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Last of the Walking Dead - Part Three: Fire
Posted By: Walker<joebob@hotmail.com>
Date: 25 August 2003, 10:16 PM

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      Connors and Batonne tried to get into the first door they came to, but it was locked and Batonne had only grabbed one of Lieutenant Caldwell's dog tags, as per regulation. They weren't going to get in that way short of blasting their way in, and they had nowhere near the amount of firepower that they needed to do that. They kept moving.
      They had more luck with the next entrance. It was the door to the mess hall, a building of about fifty meters by seventy meters long and lined with long rows of metallic tables and benches and with three rails intended to lead lines into the serving places at the front of the kitchens. It was very similar to the mess hall at Delta Base, having been designed by the same engineers. Nothing special, but it was enough to get them inside. Batonne covered the ground in quick, long strides and only when he was at the hallway leading to the inside of the base did he notice Connors had fallen behind.
      "Connors, where are you?" he shouted irritably—and slightly worried.
      A few seconds later, he heard Connors' voice answered him. "Over here, man!"
      Batonne marched towards the voice, his hand resting cautiously on the butt of his M6D. He found himself traveling down one of the intended service lines, and sure enough, there at the end, was Connors, climbing over the counter and into the kitchen. "Connors, what the hell are you doing?" Batonne inquired.
      From the other side of the rail, Connors answered matter-of-factly, "Seeing what's on the lunch menu." He ducked out of sight as he went back to the kitchens, then resurfaced moments later carrying four sandwiches, individually wrapped. "Tuna, salami, ham and turkey," he said quickly. "According to the Marine Corps, 'real food'."
      "Better than the nutrient bars they pack into field rations," Batonne said, grabbing a sandwich, unwrapping it, and shoving it into his mouth. Connors followed suit.       Moments later, when they finished, they started again, Connors with two sandwiches shoved into his pack for the Lance Corporal and the plasma pistol he was carrying once more clutched tightly in his fist.
      They met up with the Lance Corporal a few minutes later, and nearly shot each other. When Batonne spotted him he went flat against the wall and palmed his pistol, and Connors dove to the side and sent a ball of plasma whizzing over Kennedy's head. Kennedy, with his M90 in one hand, almost blew Connors' face into oblivion, and the only thing that stopped him was Batonne yelling out. It all happened in less than a second.
      They stood there for a few moments, none of them daring to breathe. Batonne exchanged glances with Dirk, wondering whether to apologize or not. The Lance Corporal lowered his shotgun, but made no other move. Connors broke the silence when he reached into his pack, pulled out a sandwich, and tossed it over to Dirk. "Here, Corporal," he said. "Tuna fish."
      Dirk caught it awkwardly in between his palm and wrist, his hands full with weaponry. He stared at the tuna sandwich, then looked to Connors and then to Batonne, whose face broke into a grin. "That was close, Corporal."
      "It was," Kennedy agreed.
      "What's with the guns?"
      Dirk looked down at the shotgun in his hand and past the sandwich in his left to the sniper rifle and his bandoleer of ammunition, which had already contained sniper magazines and was now stuffed with shotgun shells. "I found a little cache back along that way," he said, jerking his thumb in the direction that he had come as he unwrapped the tuna sandwich and took a bite. "Come on, I'll show you."
      After a few backtracking paces they came to the armory. Kennedy, glad that they had a way to gain access to the facilities of the locked-down base, used Caldwell's dog tag once more and revealed the treasure within. Connors rushed into the place quickly, dropping his plasma pistol as he went, while Batonne looked like a child on Christmas morning.
      Connors chose an MA2B carbine, with four ringlets of extended clips of ammo. He slid them up his legs and tightened the straps. He also picked up twelve fragmentation grenades, which he clipped all along the empty spaces in his belt. Finally he grabbed a standard-issue lockbreaker—which he had discovered behind one of the ammo crates—need he get into a room if he was separated from Kennedy and Caldwell's dog tag, on which they had come to rely.
      Batonne took an ammunition belt for an MA5B and girded it about his waist. He grabbed an assault rifle and only two grenades, which he managed to clip on the ammo belt. His M6D he kept, and four clips for that, which he shoved into his bootleg—next to a twenty-centimeter combat knife with one serrated edge. After tossing it up and down he saw that it was balanced for easy throwing, and its non-reflective surface looked like it was made of titanium carbide. No pocketknife, it would come in handy.
      "Hey, Corporal! Check this out!" Connors hollered, digging through a smaller crate that had been before concealed by its larger counterparts. He stopped rummaging through its contents a few moments later, and a strange glint came into his eye. He picked up what looked like a large bullet with a handle, and showed it to Kennedy.
      "Damn, is that what I think it is?"
      "Uh-huh," Connors said. "A thirty-megaton HAVOK tactical nuke."
      Two years ago Kennedy would have told Connors to put that thing down—slowly and carefully. Now he only looked at the nuke as a friend in combat, one of the best kill-Covenant-quick tools the UNSC had to offer. Basic training had taught him that, not only would the thirty-megaton nuclear warhead be one of the best presents to leave behind on a captured planet, but you could also fire a bullet straight into the thing and the chances were less than a million to one that it would go off. He held out his hands. "Pass it over, already."
      Looking the HAVOK nuke over, he decided he the thing looked oddly beautiful. On the handle were three buttons: a green one, to start the five-minute countdown, a blue one which started a separate, five-second countdown, and the third, a red one, which would stop either, but if used to stop the five-minute countdown it had to be pressed before the timer reached the halfway-point. Also there was a slide that had to be pushed down and to the side before any of the buttons would move, acting as a safety. Marines had been known to use all four.
      "How are we gonna carry this thing?" Batonne asked.
      Connors tossed a black satchel quite accidentally at the Marine's face. Batonne reached up blindly and pulled the thing off of his nose as if it was a wet dishrag, then threw Connors an irritated look over his shoulder. He handed the satchel to Kennedy, who placed the nuke at the bottom and handed it back to Batonne, who proceeded to sling it across his shoulders. "Let's keep exploring."
      Down the corridor, a few moments later: "Where do you suppose the JOC is?"
      "It's usually in the center of a base. From where I came in..." Kennedy said, mentally tracing back his steps, "it looked like the center was to my right. Turn here." They came to an abrupt intersection and took the pathway leading to the magnetic northwest.
      They passed the large chambers of the hospital, and through tinted windows glimpsed rows of beds lined against the walls, with IV racks next to each one and another, inner room whose door read "surgery". The lack of movement and usual bustle found in a hospital was eerie, and compelled them to move on.
      A few meters ahead and across the hallway was a briefing room, with a holographic map projector at the front. Bolted-down, reclining and non-padded seats were set facing towards the front. They could just imagine a roomful of platoon and company commanders seated there, listening intently to the instructions and taking notes as Major Foreman and his XO explained the details of the exercise. Normally before a mission cigars would be dealt to the officers present, but the box where they would usually reside, at the far right corner, was absent. They moved on.
      The hallway opened into a larger corridor, and at the end was a large, full-frame door marked "Joint Operations Center". They ran towards it, weapons clinking against their standard-issue armor. Kennedy, whose long legs marked him the tallest, was in the lead and with a slash of the Lieutenant's dog tag through the security panel they were in.
      It was a whole new world, a high-tech super-station of map display panels, radar screens, communication stations and at the center, facing a large, deactivated holoprojector map screen, was the command chair, where all the orders came from. It felt almost like being on the bridge of a ship but for one thing:
      No one was there.
      Kennedy began to issue orders. Pointing to the main communications center, he said, "Batonne, see if you can raise the Gorgon or any other of the ships in Admiral Ikaru's fleet. Connors, man the radar station and see if you can locate the main body of the Covenant force."
      "Sir!" they said simultaneously and obeyed.
      Kennedy walked over to the map projector and hovered over the command chair, reluctant to seat himself in Major de Vires' personal seat of authority. Finally he decided to go past it, and bent over the controls of the holoprojector while unslinging his S2 AM and leaning it against the command chair. After a few moments he managed to get a large, revolving red globe to appear over the holoprojector. Little numbers and lines streaked across it, marking latitude and longitude. Dirk was glad to see that there were holographic representations of UNSC ships orbiting the globe, signaling that their friends were still up there. There was still a way out.
      He eyed warily the Covenant battlegroups engaged with Admiral Ikaru's fleet, and hit a button that read "Top". The globe became a topographical map but that still wasn't what he wanted. He hit the same button once more. A more thorough search of the controls revealed a button that was marked "Zoom". He hit it multiple times, and eventually he saw their current location. He studied it carefully, then turned to Connors. "Well? What have you got?"
      Connors face was hard and humorless as usual, but now it was more gaunt. He tapped a few keys and the radar screen popped up beside the map on a different holoprojector. "Covenant just on the next rise. If this radar's right, we should be hearing Banshees soon."
      Batonne's fingers, experienced with military computers and communication signals, danced over the keyboard. He cast a glance every few moments over his shoulder and examined the Lance Corporal's work as he entered a text message onto his own screen, relaying their location and status to the Gorgon, Admiral Ikaru's flagship. With the tapping of a few more keys he sent the message, then turned around and grabbed his MA5B.
      "Batonne, get that nuke ready."

Admiral Ikaru stood rooted to his spot at the center of the bridge, his hands clasped so firmly behind his back that his knuckles were white. A slight tremor was sent up his body via his legs as several formations of Archer missiles exploded from their pods and collided with the pursuing Covenant spacecraft. Shields flickered on the ships, but no Archer missiles made it through to anything that mattered. Out of the corner of his eye he vaguely noted the dozen Covenant dropships that were sinking into the atmosphere of the planet below and burning up in the process.
      He spat a string of curses in a rainbow of languages that began with Japanese, then went to Italian, Portuguese and finally English. "Godammit! Get those MAC rounds in their tubes!"
      "Yes sir!" the weapons officer yelled hoarsely.
      Admiral Ikaru bit his lower lip and swore viciously to himself. Thirty-six hours of straight combat and the Covenant were still content to toy with them, watch them wither and die slowly as their cruisers cut down his fleet, one ship at a time. He knew, eventually, if they didn't get the navigation systems on the Gorgon repaired, he would be next. He considered a few times making a completely blind slipstream jump, but shot down the idea every time it arose. It was all to probable that they would come out of slipstream space in the middle of some gas giant or even on the other side of the galaxy, where who-knows-what could be lurking. Possibly something worse than the Covenant.
      And, at any current rate, he already had his hands full with one enemy.
      The summons came from his communication's officer, Lieutenant Emerson. The young man with black hair and green eyes approached him at the double-quick, looking handsome in his pressed uniform. A fine, energetic officer, he showed no sign of weariness despite the fact that he had been on duty for the past one-and-a-half days just the same as most of them. He held a freshly printed document out to the Admiral. "Sir, it just came in from I think you should see this."
      Admiral Ikaru read aloud:

      "Urgent. Lance Corporal Kennedy and Privates Batonne and Connors, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, UNSC, grounded at Echo Base. See coordinates at top of page. Overwhelming Covenant forces approaching and already within immediate area. Requesting immediate evacuation."

      "Sir, what should we do?" Lieutenant Emerson asked.
      Admiral Ikaru handed back the stunning communication. "Lieutenant, what are the chances that this is a trap?"
      "Unlikely, sir. This came straight from Echo Base's central communication station," Emerson said quickly, furrowing his brows. "It's even more unlikely any Covenant with the language skills to send a message like this would be out in the field—they'd be to valuable for the Covenant to send into battle."
      "Can we risk a Pelican?"
      "Yes, sir, I think we can."
      "Then get them the hell out of there!"

By the time the Pelican left the Gorgon's docking bay, a message telling the Marines to sit tight, that their ride would be there in fifteen minutes, had been sitting, unread at the computer terminal for several seconds. Outside of the JOC, three Leathernecks thundered down the corridor, weapons at the ready.
      "What are we going to do, sir?" Connors asked.
      "Hold them off until our ride gets here," Kennedy asked, cocking his S2 AM and testing out the scope. Finding everything in working order, he slung the sniper rifle back over his shoulders and worked the pump on the shotgun.
      "And if there isn't a ride?" Batonne asked.
      "Then we hold them off as long as we can."
      They broke out into the open air and Kennedy lead them up the walls, covering the ground in long strides. They slowed down to a slow, snakelike crawl without missing a beat, and separated to different points in the walls to assume defensive positions beside the turrets. Kennedy pulled up at the easternmost point in the wall where he could hear the sounds of the swiveling automated turrets as they began to track the Covenant forms streaming across the hills, and opened fire in a large, thunderous barrage as Banshees screamed across the rise.
      He set down his shotgun and laid his sniper across the wall, setting his sights on a squad of Grunts as they waddled over the rough terrain. Waiting until the two point-leads lined up one-behind-the-other, he squeezed off a shot that dropped the both and brought a look of surprise on the other's faces as the rest of their squadmates were cut down. He tossed the used clip over the side and quickly slipped another in, cursing as the automated turrets spewed burning-hot spent shell casings onto him.
      A Banshee dropped a well-aimed ball of plasma onto the barrel of the turret down the line from him, dropping it from its socket and sending it tumbling down. A Jackal, running foolishly ahead of his squad, was crushed beneath it. Another turret, it's shredder rounds ripping through the aircraft's underbelly, brought down the Banshee on top of a quartet of Grunts attempting to set up a stationary Shade gun turret.
      Another quick four shots mowed down the last three Grunts of the squad he had victimized. He took the last shot on a Grunt who was trying to squirm out from beneath the weight of the Banshee, his lower body crushed by the aircraft. Kennedy's shot knocked him loose and killed him at the same time, making a fairly amusing scene as the creature tumbled down the hill.
      A few wild plasma shots whizzed too near his head for his comfort, signaling to him that it was time to haul ass to a new position. He slung the S2 AM across his shoulders once more, picked his M90 up in his right hand and ran down the line to where the empty turret socket was located. He grabbed two grenades off of his belt, pulled the pins and watched slowly as Covenant cannon fodder scurried up towards Echo Base. Only a few more moments...
      He released the levers on the fragmentation grenades and lobbed them over the side. One exploded in the air, showering the heads of unsuspecting Grunts in shrapnel. What was left over from the blast exploded soon thereafter as the second grenade detonated at their feet.
      It was time to get to get too a new position on the wall as soon as the Elites started shooting at him. He emptied his second-to-last sniper clip into one of the creatures just as his buddy opened fire with a plasma rifle, chipping away at the section of Grade A titanium wall before him. Kennedy lobbed another grenade and scurried away just as the wall was splattered in the Elite's guts.
      The turrets kept up a steady stream of fire, reloading in turns so that there was only one turret off at any one time, just as they were programmed. Batonne came down from the wall and, with heavy breath, asked for Caldwell's dog tag. Kennedy tossed it down and Batonne caught it running. The Canadian soon disappeared behind the hangar where the Warthogs were.
      Seconds later a Warthog came screaming out of the hangar, bridging the gap between the raised floor of the hangar and the ground and kicking up dirt as it landed. It bore the insignia of a major on the hood and a menacing rack of Argent V missiles where the 50mm LAAG chaingun should be. Batonne pulled up under the overhang of the MP hut, home of the prison cells and disciplinary records of Major de Vires' 2nd Battalion, and positioned the Argent Vs facing to the sky. The next Banshee who circled them would get a heat-seeking surprise on their tail.
      Batonne set the missiles on automated fire and climbed out of the warthog, MA5B in hand. He scurried over towards the wall and scaled the stairway quickly, then hopped into a stationary 30mm chaingun, the same as Martinez had manned. He slapped a chain of the heavy ammunition into the breech and hooked his finger around the trigger. He began to fire, and soon the gun was another chord in the humming symphony of fully-automatic fire.
      Connors was doing a fantastic job, laying a blanket of fire over the enemy. With the wall to aid him, he managed to keep up the defensive fire for several moments at a time, stopping only to reload, relocate, and reacquire new targets. A two-craft formation of Banshees made dive-bombing runs of the walls, grinding down the thinning Grade A titanium of the half-meter gates. The rack of Argent Vs spat its missiles at the two Banshees, twisting and twirling in unison with their evasive movements and then moving in for the kill. Both aircraft erupted into balls of flame.
      Despite all this, though, it was only a matter of time before the Covenant broke through. The gates, already missing a third of their original strength, would soon fall and the Covenant would storm in. Dirk brought down a Jackal as he turned his back to rally a cowardly squad of Grunts, then sent three of the same squad screaming about wildly, methane gas leaking from their environment suits as they slowly suffocated. He had no mercy for them—the bastards weren't anywhere near human.
      He replaced the magazine in his S2 AM with a new one and looked to Batonne. He was doing a good job of keeping up the fire in his line of sight with the 30mm chaingun, but he had a blind spot over to his left—just where there was an Elite standing, barking orders to four Grunts as they set a Shade gun in place, out of sight from Batonne and the automated turrets. The Elite hopped into the seat and swung up the barrel, putting Batonne in his sights.
      "Batonne! Get down, Godammit!"
      The Shade gun whistled as it threw burning balls of plasmatic fire into Batonne, knocking him loose from the stationary chaingun. His body, burned almost beyond recognition, flew backwards out of the 30mm gun and fell three stories to the ground, where it hit with a thump and raised a small cloud of dust. It all happened in less than a second.
      "Shit!" Kennedy yelled. The Elite looked up at him with a grunt and swung the Shade gun around in his direction, sending superheated plasma flying over his head. Dirk felt the heat brush across the top of his helmet, making the two centimeters of hair on his head prickle. He snapped his rifle up and, without peering through the scope, slumped the Elite in his seat with three shots. The last shot in the clip blew the head off a Grunt trying to climb into the operator's seat of the turret, making his decapitated body spurt blood all over the Shade gun.
      "Batonne!" Dirk yelled, running down the stairway three steps at a time. He dropped his S2 AM indifferently on the bleak gray steps and tripped over his own feet running to the body whose cauterized wounds were crackling like greasy bacon in a frying pan. Kennedy crawled the rest of the way to his friend, hovering over the broken body and examining the wounds.
      He didn't have to take a second look to know the Canadian was dead. Kennedy swore heavily, then flipped the body over and removed the bag carrying the nuke. He examined the thirty-megaton HAVOK. Despite the heavy fall, it seemed undamaged. Dirk set it aside and took a look at the rest of Batonne's weapons.
      First he fished Caldwell's dog tag from Batonne's pocket. The bandoleer of .390 magazines in good shape; two of the clips were bent, having been beneath Batonne when he fell. Kennedy wasn't going to bother with removing any undamaged rounds from inside the magazines, so he tossed them over his shoulder. The M6D in Batonne's waistband was missing a chunk of the barrel, and Dirk also tossed that away. The clips in the bootleg weren't going to see much use, but he shoved them into his own boot for safekeeping and removed the twenty-centimeter knife and its clip holster. Still in perfect condition, he clipped that to his ammo bandoleer. Finally, he took Batonne—or what was left of him—over his shoulders in the same fashion he had carried Connors and propped him against the provost marshal's desk. The nuke he had carried he set in the body's lap.
      A Banshee, smarter than the rest of his attack squadron, bored into the gate with his plasma cannons, keeping them trained on the exact centerline of the failing Grade A titanium blast-resistant structure. An Argent V exploded from the rack and spiraled towards its target, but the resourceful pilot armed a plasma grenade and tossed out behind his craft. He zoomed away, and the Argent V missile collided with the falling grenade, which just happened to land right next to the inside of the gate.
      The explosion knocked Dirk on his rear as he rushed out of the MP hut. Smoke billowed from the crater in the ground and melted titanium dripped from the door-sized hole in the gate. Two ecstatic Grunts rushed callously through the hole and were dropped by a quick shot from Kennedy's shotgun that clipped both their heads the second their forms arose from the smoke. Connors sent a grenade over the side from his position at the top of the wall, then ran down the stairway firing blindly through the gap.
      "Fall back!" Kennedy yelled, dashing into the MP hut and grabbing the nuke off of Batonne's fried carcass. Connors leaped through the windows, crashing onto the ground and running to the door. He locked it tight and slid the bolt through, then pulled the provost marshal's desk away from Batonne's body and pushed it against the door. He gave his squadmate's lifeless form a passing glance, no expression on his face.
      They knelt side-by-side at the shattered window, firing their weapons from the shoulder. Grunts soon clogged the hole at the gate, a temporary fix that gave both remaining Marines time to reload. Kennedy's nimble fingers slipped eight shotgun shells into the M90, and Connors slapped another extended magazine into his MA2B carbine. The number "90" flashed onto the electronic ammo counter just as the clump of Grunt corpses were blown apart by the blast of a Hunter's fuel rod cannon. "Oh shit," Connors said, and Dirk cursed himself for leaving his Jackhammer launcher behind.
      The Hunter ripped through the severely weakened gate and lumbered onto the grounds of Echo Base. He rotated slowly, menacingly examining the area with his fuel rod cannon held at the ready. The big, ugly, one-creature artillery piece turned all the way around, exposing an orange spot on its back to the Marines in his search for a target. Recognizing the "sweet spot", both Connors and Kennedy fired at once. The Hunter swaggered for a moment, turned on one foot and fell to the ground. A tremor shot up the Marines' legs.
      Grunts clambered over the fallen giant in swarms and were mowed down by automatic fire and steel shot. Jackals, forming a phalanx of sorts, advanced through the hellhole with their shields covering the Jackal beside them. The creatures, having located the source of enemy fire, sent a steady stream of plasma their way.
      A furrow was carved through the top of Connors' helmet by one of the plasma balls. "Bastards!" he yelled, ripping the hot cover from his head. He threw it angrily at the Jackals, who continued to shoot and offered the greatest threat to the two Marines at the moment.
      "We've gotta take out those sons of bitches," Connors said, panting as he reloaded. He licked his dry lips, cocked his MA5B once more and raised it to his shoulder, drawing out a three-round burst across the Jackal's phalanx.
      "Don't I know it," Kennedy said. He looked behind him and pointed to a door leading to the inside of the base, adjacent to the empty detention cells. "Maybe I can flank them. Are you going to be all right here?"
      "Yes, mommy, I can stay here and behave like a good little boy," Connors said irritably. His sarcasm was punctuated by another three-round burst from his carbine, again deflected by the Jackal's energy shielding.