They're Random, Baby!

Fan Fiction

A Painted Rocket - From Tulane
Posted By: CaptainRaspberry<jptaber@gmail.com>
Date: 16 April 2009, 3:13 pm

Read/Post Comments

      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.