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Oncoming Winter - From Tulane
Posted By: CaptainRaspberry<jptaber@gmail.com>
Date: 2 April 2009, 11:33 pm

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      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 Hornets buzzed by, gunners seated on the booms, holding outdated M99 Stanchions because there wasn't anything better.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