A Passing Shadow - The Knife's Edge
Posted By: CaptainRaspberry<email@example.com>
Date: 11 March 2010, 5:56 pm
3. A Passing Shadow
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.
With the Baszacs confined within a few city blocks, the UNSC is relying on its ODSTs to act as its special forces: infiltrate and eliminate key targets. However, some of them are so young, they have never fired at fellow humans in war.
2202 Hours, 15 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac containment perimeter
PFC Sylvester Bishop stared glumly through the spotting scope. "I must have seemed like a real rook out there."
"How so?" Doyle didn't budge from her crouched position, legs of her SRS99C-S2 AMB sniper rifle resting on the low wall. In her full combat armor, she looked like the poster image of the perfect predator, absolutely still, waiting for her enemy to make a mistake.
"I blew chunks all over the ground. Tell me that's not the lamest thing ever."
The corporal snickered. "Yeah, maybe." She seemed to sense Bishop's sudden downturn in mood and quickly backpedaled. "Nobody blames you. Who the fuck has shot at his own species before? The enemy's been an alien for so long, it's hard to remember that we used to kill each other all the time."
Bishop huffed, the force of his exhalation blasting a few streams of fog onto the inside of his visor. "I guess. But I fucking puked. I'm lame."
"Yeah," she finally agreed, "but for other reasons."
"Movement," said Bishop, forgetting their tête-à-tête. "Third window in, second row from the top."
"High-down-two, third in, roger that." Doyle adjusted her pose ever so minutely and waited. "I got nothing."
"Fast bastards, aren't they?"
"To hear everyone tell it, this is how they check the lines. Using mirrors in the windows. Look for any reflections."
"Roger." He adjusted his scope. "So, uh... about the sergeant."
"You mean Kimmle?"
Despite her stillness and armor, he could hear it in her voice when she tensed up. "What about him?"
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Bishop felt her getting uneasy. "You haven't talked about it at all."
"How often do you guys talk about us?"
Bishop didn't answer.
8:18 [L;AM], 19 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector
Istvan was up earlier than usual, he and Laszlo having been roused by Marton. The three of them joined with several others in various states of wakefulness crowded around The Fox, who seemed ready to begin a speech when they arrived. A tall mug of coffee was being passed around.
"Comrades," he started. "The Yoonies continue pressing us to give in, but our glorious leaders do not waver in the face of this deception. Were we to give in, we'd be marched straight from our gates to the gallows. Our enemy's patience wears thin, and it is likely that they will strike at us harder than they yet have."
The mug reached Istvan, but he only took a light sip and passed it on. His mind was tortured slowly every night by images of Tamas, life torn from him like his guts, bleeding on the floor. It was hard for him to imagine a harsher attack. Since then, he had felt like a nervous wreck on every járőr he undertook. He fidgeted with his grandfather's knife, which hung at his belt now. It was more for comfort, as what blade could fight the black night?
He hoped for the opportunity to avenge Tamas with this blade.
The Fox continued, "We will be increasing the watch to include shifts around the clock. It is vital that we draw the Yoonies' attempts towards this sector of the city so that we may implement our next stage."
Laszlo perked up. "What stage is that?"
"We will use our agents on the outside to take several of their soldiers hostage. Once we have them within our lines, we will demand their forces leave this city and acknowledge the sovereignty of the Baszac."
A veteran within the crowd grunted. "We must be careful. One of the lookouts last night said they saw some of the Yoonie's special forces on their side of the line."
Immediately, Marton's head snapped toward the speaker. "What kind of special forces?"
"The kind with mirrored visors."
The Fox and Marton exchanged a brief but knowing look that Istvan only barely caught. He did not know the significance. "The schedule for patrols has been written down," said The Fox. "Learn your times and be on duty then. Move around so the Yoonies know you are there, but do not let them know where you are. Believe!"
1134 Hours, 16 August 2553 (Military Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- downtown
The air had a sweet aroma to it that Bishop found relaxing, and he wondered if it came from the myriad bakeries down the street or if it was a natural quality of the air. The major had given him a day pass after the incident yesterday while he was on patrol; today, Corvo would be staying on-base to give rudimentary counter-terror crash courses to the regular Marines.
He felt guilty that he wasn't suffering beside his team, but it had been so long since he had just been able to breathe without the air being either filtered through his helmet or choked with ash. Being in civilian attire was refreshing, too. He had been ordered to lose anything and everything that marked him as a soldier so that Baszac agents -- like the one he had shot yesterday -- didn't know to target him. Though he could do nothing about his military haircut, his 82nd tattoo on his bicep was safely concealed beneath a fleece and a faux-cotton jacket.
An outdoor restaurant caught his attention at the same time his lacking stomach did. It was reminiscent of the twenty-third century architecture that tended to ooze history: a steel waist-high fence surrounded the dining patio with famous scenes from wars imprinted in the upper bar. His eyes traced the frieze in reverse, going all the way back to the Rainforest Wars until he stopped being able to identify the distinct conflicts.
Bishop settled himself at a small bench and ordered a drink of water and a menu. The selection quivered into view, suspended half an inch off the surface of the table. He decided to wait until the water arrived before he made his decision.
Instead he turned his attention back to the street and watched people walk. It amazed him still, their leisurely pace: what little he remembered of his childhood included the frenzied pace of people who knew they could die in any given moment. But now he saw how people who truly didn't have a care in the world lived.
There was a tap on his shoulder. "Excuse me."
He turned and saw a woman with bunned brown hair and a little boy.
"Could we share this bench? All the other tables are taken."
"Uh." She was plain, but pretty all the same. Something in her cheeks. And the boy couldn't have been more than five as he gnawed at the knuckle on his index finger. "Sure, sit down."
"Thank you." The pair took their seats, her fingers nimbly dancing over the table as she made the choice for both herself and... her son? Maybe, but she seemed too young. He watched out of the corner of his eye until he was sure they weren't paying attention to him, then looked back to the street.
It seemed like instantly -- though it had probably been a few minutes -- the boy spoke. "Who are you?"
Bishop looked back and saw the woman scolding the child. "Nicholas, that's incredibly rude!"
"No, it's okay," Bishop said, smiling. "My name's Sylvester."
The boy gave a gapped grin. "I'm Nicky. This is Awn-tee Georgia."
She smiled, though it seemed awkward. "It's nice to meet you." They shook hands. "I don't recognize you. Did you just move here?"
"Um... sort of. I'm here working for the UNSC, I guess."
"Is that a problem?"
"What? Oh. Are you...?"
"Baszac? Oh, no. No no no. Nothing like that, no."
"Then what's the matter?"
"Well, with the war and everything, you know, everybody knew somebody."
"I'm sorry. Who?" His eyes flicked to Nicky. "Or shouldn't I...?"
"No, it's okay. My sister and her husband. It was difficult to accept for a while. She was older than me, and always there, so... yeah. Afterwards the state left Nicky to my care."
"I'm so sorry. Where did it happen?"
"Here and there. They didn't say."
Bishop nodded. "Yeah. The war was... well, it's hard to believe it's actually over, huh? I mean, when I was growing up, at any time the world could end."
"It did eventually, though. Pearl."
"Oh. Were you there?"
"For part of it, yeah."
"Oh my God. Did any of your family make it off-world in time?"
"I don't know. Never found out, which happens a lot more often than you might think. I mean, the fighting lasted months, enough time to evacuate a lot of people, but my parents lived way out in the sticks..."
"That must be hard, not knowing."
"It is now, kind of. Not so much while the war was still on, but..." He felt a pressure behind his eyes and throat. "But now that I have the time to think about it, it's tough."
"You can't even go home after the end of the war."
"No." Suddenly he wanted to laugh. "But," he said, trying not to giggle, "you know who had it worse than me?" He wasn't doing a good job of it. His shoulders shook and he felt his voice crack.
She looked bewildered, maybe a little afraid. "Who?"
"My first sergeant. He was from Harvest. Already signed up, so he was away on deployment on some Innie world. And at first the military tried to keep it so hush-hush that he didn't have a clue why they were delaying his leave to go home. He thought... well, I don't know what he thought!"
Bishop burst out laughing.
She just stared.
"And when... when he did find out, it was when Admiral Cole was assembling that monster fleet, and... and..." Now he couldn't remember what was so funny. He lapsed into silence and stared at the table, his untouched menu still flickering.
"I'm sorry," he muttered, not looking up, "I shouldn't... that probably seemed pretty psycho."
Unexpectedly, she slid her hand across the table -- carefully at first -- and laid it on top of his. "You just needed to get it out."
He nodded. "Thank you."
A moment later, the waitress arrived with their food. Nicky had macaroni and cheese, which he went at with zeal -- apparently oblivious to the conversation that just happened. Georgia had some kind of sandwich, and Bishop had his water. He poured himself a glass from the pitcher and drank it greedily.
"Hey," he said after a moment, and Georgia looked up. "This stuff is pretty good."
She smiled. "Ice farming around here is the best."