece, Johnson." He paused for a moment, and then returned his hand to his side. "Take your seat; we only have a few minutes."

      The Marine nodded affirmatively and removed his helmet to reveal his matted black hair.
He followed the Colonel to his chair and swung it out from under the table. He sat facing the screen with his arms folded across his lap.

      "Admiral on deck!" one of the officers announced as the walnut side door slowly swung open. A solitary figure was revealed, standing with his arms crossed behind his back. He walked slowly into the light to reveal a white dress uniform and three glittering stars on his shoulders.

      "Take your seats, gentlemen," he said. Johnson found the gravelly baritone voice familiar, but he didn't recognize the man until he stepped out of the shadows. His face was wrinkled, his eyes glittering slits, warily staring at the group, and his expression was determined. Admiral Williforth Stanford had come.

      Johnson looked on in awe. Admiral Stanford was nearly a legend amongst the UNSC forces of Dragonhead. He was the man who led the first true victory against the Covenant in the outer colonies. He and the massive Sabre defense station were the only two reasons why Dragonhead was still standing.

      "I regret to inform you that we will have to make this meeting short," Stanford said in his rumbling voice. He sat in his chair located at the end of the table and folded his hands in his lap. "I've called you here for obvious reasons. The Covenant has sent an attack force for no reason we can discern. Disregarding the purpose, we have to find a way to stop it.

      "Our first priority is the orbital defense grid. We have to prevent it from either falling into Covenant hands or being destroyed. I'll leave the details to you, General."

      Brigadier General Paul Hudson, dressed in his command uniform, rose from his seat and strode to the front of the room where the large view screen was located. The screen flickered to life.

      "The defense grid, as you know, is composed of thirty eight orbiting MAC guns, several dozen Destroyers, Cruisers and Carriers, as well as the Sabre.

      "Our main objective is to protect these stations at all costs. They are the key to our defense and if they are destroyed, well..." He cleared his throat. "You might as well kiss your asses goodbye.

      "Recent intellegence reports claim that the Covenant have developed a new method of eliminating our orbital stations: bringing a bomb onboard. This method is often used to preserve their ships for engaging ours instead of taking on an orbital MAC face-to-face.

      "To counter this, we'll have to take the defense up a level." As he finished the sentence, he stepped away from the screen. A diagram of an orbital MAC station appeared and scrolled across the screen. "We'll need to protect the high-priority areas such as the main reactor, the ship bays, and the MAC gun's mechanism. To do this, we'll need to up our security in these areas, as well as defend any areas where the Covenant may try to board. That is all I have to say, I'll leave the individual strategies to the commanders. Marine commanders are dismissed."

      The lights returned to normal. The Marine Commanders rose from their chairs and started moving toward the doors. Johnson started to rise with them as the Colonel lowered him back to his seat.

      "I don't see any reason for us to make strategies ahead of time," Froman said. "I don't think that the Covenant will be that predictable. They have never been. Besides, we're not exactly the general infantry around here. We don't need to guard anything: we're going to eliminate the boarders. I say we play this one by ear."

      Johnson nodded. "I understand."

      "Perfect. Get back to your team. The clock is running out. Oh, and leave Private Harold with me. I'll need his skills with technology."

      "Yes, sir."