Fool Enough - The Knife's Edge
Posted By: CaptainRaspberry<email@example.com>
Date: 26 March 2010, 3:10 am
5. Fool Enough
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.
Following the loss of a patrol to Baszac insurgents, the UNSC has decided to put an end to the conflict. It is deploying its entire ground element to capture the Baszac Party leaders, while the resistance scrambles to defend its ill-gotten territory.
0909 Hours, 24 August 2553 (Military Calendar) -- Mission Clock: +00:09:29/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled air space
The Pelican rattled its cargo of nine Orbital Drop Shock Troopers as it soared over the center of Saricas. Despite the dampening effect of his helmet, Sylvester Bishop still heard the roar of the engines; he was finding it hard to believe it was supposed to be stealthed for fast insertion. Granted, a SOEIV entry wouldn't be much quieter, but at least he was used to those.
"Here's the game plan," said Staff Sergeant Cesar Bridgmon of Noz squad. "City planning shows two stairwells, an east and west. Corvo's taking east; Noz, we're going west. Get set to deploy by the numbers down the ropes. Let's go!"
"Yes, sir!" The two squads stood together and prepared for a rope insertion.
The radio crackled. It was the pilot, call sign Dropkick: "We'll be coming in from east to west, so Corvo, you're up."
Bishop double-checked that his hook was secure on his armor, giving it a light tug. They fell into line, with Kimmle first, followed by Doyle and Bishop, and Reeves bringing up the rear. Everyone in the bay shifted, rolling their shoulders; for most, this was the first combat insertion they had taken without needing heavy packs. In anticipation of the close-quarters fighting, they had eschewed most of their gear.
"Approaching the El-Zed, get ready... oh, shit. We got a problem."
Staff Sergeant Bridgmon was on the radio first. "What is it?"
"I think ORBINT forgot to mention that half the fucking building is dilapidated. It looks like the east stairwell might be intact, but the west is just... damn. Your call, sarge."
"Feed us the image."
A moment later, a live video of the target appeared on their visors. Their target building stood several stories tall, but apparently it had taken an artillery round somewhere in its midsection on the western side. Half of the building had fallen in on itself, spilling out into the street; it looked like only the three lowest floors had escaped total destruction.
One of Noz muttered, "There's no way in hell we're landing on that."
"All right," Bridgmon said after a moment, "we've still got an objective to secure. Corvo is still going in on the east stairwell. Dropkick, if you can settle us on that low-rise, we'll do a ground-level insertion."
You could hear the grin in Dropkick's voice. "Buddy, I've dropped through Covenant flak to get groundhogs like you onto a zone the size of a 'Hog. There isn't even anybody shooting at me this time."
Kimmle cut in. "If you're such a hot shot, mind giving us an update on the other squads inserting?"
There was a pause. "Uh, looks like everybody's doing okay. Honestly I'm surprised they haven't... whoops, spoke too soon. Hotel-Niner-Niner is reporting some small-arms fire aimed at her. Looks like this'll be fun after all."
"Yeah," Reeves muttered. "Real fun."
"Corvo, your El-Zed's coming up fast. Get ready to go!"
The descent rope was coiled up on the magnetic underside of the Pelican's tail, a steel cable with a weight on the loose end. At a command from the cockpit, the magnet disengaged, dropping the cable down. The end struck the roof heavily.
"Go, Corvo! Go, go!"
Kimmle was first, disappearing down the line. Doyle followed. When Bishop got up, his mind was already sliding into that beautiful Zen, where his muscles did all the thinking. He clipped onto the line and jumped; the hook tightened as he picked up velocity, keeping his fall from being lethal while making sure it was also quick. The drop was about fifteen meters, and it went by in seconds. As he approached the bottom, he manually tightened the hook to slow, and as soon as his boots touched the roof he broke off the hook. It clattered on the ground just as he stepped away and Reeves came in.
Instantly their weapons were up and visors mirrored. Their load out had been adjusted for indoor combat, under the assumption that they would remain unnoticed as long as possible. Each had an M7S and an M6S/SOCOM, both specifically built with suppressors; however, Kimmle had a shotgun attached to his back for the inevitable discovery encounter.
The Pelican backed off and Bishop realized it really was quieter on the outside. However, he could also hear the distant cracks of automatic weapons fire; all he could hope for was the regular Marines to keep their attention away from the command structure.
Corvo squad stacked up next to the door entrance. "Lock's busted," Kimmle noted. "Everyone ready?
9:11 [L;AM], 26 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector
One of the larger rooms that had survived without collapsing was now the infirmary. Istvan was seated beside the bed that held Laszlo. Despite the area of his wounds, the bullets had caught him below the heart and - as much as the medics could tell - missed his lungs, mostly. Since dragging him in, Istvan had stayed there, spending hours watching over his fallen friend.
When alone with him, he had dwelled on the circumstances that led to Laszlo's current condition, but now he had company. Marton, who sat on the other side of the bed and held Laszlo's other hand, and The Fox and Miklos Vadas, Istvan's father. They towered over him.
Istvan had explained so many times his throat hurt. He felt his reservoir of patience and patriotism running low. "Laszlo was shot," he said, "and now he's dying in a hospital bed instead of being evacuated. Why, I don't know."
The Fox growled and seized Istvan by the lapels of his coat, but before he could be thrown off the chair Miklos put a hand on The Fox's elbow. "Now is not the time for violence, Eszes," he said in a low voice. "Our plan is in motion. We have the kidnapped soldiers and made our demands. It is time to act."
"Fine," muttered The Fox, "but take your worthless son with you."
Perhaps there was still patriotism left in him after all. He jumped up from his chair and drew his grandfather's knife. "Worthless? We stood and faced our enemy while you cowered in the shadows! Why did you not act sooner to save your two comrades, sir?" He spat the last word like a curse and lunged.
However, passion rarely overcomes experience, and The Fox turned sideways, letting the blade pass, then brought his elbow down hard on Istvan's arm. There was a loud snap, and his vision went white. When he recovered, he was on the floor looking up through eyes blurred with moisture, as his father knelt beside him and The Fox had turned to address someone else.
"They're already inside?"
"Yes, sir. While the Yoonies assault our edges, they have dropped special forces teams on our roof. They are even now descending, but with most of our soldiers in the streets..."
"No matter. Fight where you can, but our priority must be our leaders."
Out of his vision, Istvan heard a chair scraping and Marton's baritone voice, "I will meet them." Two shadows, The Fox and Marton, passed out of the room.
"Come, Istvan," said his father. "You will come with us, the Party Leaders. You can be part of our honor guard."
Istvan felt the tears running down his face, and hoped he hadn't been sobbing. "Where are you going?" he asked.
"Away. To start revolution elsewhere."
Away? It did not register with Istvan. Where was away? Their place was here, in Saricas, on Barthes. The Baszacs would drive out the Yoonies and Barthes would become the spot from which they would move the galaxy. There was no away.
But he nodded, and with his right arm pushed himself off the floor. His left was swollen and red and at an odd angle, but he didn't feel it. The medic hurried over and gave him a piece of wood wrapped in gauze. "Bite this," he said, "and try not to think about it."
0918 Hours, 24 August 2553 (Military Calendar) -- Mission Clock: +00:18:43/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector
Corvo squad pounded down the steps, hard metal and concrete creaking under their boots as they passed another landing. They were wary now; two ambushes had been laid on similar platforms not long ago, though they had survived with no serious injury. There was little enough light that their VISR systems operated at peak effectiveness.
Bishop reflexively evened his breathing as they started down the next flight. In the barely-controlled panic of each firefight, all he could do was rely on his training; he wasn't sure if he had shot anyone yet. Kimmle and Doyle seemed to be doing a good enough job on their own.
A pang of something crossed his mind. Jealousy? He and Doyle had usually been the pair to beat in Corvo, both having specialized in sniping/spotting and quiet infiltration. But no, that wasn't it.
"Heads up, squad," said Kimmle, barely sounding winded, "we're approaching the floors we suspect house the Baszac Party Leaders. We'll be doing standard clearing from here on out. Sound off."
They reached a doorway into a hall. At first glance, there didn't seem to be many doors, but any one of them could hold an infinite number of threats. They stacked up and Kimmle dropped his M7S, unlimbering his shotgun instead. "By the numbers. Clear the corners, sweep. Got it? Let's go."
The rooms were small and dank, most having beds and bunks surrounded by personal clutter and debris. Here and there were stacks of books, dusty personal video pads that had run out of power weeks ago and were left forgotten, some cups sitting on crates that served as improvised tables. It looked as if all useful components, either electrical or physical, had been pulled from the walls: holes in the ceiling where light fixtures may once have hung were now empty; not even stray wiring remained.
Choruses of "clears" were called out across the channel. One by one they made their way through the rooms on this floor, finding no one. Part of Bishop was relieved.
They moved down to the next level and started the process over again. They cleared rooms in teams of two, Bishop and Reeves as one team and Kimmle and Doyle as the other. Of course, ODSTs usually operated in five man squads, and being short one left the position of "look-out" conspicuously empty. So it was that, after clearing another pair of rooms, Bishop and Reeves were barely able to duck back inside the doorway as a spray of bullets and plasma chewed up the hallway.
"Ah, shit!" Bishop cried out as he popped out from cover and tried to lay down suppressing fire with his M7S. The hail of incoming fire shifted to him and he was forced to hide again. "I can't get a good look, they've got me pinned down!"
"Frag out!" called Doyle, and Bishop heard the Baszacs shouting. The floor rattled as the grenade went off.
No one was firing now. Bishop eased out, looking carefully. Only a few had gotten out of range of the grenade in time and were retreating towards the staircase at the other end of the hall. "Push forward, Corvo," said Kimmle, breaking cover and running after them. Now they checked the rooms hurriedly, just glancing in to confirm to major enemy presence: they didn't want to accidentally let hostiles get behind them.
Corvo squad harried the insurgents as they pressed forward, cutting down their numbers and confidence until it went from a retreat to a handful of guys flat-out running away. They fled down the stairs, Corvo following closely.
In the next hallway, it was clear the Baszacs had been trying to set up a bottleneck, but their attempts were interrupted by the arrival of the ODSTs. Most fled upon seeing them, but some held their ground and fought. Bishop found himself hanging towards the back, avoiding the fight. Occasionally he sprayed where he thought an enemy might be hiding, trying to suppress them.
Doing this, he caught sight of a large shadow ducking between the sparse cover the insurrectionists had set up. "Contact right," he called out, adjusting his fire. Maybe he could discourage another casualty.
Maybe it would help if I close my eyes and think of them as Covenant.
"I see him," said Kimmle. Bishop watched as his sergeant leveled his M7, then suddenly lurched backward.
Kimmle collapsed on his back. Doyle grabbed him and dragged him into the safety of a doorway. "Reeves! I need you over here!" Beside Bishop, the corpsman crouched low and ran across the hall, a few stray bullets glancing off his armor.
As he knelt beside the wounded sergeant, Doyle signaled Bishop. "Private, you cover your side of the hallway, I'll cover mine! Take down that bastard!"
The shadow had resolved itself into a person -- a massive person, easily six feet tall if not more. Dark hair sat on his head, a full beard around his jaw line. He clutched a hand cannon, undoubtedly the weapon that took down Kimmle, and he dove behind a barricade as Doyle opened up on him.
Bishop raised his weapon, but the target had anticipated him and fired blindly over the top. The slug blasted a hole two inches above Bishop's helmet, forcing him back into cover. Doyle responded with fire of her own but also had to step back out of the line of fire.
By now, the remaining Baszacs had regained their nerve and were slowly advancing behind their large comrade. Bishop peeked out again...
And found the large man staring him in the face.
He heard a shot.
A heavy weight slumped against him.
His senses slowly returned, and he found the large man was on top of him, smoke and blood leaking out of a hole drilled in his head. On the other side of the hallway, Kimmle held a pistol while Doyle concentrated on the remaining insurgents, now thoroughly demoralized.
With great effort, Bishop slid out from under the bulk, pausing only when he realized his gun was still under it. "Sergeant, you okay?"
"Yeah." Kimmle's voice was strained. "The slug shattered my armor, but it didn't penetrate." He forced himself up into a sitting position. "Reeves, gimme a clean bill so we can chase those guys down."
"Sarge, I have to get that armor off."
"Reeves! We don't have time!"
"Fine. Judging by the impact, I'll say without a proper examination that you've suffered only heavy bruising on your chest from the shot, maybe a couple of cracked ribs. But I swear to God, Kimmle, when this is over I'm carting your ass over to the aid station."
As Reeves pulled Kimmle to his feet, Bishop cast a glance back at the dead mountain. His shirt had been torn open, and a tattoo could be seen between the tattered lips of fabric. It was a comet and skull, emblematic of the 105th ODST Division.
9:50 [L;AM], 26 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector
The constant crackle of gunfire filled Istvan's head as the group ran. The Party leaders, Miklos Vadas among them, were in the center with loyal Baszac soldiers surrounding them. They had taken Istvan's weapon, but not his grandfather's knife, which he gripped tightly. His other arm was cradled in an improvised sling, and throbbed with every step.
So far, the group of about ten had gone unnoticed. They were retreating deeper into the sector, towards the old warehouses that had been untouched since the UNSC's initial bombardment of Saricas. Istvan didn't know why there were going there, or why the Party leaders were running. They were the bastion of hope and sense, the pillars who stood strong against the Yoonies and their unjust, authoritarian rule. What did they have to fear, when the cosmic Truth was on their side?
After his family had left Earth, Istvan had grown up seeing these men only in shadow, assembled in dark rooms and smoky bars. His memory painted them as golems, supermen, perfectly sculpted forms of muscle shrouded in jet.
In the daylight, they were something else: sweaty, sallow, with a wild fear in their eyes.
Even his father.
There was a booming noise that shook the ground. Turning, Istvan saw a cloud of smoke rise, heard screams. Unearthly wails they were, echoing between the buildings, transmitting something deeper than fear.
He felt a hand on his good arm. "Come, my son," Miklos said, pulling. "We are almost there."
The Fox ran in the lead. A warehouse that was missing its roof dominated the landscape before them, and as they came to the door -- sealed metal, newly installed -- he rapped hard on the door. A peephole was pulled open and then shut quickly. Thunk went the lock and the door swung open on oiled hinges.
"Inside, comrades!" The Fox and another escort stepped through the door, then motioned for the Party leaders. Miklos led his son through, and Istvan could see his father's eyes wide with fear.
The space enclosed looked much different than the outside suggested. The roof was indeed missing, the rays of the sun skipping over the high walls, but any interior debris had been cleared out. In the middle of the floor sat a Pelican dropship, with tubes and cables leading off from the sides. One was obviously a fuel pump, but the rest were unfamiliar to Istvan; he was not educated in the mechanics of flight.
A man dressed in orange coveralls with a cigarette hanging limply between jaundiced lips approached. "Comrades, we have finished fueling. She will be ready to fly in twenty minutes."
Miklos shook his head. "We may not have twenty minutes. Can you go faster?"
Frenzied pounding sounded behind them. Someone was banging on the door from the outside; one of the escorts went to check the peephole, and then opened the door.
A disheveled soldier staggered in, identifiable by the red cloth still wrapped around his arm. "The Yoonies have deployed their special forces! We were in the headquarters when they came tearing through. Poor Marton is dead. We fled here to--"
Instantly, The Fox was upon him. "You fled here? You led the Yoonie troops to the Party leaders themselves!"
Stunned, the soldier simply stared. The Fox punched him in the face, and turned to the escorts. "Shut that door! Prepare to repel the enemy!" Istvan nodded and moved to take the now-unconscious soldier's weapon, but The Fox stopped him. "I still don't trust you, son of Miklos. Go with your father, get on the Pelican and guard him with that stick of yours."
Before Istvan could object, he felt the insistent tug of his father on his arm and hurried aboard the dropship. He and the five Party leaders sat in the back while the man in the coveralls -- armed with a fresh cigarette -- closed the door and the pilot began to turn on the engines.
Istvan turned the blade over in his hand. This was not the glorious battle he had envisioned.
Outside there was a sharp bang and gunfire. Rounds pinged off the Pelican's armor, and though they couldn't penetrate, the Party leaders dove to the floor. Istvan stood.
The noise continued, dying slowly as Baszacs screamed and were cut short. The pilot, Istvan saw, raised his hands and put them against the glass; they were coming in.
Istvan heard whimpering, and felt shame for a moment: how could be blubber at a time like this? But it soon dawned on him that he was not the one sobbing. On the ground, at his feet, he heard his father praying and crying, imploring someone.
It didn't make sense. Miklos Vadas had taught Istvan there was no God, no help on high waiting for the just. Humanity had to make its own justice.
A loud knock sounded against the sealed hatch. In the cockpit, the pilot thumbed the emergency release.
Istvan tensed. It was time to make his own justice.
As the door fell open, he lunged, blade extended. A black-armored, mirror-visored trooper stood before him. By chance, or perhaps by fate, the blade slid through a seam in the armor, going deep. The soldier fell back, knocked over by the force of impact.
Pride welled up in Istvan. It was over. Justice...
He looked up as another pointed his weapon at him and watched a sun bloom from inside the barrel.
United Nations Space Command Priority Transmission 39857V-05c
Encryption Code: Green
Public Key: file /excised access Alpha/
From: Major Richard Ghest, Barthes Ground Operations Chief
To: UNSC AI GFD 0503-8
Subject: Re: Operation Bar039 After-Action Report
Classification: RESTRICTED (BGX Directive)
I've attached individual action reports to this file. Be sure that all section commanders see them.
Your last message was somewhat puzzling, and entirely alarming, though it goes above my pay grade by a few notches. I'm disappointed to hear about the CO of The Big Stick, but I guess it goes to show you that some people will cut deals with anyone. We shouldn't be surprised after all the careless drafting at the end of the war if a few sympathizers emerge from the shadows.
As you probably saw in my previous report, 82SD/12Br/5Ba/Bravo-2-Corvo will be groundside until PFC Bishop recovers. His wound was definitely the worst from the whole operation, but I can't help wondering if perhaps the Headshot wouldn't have better infirmary capabilities than the local hospital. Still, I suppose I'm in no position to go against your judgment.
On another note, we are having a problem with the security protocols. SATLINK confirms that the Slipspace transceiver is active, and yet our security confirmation codes don't seem to be working. We probably won't be able to tell who's accessing encrypted material, say Level Black, or when it's accessed. Our techs don't seem to have a solution at hand, either. I guess we'll have to wait it out.
I hope this doesn't come as a disappointment to you.
1121 Hours, 26 August 2553 (Military Calendar)
Saricas, Barthes -- Ryan Ganoush hospital
Bishop's world was a dull, glowing red, shot through with crimson veins. Slowly he cracked an eye and let the searing light in. Instinctively his eyelid clamped down, but the damage was done, and saline flooded out of his tear ducts. With no other recourse, he opened his eyes and returned to life.
"Oh good," said a voice. "I was hoping I'd be here when you woke up."
He rolled his head. He was lying in a hospital bed, head slightly elevated. The anti-septic white was unmistakable, as was the woman sitting in the chair beside him. Doyle gave him a crooked grin.
Bishop tried to say hi, but it sounded more like a dry croak. He might have tried to ask for some water next, but Doyle was quick to hand him a plastic cup. The contents vanished down his parched throat.
His vocal cords wet, he tried again. "How long was I out?"
"About two days." She leaned back in her chair. "You might've been able to wake up sooner, but the doc kept you medicated for a while. Didn't want you moving around, tearing her careful stitch-job."
Trying to sit up made his abdomen feel like it was on fire, so he stopped trying. "How bad is it?"
"Little bastard got your intestines good. Kimmle would be here to give you a lecture about armor maintenance -- bad seal, that's how the blade got through -- but he's getting some shut-eye. Morning's my time for watch, anyway. If you hadn't woken up in the next hour, I'd have lost the bet." Her grin faltered for a moment. "Don't worry, though. I got the guy who got you."
Bishop nodded. At least that didn't hurt him. "What's been going on?"
"Those guys in the Pelican were the Party leaders, all right. The sergeant's hunch on the fleeing Baszacs was good. We've got them all in custody now, getting shipped back to Earth. A few cells of the rebels escaped into the city, but the regulars are hunting them down. Looks like our time on Barthes is done."
"Did we lose anyone?"
"You mean besides you?" She chuckled. "No. A few bruises and cuts, one guy shot in the leg, but you were just about the worst casualty."
They lapsed into silence for a while. Bishop saw her nervously fingering a data pad on her lap.
"Is that what I think it is?"
She blushed slightly. "Probably."
"I thought Gosford wanted payment."
"He did, and he got it. That Pelican wasn't going to just fly off into space; turns out the commander aboard the cruiser The Big Stick was taking bribes. He was going to receive the Pelican as wounded civilians from the surface and hide 'em until they got somewhere safe. Gosford was working for ONI and wanted to know who the weak link was in orbit, since there was no way the Baszacs were so well-informed on their own."
A pause. "So... we gonna read it?"
"I dunno. I don't want to take up too much of your time. That girl you're sweet on is in the waiting room with her kid -- is it her kid? Anyway, I figured maybe later..." She started to rise.
Bishop reached out and tried to grab her wrist, but it was a little too far. His fingers brushed against her arm, though, and she got the intended message. "They can wait a couple more minutes," he said. "I want to see."
Doyle hesitated, then sat down on the bed and turned the data pad on. It loaded to the UNSC personnel database, and then to ONI.
And they read.
"No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace -- in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons."