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Last of the Walking Dead - Part Two: Arrival
Posted By: Walker<joebob@hotmail.com>
Date: 15 August 2003, 12:51 AM

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      For the umpteenth time Batonne scanned the surrounding terrain with the zoom feature on his targeting reticule, the makeshift sniping tool he had found in his pistol held at the ready. All was quiet and calm on the hills as the soft drumming of drizzling rain tapped the rocky ground, glistening in the silver moonlight.
      It was an unusual thing, rain. It never rained within the environment domes on Earth's moon, and his enclosed hometown of New Little Rock was no exception. He had never seen rain in his life until basic training, and since he had regarded it with an unusual curiosity.
      A shrub shuddered beneath a low-limbed tree. A quick inspection through his sights revealed no threatening presence, and that the movement was most likely caused by rain spilling from a large leaf of the tree above where it had collected. His teeth chattered slightly with cold as a wind blew past, slashing through the light precipitation. It was a cold night.
      Oh, how he wished for a fire. He was tempted to light a cigarette more than once, but understood that they needed to keep a low profile, no matter how unlikely a Covenant presence would be at this hour. He looked wistfully at the pack in his front pocket and sighed. He put his eyes back on watch.
      Major de Vires wasn't one to run away, nor would FLEETCOM be likely to pull an entire battalion out of action before they had even been engaged by the enemy. Though, it was entirely possible that with the chain reaction of losses that had started with regimental headquarters at the 4th Battalion's Alpha Base and gone finally to the Walking Dead at Delta Base, the Gorgon and the surrounding fleet could have seen fit to get what they saw as the last survivors on the planet the hell out of there.
      Or they could have been destroyed.
      He shook his head. It was all to confusing to think about now when he was so tired that it was a struggle to stay awake. He closed his eyes and bit his lip. He couldn't fall asleep... he was on watch. He clamped down hard onto his lower lip until blood flowed. He had to stay awake.
      He remembered camping with his brother in the woods created by transplanted trees and soil outside New Little Rock. The smell of pine and smoke from the shimmering campfire drifting through the air, the ever-present stars glowering down on them through the transparent shell of the environment dome and his brother laughing as they told each other stories were the memories that came to his mind. Those were good times, when the Covenant seemed so far away.
      His brother had been killed in action only last year at a place Batonne had never even heard of. The ship he was being transported on was ambushed by a fleet of pirates, boarded, and captured. All the crew and Marines onboard had either died in battle or were captured and executed. A bad ending to a volunteer assignment.
      Pirates were not only hard to track down but the least of the UNSC's problems at the moment. With any luck the bastards would run into a Covenant cruiser and get blown out of the sky, saving the UNSC a lot of trouble. Batonne had no sympathy for them if they did.
      He checked his watch. A few more minutes until it would be the Corporal's watch, and then he could get some shuteye... that would be nice. He yawned, tasting the blood flow forth from his lip. Sleep would be very nice, and if tomorrow was going to be anything like today had been, he would need every last moment of it.
      He tapped the Corporal on the shoulder. The nineteen-year-old noncom woke with a start and his hand went to his gun as he snapped to alertness. "Whoa, Corporal," Batonne said softly, as if speaking to an excited animal. "It's me."
      "Let me guess," Dirk said. "My watch?"
      Dirk pulled himself to his feet and waddled over to the stalagmite Batonne had leaned against and rested the butt of his pistol on its peak. He strapped his emptied helmet to his head and activated the targeting reticule. Batonne watched the process for a few moments, then turned away and pulled the blanket around him tighter. He was about to close his eyes when he felt that something was awry. Knowing what it was, his hand snaked down to his gun, and he flicked off the safety.
      Now he could sleep.

Connors awoke but did not dare open his eyes. He did not know where he was, nor did he know what had happened to him. Had he been captured? Was he alone? Where was he? He sniffed the air lightly, taking in the musty smell of the place and thinking. What had happened? They were under attack from Covenant forces... Delta Base had been lost. They had blasted their way through the Covenant lines... and been attacked by Banshees en route to Echo Base. Something hit them... and it all went dark. He opened his eyes, and saw the light.
      He was in a cave. Everything was blurry. Light flooded the entrance, blinding him. He sat up and shielded his eyes with his hand, not liking the light. A figure detached itself from the cave wall and sneaked over to him. Connors scooted back, feeling for his gun and finding it wasn't there. Frantically, he raised a fist and prepared to fight.
      "Hey, Corporal," the figure whispered. "Connors is awake."
      Corporal? Connors lowered his fist slightly and narrowed his eyes, wondering what was going on. He blinked, shook his head clear of the grogginess and everything came into focus. Batonne was squatting before him, an M6D in his hand. Lance Corporal Kennedy lay prone at the cave entrance, his Jackhammer launcher tracking something in the sky. He held a finger up to his lips and nodded to Connors.
      "We were wondering when you were going to wake up," Batonne explained. He pointed towards the cave entrance, which seemed to open out into the sky. "Banshees outside, scanning the area before their ground forces advance. Covenant troops are coming soon, so once the Banshee hightails it back to their base camp we're gonna move out. Understand?" he asked quietly.
      Connors nodded, snaking out of under his blanket. He searched himself for a weapon and withdrew the plasma pistol Kennedy had given him from his waistband. He held the unsightly thing tightly in his hand, not liking the unnatural feel. But, he thought, it was this or nothing. And he wanted to kill as many Covenant as possible...
      "He's gone," Kennedy said. "We need to get moving."
      Connors began to inch forward to the cave's mouth, but Batonne put a hand on his shoulder. "Stop, man," he said, peering over across Kennedy, past the entrance to the cave. "The view's a little different out of there. Let us go first, and we'll get you out one step at a time."
      Connors cocked his head at him. "What do you mean?"
      "You'll see," he said, slung on his pack and waddled over to the mouth of the cave. With a rope in his hand, he swung it up like a lasso and brought it down again once it was hooked around whatever he had been aiming at. He tied it around his waist, while Kennedy held the other end of the rope. Batonne grabbed the cave wall and pushed himself up, casting a look downwards as he scrambled up out of sight.
      "Connors, come here," Dirk said. "Slow... be real slow."
      Batonne tossed the rope back down, and Dirk waited for Connors, holding both ends of the cord limply in his grasp. He spat over the edge of the cave's mouth and licked his dry lips, his face bearing the look of a man tired and weary and irritable. He shifted his Jackhammer launcher, which was slung over his back by another length of the same rope he held.
      Connors stopped beside him, took one look past him and his jaw dropped in amazement and fright. "Holy shit!" he said, his eyes wide. He took a step back, mumbled a quick prayer and crossed himself. The young Marine inched forward and peered downwards, gaping once more at the depthless mist. "How far down is it?" he asked warily.
      "As far as I can see it's about two hundred feet," Kennedy said, pulling the cord taught in his grasp and wrapping it around his hands in a crystal-clear gesture of his mounting impatience.
      Connors shook his head and sighed. "How do I get up?"
      "Watch," Kennedy said. He repeated the process Batonne had done, looping the cord around the root Batonne had hooked his foot into, bringing the rope down and tying a bowline around his waist. He handed the loose end to Connors. "Hold it tight."
      He supported his weight in between the ledge and the cave, and pulled himself stiffly up to the path they had traveled down last night. He made it a safe distance from the edge, untied himself, and tossed his end of the rope down to Connors. "Got it?" he asked.
      "Got it," Connors confirmed.
      He worked as quickly as possible with the rope, but he lacked the skill that Batonne and Kennedy possessed. It took him awhile, but in a few minutes time he had the rope secured around the root and his waist, and he pushed off the ledge. He grabbed the root with one and with the other took grip of an indent above the cave's mouth and began to pull himself up, aware that his legs were hanging over space and not liking it. He soon joined the other two Marines, and handed Batonne his rope back.
      "Let's move out," the Lance Corporal said.
      They were going to have to circle around the hillside... but with any luck Echo Base would be over the next one, and that wasn't too far away. A few hours, at most, which fit in with their timeframe estimate of a fifteen-hour journey, not including last night's stop.
      They kept low, taking cover in the underbrush and staying off the skyline. Every once in awhile they would stop, having heard the buzzing wail of a Banshee, then go on once they were assured the craft had left. Ground forces were certain to be on their way, so they traveled in long, careful strides and covered ground quickly.
      They stopped just before noon and broke out the rations. Kennedy, boots unlaced and helmet set beside him, took a swig from his canteen and munched on half of a tasteless nutrient bar, chewing slowly the tough and stringy synthetic fiber that the UNSC produced in mass proportions for its ground troops. It was disgusting the first time he had tasted it, but he had gotten used to it over time and now consumed it without thought on the subject.
      Batonne took a cigarette from his pack, removed the safety strip and placed it in his lips. He tapped the end with his tongue and it ignited, the taunting scent of the smoke drifting through the air around them. Batonne took the smoke in two fingers and exhaled in two, fine bursts from his nostrils. He passed the cigarette to Connors, who finished it off silently. Supplies might have to last awhile, so they all shared.
      Afterwards, Connors, with the other half of Kennedy's nutrient bar, ate it quickly so he wouldn't have to taste it too long. He guzzled some of his own water from his airtight canteen, giving no expression as the stale liquid cascaded down his throat. "I wouldn't mind some coffee right now," he said after he was done, screwing the cap back onto his canteen and replacing it on his belt. "This stuff must have been in here for days."
"If Echo Base is still up there, there'll be plenty of coffee and just about everything else you could want, and that means cigarettes, ammo, guns and explosives," Kennedy said, concentrating on lacing his boots back up. He sat back up, picked up his helmet and rocket launcher, and tossed the remainder of his nutrient bar into the shrubbery. "Lock and load. Fall out!"
      They moved on, scaling the next hill in a zigzag pattern to lessen the strain on their legs. It was much easier on Kennedy and Batonne's sore muscles not to have one hundred and sixty extra pounds on their backs, along with all the gear they already had to carry.
      Connors, the most rested, took point while the other two fell behind. He went carefully ahead, scouting out the terrain before them and always keeping a bit of distance between him, Batonne and Kennedy but making sure not to leave them in the dust. He flushed a few indigenous creatures from their hiding places, but once he realized they were not Covenant he paid them no heed.
      He remembered recruiting posters back on Earth. "Live the Adventure. Join the Marines." Of course, just like any cocky high school student, he grabbed the first chance to enlist and hopped on a transport to Reach without waiting to be drafted. Screw the pacifists and screw the cowards wetting their pants with the very thought of fighting the Covenant. He was going to get in the war, and nobody was going to stop him.
      Before he left for basic he stopped by his school on Monday morning and walked right in, mocking the teachers and defacing the jocks in front of their girlfriends. "Yeah, that's right, I joined up. I'm going off to fight Covenant while you ladies stay home and play with your balls," he had said, grinning at the football players while they gaped stupidly at him and the cheerleaders giggled. Security chased him off the premises then, and he drove away shouting, "See you in hell, Powell Senior High!"
      He soon lost his conceited attitude and learned to do his duty in the cool, calm and methodical manner that was exhibited by the most experienced Marines out in the field. With that came a sort of quiet demeanor. He was committed to this war with all of his being, and was convinced that it was the will of God that they should emerge victorious. He fought when it was time to fight, and when it was time to rest he relaxed, keeping an eye out for trouble.
      He was nearing the height of the slope when he paused. Only about one hundred feet to go, and if Batonne was right about the location, he would have a clear line of sight to Echo Base once he reached the top. He pushed himself forward unrelentingly, breathing heavy from the height and the climb, his pack hanging by a single strap from one shoulder like a bag at his side. His plasma pistol was in his hand. He was ready for whatever was on the other side of that hill...
      Connors parted the leaves of the plants and stepped around and over the shrubbery before him as he walked the last leg of the climb, stopping slightly below the skyline on the other side and going to a squatting position. He zoomed in on the targeting reticule hanging from his helmet and guided the sights along until he reached the flattened peak of what, compared to the magnificent hills surrounding, was a mound down below. There, built upon the wide and slowly rising mound, was the expanse of Echo Base.
      He tried to make out the details. The walls were composed of one and a half meters of Grade A titanium, with what looked like automated chaingun turrets along them. From the walls stretched an expanse of pathways and a parade ground, with the flag of the UNSC raised and fluttering in the breeze. Several gunmetal-colored structures among which were the armory, the mess hall and the JOC cluttered the inner area of the base, the latter being the tallest and sporting its own regimental flag—that of the 9th Marines. Connors was happy to see that everything seemed to be in perfect order, but there was something awry about the whole scene...
      Nothing was moving.
      He double-checked the whole scene in one large sweep, and confirmed for himself that there were no living movements within the base. So, it was as they had feared... they were indeed alone. He sighed, zoomed out and snaked stealthily back several yards in the direction he had come, waiting for the other two to arrive and see what had happened. They had been abandoned, condemned to death unknowingly by their own forces.
      Within five minutes Batonne and the Lance Corporal had hiked up the path, and stood beside the kneeling Marine as he fiddled in the dirt with a stick. He stood up and crushed the twig beneath his foot and kicked out the childish patterns in the ground. "Corporal, Echo Base is still down there but no one's home," he said. "I saw it myself."
      Kennedy nodded solemnly and peered through his sights down the valley, seeing what there was to see below. A few seconds later he gave a second nod that confirmed what Connors had just said. "He's right, there's no one down there that we can see. From what I can see there isn't any movement inside the buildings, either. But we still have to keep going. Maybe if we're lucky there'll be a few Marines down there, out of sight."
      "All right, sir," Batonne said hollowly. They all knew those chances were slim.
      "Let's keep moving," Dirk said, and they started down the hill.
      By now his entire body was stiff and sore. Basic hadn't ever been this strenuous and demanding of his body, nor had any experience he had ever had been this demanding of his mental ability to deal with the hand he was dealt. Now, the minute difference in rank between he and his comrades had placed him in a role of life-and-death leadership unlike any other he had ever had in battle or otherwise. It was his duty to lead this men back home... or die trying.
      The automated turrets tracked them carefully up to the base but didn't shoot. Their programs were specifically designed to fire only at Covenant species and equipment—or rather, the shapes of them. It was the way in that would be their problem... the base was certainly locked up, and one and a half meters of Grade A titanium wasn't going to be easy to blast through.
      Kennedy shifted the Jackhammer launcher on his back as he approached the gargantuan walls and peered up at them. The sun glinted off of the titanium shielding, making him narrow his eyes as he worked through the problem. They couldn't blast through, and he didn't know if a Lance Corporal's security clearance would gain them entrance with no one to open the door for them. Though, they would have to try.
      He walked over to a control box, and as Batonne and Connors waited behind, took one of his dog tags and inserted it into the slot below the box's screen. The screen went blank for a few moments, then two words scrolled across it: "Clearance rejected."
      Kennedy swore, and Batonne tapped him on the shoulder. "Try this," he said, handing him a slightly blackened dog tag with the other hand. He examined it closely, eyeing the burns and deciding whether they were adequate to destroy the dog tag's clearance chip. The dog tag seemed to be in good enough shape, and he turned it over. "Lieutenant Timothy M. Caldwell," he read aloud, recognizing the name of their platoon commander. "Serial number seven-two-six-four-five-three-nine."
      "I've got a few more if that one doesn't work," Batonne said. Connors faced the other way, watching their six silently through handsome gray eyes that had seen more blood than any Marine rookie could ever hope too and lost their laughing gaiety long, long ago.
      "No, the Lieutenant's should work fine," Kennedy said and shoved the dog tag into the slot, anxious to get out of the clear.
      "Clearance accepted."
      The doors split open and they rushed in, weapons held ready. A sweep of the grounds before them revealed no enemy in sight, but that meant nothing other than they would have to be doubly careful in their exploration of the base. Kennedy sent Batonne and Connors to explore the side to the right, while he took the left. Alone.
      There was a large hangar nearby him and the entrance; UNSC engineers had kept in mind vehicles badly needed wouldn't want to cross the entire base to be deployed into battle. The walls were cool and sleek, and the solidity of the floor felt good beneath his worn-out feet and aching ankles. Three warthogs were parked in a row on the left end. Two bore standard, massive 50mm chainguns, but the third boasted a rack of Argent V missiles... he recognized the symbolic mark of superiority in them. The Argent V's had been made popular by some drill sergeant on Reach, and now most high-ranking ground officers had them. The insignia of a major painted on the hood confirmed his suspicions—this was Major de Vires' personal vehicle.
      Where there should have been two Longsword fighters there was nothing. That sight discouraged him, because if the communications system didn't work or if the Gorgon and surrounding fleet had already retreated away from the planet, they could have had a chance to get out on their own and possibly slip past the Covenant fleet to safety. Now they would just have to hope that the Gorgon hadn't pulled out on them and was still up there, somewhere, playing keep-away from the Covenant.
      He proceeded to the back of the hangar, and looked over his shoulder at the descending sun. The pink sphere cast rays out from its mass like long, wiry tentacles, tickling his back with their heat. He pushed the Lieutenant's dog tag through the slot at the door and went through.
      There was a hallway about ten meters wide and several fathoms long. He proceeded down it slowly, wary of the intersection with another corridor and keeping his Jackhammer launcher at the ready. When he got to the intersection he made a sweep of both hallways and found them empty. He turned to the left and walked towards a door marked "armory".
      Again using the lieutenant's dog tag to unlock the door he began to examine the shelves of the armory. To one side were crates of ammunition. According to the labels, they included Jackhammer rockets, .390 clips for MA5B Assault Riffles and their variants, twelve-round .450 Magnum magazines for M6D pistols and 8 gauge shotgun shells for M90s. On the wall parallel to the door were ten boxes of fragmentation grenades and two Jackhammer launchers on a single shelf, and above those were fifteen M90 shotguns. On the final wall were twenty M6D pistols, fifteen MA5Bs, two MA2B carbines, and four SRS99C-S2 AM sniper rifles, commonly called S2 AMs. He placed his Jackhammer launcher against the wall and began to collect weapons.
He discarded his M6D pistol in favor of an M90 shotgun, and took two handfuls of shells and placed them in an ammunition bandoleer lying on top of the ammo crate. He swung the bandoleer across his back where the Jackhammer would have been, and with the shotgun in the crook of his arm he grabbed an S2 AM. He had never been a sniper within his squad, though Corporal Kieran, his squad leader, had often pressured him to take up sniper training. But he stuck to his guns, specifically the MA5B—the Jackhammer wasn't his normal weapon—offering only the fact that he didn't like to stay behind with an S2 AM while his friends jumped into the fight and raised hell as an explanation for his reluctance. But, that didn't mean that sniping hadn't appealed to him...
      He kicked his old Jackhammer through the threshold, closed the door and locked up the armory. With the S2 AM's sling slung around his neck and shoulder and the rifle hanging by his right hip he raised the already loaded the shotgun and advanced, ready to explore the rest of the area.