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Fan Fiction

From Tulane by CaptainRaspberry

Mongoose - From Tulane
Date: 25 March 2009, 11:50 pm

You've seen the propaganda videos: two Marines, flying over ditches and hills and cliffs while riding on the back of a Mongoose. The driver is steely-eyed, reflexes like a panther, fearless; the gunner is gripping his buddy firmly (in a manly-but-not-homoerotic fashion) on the shoulder and hefting some heavy weapon, usually a rocket launcher. As they plow through a flowery well-mowed field a Covenant Wraith appears on the horizon and starts lobbing plasma, which the driver avoids with ease but always seems improbably close to the explosions. The gunner, dirt flying in his face, carefully takes aim and fires a rocket, which strikes the tank dead in the center and causes a massive blue and yellow explosion. The pair drive off into the sunset, leaving smoking ruins and a message inviting people to enlist before they're drafted anyway.

This isn't the only one out there. Others exist, such as the Mongoose being hot-dropped via VTOL into a raging battlefield, or the Mongoose rushing down a stream casting plumes of water rearwards, or everybody's personal favorite, the two Spartans on a Mongoose, one driving one-handed while firing a sub-machine gun, the other toting a heavy-duty laser.

It doesn't work like that. There's so much wrong with that picture I can't even stand it. First of all, in a combat situation the driver is never confident. In my experience he's always clutching the handlebars as if salvation will come out if he's squeezing hard enough. He has no cover from enemy fire, he has nothing fastening him to his seat, and no matter what they say about it not being easy to hit, any Wraith pilot worth his alien salt will slag it in an instant. Most drivers are either ordered into the position or are bat-fucking-shit crazy, but even they smarten up halfway through their ride.

Gunners are even worse. Most picked for that duty aren't qualified to operate heavy weapons, as those individuals are considered too valuable to be put on the rear-end of a 60 MPH deathtrap, so rocket launchers are right out. Perhaps some headway could be made with an MA5 or equivalent, but you need two hands to comfortably hold one of those, and one hand is always occupied with the driver. Mind you, not placed on a shoulder in a vaguely comforting manner but wrapped around the midsection and squeezing with titanic strength. That is, of course, being kind: sometimes they don't go for the midsection. I knew a guy once who was riding shotgun to a lovely lady from Seattle, and tried to use the occasion of their imminent death to cop a feel. No one's saying she fishtailed on purpose, but it was awfully convenient how he ended up ribs-first in a cloud of pink needles.

Myself, as a fully-qualified anti-armor E-2/OR-2, was usually excused from having to deal with that horrifying four-wheeled monster. Dealing with Wraiths was already hard enough without all the shaking involved with driving over rough terrain and flipping end over end after your driver was killed by shrapnel. However, on occasion, we all draw the short stick.

Tulane was one of those wonderful Earth-like planets that enticed governments into colonizing them, but was not actually robust enough to be livable on its own. Terraforming had not been a big ordeal, the settlers had never fallen under the thrall of the Insurrectionists any more than most other Inner Colonies, and it had no particular value in academia, economics, or politics; by and large, it was one of the most beautiful, well-balanced, ignorant spots in the galaxy. It didn't matter much to anyone except the people who were born there, and even then they hardly cared about it.

Until the Covenant showed up. There was no defense fleet, no real military presence besides a COM buoy and accompanying satellites. It was a planet ripe for destruction, with a population of about three billion, give or take, that was utterly helpless in the face of an attack.

Until the Covenant showed up, and didn't glass it.

Suddenly it became the UNSC's new pet campaign, a ground war where victory was possible. Fleet after fleet, army after army, was sent to defend this beacon of human civilization. The Covenant responded in kind, sending wave after wave of horrifying, ugly aliens into the cities, through the forests, across the deserts, and over the icy poles, seemingly just to exterminate every human one-by-one instead of all at once from space.

I'm sure ONI was thinking there was something special about the planet, but I don't know.

From 2549 to 2551, until the Covenant finally gave up whatever game they were playing and blasted the whole thing from space, Tulane was one of the most vicious warzones in the galaxy, and there's a shit-ton of stories to tell.

In the last year before Tulane was glassed, maybe about four or five months out, the higher-ups were already getting twitchy. The UNSC had lost count of how much of its money it poured into this razor-rimmed wormhole of a planet trying to keep it away from the Covenant. More than one, probably about three generals had pinned their careers on its survival and were desperate to see "V-T" Day.

Somewhere in one of the generals' offices, someone suggested that maybe we weren't winning because of "poor mobility." The next day, thousands of Mongoose-model Ultra-Light All-Terrain Vehicles were shipped to bases all around the planet.

I was stationed at the forward operating base in grid Bravo Orca Six Sierra, or as we affectionately referred to her, the Boss. There was approximately a five kilometer tract of no-man's land between ourselves and the nearest Covenant outpost, a tract that was mostly forest with a few open farm plains and a town two kilometers to the west. For most of the war, the town itself was occupied by one degree or another, depending on the mood of battle.

On that day, four or five months from glassing, dozens of large crates were airlifted in by Albatross. Six were addressed to November Company, Fourth Battalion, Seventh Infantry. Of those, two were delivered to the First Platoon, of which I was a part.

When we opened the crates, there was moaning, swearing, and remarks of disparagement: none of us wanted to deal with the poorly equipped and poorly designed vehicle-impersonating disaster. Included with each was a letter from the Colonel, instructing us to use these on any patrol that took us two kilometers or more from base; in short, any patrol in which there was a real and present danger of running into the enemy. It also said that any Marine who was qualified for driving was automatically to be included in all patrols that required the use of a Mongoose. There were a few from our platoon, enough to create a rotation.

I knew a few of the drivers they picked. Charlie Ford was top of the pile, from second squad. He had a knack for handling vehicles, which to us made sense: he was of the prestigious Ford family line, his very ancestry having come up with the Model-T and all that jazz. Apparently back home he was quite the motorcycle racer. He stayed a driver until the end of Tulane. Legend has it that on Reach he splattered ten Grunts and six Elites until a sniper finally put a hole in his heart.

Bettie Gibbs was another choice, also from second squad, and she proved her worth right up until the last week when Dave Damian Clarke grabbed her tit and she swerved into a swarm of exploding needles. No one said it was on purpose, but one needle stuck her in the elbow and took her out of the fight.

The only other driver I knew personally was Man Hong Hendrix, or "Man-Man," as we called him. He was a Marine of many talents: he had qualifications for sniper, Hornet pilot, rocket jockey, airborne, and yes, cook. He always said he could have gotten medic too, but his girlfriend had been visiting on the day of the last exam, so he decided not to follow through on it. As a driver he was good.

A lot of people went to Lieutenant Olivia Calhoun, the XO for First Platoon, and complained about having to use the Mongooses. At first the Lieutenant gave a big "tough luck" and "this is war" speech with such precision that a lot of people thought she maybe rehearsed it in front of the mirror every night. However, as more and more people went to her to complain, she finally backed down:

"Listen," she said to everyone who asked, "the Colonel's orders are clear: we have to use them for any patrol that goes two klicks or more from base. If it really bothers you that much, just record your patrols as going out less than two klicks and don't take the Mongooses."

That seemed to sit well with people and it worked fine for a week. But then a fireteam on patrol from Third Platoon was greased by a pair of Covenant Ghosts on a three kilometer walk, the Colonel caught wind and asked why their patrol was down for one kilometer and why they didn't have their vehicles, and from then on the rule was strictly enforced.

Fortunately for me, I was certified anti-armor and had the only rocket launcher in the squad. Like Sergeant McClure and his S2, I was deemed too valuable to be sent on "motor patrol." I was only ever called in if there was an armored unit, and then I was transported in on a 'Hog. So whenever a patrol went out, I'd kick back and wave goodbye; I made sure to time my launcher cleaning perfectly with whenever somebody from my squad went out.

I was too valuable until the day that I facetiously checked the patrol roster and found my name in Thursday's slot, attached to PFC Hendrix as the driver.

My particular dislike of the Mongoose is only amplified when I'm forced to ride on one. Man-Man was a good driver, relaxed when he took turns, and that calming force transferred to the passenger, in this case being me. But on this one patrol, holding Man-Man tight and watching Langley and Ford up ahead on their vehicle, I figured out a lot of things that I had previously kept from my opinion about the Mongoose. For one, they're really loud, especially when you're supposed to be on patrol. I figured anybody could hear us coming, which was bad.

Another thing I realized was that you couldn't be as alert on a Mongoose. The driver was too busy paying attention to the terrain, fields interspersed with forests, and the passenger was too busy worrying if the driver was paying enough attention.

At the first kilometer marker, I was still pretty terrified, but mellowing out. I couldn't hold my launcher, but I had it strapped across my back. My SMG was waiting on my hip, easily reachable if I could tear my hand away from Man-Man's midsection. The wind against my face felt pretty good.

At the second kilometer marker, I was feeling better, but still anxious. It was a patrol, after all, and if we ran into any Covenant it would ruin my day.

At the third kilometer marker, I was feeling complacent.

When we got to the three-and-a-half kilometer point and started to turn, that's when I heard the distant release of a Fuel Rod Gun and saw the streak of green as it raced towards us. The projectile was off its mark, but it dug a decent gouge in the path that sent Man-Man and I flying off the Mongoose. I had been in explosions before and had even gotten bucked from a Warthog, but it had been going slow; the 'Goose was tearing down the path at about thirty miles per hour. My armor took most of the hit, just a few tremors rattling my ribcage, but my launcher was torn and went flying into some low brush.

I heard shouting and gunfire, Ford and Langley coming back around to help us as four Grunts and an Elite with the offending Fuel Rod Gun came jumping out of a nearby grove. The air was full of tracers and ozone as the two sides exchanged fire, and for a while I just wanted to lie there and enjoy the sight. But the Fuel Rod Gun blasting holes all around me woke me up. Man-Man had taken cover as best he could behind the downed Mongoose and was blasting away with his MA5B. I was stuck in the open.

I thought it was all over when I heard someone shouting at me. Langley was waving his arms and pointing where my launcher had landed. I grabbed my M7 and started crawling, trying to stay as low as I could. Every so often I'd point my gun in the direction of the enemy and squeeze off a burst, but I was focused on my launcher. It was my lifeline, my only reason for living.

It seemed like an eternity before I reached it. Concealed by the low brush I dropped my SMG and hefted the cool ten pounds of metal. I gave it a quick shake; the rockets hadn't been dislodged. That was the number one cause of death for a rocketeer, misaligned ordnance -- that and gunshot wound.

Once I was sure I wasn't going to blow myself up, I peeked out from behind my cover. Man-Man's Mongoose was almost completely slagged from the heat of the plasma pouring against the side, and Langley and Ford had dismounted behind a low rise and were trying to lay down suppressing fire. The Covenant, four Grunts and an Elite, had steadily been advancing towards Man-Man.

I brought the launcher up, not bothering to sight, and fired. My whole body shook, an intimately familiar rattle of bone, and the Covenant blew apart. Man-Man's cover was peppered with shrapnel and gore, and I took a Grunt's arm to the chest, but the Elite and Grunts were gone. There were secondaries as the Fuel Rod ammunition exploded and a few spare plasma grenades cooked off, which made for a spectacular light show. Ford's helmet cam caught it all, and we played the scene once a night for two weeks afterwards in the barracks.

The walk home was long. Our Mongoose had been destroyed. When we finally got back to base, we were hailed as heroes for killing the dreaded monster; without a second ATV, the Captain had ordered all motor patrols suspended. It was back to normal.

Lieutenant Olivia Calhoun was especially impressed by my actions. "Not bad," she said. "Maybe we should assign a rocketeer to every motor patrol once we get the new 'Goose."

I swear to God, I almost shot her dead right fucking there.

Oncoming Winter - From Tulane
Date: 2 April 2009, 11:33 pm

      Spring of 2550 was a banner time on Tulane, particularly March. The Covenant was pushing further and further towards firebase Bravo Orca Six Sierra -- the Boss -- and every day we saw more troops go out and less come back. Hornets buzzed by, gunners seated on the booms, holding outdated M99 Stanchions because there wasn't anything better. Spaceship activity around the planet had increased, keeping our resupply ships backed off until another counterattack could be managed.

      The Boss was isolated compared to other firebases, which made us a good staging ground. The Covenant line, which had been ten kilometers away when we first set up, had by now advanced to seven kilometers away. It would be five kilometers away by the time the year was up.

      But there were two human settlements within a respectable range. To the west, about two kilometers, was Thomaston. It was a small town that was largely ignored by the Covenant, a place where we could go for some R & R, chase some pussy, drink away our troubles. That was usually our "leave," since there was no way off Tulane unless you were missing two or more limbs or one head. It's a quaint little town.

      However, fourteen kilometers to the northeast there was a sizeable city, Itana. It was a hot zone, contested by both the UNSC and the Covenant for the past year. The UNSC wanted it because it had the only functioning starport in the Bravo Orca sector, and the Covenant wanted it because it could take away the only functioning starport in the Bravo Orca sector.

      At night we could hear the battle raging fourteen kilometers away, sometimes see flashes of powerful detonations. Myles Burnett and Warren Langley and Israel Bowen used to sit on the roof of the supply depot and watch. When asked, one of them invariably replied, "It's better than fireworks."

      I'm a rocketeer, but that didn't always get me out of dirty details. Anybody can haul a body out of a truck. When the convoys returned at half-strength or worse, we were the closest uncompromised firebase to the action: that turned us into an ad-hoc field hospital. More accurately, we were a graveyard.

      It's rough to be in that situation. Most people don't realize, but death has a smell and a sound. The smell is like a sweet and tangy aroma, it fills your nostrils when you don't want it to. The sound is a kind of keening wail, a harmonious musical note generated by fifteen corpses that haven't realized they're dead yet.

      One of the worst jobs I had to do was marking people for life or death. As casualties were wheeled, carried, or dragged in, I stood by the door with a fat black marker. The medics had told me to mark the hopeless cases with an X on their foreheads, so that precious time and medicine wasn't wasted. I know I wasn't special -- there were tons of people in the war in the same position. Some will tell you how they cried, or told the people they marked that they would be fine. Maybe I did that in the first day, but after that I just tiredly did my duty. The soldiers didn't ask why and I didn't tell.

      Something after the thousandth body in three days, I didn't think I could take much more. I had held that black marker in my hands and dragged it across too many sweaty, bloody brows. There weren't many medics in our platoon either, and they were running around the clock doing triage. Corporal Rocky Sharpe was in the third squad and the only qualified field medic in our platoon. He had to give on-the-job training to his entire fireteam and made them like Death: they had to choose who lived and who died.

      A week and two days after the end of the battle, Sharpe execused himself to the latrine, put his sidearm in his mouth, and made his peace. Without a medic, we were in trouble for a while.

      But now, amid seas of blood, I needed air and nicotine. Outside I found Tameka Chapman, a sweet black-haired girl, twenty-year-old Corporal who had dark red smears across her face. They were days old. She smiled, but it was distant. "Taking your five?"

      "Depends. Got a light?"

      She produced a cigarette and a lighter, both of which I accepted and used generously. The smoke scraped at the top of my throats and filled my lungs with relief. I exhaled and handed back her lighter. "Thanks."

      She shrugged. Her features were incredibly fair and soft, the few times it was possible to get ourselves cleaned up. Death wasn't a job that suited her. Not too far in the future, she would find Sharpe's body. She had seen people burned to death by plasma, holes torn in them by pink needles, but she couldn't take the idea of someone doing it to himself. She cried for weeks afterwards at strange times, like eating, sleeping, or on patrol. Not sobbing, just tears streaming down her face. She never failed her psyche exam, though, so the romeo-echo-mike-foxtrots kept her on the line.

      But for now, she was just tired and covered in the blood of a dozen people.

      Together we stood outside and smoked, enjoying the spring morning.

      In too short a time, Sharpe poked his head out. "Chapman, Holiday. We need you."

      These days all I can think of is seeing him slumped against a wall, his own blood raining down on him, and Tameka's tears as she put down two Grunts from the side of a hill while under fire from Banshees.

      But at the moment Sharpe was just a poor, overrun man who kept asking me for help when I didn't want to give it.

      Tulane wasn't a hellhole, not like Paris IV or Miridem or that frozen meatgrinder called Pearl. Fighting on Tulane lasted three years, a record time during the Great War, but it was lax fighting. Neither side seemed to actually care. By and large, the Boss was an easy posting. Aside from the occasional rough patrol or the call to assist nearby engagements, we sat back, played cards, and lied about who we slept with, how many kills we had, and who we lied about sleeping with. It was a simple time.

      Thomaston wasn't a hellhole either. From the moment the Covenant put their strangely-shaped hooves on the ground to when they scorched that ground black with orbital lasers, they never paid much attention to it. Personally, I saw action not five hundred feet from the edge of an apartment complex and not even once did a plasma shot go anywhere near that place. Back at the Boss, we started telling lies about how, if you slept with a girl from Thomaston, you had a week of immunity.

      I couldn't tell you if Itana was a hellhole because I wasn't there, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't. If it had been, this many dead Marines would have just stayed there and kept fighting instead of ending up flooding the floor of the barracks -- my bunk -- in the Boss.

      Eventually the casualties coming into the Boss tapered off. The UNSC wasn't winning or turning the fight around or finally pounding back the alien tide. They had just cut off the amount of troops they were sending. We didn't know why until a few days later:

      During sunset on the slowest casualty day we had seen in a while, six of us were sitting outside and just staring at the dwindling light. Tameka still had the smears of blood on her face from days -- weeks, however long it was -- before. Sharpe was there, taking a rare break, but he had a haunted look in his eyes. It lasted for a week and two days before he finally had the most at-peace look I had ever seen. To this day it hasn't been surpassed.

      The three others, Myles Burnett and Warren Langley and Israel Bowen, sat facing to the northeast, helmets on, visors down. The rest of us didn't care; we figured they were just disappointed. The guns had fallen silent in Itana.

      I dumped my cigarette and was about to say, "I'm gonna catch some rack time," when the sky lit up. It was blinding, but it was also reflecting off the ground and the base and the sky itself. We all cried out and tried to shield our eyes, but it was too late. For a while we stood around rubbing our eyes, trying to clear the spots. When we finally recovered our wits enough, we turned around.

      A mushroom cloud rose up over the horizon, about fourteen kilometers away. It still roiled with flame, but the worst of it was over. A tremor rocked the ground and a stiff wind blew over us, almost knocked us over. At the time we didn't realize it was the shockwave.

      On the ground, Israel nodded, tears streaming down the faces of him and his two buddies. "Better than fuckin' fireworks," he said. They were blind for two days.

      Tameka ran a hand through her fine, blood-clotted black hair. Sharpe just stared. At my feet, Israel giggled and groped for his hip flask. "Well," he said, raising it to his face. "Here's to oncoming winter."

      It was March, 2550, on Tulane. In early April, Sharpe killed himself, and Tameka didn't stop crying until June, but she didn't fail any of her psyche exams. She stayed on the line.

      It was an early winter that year

A Painted Rocket - From Tulane
Date: 16 April 2009, 3:13 pm

      Ambushes are a tough duty. No one wants to do it. No one knows if they're going to come back from it. No one thinks it's a particularly good idea to sit out in the dark along the patrol route of an enemy of far superior strength and wait for them to show up. No one except the Colonel, anyway.

      There's a big difference between ambushes, and it's all dependent on where and when you have to set one up. For example, ambushes in a forest at night with ample cloud cover? Easiest thing on the planet. You just dig your fighting hole, set the motion sensors up in the bushes, and -- if you're so lucky -- place your automatic support turrets in the trees. Then you sleep, but quietly.

      It's different in a field, even at night. If there isn't cloud cover, it may as well be day for all the light you get. Plus, Elites and Jackals seem to have incredible night vision and can see you if there's only one star poking out between the clouds. In that case, you have to get creative: camo netting over your fighting hole, painting all your equipment a burnished black, not using your visor for fear of light reflecting off the plexiglas.

      It's also difficult because you can't fall asleep: no motion sensors, because what if they get spotted? They'll give you away, and the Covenant would have no problem torching the entire field from space if they think it'll be convenient. You have to use your eyes, and while your eyes are scanning for hostiles your mind is free to ponder the deeper, darker things: why bother with an ambush? Against Grunts it's effective, but they never travel alone: Jackals have arm shields and Elites have body shields. It's almost impossible to catch them by surprise and kill them instantly.

      And if any Hunters show up, you might as well turn your gun on yourself. They have big feet, and you're trapped in a small hole. To say nothing of the giant cannon built into their arm.

      What pushes unfairness to the edge, however, is breaking up a squad and putting one team in the forest and the other in the field, so one can envy the other and, in due time, think murderous thoughts.

      Tulane may have been one of the premiere sightseeing spots in the Inner Colonies -- with a catch phrase no better than "Come see what Earth used to look like!" -- but after 2549 it became one of the most hotly contested worlds in the Human-Covenant War. When the Covenant arrived and didn't just destroy it out of hand, the UNSC realized they might have a shot at winning a public support campaign and poured money by the shipload into holding the planet and maintaining a public image of heroic sacrifice and meaningful success.

      To those of us unfortunate enough to be on the planet, we were just concerned with holding our bowels and maintaining our sanity and lives.

      Being posted at firebase Bravo Orca Six Sierra -- the Boss, to we who lived in her -- was a mixed blessing. We never saw the worst of the war: the chemical warfare experiments happened on the other side of the planet, we were never pulled into major engagements, and though we were within visual range of the nuclear bombing of Itana, the trade winds blew the fallout in the other direction.

      But all that happened later. In late fall of 2549, mere months after my arrival on Tulane and being posted to November Company, we were dealing with a delayed frost season, bad rations, and bored Marines. The front was ten kilometers away, and though technically designated as a "forward operating base," the higher-ups didn't really bother moving us around much.

      As anyone will tell you, idle Marines are trouble. We had things to keep us occupied, like a fully stocked firing range, a modest motor pool, and Thomaston, a small town only two klicks away with all the comforts of home and safe from Covenant attack.

      Despite all this, we were getting restless. Captain Kendrick Graves, our platoon CO, probably figured it out after Private Israel "Izzy" Bowen arranged all our Lotus anti-tank mines in a rough smiley-face formation outside his office, or possibly after we had rearranged all the access keyboards from the traditional Dvorak layout to QWERTY. What I remember is sitting in the barracks, listening to Tameka Chapman, Warren Langley, and Myles Burnett play a rough game of cards while I painted faces on my spare rockets, when the Captain and his XO Lieutenant Olivia Calhoun walked in. We all snapped to attention and eased ourselves after they told us so.

      The Captain was all business. "Golf Company is sick of doing ambush duty," he said. "So I've volunteered us to take over this week. First squad will handle Monday and Wednesday, second squad has Thursday and Saturday, and third squad has Tuesday and Friday. Understood?"

      "Yes sir!"

      He nodded and plucked at his reddish hair. "First squad, pack up and get ready. You'll ride out five klicks and then hoof it to the ambush point."

      The ambush point was about seven kilometers away from the Boss, which was a considerable distance, even for doing Golf Company a favor. The Captain probably meant to call in that favor at some point, but a surprise attack against their firebases just two months later eliminated that possibility.

      Usually I was exempt from extra duties as the squad's sole rocketeer, but not this time. This was a whole-squad kind of activity, and besides, there had been reports of armor moving with the Covenant patrols. Besides my launcher and its usual two rockets I brought an extra pair, painted up to look like inappropriate things, just in case.

      Two guys from second squad -- Bettie Gibbs and Charlie Ford, I think -- drove us out in a couple of troop 'Hogs while their buddies rode ahead in a chain gun 'Hog to make sure our route was clear. It was a pretty easy ride, and in the chilled afternoon sun I sat back and enjoyed the scenery. A lot of the fields had been farms abandoned upon the Covenant's arrival, evidenced by derelict harvests, but a few were still active, churning out crops for the soldiers; here and there I could see monstrous Jotuns chugging away, dumping the collected crops into gondolas at their sides.

      It wasn't a long drive, and the walk was fairly simple as well. The sun was close to the horizon by the time we found our ambush location: a forest that was on the edge of abandoned farmland. Sergeant Shaun McClure broke us up into our usual fireteams: me, Valenzuela, Hendrix, and Burnett in Alpha, and him, Langley, Chapman, and Bowen in Bravo.

      Then he decided to push unfairness to the edge.

      "Intel says they usually patrol just outside the forest line," he said, "so it's gonna be Alpha on the inside of the forest and Bravo twenty meters into the field. Next time, we'll switch."

      We took our positions and waited. Man Hong Hendrix, or "Man-Man" as I knew him, dug our fighting holes about five meters away from Valenzuela and Burnett, set up a few motion sensors, and draped some light cover around us. We watched as Bravo out in the field spread out more and were more ample and careful with their cover; we even lent them some of our leftover camo netting if they wanted it.

      There was no Covenant activity all that night, and it would have been a pleasant experience if that hadn't also been the night of the first frost of the season. I spent the entire walk-and-ride back to the Boss waiting for my M41 to thaw.

      Wednesday followed the same set-up, except true to Sergeant McClure's word, we switched places. Now Man-Man and I stole fighting holes that had already been dug by Fireteam Bravo about twenty meters from the edge of the forest and hunkered down. As the sun set he broke out a pack of cards, and five minutes later, after realizing we had no idea how to play gin-rummy and that go fish (for that matter, any card game) was difficult when you were five meters away from the other player, we were slinging dirt clods at each other and Valenzuela and Burnett.

      Soon, though, we quieted down and settled in for the night. Just as I was nodding off, I heard an unearthly hum and was starting to wonder where it was coming from when I spotted two Ghosts powering over the uneven ground and coming toward our positions. The moon was half-full and very bright, making it cruelly easy to see death coming in fast.

      I wasn't the only one, apparently, who saw. Just as they were passing us, one Marine opened fire and the other seven of us cursed his name -- later discovered to be Warren Langley. The vehicles that just moments before had no interest in this part of their patrol whipped around and started firing. Fortunately -- for me -- they were shooting into the forest, popping bushes and slagging trees, hoping to hit Bravo. I shouldered my launcher, took aim at the closest one, and fired.

      The rocket was slightly off target and while not hitting the pilot as I intended, it struck the wing of the craft, sending it spinning. I swore, resighted my target, and fired again; this time my ordinance was dead-on, hitting the center of the thing and causing a huge orange and sapphire explosion. I ignored the rain of debris and concentrated on reloading, seizing my two extra, painted-up rockets that I had on Monday and loading them into the tube.

      While I did this, the other Ghost suddenly lost interest in the non-threatening Alpha team and swiveled around, searching for me. This is when it get tough for a rocketeer: if he spots me first, I'm screwed, and even if I get a shot off at him, he's looking for me and could move out of the way.

      And that's exactly what happened. I locked the tube, sighted my target, and fired. Everything I did was right, but the pilot was looking right at me and swerved to the side, sending -- to my horror -- my rocket straight into the forest where Alpha team was holed up.

      I was sure I had killed them all, but I didn't have much time to think about it. The Ghost was trying to make friends with me with its lasers. Blue plasma exploded around my fighting hole and I ducked down, the extreme heat reflecting off my face. There was still one rocket left in the tube, and now I had a choice: shoot it at the Ghost and die slowly in a hail of burning plasma, or shoot it at my feet and die in an instant and entertaining fashion.

      Before I made my choice, gunfire erupted as Valenzuela and Burnett started shooting at it, lobbing grenades and making as much commotion as they could. The enemy pilot, realizing its side was exposed to the oncoming fire, turned the sleek purple vehicle and now left himself open to me. I seized my opportunity and sighted again -- this time targeting the driver.

      I fired.

      The Elite fell off the Ghost, howling in unbelievable pain.

      I was confused.

      It took a moment for me to realize what had happened. The rocket's explosive head hadn't detonated; instead, I had just launched a three-pound slug at the Elite, which caught him in the side and had the effect of a miniature MAC round. His shield was destroyed and the projectile carried on, breaking all his ribs -- do they have ribs? -- and rupturing a multitude of organs. Meanwhile, as the Elite lay howling on the ground, the four dead men of Alpha team came rushing out and shot the damn thing point-blank in its neck, MA5Bs and BR55s and M7s lighting their faces orange in the silver light of Tulane's moon.

      An anxious and tense night followed as we all waited for dawn. When it came, bringing with it no additional forces, a simultaneous breath was released from all of us. Too curious for words, I rushed over into the forest to find out what had happened last night and, more to the point, why my rocket hadn't killed anyone.

      The answer was stuck in a tree right above Sergeant McClure's fighting hole. He pointed up at it and laughed. "A painted rocket," was all he said, and continued to chuckle all the way back to the Boss.

      On Tuesday morning, when I had focused on unjamming my M41, it probably would have done me good to check my spare, loose rockets to see if the frost had soaked into the seams of their casings and defused the detonators.

      I realized I needed to start painting warnings on my rockets.

Power of the Letter - From Tulane
Date: 8 May 2009, 4:21 am

Nobody cared about the soldiers in the field. Actually, let me clarify: nobody cared about the soldiers in the fields. War correspondents littered the front lines, anchormen reported live from military headquarters in the rear lines, but nobody ever bothered swinging by the Boss -- firebase Bravo Orca Six Sierra. We weren't trying to kill anybody or telling anybody to kill, so we weren't important enough. Politicians came to personally pin medals on soldiers at the front and have shadowy conversations with generals in headquarters.

It was expected that the news people and politicians wouldn't care about us, but sometimes we were surprised at just how cold the rest of the galaxy could be.

It was a cold May in our part of Tulane that year, 2550. It was the second year of hard fighting between UNSC and Covenant forces, and cold because the brass had decided to nuke the city of Itana. It was only fourteen kilometers away, and while we hadn't been killed by the detonation or shockwave, it had snowed ash for a while and the clouds often blocked out the sun.

As I and the rest of Fireteam One-Alpha humped back to the Boss, we already knew there was something different. Among us, Corporal Valenzuela had a bloody bandage over his shoulder, which was the cause of an unusually high amount of cursing from him: a Carbine round had slammed into him, punching through his already-decrepit armor and possibly breaking his collar bone as well. None of us could tell, and unfortunately not long ago our medic, Corporal Rocky Sharpe, had killed himself. PFC Tameka Chapman was still crying and still going through the motions of being a professional soldier. It unnerved us, but we didn't say anything. She could still fire her gun.

Anyway, Sharpe was dead, and we had a new girl, Private Angeline Boyd, who was unfortunately as green as green could get. I swear, she still put on eyeliner and lip gloss every morning. Her records said she was eighteen, drafted from Earth, but she didn't look like she was over sixteen. Her fatigues were loose, her armor just hung on her shoulders, and her medic bag looked about half her size. So far she had only been treating scratches and infections around base and hadn't dealt with a combat injury yet. I can only imagine Valenzuela wasn't looking forward to finding out if she was really qualified.

But as we walked past the sentries, we realized they weren't paying much attention. This wasn't unusual, but when we caught sight of the manila envelopes on their laps we realized mail had arrived while we were out on patrol.

It wasn't often we got mail. The ever-changing space superiority kept things like supplies and replacements from being at all regular, and that had been before the nuclear clouds.

Seeing those envelopes, we forgot all manner of protocol and rushed into the base, weapons slapping our thighs, hooting and hollering and running for the depot. PFC Dave Damian Clarke from second squad was handling the mail that day; he was a good person, but too much of an opportunist. He managed to live pretty long, almost to the end, but he finally died in an "accident" during a combat operation while riding shotgun on a Mongoose. None of us were surprised, of course, after he tried to cop a feel on the driver, "Ready Bettie" Gibbs.

Since he wasn't dead yet, he was handing out letters, which was good because having a corpse handle the mail was usually considered bad form. As we clamored around him, shouting out names and pushing each other, miraculously not setting off our still-not-safed weapons, he laughed and passed packages to some, slips to others, and shrugged his shoulders at still a few more. Not everyone got mail.

Everyone in One-Alpha did, though. I got a package from my mom, a letter from my father, and a letter from my sister on Reach. She was just going through boot, though she said the Office of Naval Intelligence had their eyes set on her. Corporal Valenzuela, forgetting his pain for a moment, received five letters, all from romantic interests across the galaxy. His elation sobered slightly when he read the letter from Wendy, his conquest on Paris IV: we knew it had been over a week delayed, because just a week ago we had gotten word that Paris IV had been glassed with a hundred million dead. He cheered up quickly enough with the other letters.

Private Myles Burnett, also of One-Alpha, got two packages and one letter. The packages were from his parents, who always sent two of whatever: one to keep, and one to share. We all hoped it was candy, as Mr. and Mrs. Burnett always seemed to find the best, most difficult to get stuff. The letter was from his kid brother and included a drawing he had made of Myles in full BDU. Though he joked about it being a "piece of crap," we all knew that he folded it up and kept it in his vest pocket, occasionally sneaking a peek while we were on patrol.

Finally, there was PFC Man Hong Hendrix, "Man-Man" to his friends, of which I was one. He only got one letter, but we instantly knew who it was from and envied him for it. It wasn't hard to recognize her handwriting, flowing and easy. They were like totems to him, little proofs that somewhere in the universe someone cared, and they made him invincible. He even handled it carefully, gingerly taking the envelope between gloved fingers, not daring to fold or crease or bend it. We stepped out of his way as he headed back to barracks, before we all turned on Burnett to find out what he had for us this time.

We never got to know what was in Man-Man's letters. All we ever knew was how strong they made him. After his first letter, we had been called to the front to assist in a clearing operation. The Covenant had taken a village next to a river that had a water-powered dynamo. We already knew the entire village was dead--that's just how the Covenant operated. Strategically it wasn't particularly important either, just a hamlet on the water. The Colonel just didn't want the Covies to have free power.

November Company deployed besides Bravo and Hotel Companies, and it fell on November's first squad to take a protected gun position on a hill. It was mostly held by Elites, only a few Grunts and no Jackals. We had to fight down a street, running from cover to cover, as plasma sizzled around us. Every time I poked my head out to try and sight my M41, I'd be blinded by plasma and molten concrete, unable to get a lock. All of our attempts at drawing their fire weren't working either, the split-chins having already figured out I was the lynchpin to the plan (they always do).

Trapped in a narrow alley with Man-Man, all I could do was hunker down and wait until I starved to death. But Man-Man pulled out his letter from his pocket, just held it in his hands and looked at it. I watched him as he put it to his lips, kissed it, and stood up. He walked to the edge of the alley, brought up his MA5B, and fired. The plasma stopped, and he stepped out, still firing. He crossed the street while firing, and ran out of ammo just as he reached the safety of an alcove. I could only watch in amazement until my wits returned and I stuck my head out.

The Elites were howling, hammering on the mounted turret and making sounds that sounded an awful lot like cursing. Somehow Man-Man's barrage had damaged something. I didn't wait, putting two rockets quickly into the target. Two big booms, lots of secondaries.

As purple debris rained down on our heads, Man-Man walked across the street, holding his letter in one hand. "There's power in here," he said, carefully replacing it in his pocket.

All I could do was agree.

I was happily cleaning my launcher, two empty candy bar wrappers in my lap, when Man-Man sat down next to me. I only glanced up, seeing him holding the carefully torn envelope reverently. "Now this," he said slowly, "has real power, Walt. Real. Power."

Nodding, I grabbed the brush and started cleaning ash out of the inside of the barrels. "Real power," he repeated, "enough to change the world." His hands were steady, like a statue offering the letter up to the gods.

I kept cleaning and Man-Man kept staring, whispering things about power. Too soon, Sergeant McClure came in, holding a map. "Bad news," he said. "Covie heavy patrols were spotted about three klicks out. The cap wants up and out in fifteen." I groaned, joined by others around me from first squad, all except Man-Man. He just kept staring.

Nobody really knew anything about Hendrix and his girlfriend. Some people said they had been dating for years, others that they had met only a week before he was sent here. It was impossible to tell what she looked like: we could only hypothesize that she was a knockout, or a bookworm, or a heavy chick. Some said she was still in high school, one of those Catholic institutions on Troy where they wore short skirts and tight blouses.

We didn't know what were in the letters either. Some said it was poetry, another said long dialogues that were philosophical in nature. Most people said that it was probably just your standard letter, perfumed and hand-written, but Warren Langley swore that he had caught a glimpse and the envelopes were always stuffed full of erotic, naked pictures. We told him he was himself stuffed full of something, but secretly we all fantasized about what was inside.

Man-Man never said what was in there, just that it was powerful stuff. To most of us, that was the important thing.

Things were initially pretty panicky when we first hit, as thing should be, but it was even worse when we saw the Hunters. Massive, walking tanks with shields and big big guns. My rockets were usually called upon first for the duty of wiping them out, but as usual the Covenant knew who would be doing the shooting and kept the fire hot and heavy on my position.

Trapped with me in my own personal hell were Tameka Chapman, tears streaming down her face as she blindfired over the edge of our little ditch, and Izzy Bowen, clutching his leg and screaming. Reinforcements, including our new medic, were still fifteen minutes away, and I had no idea where the rest of first squad was hiding. I knew the sergeant was still alive, though, because I could hear the occasional crack crack crack of his S2, just as I could hear the ineffectual pinging noise his rounds were making on the Hunters' shields.

As I cradled my launcher and hoped I would live, I heard light thumping and a shape dropped into the ditch. I fumbled with my M7 until I noticed that it was Man-Man, smoking from both sleeves but completely unhurt. In his arms he carried his ruined MA5B, slagged by plasma fire.

"They got my gun," he said, but while smiling. I just nodded. What could I say? From the looks of him he had just danced across hot coals, dove through a ring of fire, and then poured gasoline on himself, but he was still up and still smiling.

As he opened his vest pocket, I realized why:

He still had his power.

He went through the ritual as Fuel Rod Cannons detonated around us, showering us with white-hot debris. I did my best to keep my spare munitions from cooking off and Chapman just kept shooting while crying, but Hendrix just held the letter, caressed its stiff envelope, breathing it in. Even Izzy stopped screaming while my friend went through his routine, eyes wide with wonder.

"I got it," he said at last, and stood up. I was about to offer up my M7 until I saw he held his sidearm in his hands, a little M6 to use against titans.

I wanted to say he was fucking crazy. I meant to say it. My mouth was open, vocal chords starting to vibrate, but he was up and over before a syllable could form. I shouted his name and tried to go up after him, but renewed fire kept me down. I was trapped.

There was a gunshot, distinct above the carnage, and a bass, inhuman roar. The ground shook. A bellow, thumping, another shot and a final thump. Suddenly everything was quiet.

I peeked. Letter in one hand, M6 in the other, he stood over the corpse of two blue-armored behemoths. Even the Elites were gaping in shock. I never saw it, but most everyone else in the squad did and would later attest to the truth of the account, as would the orange blood caking his armor.

The rest of the squad quickly finished off the rest of the Covenant patrol, greasing the Elites and taking a few Grunts as prisoners. I still sat in my trench, watching as Man-Man walked towards me. Finally he stood over me, like a god looking down on mortal man.

"So," I finally managed to say. "The power, huh?"

"Yeah," he said, with a hint of sorrow in his voice. "But it's gone now." He handed me the letter and turned away. Scarcely believing it, I opened it and read:

Dear Mannie,

I'm sorry. I can't take the pain anymore, the anxiety. At any moment the cold galaxy could take you away from me. I have to let you go, before I feel that and crack under it. I'm moving on.


A cold galaxy indeed.

Deployment - From Tulane
Date: 15 May 2009, 4:21 am

      People say that they will always remember their first deployment, that somehow it was particularly memorable. I mean, yeah we were all basically giving up our lives, and that first step onto the battlefield is usually the first time it hits most people. But for me, I can't say that it was that big of a deal.

      I remember it fine, but it wasn't important until the guy next to me died.

      Before Tulane, I was a pretty unexceptional guy. I didn't have any particularly strong feelings towards the war; at college I knew guys who didn't want to fight against other sentient species like it was okay to kill humans but not aliens, and I knew guys who were only in school so they could be officers and run off to war the day after graduation. For me, it was a conflict that was hundreds of light-years away.

      I went to college on Sigma Octanus IV, though I had actually been born on Earth and my parents were born on Troy. I studied literature, philosophy, classics; anything flowery, vague, and devoid of math. Grad school was in my future, or so I thought until I got two letters the summer after my senior year: a rejection letter from SOU Graduate Institute, and a draft notice from the UNSC Marine Corps.

      The Pelican was shaking as it dropped through Tulane's atmosphere. There were several Marines jockeying for the only window in the whole bird, the one in the middle of the rear hatch. The closest ones clung to the cargo net that hung from above, not wanting to fall out when the hatch finally dropped, but everyone behind them just stood loosely, nearly losing their footing when the dropship hit an air pocket.

      I just sat on one of the available seats, holding my launcher between my knees and mentally reciting anything I could think of: instructions, orders, prayers, grocery lists. I was a nervous wreck. As a draftee I'd had four weeks of training: two basic, one advanced infantry, and one heavy weapons. The volunteers got at least a month of advanced and then however long they needed for anything else. It just goes to show you that my father had always been right: as soon as they start a draft, volunteer.

      Next to me sat another rocketeer, also bound for the same company, and across from us was a similar story. We were part of the major reinforcement of key bases across what had been designated as "the front," though zones of conflict existed all over the planet at that point. There were others in the dropship as well, and I remember them about as much as I remember anyone from that trip: a Marine writing a letter or a poem or something, one girl talking on a chatter, another obsessively cleaning his weapon like an Elite would see how shiny his Battle Rifle was and spare his life; there were some other weirdoes on that flight, including one twitchy guy with a couple of fire extinguishers strapped to his legs, but none really worth mentioning.

      It was February 2549 when I was heading down to Tulane, and it would be December 2551 before I headed back up; I talked to my fellow rocketeers, idle conversation, for about five minutes before they both died horribly.

      We talked about sports teams (I always backed the Trojan Horses, never mind that it had been over ten years since the fall), girls, and had just started on homes when our Pelican got hit. The dropship flying in formation next to us was hit directly by an anti-aircraft battery, fragmenting it. Shrapnel peppered our Pelican, tearing a hole through my neighbor's throat and the other man's brain, as well as giving less-fatal injuries to several of the other Marines inside.

      As I tried to help stop the blood flow from coming out of my neighbor - still can't remember his name - I couldn't keep my eyes off the man across from me. There was a whole straight through his head, yet God wasn't merciful enough to take him. He just sat there, perfectly upright, and if you could ignore the gaping head wound and the nonsense that he babbled at us, he seemed completely fine. All the words he spoke were real words, not slurred at all, but they made no sense together.

      I always thought it strange that I can't remember his name, but I can recall with perfectly clarity some of the things he said: "Flapjacks obliviously tunnel under gigantic stack," "Clumsy superhero actually skipped mushrooms," "Frog blast the vent core," stuff like that.

      The man next to me died shortly afterwards, giving one final spasm before passing into an indignant death. I'm not sure if the other rocketeer actually ever died; he was taken off the Pelican on a stretcher by medics, still talking. The poet was dead, the girl was holding her severed hand screaming in some other language into the chatter clutched in its dismembered grip, and the cleaner was weeping over his ruined gun with no wounds to speak of.

      When we finally landed, and the horde of soldiers on board were dragged, limped, or ran out of the bay, I found myself alone in the city of Botan. Alone except for the dozens of like-displaced Marines, standing around slack-jawed and trying to find their units. Botan was a hole: it had seen heavy, and I mean heavy fighting. The Covenant had chosen it as a base of operations, and the UNSC had disagreed. I'm talking Scarabs, that's how hard the battle was. Just a few days before my ship arrived in system, though, the Covies had been pushed out.

      All I had with me was my launcher, my M7, one MRE (I was blissfully unaware of the true nature of rations), and a slip of paper with the following scrawled across it:

      4Ba., 7Re., NCom 1-1

      So I wandered around the staging area for about half an hour, trying to find other people with similar slips of paper. Just when I was about to give up hope, a wiry and slimy-looking guy walked up. Wiry because he was thin and tall, slimy because half his BDU was covered in purple gore. He smiled, but it was cruel, the kind of smile a man is likely to give you before gutting you, or delivering a particularly vicious your-mom joke.

      He sniffed. "You Private Holiday?"

      I took notice of the chevrons on his sleeve. "Yes sir, sergeant. Private First-Class Walter Holiday."

      Slowly he looked me over. "Just get outta boot?"

      "Uh, yeah," I said. "On Reach."

      "How long?"

      "Four weeks."

      He thumbed his boonie hat up. "Shit," he said. "A limp-dick conscript?" His eyes settled on my launcher. "Guess you're one of our new Wraith-hookers. Where are the others?"


      "Two other rockets were comin' in with you. Where are they, you get separated?"

      I had an overwhelming urge to scratch my head right then, but stopped myself. "No sir, they were killed on our way in. The Pelican next to ours took a direct hit and the shrapnel..."

      Suddenly the sergeant's face was all rage. "Fuck me! Are you serious?"

      Two other Marines came up behind him. "Problem, sarge?"

      He jammed his thumb at me. "This dick says our other two rockets got hit on the way down, he's the only one left." They looked at me, then looked at him as if asking, "So what?" "He's fucking green, look at 'im!"

      I tried to find other things to look at, but one of the Marines just shrugged. "Sarge, convoy's moving. We have to get on if we want to make it to Six-Sierra." The sergeant scowled but turned and walked away, muttering something I didn't understand. I think he might have been from Coral, judging by his outward demeanor, but I couldn't tell. I fell into step behind him and one of the other two soldiers settled in beside me.

      "What's your name, rook?"

      "Uh, Holiday. Walter."

      "Welcome to first squad, Holiday," he said, extending his hand. "I'm Shaun McClure." He was a corporal.

      The convoy was bound for Itana, where it would set up camp against a mounting Covenant force. All the vets said that it was going to turn into a hell-hole -- how right they were -- but fortunately my stop was elsewhere.

      I'd never seen so much rolling hardware before. At the beginning and end of the column were massive M312 HRV transports, called Elephants, decked out with all the trappings of a ten-ton war machine. Between were all sorts of Warthogs, from the anti-air model to the caged troop transport, the latter of which I was riding in with some other members of my squad: two experienced soldiers, Adam Valenzuela and Myles Burnett, and up front in the passenger seat was a fellow rookie by the name of Man Hong Hendrix. The sergeant was up ahead in another 'Hog, and the others, including McClure, were behind us somewhere.

      Valenzuela was smoking a cigarette and flicked the spent butt at Hendrix's head. "What kind of name is Man Hong anyway?"

      "I told you," he shouted over his shoulder, "it's Chinese-Harmony!"

      "Hey, Harmony?" Burnett looked up from his book. "No shit, I studied at Roger Young University!"

      Hendrix nodded. "Yeah, my brother went there. Class of Forty-Eight?"

      "No, just spent a year there. I'm actually from --" There was suddenly an unearthly screeching noise in the air, and I looked up just in time to see an oblong, winged shape flash by overhead. I barely had time to realize it was a Covenant flyer before there was a burst of heat and the driver screamed and slumped over the side.

      "Shit!" Hendrix reached over and grabbed the wheel.

      Valenzuela unslung his MA5B and pointed it up, scanning for the attackers. I was fumbling with my launcher. "Holiday, get that shit up! Fuck! Where are our Hornets?" He keyed his radio. "Sarge! What the hell is going on?! Where's our air support?"

      "Fuck if I know!" The radio was full of static. "Just start shooting, we should make it out of here alive! And tell the rocket to make his ass useful!"

      Burnett was loading his M7. "Rook, you got that launcher ready yet?"

      "I think so!" I had never fired it in a combat situation before. I was trying to remember what to do, but all I could think of was, point at target, aim away from face. I raised it, put the only blur I could see in my sights, pulled the trigger, and forgot to lead my target. My rocket flew off into the sky, doing nothing but alerting the pilot to the imminent danger.

      Fortunately, I wasn't the only one who wanted this thing dead. Small-arms and LAAG fire cut into its hull, gashing holes and rupturing whatever alien device it used to stay afloat. There was a loud whine and accompanying flash just before the Banshee nosed into the ground and went up in an inferno of blue fire and dirt.

      There were a couple more strafing runs made by the others, blasting away with their Fuel Rod Cannons, before we drove them off. The convoy kept rolling and eventually reached our destination: firebase Bravo Orca Six Sierra. As we rolled up, we saw a group of soldiers standing around the entrance and watching us pass. When our Warthogs split apart from the group and approached the gate they stepped back and cheered. Hendrix was driving our 'Hog and Valenzuela had moved up to the front. When we came to a stop I hopped out the back, a few Marines patting me on the back.

      "Welcome to the Boss," they said. "Hard ride, huh?"

      "Yeah," Burnett said as he slid from his own seat. "Our Hornets bailed on us and we got chewed up by a couple of Banshees." He glanced back at the other 'Hog, a troop carrier, and I realized what was wrong.

      "Where's the sarge?"

      McClure was climbing out of the other 'Hog. "I don't know, I lost contact with him during the attack. Does anybody know what part of the convoy he was in?"

      We all exchanged looks. Nobody said a word. That day we met Captain Kendrick Graves, our platoon CO, as he promoted McClure to sergeant-in-command of first squad and shook my hand for my part in fending off the attack. Not for success, he said, but for effort.

      Over the next two years, I learned that's basically how this planet kept score.

Thomaston - From Tulane
Date: 25 June 2009, 7:42 pm

      There was one place on Tulane where you could escape from the carnage, a place where people who had enough alcohol could maybe forget there was a war going on. No Covenant ever came around, no bombs fell even close, and even though it rained it always seemed sunnier than anywhere else on that planet.

      Thomaston was a happy hamlet only two kilometers away. Unlike most villages, towns, and cities that weren't being actively fought over, it was still inhabited by civilians. In fact, from the moment the first Covenant ship appeared in orbit in 2549 to just days before the first plasma bomb fell in 2551, nobody left. It was a peculiar effect, but one we whole-heartedly came to believe in while we were stationed at the Boss, which was our name for firebase Bravo Orca Six Sierra.

      The first time I went into town was with the rest of first squad, after a particularly harrowing week of setting up ambushes. During one of our outings I had barely managed to stay alive, ironically because my rockets didn't detonate as planned. Man Hong Hendrix put his arm around my neck, said "You need a fuckin' break," and our whole squad was given a weekend pass. Traditionally we could go anywhere, even to Itana, but Thomaston was closest and there was no shortage of alcohol, tobacco, and uninocturnal romance.

      Because it was very late in fall, we didn't want to spend a lot of time outside. Instead we spent our hard-earned time and money inside, in bars and motels and private residences. We all liked to spend it in different ways: Hendrix gambled, Bowed whored, Chapman smoked, and I drank. There were others, though, like Corporal Adam Valenzuela who had met the stunning Aurelia Lopez and her two children. Her husband (their father) had been killed in combat on Pearl. None of us had thought Valenzuela would make anything of it, perhaps just a one-night stand.

      But we were surprised. Rumor had it that the morning afterwards the two little ones had stormed the bedroom and Valenzuela, who had a soft spot for kids, couldn't bear to separate himself from their lives -- or their mother.

      For me, though, I preferred the decor of the local bar to that of a widow's house. My favorite watering hole, though there were few around, was the Port of Missing Men. It wasn't a classy place, but it had a certain charm to it that I couldn't resist. There was a smell to it, the sweet scent of beer mixed with the tang of marachino cherries. It was heaven.

      Two tables away, where Man-Man played cards and Tameka smoked her slims, were other Marines from other platoons. They relaxed leisurely, talking and laughing and hassling the girl who brought them food. She was pretty, dressed up in a blouse and jeans, with a pair of platform shoes. Perhaps it was the Jericho Imported that made me notice, but she had soft features and a warm essence about her. I tipped generously; within the next twenty-four hours, she and I would be together beneath the synthsilk for an intimate and brief rendezvous.

      For lodgings, we soldiers were put up in a motel for a reduced rate, though if we stayed on the good side of the owners, they rarely hunted us down for payment. We were their most valued -- and at that point, probably only -- customers.

      I was sitting in my room reading Toward the Sun, Brave Souls, a novel about the first ill-fated expedition humanity had mounted to send humans to Venus and Mercury. Just as I was getting to the part about the Finnister Doctrine, Man-Man opened my door and stormed in. I tried not to get distracted from my book while he grumbled and stomped around until he finally grabbed the paperback, ripped it out my hands, and tossed it across the room.

      "What's his fucking problem?!" he shouted in my face. I cowered a little bit, but tried to sit straight.

      "What's up?"

      "That guy Pope, from third squad."

      I was confused. "Tom? The guy from Sharpe's unit?"

      "Yeah, him."

      "Why are you getting all bent out of shape?"

      Hendrix exploded. "Because he won't fucking leave me alone! He thinks I have a way in with that waitress from last night, saw us talking. He wants to go after her, so I told him, 'Go ahead,' but he keeps asking me to help him out." He threw up his hands. "I've got my own problems, man! I don't want to help that little shit get any!" The tirade continued for another minute before he sat heavily on the bed.

      Remembering what I could from last night, I nodded. "I could help out, I guess."


      "I dunno, maybe get him to lay off, maybe talk to her for him." At the time, I didn't understand what I was getting myself into. Thomas Pope was a private in third squad, and not the most unattractive of us, but certainly the creepiest. He didn't like not knowing something about a girl, and absolutely seeked and devoured every dirty little fact he could find. Not long after I was deployed here, he had hassled so many girls in the platoon that they had decided enough was enough. They got together and did something about it; the next morning, we found him trussed up, naked, hanging upside down from the flagpole on base. Dozens of photographs of him in awkward positions had been glued to his skin.

      But I wasn't thinking of that when I offered to help, only of the waitress at the Port.

      That night, when we went to revel, I saw Pope hanging in the back corner, taking up a shady booth. When I looked over, he met my eyes and nodded like we were in a spy movie. Chastising myself for falling into this, I found the waitress and walked over to her.

      "Excuse me," I said as unobstrusively as I could.

      She looked me up and down. Her hair was brown and looked pretty soft, and her hazel eyes sized me up. There was a hotness in my cheeks.

      "Can I help you?"

      "Yeah, um." I glanced over my shoulder. Pope was leaning forward a bit; when he saw me looking at him, he made a "hurry up, and stop staring at me" gesture. I bit my lip and lowered my voice. "Listen, uh, a friend of mine wants me to find out about you, but I'd really rather not be in this situation."

      For a moment, she did nothing but stare at me. Then she chuckled. "Come on, sweetie, you think I was born yesterday?"


      "A good-looking soldier like you doesn't have to hide like that. If you wanted to ask to have a drink, you can just say so. What are you, like, a first-timer?"

      "No, that's not..."

      She winked at me and my voice stopped working. Not sure if my mouth kept moving or not, but I know no sound was coming out of it. "My shift ends in thirty. I'll stop by your table, we can have a little chat." With that she turned and left, going to fill an order. I watched her go -- man, did I watch her go -- then turned back to my table. Pope was looking at me funny, but all I could do was shrug and sit back down.

      In half an hour, true to her word, she sat down at my little table-for-one. I had ordered her a drink, but she came with a Boston Sour firmly in hand. "So what's your name, soldier?"

      It was stenciled on my chest, but it took me a moment to remember. "I'm Walter."

      "Laura. Charmed." She reached across the table and shook my had. Oh yeah, a handshake, I thought to myself. This was going real well.

      "So what brings you to Tulane, Walter?"

      "Um, I'm here to kill. The, uh, Covenant."

      Laura smiled. "I figured. That was a joke."

      I was about to slam my head into the table hard when she reached out and grabbed my chin. "Hey, don't worry about it. You guys must stayed wired up most of the time, it's probably hard for you to relax. Just talk, don't worry about what you say."

      Things went more or less smoothly after that. Not to say there weren't any more awkward moments, but the drinks have mercifully dulled my memory. She was a fan of Alvarez, too, and we talked for a while about Towards the Sun. She asked about being a soldier, and I explained it about as well as I could without turning gruesome. There were some stock complaints I could throw out there: the food, the weather, the CO. All the time, she listened patiently, looking interested. I tried to shift the conversation to her, find out what she was like, but she always expertly brought the track back to me without revealing much about her. I never even found out her last name.

      Finally we excused ourselves back to my room. Hendrix punched me lightly in the leg as we passed on our way out, though if this was encouragement or a warning, I didn't know. What I remember is that the next few hours are a pleasant, warm blur; the kind of memory I wish I could wrap myself in, especially with winter looming in the next month. Her hair was very soft, and so was her skin, and her hands. Her lips and breasts were beyond soft, so soft that it made me feel soft just having touched them. It was a wonderful, blissful universe where I forgot entirely about the war, the Covenant, and the cold.

      In the morning, she was gone, except for her panties.

      Later that day, we had to return to the Boss, where I had to deal with a new problem: Thomas Pope. He was ripshit about how I had "stolen his girl," and went around the whole base telling everyone what a terrible jackass I was. The torrent of slander and curses that tumbled from his mouth may have swayed strangers by sheer volume, but first squad remembered my part in saving their ass during ambushes and everyone else had heard the stories, so they mostly blew him off.

      The biggest thing, though, was him talking about why she left before I woke up. He tended to describe it as me being miserable in bed. Again, the truth worked against him: most of the others considered her leaving her underwear behind as a compliment, and so didn't side with him.

      Of course, I still had to deal with Tom, who had no problem cussing me out whenever we saw each other. My personal plan was to wait for him to calm down and get over it on his own, but a visit from the XO forced me into action.

      "This has to stop," said Lieutenant Calhoun. She had found me in the armory painting my rockets. "He's becoming very disruptive to morale and annoying everybody. Ordinarily I'd have no trouble stepping in and telling him to get over it, but it's pretty clear that it's between you two and you alone have the best tool to stop this nonsense. Get it done."

      I had no idea what she was talking about at first, so I just snapped a salute and promised to take care of it. It wasn't until later that I figured it out.

      The next morning, Thomas Pope woke up to find an 8.5 x 11 manilla envelope resting on his bunk. He opened it, reached it, and pulled out Laura's panties.

      Twenty minutes later, he was standing over me in the mess, red in the face. I just looked up at him, trying to look innocent as the rest of my squad giggled. But he couldn't speak, he was so angry. And he never did again, to me or of me.

      Of course, the little creep never returned them, and kept them in his BDU until he was killed by a clutch of Grunts while on patrol.

      By then, I didn't want them back.

Dustoff - From Tulane
Date: 14 November 2009, 1:38 am

Tulane was finished. Or, rather, everyone was finished with Tulane.

The UNSC was tired of the wasted resources, the money poured into a black hole, and probably somewhere in the back of the Admiralty's mind they were tired of the death. They stopped sending replacements, then they stopped sending supplies, and finally they stopped sending ships. Everything at Tulane was what they could commit, and even then it was subject to repossession and repurposing.

The Covenant was sick of it, too. In the last few months, there were less enemy patrols to deal with, and the few that remained were reduced in strength. When before we had to worry about a full clutch of Grunts, a handful of Jackals, and two Elites, now we considered it a busy day if we saw three Grunts and a Jackal trying to kill each other in the woods. LIDAR stations reported fewer of their dropships coming down and more going up. We were even once ordered to attack a small outpost five klicks from firebase Bravo Orca Six Sierra (the Boss), and when we got there, nobody was home.

We could feel it in our bones. Every day became more mundane, more routine. We loved it. Even drills petered out. The sergeants were tired of yelling, the enlisted were tired of listening, and the officers were tired of doing whatever it was that they did.

So, on December 14, 2551, ONI put out a general alert: the Covenant ships were pushing inward and trying to achieve tell-tale geosynchronous orbits. They were about to glass us.

It was time to leave Tulane.

The base was still in mourning, for a variety of reasons. First off, despite our best attempts, we couldn't destroy the remaining Mongooses. We hated them. They were deathtraps that the Colonel had mandated be used frequently "and to great effect," whatever he meant by that.

Relatedly, Dave Damian Clarke was dead. He had been killed by a hail of needles, blown to shreds on the back of a Mongoose. We didn't miss him that much. But Bettie Gibbs had been the driver, and though only wounded by the explosion, she had been medivaced out and we missed her a lot. She knew how to tell a good joke and was one of the only good drivers we had.

So we were sitting around, reminiscing, when Lieutenant Olivia Calhoun walked in with a mindful grimace on her face. A quiet took over. One look in her face, and we knew.

"Pack it up, boys."

Looking back on it now, it's surreal how we proceeded. For almost three years the Boss had been our home, where we laughed and cried, bled and died. We had seen nuclear explosions and heard of chemical warfare from this base, and now we tore it apart. Whatever was deemed necessary and/or too expensive to leave behind was taken and piled together; an hour later, an Elephant rolled up to the base to collect the larger things.

I had never seen one of these in person, only in a training video titled, "Things Not To Shoot At." This had been high on the list. It was large enough to house several Mongooses, which it fortunately would not be doing today: we filled it with racks from the armory, explosives, secured filing cabinets. Crates of extra gear that the UNSC didn't want to lose. A few people snuck personal items in, hoping they'd get the chance once we were off-world to find them again.

Personally, I didn't have much to my name. Just my Spanker launcher and a couple of books that I stuffed into the spare ammo pouches on my vest. I rarely used my M7 anyway, and sometimes kept extra rations or candy in them.

As I helped load surplus rockets into the Elephant, I heard yelling. Nobody else seemed to focus on it. On the other side of the Elephant I saw the Lieutenant and Captain Kendrick Graves arguing intensely about something. Graves seemed angry, maybe even hurt, but Calhoun was the one doing the shouting. He crossed his arms and looked sternly at her, said something so low his lips barely moved. She was shocked into silence. I watched in horror as her hand dropped to her sidearm, hesitated, and finally snapped up in a gloomy salute.

Then the Captain turned towards me. I yelped and pulled back, wondering if he had seen me. Hendrix was nearby. "Hey Holiday," he called, "what's up?"

I went over to talk to him, but the Captain stormed into the middle of the swarming Marines and bellowed for attention. Everyone dropped what they were doing and saluted.

He returned it, belatedly. "At ease," he said. "Before we get off-world, I'd like to take care of one thing." Calhoun came up softly behind him, but still his eyes glanced so-briefly at her. "At the moment, the plan is load the Elephant and send it off to a supply-evac point in the Bravo Papa sector, and the Pelicans will meet us here.

"However, ONI currently has no evacuation plan for Thomaston."

Shocked silence. People say that there's concerned or angry muttering at this point, when there's a frightening revelation like that, maybe even some outraged cries. But not in the military. Discipline, combined with the weariness of three years' combat, makes you quiet. We were horrified -- I kept thinking of Laura, the waitress with whom I had rendezvoused once and never spoken to again -- but we knew: either we were going to hear the worst order ever to be followed, or the worst order ever to be given.

Graves gestured his XO forward. "I am going to countermand that order temporarily. Intelligence Liaison Calhoun will brief you on your new mission."

Now there were surprised gasps. All this time, the Lieutenant had been a spook, one of ONI's lapdogs. I remember some angry faces, others just interested. My reaction was more neutral than anything; unlike most veterans, I hadn't been in a situation before when ONI tried to screw someone over "for the greater good."

She cleared her throat. "Thomaston may be small, but it's still home to five thousand people, and they're two kilometers away. First and second squads will ride out in our 'Hogs and commence the evacuation." Hesitation. "My superiors have estimated roughly three hours until the Covenant achieve the orbits they need to start glassing. The Navy has said they will keep up defenses for as long as they can, but HIGHCOM isn't willing to lose more resources than it absolutely has to.

"First squad, you will be in charge of keeping the route back to base clear. Intelligence has shown that, in situations such as this, the Covenant will assign special units to remain on the planet and harry our attempts at getting the hell off-world. Stay alert.

"Third squad, you will remain behind. I'll put in a call to ONI, see about getting more birds. We'll cut it close to the wire, but the entire operation should only last about two and a half hours.

"Move out."

Getting to Thomaston was easy enough. We had three chain-gun 'Hogs, a Gauss 'Hog, and a troop 'Hog. It was a short trip there, but would be longer on the way back.

Our problems began in trying to convince everyone to evacuate. Sergeant Charlie Ford, of second squad, used the town's PA system to announce the order while everyone else was sent around to bang on doors and urge people to get their asses in gear. I paired up with Valenzuela, and together we were spit on more times than I can count. A great many people weren't willing to leave; they hadn't evacuated when the Covenant first showed up and everything turned out okay, they said, so why should they do it this time?

Words weren't enough. We radioed for orders, and got them back fast from the Captain: if they won't leave, make them.

It was the worst part of the Tulane campaign, for me. I had been burned by plasma, seen friends die in explosions of gore, or worse, just slowly bleed to death on the ground -- no help in sight. I had blasted aliens to pieces with a rocket launcher and been showered with giblets I didn't know existed.

But when the Captain ordered me to take my M7 and point it at a person's head -- a fellow human -- if they didn't want to leave their home, and I followed it, I hated myself. I didn't know, and still don't, how we ever fought each other in the old wars.

The threat of violence was enough to motivate most people. Once or twice I heard the roar of a shotgun or the shattering of glass, shouting, but that was all: just threats.

But there were stories afterwards. In second squad, with the loss of Bettie Gibbs and Dave Damian Clarke, Fireteam Two-Bravo had been cut in half: there was only Corporal Darnell Farmer, a rocketeer like me, and PFC Saul Wells. They had to go it alone to tell people to evacuate, and Wells had been sent to a bad neighborhood. When he showed up, the story goes, the entire neighborhood turned out and told him to leave. They screamed slurs at him. But he was under orders. He called for help, but nobody could lend a hand.

So he made an example. Taking his M7, he selected a family at random and gunned them down.

Maybe they could have mobbed him, and some were probably thinking it. But Wells carried all the extra ammo for Fireteam Two-Bravo. He had a quick trigger and fast reloading time. And on top of all that, two adult bodies and three dead children were good motivators.

It's a tough story to believe. I might not have, if I hadn't been in the same unit, and if not for two minor details: the first was that I had picked up the request for assistance, and had returned negative on it. He was just too far away, and Valenzuela and I were otherwise occupied pounding on doors and pulling people into the street.

The second was that, a few days later, Wells died in an "airlock malfunction." According to the report, he had been suiting up for an EVA drill and the doors had opened on their own, before he was ready. It was called a tragedy. The report didn't say how there were no scheduled drills, let alone walking ones, and that particular airlock -- a service airlock -- had been identified as unsafe for untrained personnel: it's mechanism was independent from the computer network of the cruiser, and though the bridge would get a report of it opening, it neither required confirmation nor allowed override.

But it must have been a training exercise. Why would a lone Marine have been in that airlock, naked, staring out into the cold oblivion?

A tragedy.

Adam Valenzuela and I pounded on what we hoped would be our last door. It looked familiar to me, but I stayed quiet. My gut feelings had nothing to do with the job at hand.

A little boy answered the door. "Are your parents home, son?" asked Valenzuela.

He shook his head.

"Are you alone here?"

Another shake.

"Who are you with?"

He opened the door wider and let us in. In the cramped living room we found an older woman in a wheelchair, fast asleep. Adam and I exchanged a glance, before I stepped forward and shook her awake. Her eyes, swollen and yellowed, looked up at me without comprehension.

"Marcus, is that you?"

I looked back at Valenzuela, who just shrugged. "No ma'am," I said, "I'm Private Holiday. We're here to evacuate you."

She tried to wheel herself forward, but it was apparent her arms were too weak. "Marcus, what did I tell you about wearing that damn thing in the house? I don't like to see it!"

"Ma'am, please, you have to--"

"Grandma!" I turned at the voice, and saw a woman standing in the doorway. It took me a moment to recognize Laura, the waitress. She stormed in, apparently taking no notice of me, and went straight to the old woman, kneeling down in front of her. "Come on, Grandma, we have to leave. The military's here to evacuate us."

Her grandmother smiled. "It's so good to see you, dear. Tell your brother to take off his uniform, I don't like seeing him in it. Reminds me too much of your father."

Laura looked up at me; I couldn't tell if she recognized me or not, but she didn't keep eye contact. "That's not Marcus, Grandma. We have to go." She stood, got behind the old woman, and pushed the chair forward. "Paul, let's go." The boy nodded, and the three of them went out the door with Valenzuela and me close behind.

Laura turned to Adam. "Where's the evacuation?"

"In the town square, ma'am. Your grandmother can ride in one of our Warthogs, we have a larger one for the old and sick."

She nodded. When we reached the square, Valenzuela and I made a path to the appropriate 'Hog. People had already started walking down the road to the base, and here and there were the Marines from second squad. Only now did I realize how impossible the task was that we had: eight Marines had to manage an evacuation of five thousand.

The troop 'Hog was already somewhat filled, so we had to abandon the old woman's wheelchair and carry her into the back. Laura was adamant that she and Paul accompany her, and we weren't about to object. I helped her up and tried to catch her gaze, but she was focused on her grandmother.

Slowly the 'Hog rolled out of town, along the road we had for three years considered the safest ride. On either side of the asphalt marched a line of civilians, punctuated occasionally by an escorting soldier. Many looked angry or upset at leaving, like it was some small inconvenience, a waste of their time that they'd soon be without. Could've been true, for some of them, but the reports I heard said almost all the civilians were successfully evacuated from Thomaston without any major events -- excluding PFC Saul Wells.

Back at the Boss, the Pelicans had started arriving. Dozens touched down, ready to take onboard the civvies. Crew chiefs roughly shoved them into place, securing them on seats and lashing them to the cargo nets above in special harnesses. Some had brought luggage; anything that could be carried on their persons was allowed, but if it required its own standing room, it was tossed to the ground. More room for beating hearts, I heard one of the crew chiefs say.

A few Pelicans had been specially outfitted for transporting the old and infirm, which is where we took Laura, her grandmother, and the little boy. We had to drop a special ramp for the old lady's wheelchair -- despite Valenzuela's suggestion of trying to hook it up to the tail-underside magnetic carriage. Once she was in, we fastened her to the floor using the ordinance clamps and made sure she was secure in the chair. A few other elderly or wounded trickled in, but there was enough room that the little boy and Laura could sit. For lack of a better option, I chose to hook myself into the door-gun harness, not far from them.

Dustoff happened not long after. We kept the hatch open briefly, but closed it when it became apparent that there were no targets of opportunity and that if I started shooting -- even for no reason -- the old people could've had a heart attack.

The last thing I remember of Tulane as the bay closed was looking at the Boss growing smaller behind us and thinking how much it looked like a grey tumor on the landscape. Was that why the Covenant was so determined to kill us? Maybe they saw our influence as so putrid and untenable in the galaxy that we had to be excised, before we spread too far and choked the rest of the universe.

Maybe they were right.

I leaned back against the bulkhead. One way or another, it was done.

A hand took mine gently. I looked down, startled, to see Laura had scooted closer. She looked up at me and smiled. "It's okay, Walter," she said. "For better or worse, it's over."

One way or another, for better or worse.

It was over.

I didn't watch the Covenant glass Tulane. I don't even know if our ship stayed in-system that long. On the way up, our Pelican was diverted to the UNSC Upon a Midnight Dreary, and as far as I knew or cared we slipped out right away. I made sure Laura and her family -- I guess it was her family -- were taken care of, then looked for a bunk and slept.

A few days later, I and the rest of November company attended PFC Saul Well's shipboard funeral. There was no body. He had jettisoned himself between Slipspace jumps, and by the time anyone went looking for him, we were a few dozen lightyears away.

Time passes strangely on military ships, partly because of no visible night/day difference aside from your watch, and mostly because you can spend months in cryo-sleep while the AI or command crew or whoever obeys the Cole Protocol. All the doctors say you don't dream in cryo-sleep, that the only times your brain is active enough for it is just before you awaken, but I swear they're wrong. I had dreams, long dreams, that seemed to last months.

I dreamed of a planet without grey cancers and people and Mongooses. Nobody was there: not me, not the UNSC, not the Covenant, not Thomaston, not Captain Kendrick Graves, not the spook Lieutenant Olivia Calhoun, not Man-Man, not Bettie Gibbs back from the hospital, not Dave Damian Clarke back from the dead. Thomas Pope did not have Laura's panties, a rocketeer didn't babble his life away in the blood tray of a Pelican dropship, Man Hong Hendrix didn't take down two Hunters on his own, an Elite had never been knocked off his Ghost by a dud rocket painted to look like a football. Israel Bowen and Warren Langley and Myles Burnett weren't blinded for three days by a nuclear detonation, nor did Rocky Sharpe kill himself and traumatize poor Tameka Chapman.

And I had never gotten on the back of a Mongoose all-terrain-vehicle.

It was glorious.

Serviceman Walter Holiday -- and November company at large -- was one of few that managed to survive the entire Tulane campaign. The casualty numbers on both UNSC and Covenant fronts, while still classified, are estimated to be extremely high, as well as the approximate cost of stretching the battle for three years. It had never been released to the public why the Covenant were so interested in prolonging the conflict, though it has been theorized that they were testing the operational strength of the UNSC forces.

PFC Holiday also served on Earth, arriving after the Battle of New Mombasa and operating in Africa, particularly at the Battle of Voi. He saw frontline combat during the Battle of Installation 00, as well as in the joint-strike operation with the Sangheili Empire to reclaim several colony worlds from Covenant occupation. He was discharged in 2557, having completed a full tour of duty, at the rank of Lance Corporal.

Holiday went on to become a journalist for the
New Dublin Journal, and kept up relations with most of his squad-mates, including Man Hong Hendrix, Adam Valenzuela, and Myles Burnett. He died in 2573 from cancer, believed to have been caused by overexposure to Fuel Rod Gun and Covenant Carbine ammunition -- a common tragedy for many soldiers from the Great War.

The body of this work was discovered in his personal computer system shortly after his death. It was unknown if he planned to write of all his experiences in the war, or if he focused on Tulane for a particular reason. The chapters preceding are only the complete anecdotes, several lying in various stages of completion on his hard drive. They, and all relevant personal writings and materials particular to the Great War, have been donated to the Lantern Foundation.