1000 Hours UTC, 14 September 2552 (Military Calendar)/
Sol System, Earth, UNSC Science Outpost 01A-77

Ascent, Descent

"Chief, feel free to use any of our utility vehicles during your stay here. They are quite nice, yes?"

The Doctor riding shotgun looked rearward and took notice of the Marine inspecting the leather-wrapped cushions.

"It's a fine vehicle."

"We have two color choices. Would you prefer black or white?"

"Actually, there's no need, Doctor. I'll be just fine with my own. Thank you for the offer anyway."

"Why do you refuse? They are just as capable as any mil-spec vehicle in terms of towing capacity, but certainly more comfortable."

"There's a hog en route, and that's really all I'll need. I don't think there will be much driving anyway."

Chief Warrant Officer Rion Fontaine reached down and pushed a switch that transitioned his window from a tinted black to clear, revealing the parking garage that they were speeding through.

The entire structure was empty. Not a vehicle or person in sight. The SUV sped a half-circle around the entire level of the structure and finally worked its way around to the central ramp leading upward, doing so again and again as they ascended each level at breakneck speed. Though the Marine didn't notice, the driver grinned in delight as the vehicle was pushed to the limits of its suspension's capabilities, tires screeching and urethane bushings groaning from beneath the chassis. Gradually, the ambiance became brighter with a natural luminosity, not the kind of fluorescence that dotted the areas around the elevators at each corner. Sunlight permeated through the uppermost levels. Closer to the rooftop, the Warrant prepared for the dismount, eager to commence the mission.

The vehicle ascended the last incline and emerged into the full light of a searing, African sun.

The Senior-ranking Marine breathed a little deeper the cool crispness of the vehicle's climate-controlled air as the driver finally slowed to a reasonable speed. Soon, they came to a stop on the crunchy gravel surface. A glass plate opened above their heads and slid far back into the roof panel, so far back that all three occupants had a clear view of the pale-blue skies—cast in an altostratus veil miles above. Through that cloud layer emerged a black spec high overhead.

"Right on time." remarked the Marine.

The Pelican dropship descended ever downward, seemingly at a snail's pace. It picked up speed and within a few seconds plummeted down on the land vehicle's position, slamming to a halt merely thirty meters distant.

"Go ahead and land her on the helipad, pilot." he said over a radio.

"Roger." he received.

The Pelican began its final descent, slowly sinking into the sweltering hot haze above the rooftop.

Inches to touchdown, the ventral VTOL thrusters kicked up a massive plume of dirt and debris, displacing it all in every possible direction. Pinging of pebbles against the SUV's panels was all that could be heard atop the whistle of the Pelican's hover jets. The aircraft's skids softly sank into the surface of the LZ and soon the thrusters spooled down to a whisper.

The Marine was the first to exit the vehicle, followed by the Doctor. The driver preferred to stay inside while the other two conducted their business in the oppressive, late morning heat.

They both proceeded closer to the drop ship as the tail ramp lowered, revealing the cargo inside: ruggedized transit cases containing advanced telecommunication and navigational equipment, all painted with the ever-familiar olive-drab motif of the Marine Corps. Thick, sturdy tethers looped up and over every piece of equipment, anchoring every non-human object to D-rings recessed into the center of the king plank. The squad of Marines flanking all the equipment were restrained with four-point harnesses. One by one, they each gave a twist of the camlocks and free they were to stretch out after the long ride, just as eager as the Chief Warrant.

"Hustle up, Marines, We've got a busy schedule ahead of us. This gear needs to be emplaced in accordance with the site diagram by seventeen-hundred local. From there, you can grab some chow and hunker down before you're on your way again."

With that, each member of the escort/support team scrambled into action and began assisting one another in off-loading everything out of the Pelican. A small camouflage netting was erected to ward off some of the intense sun rays, the intricate woven patterns casting strange shadows about the deck. Once the senior-ranking was sure they were well on their way to a successful day, he turned away and checked the time.

"Chief Fontaine," the Doctor said, "I have a few things we need to go over. It's about your mission. Let me apologize in advance..."

The Doctor collected his thoughts, appearing to Rion as though he was choosing his next words carefully.

"Apologize for what?"

"I don't want you to be blind-sided by what's to come, so I thought I'd just inform you now that you'll be staying here longer than the one month initially requested."

"Why is that and do you know who authorized it?"

"It's coming from ONI."

"That doesn't narrow it down much."

"They don't like to speak much, either. They didn't give me any specifics, and probably for good reason, so I can't elaborate any further as I'd wish. I thought you'd like to know so you could break the news to your family back home."

"Okay, thanks."

"They told me to have you contact your commander once you're uplink is fully set up."

"Anything else, Doctor?"

"That was all. Feel free to come and go as you please. Don't let the isolation of this building keep you from the rest of the complex. We're sitting on top of thirty hectares of desert plains. Most of the facilities are underground. You'll find adequate shelter and leisure at sub-complexes A, B, and C. Anything you need, we have. Just make sure you stay away from all entryways to sub-complex Omega. Its access is highly restricted and you'll not be authorized to enter. One of my aides will send you a base map over an encrypted link, complete with all applicable facilities you might wish to visit here. Do you have any questions?"

Fontaine looked side to side. "None for now. I'll let you know if I do later."

"Very well. Thank you in advance for your invaluable service to this outpost. Refer to the contact information if you need help navigating our areas."

The Doctor offered a curt nod before turning and walking towards the glossy-black SUV they arrived in. The sun was slowly working its way towards the zenith as the troops got on with the setup of the Warrant Officer's equipment.

Fontaine basked in the sunlight only for a moment, letting the warming rays bathe his half-obscured face as the SUV behind him slowly and silently sauntered over the rooftop gravel, and down into the labyrinth parking garage.

He took his mirrored glasses off.

The sun was out in full force today, with humidity upwards of seventy percent. The human body could shed sweat less effectively in this type of weather.

The Chief gazed at the surrounding desert plains. "I thought this was supposed to be the high desert."

A single Marine responded. "Roger, Chief."

"Feels more like the equatorial tropics."

"Yeah, it usually doesn't get this wet until the rainy season. Maybe it's a strong sea breeze off the Indian Ocean today."

"Well, whatever the case, take ten-minute breaks every forty-five minutes." Fontaine ordered. "Maintain that cycle until you've completed the setup. Everything looks on-schedule. No need to rush this."

This deployment was easy for them, Fontaine gathered. These young troops were likely not too far out of technical training, an ideal opportunity to get them more experienced before being sent off to the frontlines. Here, there was no worry of Covenant or the URF.

He took a break from unloading supplies from the pelican and walked to the Northernmost edge of the rooftop. Far out into the barren flats, he could make out the cracked plains and the majesty of mighty Mount Kilimanjaro in the farthest reaches, barely visibly through the dust and haze of the high desert. He averted his sights to the Warthog en route once a looming column of dust became visible billowing in the distance. The all-terrain vehicle was little bigger than a spec from this vantage, but the Chief could see its course start to change and leave the A109, the tail of dust closely following and intensifying once it transitioned to the desert plain. Within another minute it crossed under the rampart of the Trans-African Pipeline running parallel to the road behind. Farther out, Rion could see the silver, sinuous band of the Ocean Inlet snaking its way from the outlying industrial town all the way to Mombasa's Port Reitz, the large ferries afloat hauling industrial cargo in either direction.

"Why the roof, sir?"

Fontaine looked around and found one of the lower-ranking Marines with a spool of cable hanging loosely in his grasp.

"The equipment is safer up here. These ledges will block a lot of the wind gusts, too."

"You're going to spend your whole deployment up here? You're gonna boil your ass off."

"Not if I can help it. That cable you got...how long is it?"

"Says it's a hundred meters."

"That'll do. I'll set up my command and control a few levels down."

"Right on, Chief."

The Private gave a thumbs-up and went back to work.

Fontaine looked around and saw a couple of the troops driving copper rods into the rooftop with sledgehammers. "Let me help you boys out!" he said, jogging to their position.


1530 Hours UTC

"They have some pretty good food here." said one of the troops.

"Fresh." remarked Fontaine, biting into a red apple.

Beneath the shade of the Pelican's stubby winglets, all the Marines sat on either side of the aircraft. The sunlight glared off any exposed surface, most of the team wearing dark sunglasses and camouflaged booney hats. The pilot and navigator chose to forgo a meal, instead dozing off in the climate-controlled confines of the cockpit.

"Glad they let us into their cafeteria so we didn't have to break into those nasty MREs." another said.

"We still on-schedule?" Fontaine asked the highest ranking of the delivery crew.

"Looks that way, Chief Warrant. You might even have time to grab a hot meal before your report's due."

"Excellent. Good work, everyone. I guess there's just one final push and then we're through here."

"Sir..." asked one of the lower ranking Marines. "You're the best, right?"

"At least that's what the admiralty keep telling me. I still have a direct deposit every other week so that's always encouraging."

"Did they tell you if this was a training gig? Or did they say it was a real-world op?"

"Um, no, in fact they said nothing."

The Marines of the setup team glanced at one another nervously.


1745 Hours UTC

"Yeah, it's the only building here. Can't miss it. I'm at the rooftop."

Fontaine flipped the dust cover fabric over his forearm again, concealing the radio woven into his uniform. He glanced outward and found the Hog making a beeline straight toward the parking garage, no more than a kilometer out. He leaned against the ledge and looked the crew over, the lot of them crowded around the extended tail ramp of the Pelican, staring off into space and drinking water, resting their aching muscles in silence. Fontaine peered once more over the ledge and looked straight down to see the incoming Warthog round his corner of the garage and fishtail into the shadowed entrance.

"Alright, fellas," Fontaine shouted toward the Marines, "you can cut out now. Thanks again. Excellent job. I appreciate the hustle."

The Chief tipped his cap as the rest of them nodded and filed into the Pelican's troop bay. The tail ramp closed a moment later while the aircraft's engines started to wind up with a foreboding crescendo. Minutes later after a brief pre-flight check from the officers in the cockpit, the bird was airborne. Fontaine covered his face as a tsunami of debris once again washed over his position and pelted everything in the immediate vicinity. He waved once more toward the windscreen, unable to see if the gesture was returned.

The Pelican was out of sight beyond a mass of clouds within another minute.

Just then, he could hear a mechanical whine of a different sort approaching. Cresting the final ramp was the Warthog he'd been awaiting, catching a slight air gap between the tires and the rooftop surface once it cleared the top of the incline. Predictably, the tri-barreled fifty-cal had been removed, providing enough rear bed space for what was to be the final on-site delivery.

The driver pulled up slowly to the Chief and killed the engine.

"Chief Fontaine, Expeditionary Comms." Rion said, strolling to the driver's door.

The other replied with a sloppy, informal salute that befitted their location. "Sergeant Mik Woltering. Slave labor."

"Nice day for a drive." remarked the Chief with a chuckle. "How much longer you got behind the wheel of this thing before you arrive home?"

"Headed back to the Alpha Site in Mombasa. Should be about an hour-and-a-half before I get there."

"Good to go? I've got some water bottles if you need 'em."

"Appreciated, sir. Where do you want her off-loaded?"

Rion surveyed what was left of the current setup, noting the wide patch of unclaimed real estate just about off-center of the rooftop. He pointed toward that spot, saying, "Bull's-eye. I'll meet you right there with your water in a minute."

"Roger."

The two went their separate ways. A minute later and Fontaine began assisting the young Sergeant with the cargo inside the bed of the Hog. The two of them hoisted some angle iron out of a side portion, hooking one end to the chassis and letting the other rest on the ground. Next, they removed two straight sections of square steel and connected all the pieces together, forming a triangulation that would spread the load of the cargo as they glided it down onto the rooftop.

The two of them grasped handles recessed into the body of the massive transit case, scooting it down the crude ramp they assembled with rhythmic bursts of exertion. Once its full weight was situated onto the rails, gravity took care of the rest and it slid downwards. Woltering hopped back in the vehicle and nudged forward with a slight throttle input, the newly-arrived cargo case gently thudding down on one side in reply.

"Just like downtown Mombasa," Fontaine said, "nothing to it."

Woltering dismounted once more and surveyed the area with hands on his hips. "Need anything before I schlep back to HQ?"

"I think I'm good here. Oh, did anyone say anything about amendments to our orders?"

"Not that I know of. Why?"

"I just got word from the locals that I was being extended. You didn't hear anything about that?"

"No. How long are you staying here now?"

Rion scratched at one side of his brow. "Yeah, they didn't say."

"Standby to standby, eh? Sorry to hear that, Chief, but I'm sure HQ won't leave you hanging for too long. Doesn't seem like a high-priority mission to begin with. I mean, it's just you here."

"Yeah, I know. That's what kind of bothers me."

"Why's that? You've hoofed it solo before, right?"

"It would help to know what kind of reachback depot's going to provide me. This loadout is only going to last me for the original duration. I've only got enough MREs to see me through until then."

"Hmm, yeah, that's a legit concern. Surely your Support Element knows that. They'll probably send out a care package within a week of your original de-mobilization. That'd be my guess. I'll make sure to inform them of your situation regardless. I've got you covered."

"Make sure you do." Rion patted him on the back.

"If I forget, well, I guess you'd better get to know the locals here." Woltering smiled jestingly. "Always good to have a backup plan."

"I guess." Rion held out a hand and smiled back. "Alright, thanks again, man. Drive safe now. You're coming up on twilight."

"You bet, Chief Warrant." the other Marine said, shaking once. "See ya around. Don't get too lonely."

The driver took the helm once again and dove the Warthog into the labyrinth, soon fading from sight and sound.

Fontaine pivoted to face the delivery: a large, heavy and ruggedized transit case that looked like it'd seen much better days in its undoubtedly long, storied past. He remembered seeing just one of these kits during his training days, many years ago when he was just an adolescent with a single stripe on each sleeve. Still an old item even in those days, his instructors hardly devoted any class time to it just as well, instead focusing on teaching newer technologies of the era.

He bent down and started to expose the recessed butterfly latches and gave all of them some counter-clockwise twists. He performed this routine over the entire outline of the case, pressing the internal air release valve to ease the unboxing. It hissed loudly for a few seconds, then he noticed the two halves of it shift a few millimeters, decompressing.

He gave it a firm kick and the two halves split apart. He then peeled it open by hand and there inside was the legacy troposcatter radio terminal, truly as ancient as the UNSC itself. He could tell someone in some depot had put the time into cleaning and maintaining this thing recently, and it must've been an unwanted job, like one of those details some trouble-maker in the unit got when working others' nerves or skating on thin ice with higher ups.

Fontaine had his doubts of its operational condition, but then he'd also heard stories about these old mules. They were heavy, cumbersome, but they were tough. They were designed to outlast anything the engineers of the time could think of. Never judge a book by its cover, his Great Grandfather once said at a family dinner. The gear and even the package that once cradled it was worse for the wear, but the fact that ONI technicians certified it for operation meant that it carried some weight with Fontaine. It was a small community and he know most of them quite well.

A sudden impulse made him withdraw a one-inch holocube from a pocket. He swiped a sequence over one of its sides and a bright image materialized in an upward cone. At the top of the projection was a 4:3 aspect image of the place he'd usually rather be. That log cabin in the wilderness was always on his mind. The foothills covered in pines and firs, his family rising every morning with him on the veranda and overlooking the mountains in the distance. Hot, soothing coffee and a sunrise.

Rion set the cube down on the ground by his feet and reverted his attention back to the tropo terminal. He found a technical manual stuffed between the main chassis and the hub of the reflector panel. He swung the module upward, retrieved the literature and he started to read. Paying no mind to the subtle clues of the day from the Marines and the Doctor, he easily vested full concentration to the task. Despite his skills and experience, he knew this would take a while.