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Charge of the Grunt Brigade - Part Two: Troops
Posted By: Walker<joebob@hotmail.com>
Date: 14 September 2003, 11:00 PM

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      The two Grunts walked back and forth before their barracks, chattering slightly while conducting their midnight watch. Their plasma pistols were held in two mandibles, one on the handle and the other supporting the barrel. Though all Grunts looked pretty much alike to humans, the markings on their bodies declared them brothers. The elder one said to his junior:
      "Are you cold?"
      The younger brother replied, with a shiver:
      "No, I'm just shaking uncontrollably at the thought of what the Prophets would do to us if were ever to be captured. You?"
      "A bit—nothing like the action we saw back on... on... what was that planet's name again?"
      "Which one? The one where our commander lead us straight into an ambush and we only survived because the human's vehicles bombarded their own men? Or the one where we had to dig snow trenches with our mandibles and stick our heads in to keep warm while that Elite came up and kicked us in our asses out of fun?"
      "I don't know. After awhile, they all just seem the same to me."
      "They do get that way."
      An old Jackal, his back bent in an odd angle from a battle wound sustained in his youth, approached the two Grunts and ignited his shield, whose control panel was polished to perfection. He was an officer and had no need to be up and about. Nevertheless, he said, "My watch." The two Grunts exchanged glances, holstered their weapons and reentered the barracks, taking their places along the walls and settling down to sleep. The night still had several hours until dawn. The old Jackal picked up where the brother Grunts left off, and began the slow, methodical march of the picket.
      The extensive barracks were located at the far end of a large base, out of the way of many of its human occupants, most of which had no idea of the Covenant's presence. The defectors moved in before the Marines, and kept a low profile so as not to be noticed. For all the Marines knew, there weren't any Covenant anywhere near the planet, much less living next door. Kingsley's plan to move them in just before the Marines landed had worked perfectly.
      But no plan is foolproof.
      Privates Tom Avery and Hyrum Quinn, two fresh recruits, and Private First Class Ryan Ferguson, a big, bulky jock, straightened up quickly as two MPs, stun batons in their hands, crossed their path. The three Marines, two of them slightly drunken, barely managed to hide their jug of vodka from the patrolmen's hawk-like eyes, but as soon as they were sure the MPs were no longer a threat they each took another swig of the strong, homemade liquor. Private Avery coughed a bit, and grinned as he stumbled forth, the most intoxicated of the three. "Hand that back over before you spill it," Ferguson said quickly, his deep voice booming across the grounds.
      "Not so loud, God damn it!" Private Quinn whispered urgently.
      "Hey, guys, which way are we—" Avery started off, but then was cut off by his own hiccup. He tried again a few moments later, after another swig of homemade vodka. "Which way are we going?"
      Quinn, the least drunken of the three, straightened up and peered about the area, looking for some sort of sign or landmark showing the way back to their barracks. Finding none, he said quietly, "I don't know—which way did we come?"
      Ferguson's head rotated on his thick neck and looked all around them, scanning also the empty ground that encompassed them. No barracks where anywhere nearby in any direction, but quite away ahead they could make out a set of barracks that seemed exactly like theirs. "That must be it," Ferguson said, belching. He pointed ahead, and the other two followed his arm to the structures ahead. "Maybe we can sneak in and the Sarge won't notice."
      "Yeah," Avery said hopefully.
      "You wish," Quinn said bitterly. "Let's go."
       They trudged on, Avery being such a nuisance with his sloppy footing and spilling vodka everywhere that Ferguson ripped the jug from his hands and slapped the cork through the top. "I'll carry this."
      "Spoilsport," Avery muttered under his breath.
      There was a guard at the gate, an MP with an MA5B assault rifle in his hands. Avery, Quinn and Ferguson gave him a wide berth, turning sharply to the left and ducking low by a row of trees and falling into the cover of the shadows. "God, they have them everywhere around here," Avery said irritably.
      "Sure ruin all the fun, don't they?" Ferguson said, holding the jug of vodka tightly to his chest. He looked back to Quinn, who was snaking along the ground slowly, watching the MP in his patrol of the gate. "Hurry up, man," Ferguson said in a loud whisper, pausing and rising up a bit.
      "Get down, you son of a bitch!" Quinn whispered frantically.
      But it was too late. The MP at the gate saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and his head snapped in their direction. He raised his rifle and shouted, "Who goes there?" The three Marines dropped as if having been sighted by an enemy patrol and lay still for several moments, not daring to even breathe lest their position be revealed.
      Finally the picket MP gave up his search and lowered his rifle. Quinn snaked up ahead of the Avery and Ferguson, giving them both disgusted looks. To Ferguson he said with a sigh:
      "I don't know you ever made PFC."
      They continued their stealthy journey up the row of trees, which slowly gave way to a sunken road filled with damp sand. It reminded them of crawling through similar terrain beneath a net of barbed wire during basic training almost two months ago. They had trained so hard in the art of combat, and since then they had seen none. It was, to all of them, a disappointment. Quinn prayed silently every night they would get called to the front soon.
      The sunken road led away from the trees about one hundred meters, and the Marines' distance from the MP was a total of one hundred and fifty meters. At night, good enough distance to safely bridge the gap from their position to the wall, where they could climb over with relative ease—the electricity was only turned on during lockdowns and there were no razors or wires on this wall.
      Quinn lay over to the side and waited until Ferguson and Avery caught up. Ferguson blundered through the sand while Avery made fair progress down the sunken road. The large man reached Quinn and was about to cross over when the latter's hand grabbed him by the collar. "Wait. Let Avery go first."
      Avery licked his dry lips and squinted across the dry, dusty road. He imagined a bright, fluorescent yellow line running from his own position to the wall, a guiding light in the dark that would help steady his drunken movements. He blinked away the slight fog that was clouding the corners of his eyes, and began his dash across the line. He made it over without the MP even noticing. "Good," Quinn said quietly to himself. "A blind spot."
      Ferguson belched again, and Quinn slapped him across one cheek and then the other. He grabbed him once more by the collar and pulled the big jock close to his face, where their breath mingled. Quinn could smell the vodka on Ferguson's breath, and pulled tighter on the collar. "Don't foul this up, Ferguson," he said, treating the PFC like an disobedient subordinate.
      "Yes, sir," Ferguson said groggily, without thought. The rank he bore was of no importance among the enlisted men if Quinn was present, because no matter what, the quick-witted and impatient soldier was their commander. If it were not for the streak of sadism in his personality, Quinn would already be at least a corporal by now, and he knew it.
      Quinn shoved the big man out of the sunken road and Ferguson moved like a large puma across to the wall. Finally, with the stealthy movements of a snake, Quinn followed him across, just far enough away so that dust was not kicked up in his face. Finally, when all three of them were concealed behind the power generator, Quinn narrowed his eyes and placed a foot on the top of the waist-tall structure. "I go first. Then Ferguson, then you, Avery, and you'd better hurry. If you get over in ten seconds—both of you, that is—I'll pay for the drinks our next leave." It was one of the few gestures of kindness he ever expressed to his fellow Marines, but a well-appreciated one.
      Quinn vaulted quickly over the wall, and could barely be heard landing on the other side. Ferguson followed clumsily and almost fell flat on his face coming over, but managed to break his fall with his hands and knees. He was just rising when Avery landed on top of him, tackling him to the ground. "Quiet!" Quinn whispered angrily. Nevertheless, they had made it over in good time. He owed them a drink.
      Quinn squinted into the darkness and tried to find their barracks in the midst of all the others. They all looked exactly alike, and in this dark he could barely make out the signs on the huts. He certainly could not see what they said. "We have to get closer," he said, at the same time seeing a strange glow move about somewhere down the line. He squinted closely at it and pointed. "That way."
      They advanced a little less carefully, but kept their heads down when they passed the individual barracks. The glow grew closer, and Quinn held up a hand for the other two to stop. "What is that thing?"
      In return, the object behind the glow turned and shouted in a foreign and strained voice, "Who goes there?"
      "Covenant!" Ferguson bellowed, diving behind one of the barracks. "Covenant! Covenant are invading! Get your guns!" he continued to yell, scampering like a terrified toddler on his knees across the barracks. He screamed even louder when rows of Grunts began to spill out of them.
      The guard was running towards the three, swearing loudly. "Shut up, you fool! Shut your mouth before you wake up the whole base!" Avery grabbed the radio clipped onto the MP's shoulder and, before the overwhelmed picket had time to react, he opened up on the open-air frequency.
      "Covenant invading! Covenant invaders! High alert!"
      Now the alarms began to roar and the whole base awoke with an uproar. Avery and Ferguson were both drunken and hysterical, and finally the MP began to kick them to get them to stop screaming. "You idiots! How the hell did you get in here?"
      Lights flashed on all over like a dozen separate thunderstorms and far away the faceless forms of Marines scurried about, gathering weapons and generally making a fuss about what was going on. Quinn, indifferent to all the ruckus, pressed himself close the wall of one of the individual barracks, and waited silently until a Grunt hoped out, weapon in hand. In an instant the battle-hungry soldier was upon him, wrestling him to the ground and ripping his plasma pistol away from him. Quinn managed to get a grip on the thing and shoved it into the Grunt's face, melting it away in a burst of plasma. Quinn stepped bravely into the barracks and opened fire, scattering his shots all over like a hailstorm.
      He knocked the heads off of two Grunts, and the others sprang to attention and tried to get a hold of him. He cut down three more in their tracks dropping them just at his feet. Three more rushed him while another lunged onto him from his sleeping platform, tackling him to the ground. The remainder of the platoon woke slowly as the scene progressed. The quartet wrestled his gun from him, but not until he had managed to blow a crater into a red one's center mass. In anger and desperation, the same Grunt who had tackled him dealt him a blow over the head, rendering him unconscious.
      "What should we do?" they asked the senior Grunt in unison.
      He ordered the standing two to drag the Marine to the corner, and they placed the bodies of their fallen comrades around him. The sirens blared in their ears, and the senior Grunt led them out of the hut—hands up in the universal gesture of non-hostility.
      Several Warthogs breached the gate where the picket had previously been standing and rushed into the barracks compound, supported each by a platoon of around thirty-two infantry Marines. The large force split up, one eight-man squad for each of the individual barracks. Within five minutes every Covenant in the compound stood before his hut, hands behind his head as Marines pointed assault rifles and pistols at them. The sirens had gradually stopped screaming. Last to enter the camp was the Warthog of Brigadier General Toskov, Major General Kingsley's second-in-command.
      His driver drew the warthog to a stop at the had of the compound, and Toskov stood up in the side seat, grabbing a handset from beside him. It was hooked up to the Warthog's attached speakers, and so the Russian's commanding voice boomed as he spoke. "What the hell is going on here?"
      The MP grabbed Ferguson and Avery by the scruff of the collar and dragged them one-after-the-other over to Toskov and dropped them at his feet. "They raised the alarm, sir. There was a third one... I don't know where he is."
      Toskov covered the receiver of the handset. "How the hell did they get in here?"
      "I don't know, sir. Must have climbed the fence." The MP was glad that it was dark; he didn't want the General to see the fear in his face. The discovery of this project he had been assigned to guard could very well mean his job—not to mention some time in the stockade.
      Toskov, however, was concerned with the more important matters at hand. He raised the handset once more to his mouth, waited awhile as the words came to him, and began to speak. "All Marine personnel will report back to their quarters, barracks and stations and continue for the night as if this never happened. All prisoners will be released."
      There was total silence.
      The Marines exchanged glances, not sure what was going on. Even officers were confused. They had just captured an entire brigade of enemy forces without struggle, and that in itself was strange enough—but to release them?
      "You heard me, Marines! Move it!"
      Slowly the men came back to life, and whether they understood what was going on or not, officers started to bark orders at their men. They escorted the Grunts and few Jackals back into their barracks, eyeing them with confusion and wariness. Three men surrounded an Elite, their guns held tightly and leveled at his head, not noticing that he was an officer and outranked them all. Slowly the Marines began to filter out of the compound, quietly and quickly. They were saving their chatter until a more opportune time. By lunch tomorrow the mess hall would be buzzing with more than the usual conversation.
      Toskov had Ferguson and Avery piled into the back of his Warthog, under the watchful eye of the gunner. "We'll be needing to take a trip back to the provost marshal's hut, driver. These men are drunk."
      Out of the corner of his eye, Toskov saw three figures emerge from the hut to his left, the front in its row. Two Marines were supporting a third, apparently unconscious and dripping in blue slime—Covenant blood. There was a large gash on the top of his head. "Private! Report!"
      The Marine holding the unconscious man's right side handed him over to the MP, who also placed him in the back of the Warthog. "Sir, we found him in there behind a few Covenant bodies, sprawled out in a corner. He was being guarded by a few live ones. The place is splattered with blood, sir. Looks like he caused some damage before... before... well, before whatever went on night went on."
      "All right. Guard, go to the hut and disperse the survivors among the other barracks in their row," Toskov ordered the MP. "Tell them we'll have theirs cleaned out by tomorrow morning." The picket jogged over to the hut and emerged with several bewildered looking Grunts, their hands over their heads but their weapons still at their sides.
      When the MP's business was done he returned to Toskov's Warthog. The other two Marines were gone, running to catch up with their units. The General looked down at him gravely, and, with his light Russian accent, said, "Corporal Wallace, you'll be demoted one rank and not receive your pay for the next two months."
      The now-Lance Corporal nodded, then saluted, knowing that this punishment was already a very lenient one. He had slipped up, not being vigilant enough in his guard duties of one of ONI's best-kept secrets. They should have put a whole garrison of MPs if they were that worried, but ONI hadn't wanted to attract attention to the spot.
      Now it was too late. It didn't matter that Toskov had ordered the men not to talk, for they were going to. That was inevitable. He knew at that moment the chances were very slight that he would ever get promoted again.
      Without another word from its highest-ranking passenger the Warthog swerved around and rolled out of the compound, kicking up dust in its wake. The MP stood there silently for awhile after Toskov had exited, slumped in his position. His helmet was pulled down over his eyes as he glared inwardly at himself. A single tear of self-pity rolled down his cheek, and he made no effort to wipe it away. He simply cursed himself. The MP spat to the side, then raised his rifle and sauntered slowly back to his station. With the surety of many nights' experience, he began once more the slow, long, pacing march of the picket.