Atacameņo - The Knife's Edge
Posted By: CaptainRaspberry<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 5 March 2010, 5:31 am
Days after the end of the Human-Covenant War, a message was received from the colony Barthes. Insurrectionists of the Baszac faction, sensing the UNSC's weakness and thirsting for independence, had taken control of the capital city of Saricas. Unwilling to falter despite its severely reduced resources, the UNSC conducted a vicious ground war against the insurgents.
After two months, the insurrection has been contained to a single sector within the capital. Faced with tight, urban close-quarters combat, which most general Marines were neither trained nor equipped for, HIGHCOM decides to call in the special forces.
0854 Hours, 15 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
UNSC Boom Headshot -- orbit around Barthes colony
Sylvester Bishop never tired of seeing the briefing table light up: a hologram, sketched into being by photons that rose to glorious three-dimensional life in front of him. It was spectacular, no matter how many times he had sat in front of one and counted the minutes until the CO stopped talking. This briefing was one, however, that he had never experienced before.
What made this novel was the attack being planned. For the first time in the history of Corvo squad, their target was neither occupied by the Covenant nor suspected of soon becoming occupied by the Covenant; their enemy was a group of insurrectionists.
More than that, though, was that they would not be dropped in via SOEIV.
The lieutenant giving the briefing elaborated: "Simply put, negotiations are still in effect."
Sergeant Kimmle crossed his beefy arms over the chest of his combat armor. He was a "buck" sergeant, just recently promoted to fill the hole left by the passing of Gunny Nolan on Earth, but Bishop knew the man's talents. "Negotiation" was not one of them.
"What do you mean, 'negotiations are still in effect'?"
The LT spread his hands wide. "Groundside, they're still exploring diplomatic alternatives."
"If they're intent on being diplomatic, sir," asked Lena Doyle, "why are we here?" She was on the other side of the table, just to the left of the officer giving the briefing.
"HIGHCOM wants to keep its options open. I've been allowed to disclose that, statistically, it's likely your squad will be deployed to assist the regular Marines in counter-terrorism operations."
Adjacent to Bishop, Valentin Reeves gave a snort. His standard sign for "incoming sarcasm."
"So, statistically we get called in. What're our rules of engagement?"
"As the situation requires," answered the lieutenant. "No matter what, it's a close-quarters action. Your equipment and load-out will be adjusted accordingly. You'll be authorized to shoot to kill the Baszacs, but only their soldiers. Intel suggests that they have civilians in there too, women and children who were caught in that part of the city and weren't allowed to leave after the innies occupied it. HIGHCOM also wants their higher-ups, for a public trial."
"More like a public hanging," muttered Reeves. Kimmle shot him a look, but if the LT heard, he gave no sign.
With the press of a button, the latticework of light dissolved into nothingness, leaving the briefing room darker than before. "You'll be briefed further by the Marine element on the ground," said the lieutenant. "Your bird flies in thirty. Make sure you're ready by then." He saluted, which the assembled ODSTs returned, and left.
Once safely out of earshot, Reeves sighed. "Fuckin' El-Tee."
"Private!" Doyle snapped.
Kimmle just raised a calm hand. "Stow it, guys. Nobody likes this, and we don't have to. We just need to follow orders."
No longer distracted by the hologram, Bishop looked up. "Do you think we'll need to go in, Sergeant?"
"Probably." The sergeant scratched at the back of his head. He didn't add the, "hopefully," but everyone assumed he was thinking it. For a while, he was quiet, and then, "Does anyone remember their counter-terror training?"
"No," Bishop replied. "Well, kinda. It's blurry. We rarely had the opportunity for a stack-and-breach against the Covenant, though."
Doyle slipped off the edge of the table and stretched. "The benefits of running Delta-Golf-Sierra ops, I suppose." She was dressed in a stripped-down version of the ODST armor meant mostly for reconnaissance, a specialty she shared with Bishop. However, her armor had become ragged and worn out, like the rest of the squad: they hadn't been issued replacements since the Covenant arrived at Earth. "Has anyone here shot another human? Just asking."
No one made any response, except for Reeves, who raised his hand. He had been a corpsman prior for being picked for the ODSTs, having impressed some big shot with death-defying rescue runs on Tulane. "Well," he amended, after getting several stares, "I didn't shoot him, but he was shot by another Marine. Friendly fire, they said. I can't attest, I only went over when I got the call."
"How many mortars did you dodge doing that one?"
The sergeant stood. "All right, pack it up," he said. "Get to the armory double-quick and grab your gear, then get ready for the most boring drop of your lives."
0920 Hours, 15 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- UNSC Local Command Center
The Pelican's skids hit the deck, far gentler than Bishop had ever experienced. He realized as the turbines died that he had been tensed for the jarring impact of a SOEIV against hard ground. Sheepishly, though he was pretty sure his comrades had done the same, he relaxed his muscles and unbuckled himself from the harness.
"Welcome to Saricas," said the crew chief. "Make sure you guys've got your stuff. We won't be sticking around."
Reeves glanced back at him as he took his M7S off the rack. "Where are you off to in a hurry?"
The man flashed a quick grin; from where he stood, Bishop could see that a lot of the chief's teeth were artificial. Too white. "Got a hot date. We're going back to the Headshot for some non-frozen sack time. Except for cryo, we haven't gotten a good night's sleep in months."
Corvo squad disembarked, and true to the man's word, the Pelican took off momentarily. Dust filled the air, and for a moment Bishop wished that his helmet had been on his head rather than secured to his thigh.
A voice called out over the fading winds: "Corvo squad, over here!" A man in older model battle armor waved to them, and one didn't need a HUD to tell he was an officer: clean face, though marred by scars. He was a veteran, no doubt, and though there were lines of age across his face, it was impossible to judge how old he was. Like most of his generation, he had grown up too fast.
They approached, Sergeant Kimmle up front. At the right distance, they saluted. "Sir, Eighty-Second Battalion, Corvo squad. Reporting for duty."
"At ease," replied the officer. "Major Ghest. Nice to make your acquaintance. Come on inside, it's not quite as cold in there." They followed him off the landing deck and into a long, rectangular ops room. Men and women bustled back and forth, but their faces were almost serene. Compared to the do-or-die atmosphere of the Covenant, dealing with an ill-equipped insurrection must have seemed like a vacation.
"My office is over here." The major motioned to a door, through which sat a desk and enough standing room for the four Troopers. They entered, Reeves closing the door at the officer's bidding. Ghest settled into his chair and offered a pitcher of water. "Drink?"
"No thank you, sir," Kimmle replied.
The major shrugged and poured for himself. "You boys must still be wound pretty tight."
"They had us in the jungles, sir," responded the sergeant. "Looking for any Flood that the split-lips might have missed in Voi. It was a little... tense. Glad to be out of there, sir."
"I'd imagine." The major finished his cup in one gulp, and refilled it. "I'm not going to ask if you're ready for the task at hand. I had to make sure the regular Marines would be comfortable in this operation, since most of them are too young to remember that their guns were designed to shoot at Innies. But you ODSTs are supposed to be cold-hearted bastards, ready to do what's necessary. Am I right?"
Kimmle only gave a slight nod. "We try, sir."
Ghest hummed and downed his second cup. "The Barthan government is still being high-and-mighty about negotiating with the Baszacs, but smart money isn't on that. My Marines have been shooting up the walls, picking off whatever we can, but it's just a matter of time." He paused as he was about to take his third refill. "Are you sure you don't want a drink?"
"It's good stuff. Ice farming around here comes up with quality Aich-Two-Oh."
"I'm sure, sir."
"At any rate, I'll need your squad ready at the drop of a pin when the time comes. Until then, I'll mix your men in with the regulars. Will that do?"
"If that's what you need us to do, sir, then that's what we'll do."
At that, the major grinned. "Son, you're so formal right now, I'd think I was talking to a Spartan. Any of your boys have sniper qualifications?"
Kimmle nodded. "That would be Lance Corporal Doyle and PFC Bishop, sir. They're usually our sniper-spotter team."
"I might put them to good use. What about you two?"
"PFC Reeves is our unofficial corpsman. I was formerly the sabotage specialist, but..."
The sergeant straightened. Bishop felt sorry for him; it had been hard on everyone when their old commander died, but Kimmle had taken it the hardest. Well, hardest visibly; they all knew how bad Doyle was afterwards. "Sir. Gunnery Sergeant Nolan was killed in action on Earth. I was promoted to... replace him."
Silence. The major stood, crossed around the desk, and put a hand on the sergeant's shoulder. "I understand. The whole war was tough, a lot of good men died who didn't deserve it. I'm sure your sergeant was a hero, but I'm also sure you can lead your team effectively. We don't have much call for sabotage anyway." He glanced at the clock on the wall. "I've kept you cooped up long enough. Report to the duty sergeant and see if anyone is willing to give up their patrol route, I'd like Corvo squad to get an idea of how the city is set up. Any questions?"
Doyle stepped forward. "Sir, I was under the impression that the Baszacs were confined to a particular sector."
Ghest smiled. "I'm sure you weren't around to experience it, Corporal, but when the UNSC was dealing with insurgencies, external patrols were standard practice. Their main force and leadership may be trapped, but they have agents everywhere. With ODSTs walking around, I'm hoping to put the fear of God into 'em. Give them something to report to their leaders, make them piss their pants."
"Sir," Kimmle asked, "are we the only ODSTs on the ground?"
The major shook his head. "We have others deployed elsewhere. If -- when -- we go in, like you, they'll serve as our vanguard to soften up our prime targets."
No more questions. Corvo squad was officially on Barthan soil.
1049 Hours, 15 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes; Isabella Myne Shopping Complex
"I'm so not used to this."
On patrol with their helmets on, Corvo squad had closed-link communications that were perfectly silent to the outside world. To any of the thousands of civilians who milled about the mall, keeping their distance from the black-armored soldiers, Bishop's comment never happened. Inside the confines of their helmets, however, the ODSTs agreed.
Their specialty had been deep ground surveillance, a form of invisible reconnaissance. To DGS teams, being seen usually meant being dead. In a different theater, an entirely different operation, they were all having issues adjusting.
There was another significant difference: they had to be even more alert than usual. "It's easier when you're surrounded by the enemy," Doyle said, "but when you're surrounded by people not knowing who the enemy is..."
She let that thought hang in the air.
The mall was standard fare for such things: stores with wide windows, showcasing products that were the most opulent and expensive. Bishop realized with a start how lucky Barthes was to have escaped the war, and purely by chance. A lot of the clothes in the windows were extravagant, of a variety he had never seen on any other world, even Earth. Given that the colony had been almost entirely autonomous prior to the Covenant, there was little surprise that they wanted to break off.
Bishop felt a light tug on his arm. He looked down to see a little girl, maybe eight years old, holding onto his elbow. "Are you a soldier?"
He glanced back and saw that the rest of Corvo squad had stopped and were looking at him expectantly. Two fingers went up. Two seconds. Bishop bit one of the contacts on the inside of his helmet, and his visor un-mirrored. He hunched over. "Yeah, sweetheart. I am."
The girl's eyes went wide. "You killed aliens?"
"Yes I did."
"Wow." She took a few steps back, as if suddenly aware of how dangerous the ODST could be. "Are you a war hero?"
Sylvester laughed and straightened, about to reply when he saw a green glow. The rest of the scene faded away, melding together until it was just him and two tell-tale motes of light. Instinctively he bit down on the mirror contact and brought up his M7S.
Before he could even think, he had pulsed the trigger twice, sending two bursts of rounds into his perceived target. The shape crumpled to the ground. Given the silent nature of the weapon, it took most people a moment to realize he had fired, but when they did, there was screaming and running.
Corvo squad was in action in moments. The sergeant had unslung his shotgun, Reeves and Doyle their SMGs. They coalesced around the fallen shape as Bishop saw clearly for the first time whom he had shot.
It was a man. His face was frozen in pain, the syllable of some forgotten word the universe would never hear. He had stubble and small scars on his cheek. A thick cotton coat was wrapped around him, as well as a thin piece of red fabric on his arm. The significance of such a thing was lost on Bishop, who could only see the obvious:
He had shot a man.
He barely got his helmet off in time to throw up.
Inside a moment, Reeves was kneeling beside him, patting him on the back. "It's okay," he said. "It's over now."
"Oh God," Bishop whispered. "Oh God, Oh God. I shot him."
"Yeah. You got 'im."
"I shot him."
By now the civilians had formed a distant, curious ring around the spectacle. People peered over the banisters on the story above. Kimmle knelt down and rolled the man over. "Jesus," he said, picking up a familiar C-shaped device with two glowing points of green light. "This guy had a plasma pistol."
"I just... I just saw it, and it was so automatic."
"It's okay," said Reeves. "Remember what the El-Tee said? On the Headshot? Baszacs wear that red cloth. Okay? He was a bad guy. He was going to shoot you."
"I know." Bishop's voice was getting steadier. Slowly he reclaimed himself from the edge of panic. "I know, just... I don't know."
"Come on," said Kimmle, pulling on his arm. Bishop rose to his feet, first putting his weight into the sergeant and then shakily moving it onto his own two feet. Reeves handed him his helmet. "Let's head back to base. We'll get you something to drink."