Into Shadow: Prologue
Posted By: UNSC Trooper<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 24 April 2008, 7:56 pm
2015 Hours, April 23, 2551 (Military Calendar)
Epsilon Eridani System, planet Reach, Fairchild City
Trickles of rain splashed on Sergeant Harrison's helmet, flowing across his faceplate and dripping down his silk-clothed neck. Grey clouds hovered over the distance, rapid strikes of lightning illuminating the pitch dark street for a short moment as wind gusts carried bulks of newspapers away into the abandoned boulevard to the right. The floodlights had been turned off, casting a cover of darkness over the wide cemented street flanked by wooden benches on either side.
The view of the manor ahead was amazing; a courtyard the size of two sports stadiums capped the mansion's front entrance, narrow walkways crossing the short grass and passing by four tall fountains sputtering straight water jets. Five luxury motorcars were lying by the manor's large car park, and a two-story fast food restaurant was placed next to the eastern wing of the main building. The manor itself was a breath-taker, built in an antique-styled architecture which resembled an ancient construction on Earth called the 'Acropolis'. The building's roof was shaped into a triangle bolstered by a series of slender pylons, their upper extremities carved in circular panels forming two spirals.
The mansion's brilliance stood out in every way, and certain organized crime factions had monitored its activity for several months, conceiving a plan to capture the manor's most important resident: a UNSC Army General renowned for leading countless seek-and-destroy operations against the remaining saboteur cells on Reach. Now, it was the rebels' turn to put their plans to work, in this case, by holding the General and his family hostage inside one of the UNSC's galaxy-wide range of real-estates.
Sergeant Harrison reached into his belt lock and retrieved a small pair of binoculars. He looked to his right and glanced at the four ODSTs standing beside him, their rifles pinned against the concrete surface of the sidewalk, gazing at the mansion's flickering nightlights. The Sergeant brought the binoculars a few inches away from his faceplate, and hit a small button on the device's control prompt. A magnified image of the building's balconies formatted into the display almost instantly.
He scanned the manor's façade. Most of the balconies and windows had been barricaded by a variety of furniture items. Damn it, Harrison thought, scrolling his binoculars across every story, carefully examining each window. He turned to face Private First Class Martinez, a Hispanic-born youngster, dragged through almost every boot camp on Mars and the Jovian Moons combined. He was as eager as he'd ever been, his hands trembling as he faced his own reflection on the ripe Sergeant's faceplate.
Harrison nodded slowly, still holding his binoculars slightly above his shoulder. He knew his squad would have to infiltrate the massive building as fast as possible, and bring the General and his family to safety. That meant that the surveillance cameras planted throughout the manor's complex had to be deactivated. Then, they would proceed inside the main wing of the building and coordinate a suppressing charge on the gunmen. No fancy stuff, no regrets.
"Sir?" Martinez inquired, fingering his assault rifle anxiously. His lower lip had been almost completely torn by his constant biting. He felt the need to fire his weapon; this is what he'd trained for, what he'd dreamed of all his life since early childhood. This was his chance to make a difference.
Sergeant Harrison pointed toward a small bunker connected to the manor's steel walls, "See that cabin?" he said, blinking a few times as he continued, "That's the surveillance station. Cut the feed." He ordered, his voice suddenly changed to a severe tone, lowering his binoculars.
Martinez scrutinized the surroundings for a moment, wiping his faceplate of steam and trails of water before nodding his acknowledgment. He gave the move out signal to the others, and sprinted across the two-lane street, steadying his feet as he jumped over the short, metallic fence surrounding the mansion's fields. The Sergeant followed, casually strolling behind the four ODSTs. He gripped the upper bar of the fence, lifted his feet and hopped over, his crepes softly twitching as his boots made contact with the leathery grass.
Cathy, the squad's only female member, looked around for a second; the mansion's courtyard seemed a lot more spacious from the inside, and the clouds overhead appeared as though they were only a few inches away from touching the building's tall clock tower. A lightning strike resonated as Martinez slammed the bunker's door open, extracting his combat knife from the back of his belt and cutting through the monitors' sleazy wires.
Harrison closed the door shut as the young private walked out, sliding his knife back into his belt. He was already sweating; probably because of the excitement. He removed his helmet and a strong breeze flapped his face, easily drying the sweat off his black hair. The Sergeant shook his head unpleasantly, gesturing for Martinez to put his helmet back on. A rescue operation needed complete anonymity.
Martinez hid his impatience, faking a subtle smile as he screwed his helmet over the collar of his bodysuit. He needed to give the Sergeant a good impression. Harrison turned, tapping Cathy's shoulder and motioning for the team to advance up to the mansion's entrance. Richard and Edward flinched and began running through the walkways. They stopped in front of the wooden, two-sided door that bared a striking resemblance to the entrance of a haunted castle that might be seen in a low budget horror movie.
The Sergeant wanted be home, sitting in an armchair reading the daily news bulletin in the comfort of his own warm apartment. He'd seen too much action lately; Emerald Cove, Paris IV, and suicidal boarding actions on Covenant cruisers. He wished he could settle down on Earth, somewhere in Central America, and spend his mornings jogging in the rainforests, with only the tweeting of birds resounding in his mind.
Richard reached out, touched the massive door and shoved it forward. The rusty joints creaked as Edward raised his rifle cautiously, staring at each cubic centimeter of the immense lobby that the door slowly unveiled. The creaking suddenly stopped.
The Sergeant mindfully stepped inside the mansion, thoughts racing through his head, terrible thoughts of what might lurk inside. He'd never seen anything like it; the mansion was almost too outdated, filled with ancient furniture, dusty wardrobes on the first floor, and staircases too rotten to even set a foot on. The stench of countless generations gone by engulfed the place like an annoying residue of cigarette smoke choking a first time visitor.
How can people even live in this dump, especially high-ranking UNSC personnel? Harrison thought, obviously irritated by the stinking furniture, holding his breath for a couple of seconds. He bumped into a small stool, crouching as soon as it the floor. The noise could have definitely stirred nearby gunmen. He was lucky, though, and gave the move out signal to the others. Martinez paced inside the lobby, oblivious to its awkward design, bending his kneels slightly as if dodging overhead gunfire.
He always wanted to be cautious whenever he dealt with new circumstances, and the hallways encompassing the stairway on the first floor looked unusually empty. The rebels held the high ground for the time being. Their objective was clear; advance up to higher ground and avoid a potential ambush.
Harrison set his hand on Martinez's shoulder. He didn't say anything yet. Still scanning the assortment of peculiar furniture and the half-devastated stairway that lay ahead, he raised his rifle, "Move up to the first floor," he said demandingly, "and watch those stairs, they don't seem to be too safe." He continued, lowering his hand, watching as the troopers slowly climbed up the staircase one by one, pacing clear of the meter-wide cracks in the rotten wood. Awkwardly enough, the stairs didn't seem to squeak as the Sergeant moved upward. He ignored the fact.
The first floor consisted of an entire network of corridors and hallways spanning along each wing of the marvelous mansion. Clearly, this place was rented by intellectuals, more apprehensive people, usually spending a few weeks reading books in the manor's library. Harrison couldn't stand snobs; he'd hated them since he was a kid. He should have known, his relatives were the same breed.
Cathy clenched her left hand into a fist nervously, and peeked behind the corner of a corridor turning to a long, tight hallway decorated with a series of small lamps. There seemed to be a haunting murmur about the dimly-illuminated halls. The soldiers sensed the Sergeant's petulance, but didn't dare say anything about it. Martinez didn't feel discomforted, though; he enjoyed exploring new boundaries that others might find insane.
Harrison touched his wristwatch; seven minutes had passed since they dropped. A minor detail, but the Sergeant found it extremely important to keep count of how long an operation would normally take. He set his weapon aside for a short moment, and glanced down at the floor. A thin track of dark red liquid traced across the wall's wooden edge and leading into the darkness of one of the hallways met his gaze. He frowned, leaning his head downward as Martinez crouched and set the tip of his index finger on the trail, rubbing it briefly.
They all knew what it was, and it certainly wasn't a good sign. It meant that the intruders had already started to murder hostages. The Sergeant wondered just how big the General's family was and for a few seconds he sympathized with the captives, he could feel they were terrified beyond measure.
Martinez came to his feet and fixed the Sergeant, patting the red dust off his fingertips, he adjusted his tone, "We should report this back to HIGHCOM," he said carefully, "after seeing this, there's a good chance the General's dead," he continued, gasping, "and his family too."
Harrison threw him an angry glare, "Regardless, we need to locate his body and get it out of here." He remarked. Martinez nodded, turning his flashlight on and making his way toward the corridor, rifle pinned against his shoulder joint. The others followed closely behind him, turning around their every side, constantly scanning each door. The blood trail grew ever-thinner as the end of the corridor came into the Sergeant's view. Tranquility crept in their wake.
The trail took an abrupt left turn into one of the rooms. Sergeant Harrison suddenly became aware of the situation's difficulty. Shaking his fear away, he gripped the door's knob, and signaled to the others to stay behind him. Holding his rifle steady in one hand, he pressed his entire body weight against the handle and jostled the door open with an instant violence. The room's floor was covered in a brownish tint of sandstone. Moistening his lips, the Sergeant looked ahead; a large bed and a desk were placed on the left-hand side.
Upon stepping inside, the blood trail led to a dead guard lying face-down on the floor, open wounds around his torso still spitting drops of blood down his black pullover and onto the sandstone. The sight disgusted Harrison, yet he wanted to check the man's pulse, but decided better and walked out of the room, eyes still scrutinizing the corpse. He wished he could do more, do something to save the man's life.
Martinez raised his eyebrows, eager to know what the Sergeant had seen inside the room. Harrison looked at his rifle, silent; he avoided making eye contact with either one of the troopers. "Nothing interesting in there, just a bunch of newspapers and a desk." He said, closing the door behind him. His voice was confident enough to not let the others sense he wasn't telling the truth. He didn't like to lie, though, but he had no choice.
As the Sergeant regained his awareness, a synchronized pattern of footsteps resonated in the distant right corridor, scarcely twenty meters away from the team. The Sergeant must have woken up a sentry when he barged into the room. The footsteps hastened, and now they were louder. It might be more than just one sentry.
Edward crackled his fingers and raised his MA5B, trotting toward the corner of their corridor. He bolstered his back against the wall and leaned over to his left. Within a few seconds he saw two men sprinting towards him, both carrying submachine guns which allowed for a more rapid maneuverability than standard assault rifles. Their efficiency however, didn't stand up to the weapons issued to UNSC Special Forces.
One of the rebels fired. Shrapnel ricocheted off Edwards's faceplate as he sheltered his head, closing his eyes for an instant and clenching his rifle with both hands in astonishment. He shook his head and the rest of the team fell behind him. Two more rounds flew past his shoulder, and the gunmen stopped and reloaded their weapons. This was his chance; with a swift move of his right arm, he turned to face the rebels, screaming as he pressed the weapon's trigger. Gunfire sprayed over the two men, their bodies falling on the floor in unison as a dozen bullets punctured clean through their chest armor.
Edward weighed his steps carefully as he strode past the dead men. He crouched, ripping the dog tags away from the bodies' necks, silently whistling to himself and gesturing the 'all-clear' signal to the Sergeant. The team moved out, a bright row of neon lights meeting their path as they entered the floor's second lobby. A robust chandelier encrusted in hundreds of translucent crystals was hanging from the thirty-feet-high ceiling, sparks of light twisting off the diamond's sharp corners.
Sergeant Harrison looked back; no one was following them. Ahead, three more gunmen headed for the Helljumpers, plunging their submachine guns forward as the team dodged the bullets. With their left arms pinned against a metallic closet, Richard and Martinez wielded their assault rifles with one hand. A fragmentation grenade landed just a few feet away from the rebels, fire plummeting them aback, their faces torn, and their legs ripped into a dozen small pieces.
A flash of thunder lit the lobby for a split second, and for a short moment afterward the place regained its tranquil feature. Several thick voices echoed in a nearby room; male voices, dropping into a violent print. Everyone remained quiet, motionless, listening to the voices. After several seconds, Cathy made out a man's words, almost whispering: We need to kill them now, they've already found us, she had heard.
"They know we're here." Cathy said, gazing into the Sergeant's dark faceplate, pointing toward a door on the left side of lobby. This was what they had been sent to do; this was their mark for a quick assault. Neutralize the rebels, get the hostages to safety and pack their bags for a pleasant trip home.
Harrison stretched out his right arm, his hand vertically tilted; "Go!" he barked. The troopers spun to their feet, sprinting almost twice as fast as they did during training. Kicking the door out of its joints, the Sergeant leveled his rifle to his right eye. He stepped over the fallen door, flanked by the other soldiers on both sides.
As the ODSTs settled in assault positions, seven rebels startled out of their seats, clutching their SMG's, some of them shouting and mumbling words too loud to be understood. A black-haired man jumped over his desk and caught a girl by her wrist. He pointed his weapon at her temple. Despite the child's desperate outcries, the team hesitated. One way or another, the enemy had them trapped.
Two other children lay on their knees, blindfolded beside a woman and a thirty-year old man, his hands tied with a rough string of rope. Harrison recognized him; it was General Graham Binghamton. Although young, the officer had succeeded in ridding Reach of rebel encampments using no more than one Army infantry regiment. He'd earned the respect of both Navy and Marine elements ever since.
The leader of the rebel squad sat cross-legged over the General's desk, leisurely teetering in his wheeled armchair, seemingly not bothered by the Helljumpers' presence. He didn't wear a uniform, which was confusing for the soldiers. He pointed to the General, "I presume he is the reason you were sent here?" he remarked. His easygoing attitude infuriated Harrison, straining his teeth beneath his helmet in anger. He didn't bother to answer the question.
The man straightened and fixed his gaze at the Sergeant's rifle, "Lay down your weapon, and no one will get hurt." He said, signaling to one of the rebels to begin choking the little girl. Just like the guard in that room? He though. The girl's face turned blue, and Harrison instantly set his rifle down. But he had another plan in mind.
The man giggled. Harrison could feel the urge to reach out and snap this arrogant bastard's neck. "You 'Helljumpers' have hindered my operations long enough, along with those freaks in armor you call 'Spartans'." He said, rested his eyes for a second, and then continued, "As you can see, my men have you outnumbered." He rose to his feet, hands behind his back, and walked up to the Sergeant, "I don't think there's anything you can do." He said. Harrison was convinced he could save this family, and the man's mendacious threats would do little to stop him. With a subtle move, he gestured the firing signal to the team.
The MA5B's cracked to life. Fiercely, the rebels returned fire, diving behind tables and chairs reloading their ineffective weapons as their comrades fell on the floor, bodies pierced. The children screamed and covered their ears but the deafening noise wouldn't cease. The remaining gunmen kneeled, dropping to the floor as blood flowed out of their wounds.
The firing stopped, and the General rushed to untie his children. Eyes watery, the little girl wiped the tears away from her reddish cheeks. She hugged her father as forcefully as she could. The mother grabbed the other children's hands and raced out of the room.
Harrison unscrewed his helmet, sweat pouring down his face. He ignored the dead bodies; all that mattered was taking his team home. The General approached the Sergeant and shook his right hand gently, "I owe you my life, Jeff." He said, smiling, "I think it's about time I bought you that beer." The General continued, straining his eyes in happiness as he patted the Sergeant's shoulder.
"Sounds good, sir," Harrison replied cheerfully as they stepped out of the room, "Sounds damn good."