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Charge of the Grunt Brigade - Part Three: Second
Posted By: Walker<likethisismyemail@hotmail.com>
Date: 13 October 2003, 2:16 AM

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      Captain Vincent Sean Callaghan, UNSC Marine Corps, sat upright in the pelican with five other young officers. All were Navy save he, and none of them spoke. All were tall and thin, all were stern-looking and, for the most part, just receiving their first independent assignments and struggling with the adjustment from Academy life to active service. Vin himself had experienced such a time only two years ago, leaving Lexington, Virginia, his alma mater of VMI, and his home planet for destinations unknown.
      Serving as a staff officer for Brigadier General Joseph Johnston Torrington, he earned promotion by his wit in planning sessions and gallantry in battle, rallying the disorganized remnants of the 17th and 5th regiments to the General so they could make a push through the enemy lines, allowing the rest of the division a path of retreat so they could make it back to headquarters and proceed from there. They had succeeded, and fought and fought as long as they could, all expecting to die. They sustained eighty-percent casualties in the fight, cutting their already decimated forces down to seventy-five men before the entire 3rd Corps came in, guns blazing, and rescued them. The Marine forces retreated off-planet and, for once, the Covenant did not chase them. They were after something on that planet, and the pleasure they derived from killing humans could be put off until they got it.
      Well, he had survived, hadn't he? And now he was belted into the seat of a combat transport with five Naval officers who made a good show of suppressing their nervousness on their journey to the shipyard. There the group would break up and board their assigned ships, and, if FLEETCOM had their way, would not see each other again until they were fifty. If they lasted that long. And who knew if the entire human race would even last that long?
      "Five minutes," the pilot announced.
      "Where do I get off?" Vin asked.
      "I'm supposed to drop you off at the shipyard, sir. There'll be a ride for you there," the pilot answered, not turning back. He was a Marine aviator, maybe twenty, which meant he probably had about a year's worth of experience in a Pelican. Had he seen combat? That was hardly relevant to their current trip, but it was something Vin had become accustomed to, mentally evaluating his pilots. If he had not seen combat, this pilot was almost certainly wishing for it, even praying for it. Just like any other young man. They all did, until the first blood... and some after.
      Whether they wanted to or not, they all returned to the battlefield. If it was human nature, bloodlust, revenge or a sense of duty that made them do it, they all had their different reasons. Perhaps Audie Murphy best characterized it when he said, "As long as there's a man in the lines, I feel that my place is up there beside him."
      "Two minutes."
      Vin took from his pocket the printed orders he had been sent by email. ONI, who had been the ones that transferred him this time, got it to him via the computer of the Gethsemane, the ship that had brought him here when he received his initial transfer orders. The computer then filtered out the email to printers on each deck of the ship. Whichever unlucky Marine or crewman who had been assigned to deliver the mail did his duty, and the ship's residents and passengers got their mail. Not a complicated system, really, but it could take awhile.
      Awhile meant messages could be more than six hours old by the time they were received. People nowadays complained about this, while seven hundred years ago it could take months for the mail to get through. Vin wondered what it would be like for modern society to be stripped of all of its technology and placed in such a situation. Could they survive? He doubted it. But if the Covenant won, any surviving humans would have to learn how to survive, and quickly, because it was highly unlikely that all of today's pleasures and comforts would be available to refugees trying to escape genocide.
      It was up to them to make sure that wasn't necessary. The UNSC had to win this, for humanity's survival. In this war, there would be no winners or losers. No conquerors or conquered. Only exterminators and the exterminated.
      "Thirty seconds!"
      The Pelican drew close, and its engines rotated to VTOL mode and the craft descended. The touchdown was light, and the ramp opened quickly but surely. The soldiers got up to file out, all looking to Vin. He was the highest ranking there and, as tradition and rank demanded, he was first off.
      "No, you first," he said, pointing to a Naval officer with pilot's wings on his uniform. The young officer looked at him, a bit confused. He was still used to Academy life, where the senior cadets always took aggressive command of any and all groupings, and were fully content to exercise the perks of those commands.
      "If there's someone out there waiting to shoot us, I don't want to be the first to find out. You can be the unlucky penguin that gets pushed into the water, eh?" Vin said with a grin. These graduates needed to lighten up.
      The young pilot nodded, and eventually a smile came to his lips. "Yes, sir," he said, understanding the joke. He walked forward, descended down the ramp, and was followed out by the other graduates. Two actually turned about to look for assassins, then back to Vin, but Vin only smiled.
      "Thanks for the ride!" he yelled back to the pilot.
      "Anytime, sir!"
      The ramp closed, and Vin rapped it twice with his knuckles in a signal to take off. He then ducked down, running out of the path of the backwash from the jets. The Pelican lifted off behind him, ruffling his hair and the flaps of his uniform. Within a minute it was a mere dot on the horizon.
      They had been dropped off at the airfield. To their left was a large hangar for spacecraft; the shipyard was a massive structure that dominated the area for several miles around. There was a small air control tower directly in front of them, and three transport Warthogs, all lacking the 50mm LAAG chainguns they would have sported in combat.
      Two were close together, with Marine drivers at the wheel. Another was a bit to the left. In the driver's seat, looking dark and suspicious, sat a man in civilian clothes, about Vin's age. A spook? Maybe. Whoever he was, he gave Vin a bored look and drove up in front of him. "Get in, Captain."
      "And who are you?"
      "Buckle up."
      Blatantly disregarding the order, Vin leaned back in his seat and folded his arms. "Damn, if I had known I'd be pulling a job for ONI I wouldn't have agreed to this assignment," he said, trying to pump information out of the silent man. From his angle, Vin could see the butt of an M6D jutting forth from beneath his left shoulder.
      The spook offered no comment, no affirmation of what Vin had said or no denial. He didn't even say what they both were thinking: as if he had any choice on this assignment in the first place. He simply pressed the gas pedal and they drove off.
      Vin examined the dashboard of the Warthog. There was a small lock on the glove compartment, no radio or magnetic perch in between the steering column and the glove compartment, and in the back, where, even without a chaingun, there should have been an open compartment. Instead there was a hooded trunk. All of these things were special issue; they would have had to be added later, once off the assembly line. This was definitely an ONI vehicle.
      Halfway through the trip, the spook made up his mind to speak up. "What have you been told about your assignment?" he asked, not taking his eyes off of the mountain road they were driving across.
      "Just where I was to report to. Nothing more from there. I didn't even know where exactly I was going until I got them on the Gethsemane. What have you been told about your assignment?" Vin asked defiantly.
      "Not to let you ask so many questions."
      "I'm sorry, was I making this tough for you, sir? Or is it really sir? Lieutenant, maybe?"
      "It's Captain Slaughter, Captain, and if you want what I've got for you you'll shut your trap." Slaughter said. He removed a keycard from his pocket and held it in two fingers, taunting Vin.
      Vin yawned softly and clasped his hands together. "What have you got for me?"
      Slaughter tossed the keycard in the air. Vin snatched it out before it blew out of grasp, and examined it. It was plain white, unmarked, with a magnetic strip running across the top. "Slide that through the lock on the glove compartment," Slaughter told him.
      Vin did, and the glove compartment popped open. It revealed another concealing lid, the color of gunmetal. It had a keypad on the top with all the one-digit numbers arranged three-by-three. "Code?" Vin asked, his hand hovering over the keypad.
      Slaughter pushed his hand away and in a flurry of movement typed in the code, leaning over slightly but still driving without any fault. "Inside there," he said, leaning back over to his side, "you'll find sealed orders for you there. Open them now, before we get out of the mountains, and read them quickly." Slaughter pressed a button on the dashboard, and the roof closed over them.
      The orders were in a large mail packet. Vin flipped out a pocketknife and cut them open, sliding them out quickly until he saw the first sentence. He increased the exposed amount of paper in intervals, line-by-line, proving to Slaughter that, while he was no spook, he was not the idiot the ONI operative made him out to be.

      Captain Vincent Sean Callaghan:

      I'm sorry I couldn't be there to meet you in person. I had previous engagements that demanded my presence with all urgency, and it is not prudent to keep bureaucrats waiting, because you never know who might be on the committee that decides the outcome of your next possible pay raise.

      Despite that, I must warn you as solemnly as humanly possible that the information you are about to read is at the highest level of classification. If you leak any of this, you will be tried for treason and put before a firing squad. There have already been too many complications in this matter, and we don't need anymore.

      Enclosed you will find a folder that contains top-secret images and reports of a very serious nature involving your next assignment. Please examine them closely, then destroy them by flame and scatter the ashes on the road you are traveling. I have copies on file, so if something might happen to you before you can reach us what you see will not die with you but be passed on to the next officer chosen to take your place.

      You will report directly to Major General Othello Kingsley, where you will receive further orders regarding this matter. Good luck and Godspeed.

      -Dr. Catherine Halsey

      Vin slid the orders back into the packet, and pulled out a folder. He flipped it open and, without hesitation, began to examine what soon turned out to be the intriguing contents. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Slaughter watching his face, searching for an expression of surprise or disbelief to appear. Had the ONI operative seen what was inside previous to this trip? Or was he just now learning what his superiors had not trusted him to know?
      He read through the remainder of the folder, put it back in the packet and pulled out his miniature lighter—what long ago would be used for cigarettes was now an all-purpose source of flame. With a flick of his thumb it was open and ignited, and he held it up to the corner of the mail packet. The packet caught fire, and he dropped it into the ashtray that Slaughter held out for him. After it was done burning, Slaughter opened the roof and tossed the ashes over his shoulder.
      Only after this did he ponder what he had seen. Defectors? The idea was not entirely original one, to be sure. From mercenaries in the Peloponnesian War to Italian soldiers in the Second World War, defectors were present in almost all conflicts. Even in Mohammed's conquest of the world in the name of Allah, there had been defectors willing to accept Islam and abandon their ancient tribal traditions, rooted deep in pagan beliefs. Because of this he knew Holy Wars were no exception, and this was certainly a Holy War—on both sides. But that did not mean that he had expected the fanatical beliefs of the Covenant hive to sprout a garden of dissenters.
      Could he fight against his fellow humans, his brother Marines, indeed, in the name of gods he cursed avidly and passionately almost on a daily basis? Could he serve the enemy of everything he believed, of everything God had created? Could he kill children and women in a bloody rage for simply the sake of not having his ass fried by a Hunter? No, damn it, he couldn't, and he wouldn't, even if he could. He could never be a defector. The spirit of these defectors amazed him, because certainly they knew that they were an enemy to their very own survival.
      But aren't we all.
      "Catch any of that, Slaughter?" Vin asked.
      "What, the smell?"
      "Don't play stupid."
      "Like hell I won't. Would you prefer a 'no comment'?"
      Vin sighed and looked behind him, watching the ashes disintegrate against the force of the mountain winds. Guiding his eyes back to the road ahead, they fell once more upon the large trunk hood that was on top of where the passenger or gunner compartment should be. "What's in there?" he asked, jerking a thumb back.
      Slaughter looked at the trunk through his rearview mirror. "Your luggage," he said, with a hint of annoyance. Vin was acting a bit childish, nagging him with every sentence. Trying to get to his head. Didn't these combat Marines know ONI trained you to combat this very thing?
      "Ever feel like your abilities are being wasted on jobs like this?"
      "You ask too many questions."
      "And you don't answer any."
      "I learned a long time ago that was a good way to keep out of trouble," Slaughter said, turning sharply to the left, unworried by the sheer drop of hundreds of meters that awaited them if he should turn to sharply or drift to far to the side of the road.
      "Sorry, but I've always been a slow learner. Ever shot anybody?"
      "Yeah, all guys like you."
      Vin was apparently done wasting his childish efforts to tease Slaughter. There was silence from then on, and by the time they reached civilization once more, they both were the stern, commanding professionals that had disappeared into the mountains at a drastic speed only an hour ago. How many satellites had recorded everything that had passed during that time, missing only the interval where a roof was over their heads? It made Vin queasy to wonder.
      The first distinctive path they took was to where General Kingsley's division was stationed. Vin noted there was no map displayed on the GPS panel of the dashboard, just behind the steering wheel. Slaughter either had studied a map of this place or been in the area before. Odds were it was a combination of the two.
      The MPs let them in with a flash of papers, and Slaughter guided the Warthog to the command center. More MPs stopped them at the entrance, took their papers, read them thoroughly, and asked their business.
      "We're here to see General Kingsley, Sergeant," Slaughter said curtly to the towering Indian man. If they had been standing on the ground he would have easily had had a head on them both.
      "Major General Kingsley's not on base at the moment, sir. We can direct you to Brigadier General Toskov if you'd like."
      "Thank you, Sergeant."
      The MP Sergeant and one of his men escorted the Warthog to the gates that led to the division command offices, where the company clerks did their work and where the unit commanders reported to their superiors. The gates parted like the Red Sea, letting them pass and then closing behind them. The Indian Sergeant went back to post and left Slaughter and Vin to find Toskov for themselves. Not a hard task, to be sure. They didn't need a detail of MPs babysitting them twenty-four-seven.
      Slaughter drove up to the hut with the highest-flying flag, caught up in the wind. More of the same routine of showing MPs their papers followed, and they were admitted to the front office, where a secretary—Vin was slightly surprised; most officers with higher ranks had AIs to do their paperwork for them—was seated, hard at work with a stack of paperwork.
      They stood before the secretary's desk for several moments, until Slaughter, not in any mood to take the "I'm-sorry-you'll-have-to-wait" shit that would be provided if he asked the secretary for his time, slapped his hand down on the secretary's desk, right in front of his pen. The man's eyes followed Slaughter's fingers to his hand and his hand up his arm, finally coming to the irritated eyes of the ONI spook. "Yes?" he asked, somewhat timid.
      "We're here to see General Toskov."
      "He's busy at the moment. You'll have to wait for—"
      "Now, Lieutenant."
      Slaughter was now leaning over the desk at a dangerous level, his eyes boring into the secretary's from only a few centimeters away. He breathed into the Lieutenant's face, and the secretary backed up. He dropped his pen and held up his hands slightly. "Yes, sir," he said and got up quickly and went to the door.
      Vin smiled. Slaughter knew how to get results.
      The secretary opened the door for them, and held it there as they circled around his desk and filed through. As he passed, Slaughter flashed a grin at the secretary. "Thank you, Lieutenant." Vin winked.
      Toskov was conversing with a Colonel who sat in a reclining chair with hands folded in his lap. They looked up as the two Captains entered, Toskov across circular-rimmed glasses that rested on the bridge of his nose. The Brigadier General set down a paper he was holding and looked to the secretary, who followed them in. "Lieutenant?"
      "Captains Slaughter and Callaghan to see you, sir," the secretary said, repeating the names he had read off their papers.
      "Didn't I ask not to be disturbed until I was done with Colonel D'Arcy?"
      "Sir—" the secretary started, but Slaughter cut him off.
      "My fault, General. I insisted on delivering Captain Callaghan to his new post as soon as possible, as per orders." Slaughter patted his right coat pocket. "You can look it up with ONI, if you'd like."
      "No, that won't be necessary, Captain. Lieutenant, you two are dismissed," Toskov said quickly. Slaughter tossed him a salute that was rather on the sloppy side, and the secretary went rigid and his hand snapped to his forehead. He made a perfect about-face and opened the door, leading Slaughter out.
      Halfway through the door, Slaughter turned his head towards Vin and held up his hand. "I'll be seeing you, Captain. You can count on that. Semper Fi," Slaughter said, and left without waiting for a response. The Lieutenant, a good secretary, closed the door quickly but softly behind him.
      Vin turned to Toskov and saluted. "General."
      "Captain." Toskov nodded. "If you would be so kind as to wait for a few moments until I'm finished with Colonel D'Arcy?"
       "Yes, sir."
      "You may have a seat in the corner, Captain" Toskov said, motioning to the chair opposite the man he had marked as D'Arcy. Vin walked over and plopped down in the chair, placing his cap on his lap.
      "Colonel, I'll see what I can do about getting your men a spot on the firing range. We'll need to divert the flow of personnel traffic to the area, but if we manage to time it right that shouldn't be a problem."
      "Thank you, sir," D'Arcy said.
      "That will be all, Colonel. Dismissed!"
      "Yes, sir!" D'Arcy said, and stood up. He picked his cap up from the small table next to his chair and tucked it underneath his arm. A salute snapped to his forehead, in the same, crisp military manner that the Lieutenant had displayed. Toskov returned his salute and Vin saluted also. D'Arcy promptly left the room.
      Vin sat in the chair for several moments, waiting as Toskov worked diligently. His fingers played over his keyboard, the information he was typing displayed in his glasses for only him to see. There was a screen that could be projected to display what was going on to multiple persons, but by the dust on the switch that would activate it, which was located next to the keyboard that was built into the desk, Vin assumed it hadn't been used much.
      When General Toskov was done he removed his glasses and set them lightly on the table. He looked up to Vin, and then without taking his eyes off of him he reached down and pulled open a drawer. He took out a folder and placed it on his desk. "I assume you read the message and saw the file Dr. Halsey sent you?"
      "Yes, sir."
      "Have you spoken to anyone about what you saw?"
      "No, sir."
      "Did you dispose of what you were given?"
      "Yes, sir."
      "Then we don't need this," Toskov said, and put the folder back in the drawer. Vin was surprised that he didn't lock it—he was pretty sure what was in that folder—but then again it might be set only to open when in contact with Toskov's fingerprints or genetic signature, provided through the abundance of cells crawling or dripping across human skin. "So, tell me what you think is going on, Captain Callaghan?"
      "Is this office clean of bugs?"
      "Yes, Captain. You may speak freely. Just not loudly."
      "From what I read from Dr. Halsey, there's been a unit of defectors formed in the UNSC Marine Corps. Other than that, I don't know anything other than it has something to do with my transfer..." Vin trailed off, his mind going too fast for his mouth. "I'm not being put in command of this unit, sir?"
      "Not quite, Captain Callaghan. That... honor goes to Colonel D'Arcy." Toskov's pause before the word "honor" said enough of what he thought of the program and the defectors. But, a good old soldier, he did his duty without grumbling. "You," he continued, "will be serving as a member of Colonel D'Arcy's staff."
      "As what?" Vin asked.
      "Executive officer of the Grunt Brigade," Toskov said, and Vin was sure he saw a smile flash across his face. "Congratulations, Captain. You are dismissed. You can find a ride to your new unit's compound from Sergeant Kanwar, the Indian MP on duty outside the gate."
      "Yes, sir." Vin stood up and saluted.
      "Good luck, Captain."

The Warthog bumped and trembled as it swerved to avoid shallow ruts on the side of the poorly-kept road. Vin sat erect in the side seat, trusting Sergeant Kanwar not to roll them over. They were slowly leaving more cluttered areas with buildings, barracks and people, and coming into areas with more room for the dust to be kicked up. A light cough came out of Vin's mouth, and his covered it with a fist.
      "Sorry about the dust, Captain."
      "I don't mind, Sergeant. My lungs have been breathing that musty, recycled starship air for too long. I like the change. It reminds me I've got land under me again," Vin explained as the Warthog rumbled across a patch of rough, gravelly road.
      "Yes, sir. It's a good feeling," the Sergeant said, giving a slight smile.
      "That it is." They were silent for the remainder of the trip.
      Sergeant Kanwar pulled up to the compound a minute later and dropped him off with a salute. Vin returned it, was admitted to the compound by the MP, who had seen him with Sergeant Kanwar, his superior, and took it as all the clearance Vin needed to be admitted. He was led by the MP to a hut off to the side of the main rows of barracks, where the MP knocked on the door. "Colonel?"
      The same Colonel D'Arcy that Vin had seen in Toskov's office opened the door. Both Vin and the MP saluted, and D'Arcy saluted them back. "Lance Corporal Wallace. Do you need something?"
      "No, sir. Just delivering a new officer to your unit," Corporal Wallace said. He stepped aside and Vin took a step forward, standing where the MP had stood a moment ago.
      "Thank you, Corporal. You may return to your post," D'Arcy said.
      The MP executed an about face and marched back to the gate. He went through, closed it and locked it with his dog tag, which contained a military security clearance chip, using it as a keycard.
      "Well, Captain, come in, and let me explain to you some of our situation here. I know about you, but you don't know about us," D'Arcy said gruffly, stepping aside. His service uniform was unbelted and his cap hung from a hook on the wall. Vin removed his cover and put it beneath D'Arcy's, then stood by the Colonel's desk as D'Arcy settled down in his desk chair. "Have a seat, Captain. There's some chairs at the table over there," D'Arcy said, motioning a few feet to his right.
      "Thank you, Colonel, but I'll stand."
      "Suit yourself, Captain."
      "Thank you, sir," Vin said, nodding.
      "How much do you know about what we've got going on here?" D'Arcy asked.
      "I know about the Grunt Brigade. I know that I've been assigned to be the XO of this unit."
      "Anything else?"
      "That you're the CO. That's about it."
      "We've got twenty noncoms, all Jackals. We have one officer, a Lieutenant, an Elite. You'll get to know them in awhile. The rest of the Grunt Brigade is manned by Grunts, one to a platoon, and from what my officers have told me that's already stretching it, as Grunts are made to be cannon fodder and don't really have any training past how to shoot the man in front of you and do what your superiors say. They're not supposed to be superiors. So you can see our dilemma?" D'Arcy was now tapping a pack of cigarettes lightly against his hand.
      "Yes, sir, I can see the problem."
      "You're job is to train these Grunts. We cannot go into battle with noncoms who are combat ineffective," D'Arcy said. He pulled out a cigarette, removed the safety strip, tapped it on the end and placed it in his mouth as it lighted up. "Cigarette, Captain?"
      Vin reached out, took one and placed it in his pocket. "Thank you, sir, I'll smoke it later." He had his own cigarettes, a different brand, but it wouldn't be prudent to refuse his COs hospitality when they had just met. He would smoke it later, whether D'Arcy saw him or not.
      "I want a report by reveille in a week. Understand?"
      "Affirmative, sir."
      "All right. You can go to your barracks now and pick out a bunk. The officer's hut is the first one in line, the row nearest to my quarters here. Your belongings are already there. Get to know your fellow officers and get as much information on training Grunts as you can from them. You are dismissed," D'Arcy said, exhaled from his nostrils, and stubbed the cigarette out in an ashtray.
      Vin saluted, and D'Arcy nodded to him. He turned around, picked his cap up off the hook, placed it beneath his arm and opened the door. "One more thing, Captain Callaghan," he said. Vin paused.
      "We have a spot on the shooting range tomorrow at zero-six hundred. General Toskov just emailed me. I want you to bring your sidearm with you. We'll all be doing some shooting. I like to see how well the men I serve with shoot," D'Arcy said.
      "Yes, sir."
      "It doesn't have to be loaded. You'll get ammo at the firing range."
      Vin smiled. "Sir, I always keep my sidearm loaded."

Kantamee looked up as a human male, about six feet tall and looking to be about in his mid-twenties, entered the barracks. The officers present snapped to their feet, their hearts pressed against the center of their chests. "At ease," the human said. "I'm your new XO. Captain Vin Callaghan, for any of you who want to know."
      Kantamee walked forward and held out a hand. "Welcome to the Grunt Brigade, Captain."
      Vin looked him over, from his towering eight-foot high crown to his large feet. Standing in the large creature's shadow, he reached out his hand and grasped the Elite's. His fingertips barely made it around. "Glad to be here, Lieutenant. Colonel D'Arcy told me my luggage was here. Were any black bags dumped here?"
      "Yes, sir, they're on the last bunk in the row."
      "Ah," Vin said, peeking around the Elite's shoulder to what he supposed had been chosen as the bunk for him. It was a normal affair, like what he had usually slept in, only a few feet longer. The Jackals had sleeping platforms with little caves dug out of the walls for their backs, similar to what he supposed Grunts would sleep on. The four long bunks at the end, of which his was one, were empty and well-made. Apparently Elites could sleep on mattresses if they had to.
      He let the officers to their business of cleaning and maintenance. There were only five or six present, counting Lieutenant Kantamee. He supposed the rest were policing the compound. He took his bags off his bed, and set them beside his bunk. Sitting down on the bunk, he unzipped one small bag, then proceeded to unlock it. He opened it up, then removed the M6D pistol inside.
      He opened the slide, then peered inside the chamber to make sure a shell was present. After that he checked the clip. The magazine was full. Vin belted the gun onto his uniform, took D'Arcy's cigarette out of his pocket and smoked it. When he was done he knew that, like so many other places he had been stationed, this was home.