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Who We Are
Posted By: ShroudedCloud<shrouded.cloud@gmail.com>
Date: 30 September 2009, 7:27 pm

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This is the story that I submitted for the "Feet First into Hell" contest that ran here recently on HBO/HBOFF. At first I was apprehensive to submit this as is given the feedback I have received on it; but, upon taking all of that into consideration, I think it is safe to submit this and move on to other projects.

Without further ado, "Who We Are":

      The room was dark. The only light in the room came from three small reading lamps on a semi-circular bench at the far end. At each of the lamps sat persons of import, each perusing the same group of files in front of them, occasionally pausing to make notations or to confer with one of the others in the group. The room remained silent except for this small rustling of papers and whispered comments that were carried across the room, through a cracked doorway, into an anti-chamber for the darkened room. In this more brightly lit room, there was no sound but that of the quiet whisper-wind pervading into the calm, as harsh as the far-flung winds seem to those on ancient waves.
      This left the few sitting in the anti-chamber all the more disconcerted. None of them was entirely certain of what reasons brought them here, not because they were guilt-free; no, it was because they were all too guilty. Each waited in painful anxiety to be called into the room ahead, their faces plastered with fear only echoed on the steps to the gallows.
      So, when each was called, the solemnity of the occasion pervaded them even to their walk: it was not the confident gait that the soldiers had shared on the outside walls, but one of some invalid person who has been bed ridden for many months finally finding some last reserve of strength to stand and walk towards their end on their own. That they all congregated here, watching each other as they disappeared into the room and waiting calmly as the door was sealed firmly after each person went into the room, only to have the person come out at varying times after, looking very much more pale than going in, left them even more fearful.
      But we've come at a time when there are only three more monsters left in this desolate room: all three of a distinctly military stature and regulation. We concern ourselves with the one with shallow gray eyes and a bald head. A nervous sweat beaded on his cool, polished head. A muscle twitched along his jaw, which itself remained resolutely shut, determined to not let loose a single word if it had any choice in the matter. He sat in a crisply pressed uniform, decorated with meaningless medals.... At least they had no meaning to him. Every bit of him stood in perfect order, as facades often do.
      I was trained for putting my feet down in Hell, not fucking purgatory, this man, Jason “Conman” Conrad, thought. A firefight? Give me a gun and I will gladly jump in. Stiffs grilling me? Give me a gun and I will gladly join in. Soldier through and through.
      “Dammit, I wish they would--”
      “Conrad, Jason. Enter.” The voice that called these words echoed from the room; not a syllable out of order, no inflection, no emotion. Nothing to be read from it in the slightest, no intelligence on what was on the other side, just intuition that he was fucked.
      “Jason 'Conman' Conrad?” the center entity asked as soon as the doors sealed hermetically behind him.
      “Yes, sir.”
      “You were in a squad with a man by the name of-” the man speaking consulted a file in from of him- “Edward 'Eddie' Dantes?”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “And you were both present on the scramble rescue mission that took place to rescue the citizens of Amans Donum?” Conman assented once again. Each of the hardly-lit figures began to scribble notations and grasp at various files, shuffling their contents into some order that would make it all the easier for them to access during their questioning. Once each judge settled on their preferred order of documentation, they shared a look of understanding and turned as one, their premature aging thrown into sharp relief by the low lighting, making them each look a part of Death.
      “Please give us the details of that mission, omit nothing,” the woman of the group cooed in a rapturous tone. “You are reminded that you are under oath, and that we are not idiots.”
      “Yes, ma'am. We'd just gotten the call, and since we, that is, us on board the Nothing Ventured, were in the area, we dropped everything and came running...”

      Conman walked into the barracks holding his equipment, tossing it on to his personal bunk. All around him, the various other Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODSTs) moved about the dedicated barracks room, speaking to the other squads that they only knew between missions. Conman was not familiar with most of them as his squad was new to this ship where the Captain had seen fit to stick all the barely sane soldiers into the same room, creating a makeshift asylum.
      He made his way down the room passing by the various ways that the groups having rest and relaxation time were passing the monotony that was being herded between missions. Many were having fun with their own squads, making jokes to fend off the over-bearing danger that straddled the times. Others were playing cards, something Conman averted his eyes from, trying to keep from having to call out his brothers. They may not have been from his squad, but they all shared the same experience; a fraternity.
      At the end of the room, he could not avoid not noticing any longer, one of his closer brothers, Edward 'Eddie' Dantes, was busy stashing away his gains from a poker game he had just hastily finished.
      "You insist on doing that under my nose, don't you?" Conman said with mild disappointment.
      "Don't take it so personally... It's just something to do with the others," Eddie calmly reported. "I'm not sticking it to you..."
      Conman looked down at Eddie, catching notice of his winnings, only half hidden. He could not help remembering that the pile was dwindling from its once robust size when they had switched to the Nothing Ventured. I suppose you can't help it when your skills turn out to be dumb luck, he thought. Never seen an honest losing streak this big, though.
      "I saw you hovering around the Infirmary earlier. If you're after some Navy ass, I don't want to hear about it, got it, Eddie?" making sure to leave a tinge of concern in his rigid tones.
      "Yeah, you wouldn't be able to hold your tongue, blah, blah, blah. I'm not after some nurse, don't worry... I was just-- I was help--"
      "Keep riding him like that and--" another ODST said as he walked up to the two men standing together.
      "Keep it to yourself, Glass," Conman warned.
      "Testy. Need a rank pull?" Glass asked facetiously. Not pausing, his countenance shifted to one of somber seriousness. "Isn't it enough that we're fighting an inexorable war to the death?"
      Conman eyed the newcomer. He had known Glass for only a short time, but in that time, what had started as an incongruous personality had steadily devolved. The bravado that had clashed against the despair was fading, leaving a bitter embodiment that Conman could not wholly disagree with.
      "No, his mommy told him he had to be all he can be," was the only feeble joke Conman could answer with.
      “Stow it with the stogeys for the after-party, Helljumpers, we have orders,” the ODST captain, Mars, announced to the room. “Captain just got word that the Covenant has decided now is a good time for Amans Donum to get a house call. Everyone in the area is being called on for defense and evacuation. Get your coffins packed, time for a trip to Hell.”

      In the dimly lit interrogation room, Conman spoke again: “We jumped to, all of us prepared already, as we always are. Every one of us stepped into our pods and closed the lids, waiting for the Nothing Ventured to get us to the drop zone...”

      The blocky frigate passed silently over the space of the planet, dropping multitudes of relatively small pods into the atmosphere of the colony before speeding off to join the impossible fray of battle against the small Covenant battle group which clustered around one of the poles of the world, streaming thousands of troops to the surface. All the ODSTs, from inside their drop-pods, watched this cluster with a calm, almost indifferent, attitude until it disappeared from each of the lines of sight as they passed through a thick grouping of clouds above the city they are to make safe and evacuate.
      Some of the pods were rocked violently in the very physical storm and their trajectories deviated to a point where it is no longer in any one but Providence's ingenuity to correct. The trip to Hell passed from figurative to literal in a fraction of a second for them, flattened almost comically against rough terrain in pods that feebly pop their shoots after the final impact.
      Others make it through but suffered hardware failures due to the electrical nature of the storm, making them fall to a more prolonged death as they wait patiently inside their pods to suffocate or make a mad swim through hypothermia-inducing near-polar waters as their pods go askew as well, crashing through parts of the polar ice cap.
      Half their number made it through the storm.

      Conman paused. It is the only flaw that showed in his otherwise impregnable facade. “Those of us that made it through the storm ran into something worse...”

      The pods continued their only semi-controlled fall. The radios remain silent as each of the remaining number stared at digital lights winking off, each representing one of their brothers. None of them wasted a moment of thought on the fallen dead: they knew, statistically, they would be joining them soon.
      “This is point, we've got heavy A.A. Dispersing because of the wake, will be more danger as we slow for impact....” The channel went quiet again.
      “Banshees!” was the last call of one of the ODSTs, a final warning to try and make some use of his death. The air filled with scorching plasma fire from the Banshees as they all traveled in a spiral firing on the defenseless drop-pods. The plasma, striking the pods, pushed the limit of the heat dampening measures, cooking the air and occupant inside. A lucky few that carried heavy munitions are allowed the quick trip as a small explosion hide the Valkyrie's flight.
      Those that did not make it through the rain of plasma afford a favor and their pods rain down on the ground troops that have gathered for the slaughter of those few who escape the aerial slaughter above. A few seconds behind, a scant six pods hit the ground, popping their hatches explosive pins and letting the doors fly out as a precaution against any of the Covenant to stand too close. Each ODST moved quickly, leveling assault rifles as they moved to cover behind the burnt-out coffins that rained from the sky. There was no plasma fire coming their way yet.
      Taking advantage of the lapse, the ODSTs pulled pins and threw their fragmentation grenades, followed up by a volley from their two remaining heavy ordinance specialists. With precision timing, each leveled their rifle again and sprayed the Covenant line surrounding them, making them duck for cover or lose their heads.

      “We were screwed.” 'As usual' Conman decided not to add to the group. “But we did our job, breaking through the formation and we three left getting to some cover before we set to the objective...”

      Conman, Eddie, and the final surviving ODST, Glass, were able to break the line and evade the enemy in the extensive sewer system, moving toward their waypoint inside of the city. All three had sustained wounds of some kind from this tactical fleeing, each desperately needed a breather before trudging on ahead.
      The building they arrived at hardly suited as cover. Like everything else in the area, large holes peppered it, with edges like melted and re-cooled plastic. The three remaining ODSTs crouch-ran along the muddy remains of a ditch encircling the city, finding only this one building close-fit enough to what their situation called for.
      Conman took the lead, moving through the building doing a room-by-room sweep, altogether unnecessary as they had left the Covenant troops behind them some time ago. All it had cost them was half of the number that had miraculously survived to impact on this forsaken planet.
      Conman came to a window and propped the tubes of his rocket launcher on the sill, very lightly, ready to move it to an incoming threat at a moment's notice while Eddie moved around outside, booby-trapping every entrance with explosives. The explosives going off would be their one warning against any incoming resistance. Conman watched as Eddie returned to the building and slowly withdrew his launcher from the window, slung it to his back and moved back downstairs.
      As he rounded the stairs, he noticed Eddie curled in a lump over something on the floor. It took him a moment to distinguish that the mass was not all Eddie, but also the near-dead form of Glass who Eddie was valiantly and pointlessly trying to resuscitate. The spent hypodermics around Glass told Conman all he needed to know. Too many to be anything but purposeful.
      He walked down the last few stairs and took a chair near one of the holes in the wall, affixing his gaze to the road outside, popping off his helmet. “Fuck if that thing isn't itchy. Get off him already, it's no use.”
      Eddie slumped back to the nearby wall, leaving his helmet on to hide his face that stayed centered on the now-slowing undulations of Glass' convulsing chest. “Some of us aren't so quick to give up other's lives.”
      “Some of us have orders and don't want to babysit a corpse while accomplishing them.”
      “Yeah, 'cause it's our job to rush headlong toward Death to stop him from getting the other guy...” Eddie mumbles sarcastically. “Haven't the Covenant killed enough of us already? Or is winning all that matters?”
      “Look, shut the fuck up already. Glass dying means I'm in charge and if you have a problem with sacrifices on the line, take it up with those things killing us. Go ahead.” Conman paused for effect. “That's right. You're not going to because you know they won't give a shit about any Human life, and would just as likely kill you before you could speak a word to your case.”
      “I'm not saying don't fight, just that we don't need to waste lives.... And Glass.... At least attempt.... So few left....” Eddie mutters with barely contained ire, but altogether defeated. He knew anything more would set off both their short fuses...
      Conman simply sent a silencing look in Eddie's direction as a momentary lapse from his vigil of watching the road. The two tensed as unspoken words passed from Conman's naked eyes to Eddie's emotionless visor, before both are startled by a small beep that emanates from Conman's helmet that sat on the floor.
      Conman picked it up and stuffed it on his head with all the grace of practice, finding that the orders were now being updated for the two remaining ODSTs.
      “Intel says that there is an Insurrecionist group here in the city, we're to move in and take them out.” He said as he squared his gear away and moved to recover the explosive traps for future use. Eddie's gaze tore away from the corpse lying between the two of them and followed his squadmate as he went about his tasks, not moving any other part of himself.
      Oblivious, Conman called back for Eddie to follow as he began to move down the street.

      Conman moved down the streets, littered with refuse from the massacre that had taken place. Every so often, chunks of building impeded the progress of the two ODSTs, forcing them to halt their progress as they re-mapped their route to the objective ahead. With each pause that they took, however, Eddie's hesitance grew.
      “Here it is, in the basement,” Conman called out, slightly ahead of Eddie. “Looks like there is only one entrance to the room we need to get to, let's move.”
      Conman brought his foot to his chest and crashed it into the door in front of him, breaking the door's primitive lock system. He moved into the building to find the room clear, and, thankfully, no alarms. He scanned all the halls in leading off from the small anti-chamber, associating the physical world to his digital map. He found the stairs, moving toward them purposefully. Behind him, Eddie just followed.
      Conman moved down the stairs, checking every blindspot, but not slowing. He could see the room ahead where the Insurrectionists are supposed to be and doubles his pace.
      Coming up to the door, he took out one of the recovered explosives, placed it on the door, and set the charge. Both the men turned their heads away from the explosive as it detonated, blowing the newly reinforced door into the room.
      The two men leveled their assault rifles as they swept into the room, Conman fanned to the right, Eddie the left. The room was filled with men and women, huddled, frightened. Conman fired on without hesitation, making sure each shot hit squarely in the center of mass. None of the people offered any resistance.
      “Open fire, Dantes,” Conman barked when he notices he can only hear his weapon firing. He paused, then added, “I said o--” before his face contorted to surprise and he fell forward from an impact to the back of his head, unconscious.

      “That's it,” Conman called into the bleak room. “I woke up in the blood tray of a Pelican headed off planet. They told me they'd just found me lying in the street, unconscious.”
      The three ahead of him said nothing, but continued making notations on the reports in front of them. The silence felt incriminating, making Conman shift uncomfortably where he stood.
      The silence seemed to stretch on for ages, permeated only by the familiar rustling of papers by the three at the table, until:
      “Well, your testimony seems to be in order. Verifying against the fragmentary recordings recovered from Amans Donum raises no discrepancies. You are free to leave, however, we ask that you stay as there is a proposed mission in the works that you are thought to be the best suited to take charge of,” one of the three said in his neutral speak, somehow still imparting that this is far from being an actual offer. Conman felt it more in the air than in the interpretation of what was said.
      “Yes, sir, I would be honored.”
      “Good, the relevant information will be made accessible to you. The primary goal: kill Edward Dantes. His assault on a fellow ODST and dereliction of duty are nothing; this man poses a threat to the very security of the UNSC. We cannot risk what he knows being divulged to our enemies. Dismissed,” the rapturously voiced woman announced. Conman left the room with a look of mild shock over his once perfect facade.

      The briefing room was supporting a number of ODSTs, all calmly looking forward to the man detailing the upcoming mission, Conman.
      “We are to move to this building, indicated on the satellite images here,” he paused and pointed, “where each squad will move in and clear the building. Use of lethal force is granted, however, we have orders only for Dantes. If my work with him is any indication, frankly, he's not a threat, so just detain any unknowns until I deem it absolutely necessary. Dantes is to be taken alive, no matter what. Allow me to deal with him. Move to, get packed.”
      Conman watched as the men and women under his command milled about. They haphazardly fell into the category of the very young or the borderline old. He had had trouble finding enough volunteers for the outfit, realizing that when given the details, only the older soldiers opted to join in.
      He didn't blame the younger soldiers, though (all of whom he had called on personal favors to fill in vacancies), he was one of them. To all these younger soldiers the fight ahead was not theirs: it belonged to the old way, the way before the Covenant war.
      The older group, they knew the scars of an Insurrectionist bombing, remembered losing family....
      All of them agreed on one point, though: they had orders.
      Conman walked down the halls, dodging between all the other moving bodies heading for their Pods. He reached the room where he would be dropping from and picked up his helmet, suddenly falling back to the final moments of the mission he had gone on with Dantes, detailed from a recovered recording from Dantes own helmet. A signature on the events that had occurred.
      Conman had fallen down limply at Eddie's feet where he had been studied for a few moments. Then, Eddie had spoken to the room, telling them they were safe and asking if they had a way off planet. He had taken charge, issuing orders to these new people as he had slowly dragged Conman's body through the building to the entrance. There, he had lay the body out in the street and had taken his helmet off and carefully had pointed the visor toward his hiding spot nearby. Over the next hour of recording, he had sat silently in rubble and had acted as a guardian angel to Conman's prone body until a Pelican finally had picked up his position and Marines had been sent to extract him.
      Conman pushed the helmet down snuggly on his head, securing the latches while he watched the excitement of some and the detachment of those going through the motions in others.
      He walked the line, tapping on each pod as it sealed, waiting for a confirmation tap that everything was set, before getting in and sealing his own pod. From there, he sent word to the Captain and the mission timer began.

      The Nothing Gained moved over the planet that marked the start of the Human-Covenant war: Harvest. It was ravaged by several partial glassings, several campaigns by both sides to take and re-take the planet, and excavations efforts by Covenant forces. The surface was a tortured, scarred mess. The once verdant fields covered in ashes that fell like snow from the sky.
      Joining this now, the ODST pods, shot groundward, more flakes in the ash-storm. The trip was different this time, a peaceful one almost. The atmosphere of Harvest was still recovering from the assault and was not as thick, making the rocking less pronounced. There were no anti-air defenses that worried about the pods as they now began to slow for impact. No ground forces waiting to murder the inhabitants at the three different landing zones.
      Conman gazed out the silver of an opening at the front of his pod, seeing hatches to the left and right blow out explosively just before his own. He jumped out, made a quick assessment and moved to cover from the non-existent threat, the rest of the group moving methodically to him.
      They all sat huddled and waiting as the others teams moved into their designated cover positions around the atmospherically sealed building. Thoughts of what lay ahead began to creep into their communal consciousness, all poised on the point of action.
      The green lights came within seconds of each other. Conman's group moved forward to the entrance they had mapped, linked into the compound's system, and used digital brute force to overwhelm the computer into allowing them in simultaneously with each of the other two groups. The doors opened to nothing, the hall beyond them was empty, not even a guard at watch.
      The ODSTs in Conman's group rushed past him as he took a moment to update their mission database with stolen schematics of the building from the building's own computer system. Conman then updated paths for the other two groups to follow into the building, doing a sweep of each room and looking for their target. He made sure that there was plenty of overlap in each of the paths to ensure no one would get the jump on any of his fellow ODSTs.
      Once he was satisfied, he made several hand gestures and the group split in two, moving north into the building at similar paces. They both arrived at their first doors at the same moment. Conman's group carefully opened the door, finding it unlocked, and looked inside surreptitiously. Inside was a group of people sleeping peacefully, not a threat. Conman's group took his lead and began to move into the room, pulling out zip ties to detain the people just as, across the hall, shots rang out, awakening the people in the rooms.
      Confusion erupted as the inhabitants awoke to find several armed and armored ODSTs sneaking into their room. They screamed at the top of their lungs before one of the older ODSTs pulled up his battle rifle, silencing them permanently. All around the ODSTs, lights began to switch on in the compound, and people began to come out of their small rooms, disturbed from their sleep, wondering what was going on.
      Conman was pissed, they had no option now that the whole base would be awake, they had to use lethal force. “Switch to three-round bursts, center of mass, nothing standing,” he called out over the mission channel to all the ODSTs. He motioned for the rest of the group to move forward around the door to the hall as they finished cleaning up their mistakes in the room. He held up three fingers. Dropped one. Dropped the second.
      He dropped the last finger and all the ODSTs poured out of the room, firing at the people who were now beginning to congregate in the hall for a massacre they did not know was coming. The ODSTs encountered no resistance above the occasional handgun wielding martyr who seemingly had had no training. They cut a path in blood through the building, always searching each corpse looking for a single face.
      A face that none of them could seem to find as Conman watched the digital tags representing his squads slowly converge on epicenter of the building, a large sort of meeting area. He was beginning to get desperate, the red blood was caking on everyone's boots, unavoidable. These macabre footprints physically sickened him, and if those prints had not stood behind him, hemming him in against the door to the final room, he would not have hesitated in turning back and leaving the compound.
      He held back the physical reaction, as surprise over took him. The door ahead opened without anyone interacting with it or its sensors. In the darkness of the room, he could see the other three entrances to the room slide open as well, two of them hiding groups of ODSTs. Trained for these moments, all the ODSTs quickly turned their rifles into the room, the beams of light from each criss-crossing and illuminating the room...
      . . . which contained only one thing: a man, sitting cross-legged in the middle with his hands placed behind his head. Conman watched as the world slowed: the two groups rushing forward; one of the sergeants grabbing zip ties from his belt and roughly shoving the effete man to the ground; the harsh way they tightened the zip ties until they cut into the flesh at the wrists of the fragile man.
      He turned away, moving his gaze to the hallway, having forgotten, momentarily, the sight that would greet him. In the darkness, all the bodies shone somewhat. They all seemed as if they had not seen sunlight in sometime, having been huddled in this complex. Each also looking emaciated and vulnerable like the man in the middle of the room. They must not have been able to get supplies too often, or couldn't create enough on this almost dead planet. Every one of them looked as if they had been dead for many days instead of a matter of minutes.
      The one closest to him, a younger girl, perhaps twenty, had fallen onto her back, her arms and legs laying as if she simply slept. Her head was turned to the side, her eyes wide and dead, staring, a small pool of blood pouring out of her mouth in an obscene representation of a speech bubble where Conman's boot had come to rest.
      Conman swallowed hard to keep the sick back as he turned back to the room. He had to identify this man, to be sure that it would be the last one.
      He hesitated: There is no way this will be the last one, not with the same leadership that started it. This will just be the opening salvo.
      He took a step: We've got to start with a clean slate, we cannot let the past come back to haunt us. Better one now than a war ahead.
      He continued his back-and-forth argument as he crossed the room, never taking his eyes off the fulcrum to the balance of Humanity's future. The black hair, formerly cut short, now over grown and wild; the green eyes, no longer hiding anything underneath, but staring ahead proud; Edward Dantes.
      Conman grabbed his pistol from the magnetic attachments that held it tight to his right thigh. He turned on the the laser sighting. He watched at the laser cut a path across Dantes' body, coming to rest at the point directly between the man's eyebrows.
      Conman took one deep breath. Eddie's eyes moved up from their far-off stare and directly to Conman's, the two locked gazes.
      Conman's finger moved into the air near the trigger.


Okay, to counter one single point before it comes up in reviews (and I hate to explain myself here): I've been told that the plot is muddled or meandering. What I'd like to say is that, yes, it is. When writing, I opted into not including anything that did not add to what I considered the main theme of the story. So I boiled down all the actions and events of what I perceived as the 'story' into only events that demonstrate or support the main theme of the story. I hope this makes sense, and that you will take into consideration that I am fully aware of this when you butcher it in reviews. ;)