Out of all the things Senior Airman Eelis Rautio should be focusing on, all he could think about was the smell. It was strange though. Did he really need to take note of the smell of stale sweat in the air, reminding him of an old locker room? Or the odor of spent gunpowder, smelling a bit like hot metal, burnt dirt, with a hint of charcoal? Or even the smell of discharged plasma, the acrid aroma of ozone causing his nostrils to flare? He supposed it made sense; after all, it wasn't like he could avoid it. Every breath he took forced another dozen scents up his nostrils. But seeing as how he was knee deep in bodies, the smell of the battlefield should have been the last thing on his mind.
An inhuman groaning caught his attention and Eelis gripped his M45 Tactical Shotgun tighter, looking for the source. He noticed a destroyed Warthog shaking slightly a couple of meters away and cautiously, Eelis walked over to investigate. Underneath the Warthog was a Jackal. The Jackal's legs were trapped under one of the tires of the Warthog and the Jackal was trying with all his might to lift the destroyed hulk off himself. But seeing as how the Jackal was missing an arm, this didn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.
Eelis stood there for several long moments, a safe distance away, watching as the Jackal struggled, before deciding to do something about it. Hefting his shotgun, Eelis walked over to the Jackal. The Jackal noticed his approach and snarled at him, abandoning his struggle with the Warthog. His solo arm patted the ground around him, searching for a weapon to use but Eelis wasn't worried: he had made sure there were no weapons within arm's reach of the Jackal.
Stopping just out of arms reach of the Jackal, Eelis lifted his shotgun. The stock of his shotgun had been damaged early in the firefight by shrapnel, forcing Eelis to fire it from the hip like an action hero in a B-rated movie. The Jackal snarled helplessly at Eelis and shouted something in his alien language; Eelis had no idea what the Jackal said but assumed the Jackal was shouting insults. Eelis waited until the Jackal ran out of breath before pulling the trigger on his shotgun. The recoil of the 10 gauge buckshot nearly ripped the shotgun out of his hands, but he managed to keep his grip. He racked the pump, the spent shell landing on the ground with a clatter, and watched impassively as the Jackal's dark purple blood pooled on the ground around the pulpy mess of his head before walking away.
He wandered aimlessly through the battlefield, occasionally stopping by a human corpse, hoping to find someone that was still alive. None were, and all Eelis could do was shaking his sadly shake his head, collect their dog tags, and move on. The state some of these bodies were in though, was horrifying and Eelis couldn't help but wonder: his entire Flight had been decimated, his friends killed and their bodies mangled beyond recognition. How was it then, he had managed to survive with minimal injury? He had hardly been the strongest fighter in his Flight, the most intelligence, or even the best looking. Yet, he was the one walking around under his own power while everyone else was laying on the ground for all eternity? It didn't seem fair.
Another groan stopped him short. He recognized that voice. It was Nelson's voice. A cold hand of terror gripped his heart. He hadn't seen Nelson in a couple of hours. Where was he?
"Nelson!" Eelis called, throwing all caution to the wind. He twisted his head, frantically scanning the field for some sign of his friend. "Nelson! Where are you?"
There was another groan, coming from his right. Eelis took off in that direction, stumbling over broken bodies and discarded weapons. "Nelson!" Eelis hollered as he ran. "You got to tell me where you are!"
He stopped short as a bloody hand was raised from underneath a pile of bodies. Eelis ran over to the pile, tossing his shotgun to the side.
"Hang on buddy!" Eelis yelled, as he began digging through the bodies. "Just hang on, I'm coming!"
He shoved aside a headless Grunt and then picked up what looked like the hood of a Warthog. His fear giving him strength, he hurtled it to the side like it was made of aluminum, finally revealing the bloody form of Nelson. He was not in good shape. He had a smoking hole in his chest, part of his armor appeared to have melted into his skin, bloody red burns covered his lower jaw and chin, both his legs appeared to be broken, and he was missing his entire left arm. Eelis stood there gapping, before his training kicked in.
"Hey there Nelson," Eelis told him as he dropped beside him, Nelson's eyes following his every move. "Looking good there."
Nelson might have chuckled, but all that came out was a gasping noise. That was not good.
"Hang on there buddy," Eelis said, reaching for the cans of biofoam he stored in his IFAK [infantry first aid kit], only to remember he had lost his IFAK hours ago. He checked to see if Nelson still had his IFAK but it too was gone. "I got you."
Fortunately not all was lost; Eelis had been a boy scout when he was younger and knew how to bandage a wound. Seizing a sharp piece of metal off the ground, Eelis cut the sleeve off his uniform and began tearing it into strips.
"Don't worry Nelson," Eelis told him as he began bandaging Nelson's stump of an arm. Unlike the hole in his chest, which appeared to have been hit by plasma, Nelson's arm appeared to have been severed by shrapnel and blood was slowly leaking out. Too slowly for Eelis' liking. "You're okay. I'm just going to patch you up, okay?"
Nelson took a raggedy breath and rasped out something.
"What?" Eelis asked, leaning his head closer.
Nelson coughed before trying again. "-urt," he whispered weakly.
"Hurts?" Eelis asked and Nelson blinked twice, which Eelis took as a 'yes.' "I know it hurts. But you just got to hang on, okay? Our guys are coming, they're going to bring you to a hospital where they're going to fix you right up."
Nelson tried to say something else but all that came out was a moan of pain.
"Hey," Eelis chided. "Don't try to speak. Save your energy."
Nelson ignored him. Eelis watched as his mouth open once or twice before he gathered enough air to whisper something.
Staff Sergeant Eelis Rautio woke with a start, tears welling in his eyes. He struggled to contain his emotions as the last image he had of his best friend, Airman First Class Pramod Nelson, hovered in his mind's eye. It may have been almost six months since Nelson had died on that planet, but his face and last words still haunted Eelis' dreams almost every night. Rationally, Eelis knew there was nothing he could have done to prevent Nelson's death; he had consulted with a doctor, telling the man what he could remember of Nelson's injuries. The doctor had confirmed: even if there had been a full surgical team work on him on the spot, there was no way Nelson could have survive to reach the extraction point. But still, even armed with that knowledge, Eelis couldn't help but wonder if there was something he could have done, something different, to at least ease his pain.
Emotions in check and knowing that he wasn't going to back to sleep, Eelis sat up in his cot, shrugged his blanket off himself. He waited until his eyes had adjusted to the darkness before looking around his current living space. He was billeted in the pre-fab shelter that made up his squadron's armory. Originally, he'd been living in a barrack style tent with the other thirty some members of his flight but at his request, and due to his nightmares, his commanding officer allowed him to sleep alone in the armory.
It was weird, sleeping alone in his own room. All his life he always shared a bedroom with someone. Growing up, in order to save money, his parents rented a small apartment that only had two bedrooms so he had to share a room with his two older brothers. Joining the Air Force hadn't changed anything; in basic training, he lived in a barracks style room; his first unit had dorm room style housing so he had a roommate. Even when deployed out in the field he shared a foxhole with at least one other guy. Eelis still hadn't quite gotten used to the silence that greeted him every time he woke up.
But then again, there were benefits to having his own tent. He no longer woke up in the middle of the night due to someone's snoring. He no longer had to deal with anyone else's mess besides his own. And the smell. No longer did it smell like week old gym socks or someone's bad breath. It was now his own, good or bad, scent that filtered through everything. And plus, as his squadron's small arms armorer, living in the armory meant he could pretty much choose his own hours to work as his commanding officers knew he would always be there.
Sliding off his cot, Eelis walked over to his foot locker and checked to make sure it was still there. Seeing the familiar cherry oak wood box, Eelis gently closed his foot locker and walked back to his cot. He put on his combat boots. He didn't have to worry about getting dressed; this camp may have been fifty kilometers away from the front line but Eelis had made it a habit to go to bed fully dressed in his fatigues just in case the Covenant broke through in the middle of the night and he was called in to fight. It had happened once before so it wasn't like he was being overly cautious.
His boots secured, he climbed off the cot and headed to the back of the room, pulling out the key that would unlock the armory door from around his neck. With the Covenant this close, not too many firearms were being stored here as all personnel on the base were required to keep their issued firearms close, but the few rifles and pistols that were stored in the armory, command wanted to make sure they didn't walk. Hence the locks and the metal pre-fabricated shelter, as opposed to the cloth tents that made up most of the rest of the base.
Sticking the key into the keyhole and turning it, Eelis pushed open the door, the door opening with a low creak. He flicked on the lights, revealing three shelving units in the center of the room, two of which held thirty MA37 assault rifles and ten M392 DMRs, while the third held fifteen M6G pistols and two M7 SMGs. To the right of the door, a work table with spare weapon parts had been set up and pushed up against the wall. On the other side of the room, a small bullet proof window had been installed into the back wall with a small opening at the bottom of the frame from where Eelis could hand out firearms. There was no ammunition; for safety reasons, ammunition was stored in a central place in a different building somewhere else.
Shutting the door behind him, the lock engaging with a small click, Eelis headed to the work table to see what he had to do. When a firearm was issued out, the receiver of said firearm was responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of their own firearm, so that meant there wasn't a whole lot for Eelis to work on. However, every now and then, an airman would damage or break his rifle in such a way that it required Eelis' attention. Sitting on his table were three MA37 rifles that fit that description. One rifle had a snapped recoil spring; that was an easy fix and wouldn't take long to repair. Another rifle had a damaged optic; another easy fix. The last rifle however, had a ruptured barrel. Apparently, the airman who had the rifle suffered a squib round malfunction and failed to notice. He had tried to fire another round and the pressure exceeded the barrel's tolerance. The airman was lucky the entire rifle didn't blow up but part of Eelis wished it had. Out of all the repairs he had today, that would take the longest as he would have to completely dismantle the rifle just to reach the barrel.
Also sitting on his table were another four MA37 rifles and two MA5 assault rifles. Sometimes when bodies were recovered, their weapons were recovered too. Normally the weapons would be returned to the unit that owned them but if said unit had been destroyed, the weapons would be given to the next available unit. The conditions of these weapons varied: sometimes they could be put into immediate usage, sometimes all an armorer could do was strip them down for parts. Of the six rifles Eelis had received, one MA5 could be immediately thrown back into circulation (once he relabeled it,) one MA37 and one MA5 rifles were trashed complete, one needed to be cleaned, and the last two need some repairs.
Sliding his stool out from underneath the table, Eelis sat down to begin working. He began with stripping down the destroyed rifles, figuring he was going to need the parts today. One rifle had been hit by plasma fire; the polymer housing of the lower receiver had melted, damaging the interior. The other rifle had been neatly cut in half. He wasn't sure how that happened, maybe the result of a Brute's Warhammer? But either way, Eelis salvaged what he could and began working on the other rifles.
As he was apt to do when working, Eelis quickly lost track of time. By the time he was racking the slide on the last rifle, checking the strength of the recoil spring, the sun was beginning to rise and his stomach was grumbling with hunger. The mess hall was probably open at this point so Eelis decided now was a good time to stop and get some breakfast. Sticking the repaired rifles on the racks, he exited the armory, making sure the door was shut behind him, and walked back to his cot. Grabbing his own issued rifle from the mount beside his bed, Eelis double checked to make sure it was in condition one: round chambered and the weapon on safe. Tossing the sling over his shoulder (no magnetic strips for rear echelon troops,) Eelis strolled out into the sunlight.
With the sun up in the sky, the base was now bustling with activity. Well, so to speak. Technically the base never stopped operations; with the Covenant never taking a break from the fighting, the UNSC couldn't either so one quickly got use to sleeping with the sounds of aircraft flying overhead, trucks rumbling passed at odd hours, the thumping of artillery in the distance, and the occasional shrieking of Covenant Banshees followed by the buzzing of anti-aircraft artillery driving them off. It made for one rather interesting soundtrack.
His feet took him down the familiar gravel path to the mess hall. As he walked, Eelis noted, as he did every morning, the large cordoned off area in the base was still there. Sitting in the middle of the cordoned area was a large, purple, spiky pickle like object about the size of a small car. A present the Covenant had left behind last time they had managed to break through the lines: an anti-matter bomb. Like always, a swarm of EOD technicians from all four branches, along with spooks from the likes of ONI, the Army's Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), and the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency (ISR Agency), surrounded the bomb, trying to determine just how it worked. They were sure the bomb wasn't going to go off anytime soon, either by remote detonation or by timer, but that was about all they knew. No one was entirely sure how to render the bomb safe and no one wanted to risk moving it just yet in case it was sensitive to movement.
Eelis had to admit, sometimes he wondered what it would be like if it do go off. It would certainly make things less complicated. The end would come fast; he doubted, as close as he was to ground zero, that he would even see it coming. In many ways, it would exactly how Eelis would want to go. Quick, easy, and painless. He wouldn't have to suffer. Not the way Nelson did.
Eelis abruptly froze. For a brief moment, he could have sworn he saw Nelson's face, clean and undamaged by days of warfare, standing among the crowd, looking at him. Eelis quickly rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the face was gone.
It couldn't have been Nelson. Nelson was dead. Eelis had seen Nelson die. He was just imagining things. He was just seeing Nelson's face because he'd been thinking about him. And he had a dream about him again. That had to be the reason. There was no other explanation.
Nonetheless, Eelis no longer felt hungry.
Senior Airman Eelis Rautio looked up from the data pad he was reading from and cocked an eyebrow in the direction of his best friend, Pramod Nelson. "Excuse me?" he asked with a questioning air even though he knew exactly what Nelson was talking about.
"They're putting on convoy escort duty," Nelson complained as he threw himself into the cot next to Eelis. "We'll be escorting supply convoys to the front. Fucking escort duty."
"Yeah? So?" Eelis asked, a bit confused. "It's an important job. What's the problem?"
"The problem is," Nelson complained, "when they told us we were going to see combat, I thought they meant, we were actually going to see combat! But no, instead, we'll be escorting fucking POGs to the front."
"Okay," Eelis began, looking back at his datapad. "First off, we are POGs. We fit every single definition of the term 'POG' so by implying POGs are somehow the lesser, you are insulting every single person in these barracks. Second, if you wanted to see combat, why the hell are you in the Air Force? You should have joined the Army or the fucking Marines. Be one of the numb nut grunts running around pretending to be a Spartan."
"Because all the hot chicks join the Air Force," Nelson admitted shamelessly. "If I was going to join the military, I wanted to be able to at least score every now and then."
"And how's that going for you?" Eelis asked him with a barely concealed grin. He knew exactly how well it was going for Nelson. "Have you, how do the Marines put it? Have you 'got some' yet?"
Nelson turned red. "It's a work in progress, okay?" he protested. "I just, you know, have high standards. I can't help it, with a body like this, I can afford to be choosy."
"Oh is that what you told the last four women?" Eelis noted, flipping the page on his data pad. "No wonder they all slapped you. Word of advice, you might not want to say stuff like that to them."
Nelson flushed again. "What would you know about women Rautio?" he said defensively. "You've had like, one girlfriend your entire life."
"Enough to know that despite what they say, every single one of them wants to be better than the last woman you were with. Telling them that they compare unfavorably? That's a big no-no."
"Oh look at you, Senior Airman Rautio. Not only is he part of the Air Forces' elite Security Forces, he also moonlights as a dating guru," Nelson mocked.
Eelis shrugged. "Hey, if you don't want to take my advice, then don't. That suits me just fine. Watching you get slapped every time we go to the bar is just free entertainment for me."
From the corner of his eye, Eelis watched as Nelson turned red again. Evidently he didn't want to reflect on his failure to obtain a woman any longer because he continued to complete about their upcoming mission. "But escort duty? Why escort duty? Escort duty sucks."
"You've never been on one," Eelis pointed out. "How would you know they suck?"
Nelson waved his hand, as if he could wave Eelis' point away. "I've played enough games to know that escort missions? Suck with a capital 'S.'"
"It's an important mission," Eelis argued. "Somebody has got to make sure the ammunition makes it safety to where it's needed. Besides, it beats writing tickets for dumbass 2nd Lieutenants who think, just because they're officers, they can park where the fuck they want. Or that they can drink and drive. Seriously, not even generals can get away with that shit. What makes them think they can?"
"It's because half of those butterbars are entailed motherfuckers who've never had to work a day in their lives," Nelson explained. "Rich people man. I'd like to see them grow up in the conditions you and I had to. Having to take the bus to school because our parents couldn't afford to buy us cars, having to get a job flipping burgers during the holidays. Bet half of them would have killed themselves before they turned ten."
Eelis glared at him. "Dude, that's not funny. You shouldn't say that shit."
"What?" Nelson said defensively. "You know it's true."
"No dude, not that. Suicide. Don't joke about that. Suicide is serious business."
Nelson opened him mouth to retort but most have remembered the fact that Eelis' grandfather had commit suicide because his mouth closed with an audible clack. "Sorry," was what he said instead.
"Its fine," Eelis said dismissively, turning his attention back to his datapad. "Don't worry about it."
Silence reined for a few seconds before Nelson opened his mouth again. "But seriously, convoy escort! Why convoy escort? You know, I bet I'm not even going to get a chance to fire my rifle once!"
Eelis face palmed and sighed.
"Stand by, stand by, TARGET!"
Sixteen airmen lifted their sidearms. Sixteen M6G magnum pistols roared to life. Eelis walked behind them, watching their technique. Pulling a whistle from around his neck, Eelis blew on it sharply.
"Cease fire!" Eelis hollered and waited for the gunshots to fade away. "Clear and holster your weapons!" Removing his ear protection, Eelis walked down the line, giving critiques.
"Airman Renald," Eelis called out to an airman who was shaking his thumb, which now had a fresh cut across his knuckle. "That's call a slide bite. That's what happens when you cross your thumbs like that. Use the thumbs forward grip, like this!" Eelis pulled out his own pistol and showed him the proper technique of holding the pistol.
"Airman Silva!" Eelis turned his attention to the next airman. "Congratulations! Your failure to feed is the result of limp wrist! Stop being afraid of the damn recoil and tighten your grip!"
As part of his job as a Security Forces armorer, Eelis was also responsible for teaching small arms training to other airmen in the Air Force. While all of his fellow Security Forces airmen were highly trained in the usage of small arms and crew served weapons, the Air Force did have a number of support personnel who, during the course of their career, were only ever expected to fire a weapon in basic training. But, given the fact they were still relatively close to the front, command had decreed all personnel had to be armed at all times, which meant having to reteach some people the basics of firing a weapon. Today he was teaching a bunch of military intelligence analyst. Eelis sure hoped they were really good at their jobs because they sure as hell weren't snipers. To be fair, this group wasn't the worst he'd ever seen; he had yet to see a single of one them try to insert their magazines in backwards.
"Airman Matthews," Eelis continued to say. "This is not a firearms inspection, you don't need to stand with your back like a ramrod! Bend forward slightly into the recoil. You'll get more consistent groupings that way."
Eelis reached the last man on the line. "And you, Airman…" he hesitated as he realized he didn't remember the man's name. "What the hell is your name Airman?"
"Nelsen, Staff Sergeant. Senior Airman Thomas Nelsen."
Eelis was no longer listening as he had automatically froze at the mention of the name Nelson. He briefly wondering if this was one of Pramod Nelson's relatives. He knew Nelson came from a large family, but Eelis had never met them in person before Nelson had died, and he had gone out of his way to avoid meeting any of them after Nelson had died. Why? Eelis honestly wasn't sure. Maybe he felt guilty for surviving when Nelson didn't (he did.) Maybe it was because he knew they would ask him how Nelson died and he wasn't willing, or ready, to talk about that yet.
With a start, Eelis came to his senses and realized that there was no way this Airman Nelsen could be related to Pramod. For one thing, looking at his nametag, Eelis realized this Nelsen spelled his name with an "E" as opposed to an "O." Also, the fact that this Nelsen was a redhead white man while Pramod had been a full blooded Tibetan was also a clue.
"Sergeant Rautio, are you okay?"
Eelis mentally shook his shock off. "I'm fine Airman, but you aren't," he told Nelsen. "What the hell happened here?" he gestured at the target they were supposed to be shooting at.
The target was a paper silhouette of an Elite and positioned roughly three meters away from the firing line. Unrealistic as hell because if an Elite ever got that close, then they would all already be dead. But the point behind the silhouette was more target recognition than any attempt at realism. The target they were supposed to be shooting was a white circle, roughly fifteen centimeters in diameter, positioned in the center of the Elite's head. It was an easy target, one that Eelis could probably hit even with his eyes closed, and he was no marksman. Yet somehow, this Airman Thomas (he just couldn't call him Nelsen, not even his head; it was sending chills down his spine to do so) had managed to miss every single shot. Furthermore, Eelis could only count six bullet holes in the body of the silhouette; an M6G pistol carried eight rounds in the magazine which meant not only did Airman Thomas miss the target he was supposed to be shooting at, he had somehow managed to miss the silhouette entirely with two bullets.
Airman Thomas frowned at Eelis' tone. "The sights on this pistol are fucked, Sergeant," he said a bit defensively.
Eelis resisted the urge to face palm. "'The sights on this pistol are fucked,'" Eelis repeated. He turned to face the rest of the line. "There is one pet peeve of mine that I'd like to share with all of you which is this: operators blaming their poor performance on their equipment!"
Eelis turned back to Airman Thomas, who was decidedly looking uncomfortable. "Airman, this is the weapon that you've had since you got here, is it not?"
"Um, yes Sergeant, it is," Airman Thomas answered hesitantly.
"Did I, or did I not make you all zero your sights before bring you here to this range?"
"You did Sergeant," Airman Thomas answered with a bit of reluctance.
"Were the sights working or were they not when you were supposed to be zeroing them in?"
"They were Sergeant." At this point, Airman Thomas looked like he was wishing the ground would rise up and swallow him alive.
"So explain to me Airman Thomas, because I don't quite understand." If Thomas noted the usage of his first name as opposed to his last name, he was smart enough not to comment on it. "How your gun sights have manage to FUCK UP in the fifteen minutes since we zeroed them?"
Airman Thomas was silent, which was good because Eelis wasn't finished yet. "I ask, Airman, because I've been working with firearms for the last, oh, six years? And I have never heard of this phenomenon, so I'd like to understand how this could have happened."
"The sights on my sidearm aren't fucked up Sergeant," Thomas said quietly. "I just have poor aim."
"Now that seems more logical, doesn't it?" Eelis asked him. "But now that we know what the problem is, we can fix it!"
From the corner of his eye, Eelis noticed an officer gesturing at him from the safety glass on the other side of the range. Eelis mentally sighed.
"Everybody, make sure your weapons are unloaded. No firing," Eelis ordered. "I have to go talk to someone really quickly. Take this moment to practice your grip. Airmans Thornberry, Dotse, and Harrigan, you all have a pretty good grasp on how to fire your pistol, so help your comrades work on theirs." He glanced at Thomas. "We'll discuss techniques on how to improve your aim when I get back."
Without waiting for an acknowledgement, Eelis jogged back to the firing hut where a naval officer was waiting for him.
"Commander Farkas," Eelis greeted. The hut was essentially a sheet of tin sitting on some stilts but Eelis figured it still counted as indoors so he didn't bother saluting. "Am I missing something sir? I thought our next session was this Friday."
Lieutenant Commander Tomas Farkas was the psychiatrist who was helping Eelis deal with his post-traumatic stress. At first he couldn't quite understand why he'd been assigned a Navy psychiatrist, as opposed to an Air Force one, but he quickly realized that all military psychiatrist were the same, the only difference was the color of the uniform they wore. Farkas had probably been chosen because the military probably thought he was the best psychiatrist to help his case. Eelis had seen Farkas for several weeks prior to the Covenant invasion (this planet was Eelis' unit's garrison planet, so he'd been here when the Covenant attacked,) and he had thought his therapy sessions would end with the Covenant offensive, but evidently the military had decided he could still do his job and attend his therapy sessions at the same time.
"No, you are correct," Farkas assured him. "I was just in the neighborhood, thought I would swing by and see what was going on." He nodded in the direction of the airman milling around on the range. "I thought there were simulators specifically designed for this sort of thing?"
Eelis shrugged indifferently. "There are sir, but I always felt that firing live rounds down range beat firing simulated rounds any day."
"Interesting," Farkas commented. "You know, come to think of it, I don't think I've ever fired a live round while serving in the military. Only ever received simulated training."
Eelis didn't quite know what to say to that. "Well," he finally said politely, "that's not exactly your job, is it? Your job is to make sure guys like me are well enough to prevent events from spiraling downwards to the point where you need to hump a rifle."
"And speaking of my job," Farkas prompted. "How are you feeling? You look a little tired. Have you been sleeping?"
Eelis thought about his dreams and was tempted to not bring them up. But at the same time, he did want to get better and this did seem like the best way to do so. "Well, I don't really want to get into too much detail, especially with them around," he gestured to his class, "but I haven't exactly been able to sleep through the night."
"Dreaming about your friend?" Farkas asked gently.
"Well, yes," Eelis admitted, shifting uncomfortably.
Farkas seemed to get the hint. "Well, we can discuss this more in detail during our next session," he told Eelis. "However, as you probably guessed, I did come down here with an ulterior motive in mind. Do you remember your friend, Corporal Isaac Ishmael?"
Eelis scratched his chin. "With all due respect sir, I wouldn't exactly call Ishmael my friend. I mean, we're not even in the same military branch."
"But you did fight together," Farkas pointed out. "Fought and bleed together. Some would argue that would make you comrades, brothers in arms almost."
"Sure," Eelis said after a moment's thought. "Comrades, okay. But it's not like I know him sir. I mean, we didn't exactly have time for idle chitchat when the plasma was flying, and we didn't really see each other too much after we left that planet." He fixed Farkas with a questioning look. "Why bring him up if you don't mind me asking sir?"
Farkas sighed. "It's come to my understanding that Ishmael has been missing out on his therapy sessions. His psychiatrist informs me Ishmael has not been handling the traumatic stress very well and he asked me to reach out to you, see if you would be willing to talk to him. I told him that I would present the request to you, but that I would not force you to do it. So, here we are."
Eelis shuffled uncomfortably at the thought of having to talk about what had happened, even with someone who had been there. Eelis had been trying to avoid thinking about it.
After a long moment of silence, Eelis finally turned to Farkas, who had been waiting for an answer without a hint of impatience. "What do you think sir?"
"Quite honestly, I think it's a good idea," Farkas said sincerely. "It helps sometimes, to talk about what you experienced and many people find it easier to talk to someone who was actually there, or had gone through a similar experience, rather than open up to a complete stranger like me. I know you've been trying to avoid talking about it, but I think this would help both you and Ishmael."
Eelis cleared his throat but he found he couldn't refute anything Farkas had said. "I'll talk to him," he finally said.
Farkas fixed Eelis with a serious stare. "I want to emphasis, you don't have to do this," he told him. "I don't want you to feel like you're being pressured. If you don't feel like you are ready to talk about what happened, then you aren't ready."
"No it's, it's fine Doc," Eelis said. "It's. It's fine."
"Okay then." Farkas looked skeptical but didn't argue with him. "Well, let me know how it goes?"
"Sure thing Doc." Eelis gestured to his class. "I got to get back. See you Friday?"
"Friday it is," Farkas confirmed.
"Alpha Flight, gather around!"
At the sound of his flight leader's voice, 2nd Lieutenant Nicole Bellawood, Eelis hopped off the bed of the Warthog where he'd been loading the M41 light anti-aircraft gun mounted in the bed of the Warthog. He grabbed his rifle and joined Nelson as they walked to where Bellawood was standing.
"What's going on?" Eelis asked.
Nelson looked excited. "No idea, but I'm thinking we might actually get to see some action!"
Eelis shot him an exasperated look. "What, beating off Banshee raids isn't enough action for you?" For the last couple of weeks, the 555th Security Forces Squadron had been escorting UNSC Army supply convoys to and from the city of Macedonia. The long, slow moving convoys had been targeted almost non-stop by Covenant Banshee's but with the 555th's help, the convoys were at least able to hit back with a vengeance.
Nelson shrugged. "Nah. I promised my baby brother I'd bag a Split-lip for him. Kind of hard to do that when we haven't seen any."
They stopped at the area where the rest of thirty airmen of Alpha Flight, along with the flight sergeant, Technical Sergeant Doge Williams, had joined Bellawood.
"Listen up!" Bellawood called out. "We've got a situation. A small convoy of Army soldiers has gotten lost in the city and somehow, managed to make their way into Covenant controlled territory!" Beside him, Eelis could hear Nelson hiss in excitement. "With this recent Covenant offensive," she paused as somewhere in the distance, the roar of Shortsword engines could be heard, followed by the rumble of explosions in the distance, "the Army is too preoccupied to try and find their lost troopers. So that's where we come in. Our job is to find this lost convoy and bring them back safety."
"How the hell does the Army get lost in this damn city?" Eelis' team leader, Staff Sergeant Kelly Hardtack, asked. Eelis couldn't help but agree. With GPS, recon drones, maps, outpost set up every three hundred meters on the road, and signs all over the damn place, one almost had to try to lose themselves in the city.
Bellawood shook her head. "Apparently they took a series of wrong turns, ran into an ambush, and then got themselves turned around. Fortunately, they had the intelligences to turn their transponders on, which one of our Wombats were able to pick up, so we have a lock on their location." Bellawood pulled out a map and spread it open on the ground. "So, this is where we are. This is where they are. As you can see, they're in the middle of the southern section of the city. Covenant presence there is expected to be light, but it is a city so if we're not careful, they can easily hit us in force. You'll also notice we'll be traveling through some high buildings. Plenty of places for the Covies to ambush us from. So for that matter, Sergeant Williams, I want you to take our two rocket 'Hogs and cover our six and watch the skies for contacts. 2nd Squad will be in front of you guys, watching the ground levels. 1st Squad will be in front of them, watching the rooftops. I'll lead with Flight HQ 'Hogs and we'll cover our twelve. Command has promised us some gunship support, but with the buildings so close together and the air space being contested, I rather not use them. Any questions?"
"How many army troopers should we be expecting?" someone asked.
"It was a Maintenance Squad," Bellawood answered. "Count on two troop transports and two LRV. So about fifteen guys. Any other question?" No one spoke up. "Then mount up!"
"Yes! Finally!" Nelson cheered as he climbed into the passenger seat of their assigned Warthog. "Enough of this Banshee bullshit, I want to kill some real bad guys!"
Eelis shook his head as he took his place behind the Warthog's main gun. "Man, you are way too enthusiastic about this shit," he told him.
Nelson's reply was cut off as Hardtack climbed into the driver's seat and activated the Warthog. "Alright gents," she said. "Let's get this shit done. Rautio, cover the left flank. Nelson, cover the right. We're rolling into a combat zone so we're at condition zero. Rounds chambered, safeties off. That means you Nelson!"
"You don't have to tell me twice Sergeant," Nelson replied, enthusiastically racking the bolt on his MA37. "I've been waiting for this shit since I joined the Air Force."
Any more conversation was cut off as the convoy began moving out. They drove down familiar roads, heading towards the city. As they approached, the sounds of fighting they'd been hearing grew louder and louder, and it was getting harder and harder to pick out individual explosions.
"Damn," Eelis commented after a particularly vicious explosion echoed through the city, causing the roadway to visibly shake. "I wonder who's beating who?"
A loud rumbling caused him to look up. An entire Navy frigate was descending from orbit, her point defense guns spewing orange tracers seemingly at random into the city.
"Wohoo!" Nelson cheered. "Please tell me that's our air support cause that would be fucking bad ass!"
"Nelson, shut up and keep your eyes peel!" Hardtack ordered and Nelson quickly subsided.
The frigate peeled away as they entered the city, and the sounds of fighting lowered to a more reasonable level as the surrounding buildings absorbed most of the sound waves before it could reach their ears. This sector of the city had been hit by either artillery or aircraft fire at some point, but for the most part, it was mostly intact. They drove straight down the road, slow enough they wouldn't miss anything, but fast enough they could probably avoid an ambush. Eelis swiveled his gun around, watching the rooftops, every one of his senses on high alert. He hadn't seen any sign of life, human or otherwise, which he took as a good sign.
Bellawood's voice came over the Warthog's radio. "Objective located," she said. "One hundred meters at our twelve, down the road."
Keeping his gun pointed where it was, Eelis turned his head to look. Sure enough, he could see the smoking ruins of two M831 Troop Transport Warthogs and two M12 LRVs sitting in the middle of a large open traffic circle. Scattered around the circle were what appeared to be badly burned bodies. The Army troopers perhaps?
"That's doesn't look promising," Hardtack said grimly and all Eelis could do was nod.
The convoy drove into the circle.
"Sergeant Williams, take 2nd and 3rd Squads and set up a defensive perimeter!" Bellawood ordered as she leapt from her 'Hog. "1st Squad, on me! Check for survivors!"
Abandoning his machine gun, Eelis hopped from the Warthog. Pulling out his rifle and keeping it at a ready position, he walked over to the nearest body. The body was wearing the battle dress uniform of the UNSC Army, and had taken a direct hit to the face. The superheated plasma had burned away everything and left nothing but a lump of unidentifiable flesh. As Eelis approached, the smell of charred flesh and human excrement hit him and he almost gagged, but he forced it down and knelt by the body. Fishing around the body's neck, he found the soldier's dogtags. PFC Nia Ashraf, the tags read.
"Eelis! I need your help!"
Eelis snapped his head up at the sound of Nelson's voice. Nelson had wandered over to one of the destroyed LRVs and was now trying to lift the Warthog by himself. Eelis quickly jogged over to help but the two of them weren't enough. A couple more airmen quickly came over and together, they were able to lift the Warthog off the ground.
The reason why Nelson was trying to lift the hulk quickly became obvious as a man rolled out from underneath. As soon as the man was clear, Eelis dropped the destroyed vehicle and quickly knelt by the man. The man was wearing a set of Army BDUs and was cradling an injured leg. Eelis noted his name tag read "Ishmael" as he pulled out a can of biofoam from his IFAK.
"It's alright trooper!" Eelis called out. "You're safe now!"
"It's a fucking trap you cunts!" Ishmael spat. "They're on the fucking roof!"
One of rocket Warthogs suddenly detonated as a glowing green rocket slammed into it. The Warthog was lifted off the ground as the hydrogen fuel cell and extra ammo exploded. Simultaneous, blue and green bolts began raining down all around them.
"Contact, nine o'clock, up high!" someone bellowed and Eelis turned around, bringing his rifle to bear. He desperately searched for a target but the Covenant had planned their positions well. He couldn't see anything, not even a muzzle flash so he settled for spraying the face of the building with automatic weapons rifle. His rifle quickly clicked empty and as Eelis reloaded, the airman next to him suddenly pitched forward, a smoking hole in the back of his head. Eelis glanced backwards at the road they had come from. A number of Covenant Grunts were dragging tripod mounted plasma cannons and drop shields across the road, trying to cut off their escape.
"Behind us!" Eelis bellowed, and fired rapidly at one of the Grunts hauling a plasma cannon. The Grunt tripped as Eelis kneecapped him, dropping the plasma cannon to the ground but another Grunt quickly bounded over his wounded comrade and scooped up the weapon. Eelis automatically shifted to the new target but the Grunt made it safely behind one of the drop shields, and Eelis' rounds ricocheted into the sky.
"Nelson, Rautio! Grab the trooper!" Bellawood suddenly yelled into his ear and Eelis quickly looked around for Ishmael. He noticed him sitting on the ground. Ishmael had managed to locate a rifle and was firing blindly at the rooftops despite his wounded leg. Eelis and Nelson hurriedly ran over to him.
"Hardtack! Take your squad, secure that building and get me off this fucking street!"
Bellawood's voice abruptly cut off and Eelis turned in time to see Bellawood pitch forward, several purple spikes imbedded in her back. He had to turn away as the spike exploded in a blinding purple light.
"Come on!" Nelson yelled, tugging his arm. "Get off the street!"
Eelis walked confidently, with his issued body armor on, his rifle slung around his shoulders, his CH252 helmet strapped to his waist, and his blue Security Forces beret proudly planted on his head, to the motor pool where he had been told Ishmael's unit was located. Outside, he thought he looked cool and collected; inside, he was quivering at the thought of this upcoming conversation. He did mean what he said to Farkas, he did want to do this. And he did believe Farkas: this would bound to help him. But dammit it all if he wasn't scared to have to face the things he'd saw.
Realizing that was not a productive line of thought, Eelis shifted his thoughts to Ishmael. Like he had told Farkas, he really didn't know Ishmael at all. In the fight they'd been too busy trying to survive for any sort of small talk; afterwards, they weren't in any mood to hold a conversation. From his impressions though, Ishmael seemed like a decent guy. Eelis wondered how he was holding up.
Reaching the building where Ishmael's unit was, Eelis paused in front of the door, composing himself. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then took another one. He reached a hand out but just as he was about to pull the door open, it slammed open, revealing a rather small, brunette woman.
"Yeah, you better fucking run you Innie whore!" someone from inside the room yelled at her, and Eelis dumbly recognized the voice as belonging to Ishmael.
Eelis threw a startled glance at the woman standing in front of him. This woman was an Innie-lover? Eelis didn't know much about the Insurrection, and he wasn't one to make snap judgments so he personally had no strong feelings about the Insurrection and their supporters, but being an open Insurrectionist support around here was probably not the wisest of ideas.
For her part, the woman showed no sign of reaction at being call an Innie-lover, instead looking up at Eelis with an expectant look on her face. Eelis stared back, unsure of what she wanted from him.
With a slight roll of her eyes, she shoved passed him and with a start, Eelis realized he was blocking the doorway. She'd been waiting for him to move out of the way.
With one last confused look at the departing woman, Eelis walked into the motor pool and his eyes immediately picked out Ishmael from the crowd. He hadn't changed much from the last time Eelis had seen him, save for the fact he was no longer covered in blood and gore. Eelis felt a pang of hope; Ishmael looked healthy and fit for action. He didn't look like he'd spent many a sleepless night thinking about the past. Maybe he could help Eelis.
As he approached, one of Ishmael's buddies looked up and nudged Ishmael with his elbow. Ishmael looked up. He snorted.
"What, the fucking whore can't find anyone around here to believe her lies so she went to the Air Force?" Ishmael snarled. "What a fucking bitch. But guess what fucker?" Ishmael stood up and pushed a finger into Eelis' chest, "you don't have jurisdiction over me."
Eelis frowned. Ishmael didn't remember him? Well, that wasn't that surprising, he supposed, given what was going on.
"Isaac Ishmael? I guess you don't remember me. We fought together six months ago?" Eelis watched as a variety of emotions passed over Ishmael's face before his face went blank.
"Oh. Right," was all Ishmael said.
Eelis glanced at Ishamel's buddies who were all listening in with undisguised interest. "Can we talk?" he asked. "In private preferably?"
Ishmael looked disgruntled but nodded nonetheless. "Fine. Come with me."
Ishmael led Eelis to small briefing room branching off from the motor pool. As soon as the door slammed shut, Ishmael whirled on him.
"What the fuck do you want?" he demanded.
Surprised by the amount of hostility Ishmael was displaying, it took a few moments for Eelis to respond. "Eh, to talk?" he answered hesitantly.
"About what?" Ishmael replied with suspicion.
"About the battle. After what we saw and went through," Eelis began but Ishmael quickly cut him off.
"Did my fucking psychiatrist put you up to this?" he demanded to know.
"No! Well, sort of?"
"I told that fucking asshole to fucking leave me alone!" Ishmael yelled. "I don't fucking need help, I don't need some dumbass shrink asking me how I feel! Who fucking cares? What that fucker needs to do is stop asking me how I feel and let me do my fucking job! Dumbass psychiatrist, thinks he knows everything but he's never even seen a Covenant in real life! And he thinks he can help me? Fucking arrogant prick."
Eelis was taken back at the amount of hostility dripping from Ishmael's voice. "Well," Eelis said in a quiet voice, "if you're okay, maybe you could help me?"
"Ah fuck on, you aren't going to trick me!" Ishmael snarled. He leaned in close until he face was almost touching Eelis'. "You go back to that sick fuck and tell him, if he really wants to help, go strap on a rifle, go to the front line, and go help those guys hold back the Covenant. Then he can help. Otherwise, he can go fuck himself!"
With that, Ishmael stored out of the room, shutting the door behind with a loud SLAM, leaving behind a very confused Eelis.
Eelis sat at his work table, his service rifle dismantled on the table in front of him. Taking a slightly oily rag and a ramrod, he shoved it down the barrel of his rifle, wiping the insides clean of any powder residue. After running the rag through several times, he brought the barrel up to his eye line, looking through it to make sure it was cleaned. Verifying it was, he placed it back on the table and removed the bolt assembly from the upper receiver. Disassembling it, he began wiping each part down with the rag, starting with the firing pin.
It was the middle of the night and Eelis should be sleeping. However, another dream had woken him and he had decided to do what he always did when he couldn't sleep: cleaning rifles. There was something about cleaning rifles that helped him relax after a bad night. He wasn't sure what it was; maybe it was the repetition of what he did that helped his mind go into a sort of fugue state. Or maybe it was the fact that it didn't require too much thought, but enough that he needed to concentrate on what he was doing least he screw up that helped silence his mind.
Whatever the case, it was because of this zoned out state it took him quite a bit of time to realize what he was hearing: the sound of something moving around nearby. At first, he paid no mind to it; after all, this base was in operation day and night. But then he realized the noise was coming from about his cot and he got curious. Who would come around here at this time?
Abandoning his rifle, Eelis stood up and walked over to the door of the armory. He pushed it open and froze. Standing over his cot without a hair out of place was Nelson.
"What's up Eelis?" he said cheerfully, as if dead people appearing was a common occurrence.
Eelis opened his mouth but found he just couldn't say anything. Nelson seemed not to notice.
"That was one hell of a firefight, wasn't it?" Nelson continued. "Things were really popping off, weren't they?" He suddenly laughed and the noise should have comforted Eelis but all it did was send shivers down his spine. "Man, remember when we were enlisting? What people told us when we said we were going to be Security Forces? They asked, 'why? All you guys are going to be doing is guarding airstrips and checking IDs.' So much for that, huh?"
Nelson seemed to finally realize something was wrong because he cocked his head, like he used to do when he was confused. "What's wrong Eelis? You're all pale and shit, like you've just seen a ghost."
His joke jarred Eelis out of his shock.
"This is a dream," Eelis said with sudden realization. "You are just a figment of my imagination."
Nelson blinked, confusion written all over his face. "Well I'm hurt. What makes you say that?"
"Nelson," Eelis choked over his next words, unwilling to say it.
"Yeah?" Nelson asked cautiously.
"Nelson, you're dead," Eelis finally choked out.
There was a beat.
"Huh." Was all Nelson could say. "Yeah, I suppose you're right." He reached up to scratch his head in confusion but couldn't. Because his arm wasn't there anymore, only a bloody stub. Nelson started at his arm in confusion and then glanced back at Eelis. He opened his mouth to say something but only a choking, raspy sound came out. Eelis knew that sound.
It was the sound of a dying man trying to get air.
To Eelis' horror, the smell of burning flesh started to fill the air and Nelson looked down as a hole was suddenly burned in his chest. He looked back up and Eelis could see that every single cut and bruise that had covered Nelson's face when he died was rapidly forming. Heart racing and close to hyperventilating, Eelis shut his eyes. He could, he would not watch Nelson die again.
"Eelis…" he heard Nelson rasp out. "Please…"
Eelis put his hands over his ears, tears pouring his face. "Stop it," he whispered. "Wake up Eelis, wake up!" he chanted.
"Nelson, GO AWAY!"
Eelis landed on the ground, the impact jarring him awake. His hand reflexively lashed out, pulling a rifle from a nearby rack. Snapping it to his shoulder, he looked around widely. He was sitting on the ground inside the armory, his disassembled rifle laying on the table in front of him. Evidently he had fallen asleep will cleaning it. He glanced at his watch. It was pretty late. He should really consider going to bed.
With a sense of dread, Eelis glanced at the door leading to his cot.
It was just a dream, he told himself. Nelson isn't there.
Just a dream, he told himself.
Nevertheless, Eelis knew he was sleeping in the armory tonight.
"Doc, why am I so weak?"
Farkas looked up from the datapad he was typing in. "Who told you that?" he asked gently.
Eelis fidgeted in his seat. It was Friday and he had just finished convey his "discussion" with Ishmael to Farkas. "No one told me that doc. Just, the conclusion I came up on my own."
"And how did you come to the conclusion?" Farkas' question held no hint of judgment, yet Eelis struggled to answer.
"I don't really know," Eelis finally said.
"Well, I do," he quickly admitted. "I mean, look at Ishmael. He went through the same stuff that I did. He saw the exact same things I did. He's not haunted by," Eelis hesitated before saying "dreams."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Sorry?" Eelis asked in confusion.
"What makes you so sure Ishmael's not being effected by what he saw?" Farkas clarified.
Eelis was startled. He hadn't really thought about it. "Well, he does his job without hesitation," Eelis said slowly.
"And you don't" Farkas asked politely.
Eelis hesitated. "It's not the same thing," he finally said.
"Well," Eelis said slowly, "what he does is very important for the war effort."
"You'll have to excuse my ignorance," Farkas began, "however I feel teaching airmen how to shoot is as equally important as repair vehicles."
"I don't do that every day," Eelis mumbled.
"But you also repair weapons," Farkas pointed out. "Which is also essential to the war effort."
Eelis didn't really have anything to say to that and Farkas sighed. "My point is, Eelis, is that I have treated quite a few, a lot in fact, of people in my career. Men, women, soldiers, Marines, airmen, seamen. Everyone reacts to traumatizing events differently. Some people become alcoholics, others become workaholics. There is however, one consistent: not a single one of them wanted to admit they were suffering. A large part of the reason behind why people did what they did was because they just didn't want to have to face the things they had seen."
"Like me," Eelis said morosely.
"Or like Ishmael."
Eelis jerked his head up. "Really?"
"Well, I hesitate to comment on what goes on through Ishmael's mind, especially seeing as how I've never spoken to the man in either an official or unofficial capacity," Farkas admitted, "however I would wager that Ishmael is suffering just as badly as you. He just may be better at hiding it. You mentioned his rapid descent into anger? Extreme anger is sometimes a sign of post-traumatic stress. He could very well wish to talk to someone like you, only he just doesn't know how."
"You think?" Eelis asked, skeptically. "He's seemed pretty adamant about being alright."
"Try talking to him again," Farkas suggested. "He might be a bit more receptive this time."
Eelis was doubtful but, he supposed it couldn't hurt if he tried one more time. "Alright doc, I guess I'll try again."
"Running low on ammo here!" Nelson bellowed as he withdraw his rifle from the window to reload.
Eelis quickly took his place, shoving the M45 tactical shotgun he had found out the window and firing down the street. His rifle had been blasted right out of his hands but he had managed to salvage a shotgun and some shells from one of the Warthogs before it was blown up. Of course, a piece of shrapnel from the exploding Warthog had shattered the stock, making it next to impossible to fire the damn thing with any degree of accuracy, but given the amount of fire coming their way, he was blind firing it anyways, trying to at least suppress the advancing Covenant.
"Just hang on!" Hardtack encourage as Eelis emptied the tube magazine and moved out of the way to reload. Ishmael quickly took his place. "Air support is on the way! Just hang on!"
After Bellawood was killed, Sergeant Williams had taken command. However, evidently he wasn't aware Bellawood had already sent 1st Squad one direction to clear out a building, and he send what remained of 2nd and 3rd Squads in another direction to clear out a separate building. By the time he figured out he had accidently split the Flight in two, Covenant had pushed into the circle, cutting the unit off from each other. 1st Squad had attempted to push immediately to regroup with the rest of the Flight, but the Covenant had so far prevented that from happening.
Fortunately for them, Alpha Flight's radio operator had managed to make it into the same building they had with his radio intact, and Hardtack was able to get in contact with Squadron command and call in the gunship support that had been promised to them. However, with the Covenant so close to their positions, the gunships would be limited to gun runs only, limiting their effectiveness. And with their Flight separated as it was, even that was a dicey proposition as gunship cannons were designed for maximum spread, not pinpoint accuracy. Of course, Eelis and his friends had to survive until the gunships arrived.
"Ripcord, this is Tie-dye, do you copy, over?"Eelis heard someone say over the radio.
Hardtack grabbed the handset from the radio operator and pressed it against her ear. "Tie-dye, this is Ripcord. Need immediate air support! We are pinned down by heavy Covenant forces in the traffic circle. Our Flight has been cut in two, and there are fifty plus Covenant infantry in the middle of the circle keeping us separated! Requesting immediate gun runs on Covenant inside the circle!"
"Okay Ripcord, take a deep breath and calm down. I'm seeing two groups of friendly IFFs, one in the west, one in the northeast. Is that you, over?"
"Yeah, that's us!" Hardtack yelled into the microphone. "Everyone in the circle is a Covie!"
"Roger that Ripcord. We are going hot. Guns, guns, guns!"
Eelis had been at the window firing at an advancing Elite when the Elite and the ground below and surrounding the Elite simply disintegrated. A far seconds later, he heard the RATATATATA of a heavy autocannon firing in the distance. Bending slightly at the knees, he looked up in the sky to see an Air Force SkyHawk strike fighter blazing away with all of its mounted cannons, shooting at any Covenant soldiers inside the circle.
"Wohoo!" Nelson cheered from over Eelis' head. "Get some motherfuckers!"
Armed with four 50mm autocannons and several anti-tank missiles for good measure, the Covenant caught out in the open were quickly shredded. Bodies, body parts, blood and gore were everywhere, covering the circle.
"All targets in the circle destroyed," the SkyHawk pilot reported with a hint of satistfaction. "Covenant appear to be falling back, over."
"Shit, roger that Tie-dye!" Hardtack said over the radio. Lowered it, she glanced at the squad. "Hey, with the Covenant falling back and with that SkyHawk in the air, now is a good time to regroup with Sergeant Williams and the rest of the Flight! Let me clear this with Tie-dye but get your weapons loaded and get ready to move!"
Without waiting for a response, Hardtack turned back to the radio. "Tie-dye, this is Ripcord. With the Covenant falling back, we're going to try and make a run across the circle, try to regroup the Flight. Can you cover us, over?"
"Say again? Which group is going to which group, over?"
"Uh…" With a start, Eelis realized no one quite knew where they were in the circle. Were they the northeast group or the east group?"
Fortunately someone else did.
"Tie-dye, this is Ripcord Alpha-5," the voice of Williams sounded over the radio. "The east group is moving through the circle to join the northeast group. Can you provide cover, over?"
"Roger that Ripcord. We got you covered. You can move anytime you like."
With a small sigh of relief, Hardtack handed the handset back to the radio operator. She glanced at the rest of the squad before hefting her rifle. "You guys ready? Let's go!"
Kicking down what remained of the front door, Hardtack dashed out into the street, Eelis close behind. Leaping over Covenant bodies and dashing through pools of blood, they ran through the circle. From one of the buildings on the other side, Eelis could see Sergeant Williams rising up, waving his arms frantically. Eelis turned slightly so he could run directly to the building Williams and the rest of the Flight were in.
"Okay, I see a group of friendlies oh shit, Salmero break left now!"
There was an explosion and Eelis looked up in time to see a green fuel rod rocket slam into the left duct fan of the SkyHawk. The engine exploded and the SkyHawk instantly began losing altitude as two bulbous Banshees, their purple colored hull gleaning in the sunlight, whip by overhead.
"Clear the street! Go go go!" Hardtack screamed and Eelis tucked in his head down and broke out in a dead sprint.
"Shit, they're coming around!" Eelis heard Nelson scream behind him. He heard a rifle roar to life but it was quickly drowned out the inhuman scream of the Banshees' engines. Then he heard a rocket launch.
A green rocket slammed into the ground right underneath Hardtack's feet, the superheated plasma essentially melting Hardtack like she was a wax figure left outside on a very hot day. The explosion also ripped a hole in the street, throwing debris all over the place.
Eelis felt his eyes widen as a piece of asphalt hurtled directly at him. He felt pain erupting from his forehead and his head whip back as the asphalt slammed into him.
Then everything went dark.
Eelis took a moment to adjust his beret as he stood outside the door to the motor pool Ishmael worked at. He decided to take Farkas' advice to try and talk to Ishmael again. This time though, Eelis decided to wait until it was closer to night time, when the motor pool would be empty. If Farkas was right and Ishmael would be willing to talk, Eelis didn't want an audience listening in to what he had to say. That was, of course, if Ishmael was even here. Eelis had asked around and it turned out that Ishmael had a habit of working late but today, no one had really seen Ishmael for the last couple of hours.
Figuring there was no point in delaying, Eelis pulled the door open and with as much confidence as he could muster, strolled in. He opened his mouth to forestall any of Ishmael's anger, only to close it with a click as he realized the motor pool was empty.
Feeling slight ridiculous, and a bit disappointed, Eelis looked around. Now what? This was the only place people had suggested Ishmael would be, but he was clearly not here. Eelis supposed he could wait here for Ishmael to show up but that seemed a bit creepy. Not only that, if Ishmael wasn't here now, it was probably doubtful he could come back. No, Eelis' best bet was to go back to his armory and come back at a later time. Yes, he should wait until he was sure Ishmael was here. No, he wasn't trying to procrastinate because he was nervous.
Eelis turned to leave but pause. The door leading to the small briefing room that Ishmael had pulled him into last time he'd been here was open slightly. Not sure why, Eelis decided to look inside see if Ishmael was there. He pushed open the door fully and froze. Ishmael were there. Sort of.
A thick piece of black cord had been tied off to the roof. Hanging from the other end of the cord, like a morbid lamp, was Ishmael. Ishmael's body was swaying slightly in air. A stool was lying on its side just under his feet. In one of the corners of the room, the shattered remains of a beer bottle was spread across the ground, as if it had been thrown there.
Eelis stood there, dumbly in the doorway, unsure of what to do.
"Excuse me, what are – what the fuck?"
Someone rushed passed him into the room and it took Eelis' shocked addled brain to realize it was the same woman he had seen the last time he was there. She dashed into the room and immediately grabbed Ishmael's legs, pushing him up and trying to relieve the pressure from his neck.
"Dammit Airman!" she spat. "Get a fucking medic in here!"
"We having a party in – what the shit?" an unknown man said from behind Eelis, stopping just behind him, staring at the scene in front of him.
"Toretto, don't just stand there! Make yourself useful and get a fucking medic!" the woman screamed at him.
"I'm on it, I'm on it!" the man, Toretto yelled before running out of the motor pool. He quickly returned with a number of other soldiers, one of which was wearing the insignia of a combat medic. Eelis moved into the room to allow them to work. They quickly cut Ishmael down, loaded the body on a stretcher they had brought with them, the medic checking Ishmael for a pulse. Eelis stepped aside as they exited the room. As he moved, his feet hit something on the ground. Eelis glanced down. It was a data pad. Scratched across the back cover was the name "Ishmael."
Without really thinking about it, Eelis picked it up. It was still logged in and at his touch, the screen reactivated. A document had been opened and a single message had been written. It said: "We're all dead. Why prolong the suffering?"
"So, you were the first one to find Ishmael's body. That's a pretty horrific discovery, for anybody. Would you like to talk about it?" Farkas asked him gently.
Eelis was silent.
"No," he finally said. "Not really."
"Okay then," Farkas said, nodding his head. "Well"
"Actually doc, I would like to talk about something else." Eelis looked at Farkas in the eye. "I'd like to talk about what happen with Nelson."
"Hey," Eelis chided. "Don't try to speak. Save your energy."
Nelson ignored him. Eelis watched as his mouth open once or twice before he gathered enough air to whisper something.
"End this," he whispered.
"I'm trying buddy," Eelis told him. "You just need to hang on, okay? Medics are on the way, they're going to fix you up, okay? You just need to hold on."
Nelson slowly shook his head but he was unable to speak. Instead, with his remaining hand, he made a gun with his fingers and pointed it at his head. It took Eelis several precious seconds to realize Nelson's meaning but he quickly started shaking his head vigorously.
"No," Eelis said emphatically, "I can't do that. Don't ask me to do that. You're okay Nelson, just hang on."
"Eelis," Nelson rasped out, his eyes full of pain. "Please."
"No," Eelis said again, shaking his head. "I can't."
"Please…" Nelson's voice was almost inaudible.
Eelis shook his head again and closed his eyes. He could feel tears pouring down his face. "I can't Pramod," he whispered. "I'm sorry."
A choking, raspy noise filled the air and Eelis opened his eyes in alarm. Nelson was laying on the ground with his eyes wide open, his face turning slightly blue. Eelis watched him, completely clueless what to do. Then Nelson went still and Eelis watched as his pupils dilate.
"Oh shit," Eelis swore. "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit."
Removing Nelson's body armor as best as he could, Eelis shifted himself so that he could position his hands over Nelson's chest, he began applying chest compressions as best as he could, while trying to avoid accidently slipping his hands into the hole in Nelson's chest. Thirty pumps to the chest, and then two breaths into Nelson's mouth. He pressed two fingers against Nelson's neck, checking for a pulse. Nothing.
"Come on Nelson," Eelis pleaded as he continued to apply chest compressions. "You got to breath buddy." He forced another two breaths down Nelson's throat and checked again for a pulse. Still nothing.
"Breath dammit," Eelis yelled, pushing down on Nelson's chest. "Come on Nelson!"
Eelis woke with a jerk, breathing hard. He sat upright in his cot before planting his face into his hands. He was still dreaming. He had thought telling Farkas about how he had failed to grant his best friend's last wish would have ended the dreams but apparently that wasn't to be.
Eelis sighed loudly into his palms. He couldn't do this anymore. He just couldn't. There was one other option though.
Shedding his blanket, Eelis climbed out of his cot and headed to his foot locker. Popping it open, he dug around inside it until he found the familiar cherry oak wood box and pulled it out. He stared at it with silent contemplation before opening it. Inside was something that was something that was against Air Force regulations and if his commanders knew he had it, he'd probably be arrested. Or committed. Which is why he never showed it to anyone.
Inside was a Glock 19 handgun, and a single round of 9x19mm Parabellum. The 9mm round had, at one point, been the most popular handgun round until it had been replaced in popularity by other rounds. This gun however, had been his grandfathers. Incidentally, it was also the very weapon his grandfather had used to commit suicide with.
Eelis stared at the familiar firearm before impulsively pulling it out of its case. Locking the slide back, Eelis removed the round from the box and inserted it directly into the chamber. He pushed the slide release, the pistol slide locking closed. Closing his eyes, he slowly raised the pistol and pressed it against the side of his head. It would be so easy. All it took was a two and a half kilograms of pressure on the trigger and it would be over. No pain, no fuss. It would be so easy.
And yet, he hesitated. Pramod Nelson was his best friend. No, he was more than that. Pramod Nelson had been his brother. And yet, Eelis didn't have what it took to grant his brother's last wish. To end his brother's suffering. How could he justifiably end his own?
With a sigh, Eelis ejected the round and placed both objects back into the box, tossing the box back into his foot locker. Then he headed for the armory. Eelis would stay strong; suffer through what he had to. But one day this war against the Covenant would end. He could only hope that one day, he'll stop dreaming.