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HALO: Iron Cross [Chapter Three]
Posted By: UNSC Trooper<unsctrooper@hotmail.com>
Date: 25 December 2007, 12:52 pm

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      0942 Hours, August 17, 2537 (Military Calendar) /
      Epsilon Eridani System, planet Reach, Military Reservation 01478-B

      The windows were covered in hail, obstructing the view of the training yard outside. The sun shone its bright light onto the frozen glass, and slowly melted the ice away. The room was swarming with maintenance staff, clearing the long table of any unnecessary items and making last-minute adjustments to the hologram screens.

      The pile of paperwork completely covered the table. Who would have thought field officers were this messy? The air conditioner blew waves of cold air into in the room, making the papers fly across every side of the chamber.

      All of the hologram screens were switched on, displaying the UNSC logo in the middle, and a picture of Reach in the right corner. The seats surrounding the long table were empty. A short man walked around the room a few times, picked up a large carafe and started filling the glasses on the table with water.

      He wiped the bottom of the carafe with a tissue, put it back on the tray and sat down on one of the chairs in the back of the room. He pulled out a handbook from his pocket and started reading it as he waited for the guests to arrive.

      Several voices accompanied by footsteps sounded in the hallway, growing increasingly louder as they came nearer to the room. The door opened and six soldiers walked in. The first to enter was Scott Parker, followed by Mike Richardson and four other men dressed in sloppy civilian costumes.

      They glanced at the holo-screens before sitting down at the table. They silently adjusted their chairs and looked around at the paintings hung on the walls. None of them looked familiar, they were either too old to be recalled, or they simply hadn't seen them before. But then again, most of these men didn't have the slightest clue of what paintings even meant – they were soldiers, and that's all that mattered for them.

      Scott tightened his long-sleeved cotton shirt and straightened his long hair; he had to look somewhat elegantly dressed. It wasn't every day he was called into staff meetings with commanders of the most important UNSC military outpost in the inner colonies.

      Mike didn't seem too excited to be there. He knew all too well how officers treated shock troopers, the way they looked at them, and the way they talked to them. He came to despise any man wearing an officer uniform.

      He rested his back against the leathered rear of the chair, and kept his eyes fixed on the door. Nobody knew who they were going to speak to; perhaps it was an Army General, or a Navy Admiral assigning them on a recon mission on some deserted city in the outer colonies.

      The door hissed open, and a brown-haired man stepped inside the room, holding a folder in his right hand. He turned around, closed and locked the door. The soldiers instantly snapped to attention, rose on their feet and saluted the man. He didn't return the salute.

      He strode up to the desk in front of the wide table and sat down. The soldiers observantly glanced at him; he had brown hair, brown eyes, and wore a peculiar looking necklace around his neck. He looked too young to be a commanding officer in the Marine Corps: only a few years older than them. Scott felt the urge to ask him what he was doing here, but fastened himself from doing so. Don't speak to an officer unless he tells you to, even though he might not look like one, Scott thought.

      The man raised his head and gazed at the six marines sitting down along the table. "My name is Antonio Silva," he paused, "From this day forth, I will be the commanding officer and Lieutenant of the fourth platoon, seventh Orbital Drop Shock Trooper battalion." He continued and took a few moments to carefully memorize each of the soldiers' faces.

      A feeling of nervousness suddenly gripped Mike. Whenever they were assigned a new Lieutenant, they had to extensively learn about his command methods, fears, temper, and personality. It didn't seem like this young officer would be any different from the rest. He appeared to be levelheaded, calm and most importantly, aware of his duty.

      The Lieutenant laid the wallet on the desk and folded his hands. "I've been supervising this platoon's evolution ever since I came here," He said, "and I'm pleased to say that everything I've seen so far qualifies it as one of the best units on Reach." He paused and took a deep breath.

      Scott raised his eyebrows at the Lieutenant's remark. Did he assist at the training drill that took place a few hours ago? How did he know about the platoon's performance? It became clear to Scott that this was the reason they've been gathered in the room.

      The silence surrounded the chamber. No one spoke. The soldiers could almost hear their own breathing and heart beats. It was getting chilly inside. Mike reached for the air conditioner remote control and turned off the machine. The air in the room slowly returned to its previous warmth.

      Silva reached for his chest pocket and retrieved a pen, "Now, I'd like to know who I'm speaking to. Names, please?" he said as he touched the tip of the pen with a flattened piece of paper. Each of the soldiers spoke out their names as the Lieutenant slowly wrote the words down on the paper.

      He put the paper back in his pocket and threw Scott a quick glance: He recognized him; his unusually long hair was easy to remember. Silva wondered why they hadn't shaved him before. I guess things have changed since I joined the Corps, he thought.

      Scott raised his right hand, "Sir, if I may speak." He said and lowered his hand.

      The Lieutenant politely nodded and gestured at him, "You may, corporal." He answered as he fixed his gaze on Scott. Silva's reply surprised him; how did he know his rank? He wasn't wearing his combat suit today. Maybe the man had a strong sense of intuition, or Scott's smug-like attitude gave his rank away. It wasn't the first time it happened.

      "Why was our commander changed?" he asked. Everyone in the room turned and gazed at Scott with a somewhat disturbing look. Silva smiled. He didn't appear to be bothered by the corporal's odd question. He was also foolish enough to answer it.

      "Lieutenant commander Andrew Harris suffered a," he paused and looked around random parts of the room, "fatal accident onboard a carrier vessel in the Zeta Doradus system. Most unfortunate." He said and walked away from the desk. No one replied.

      Mike didn't buy it. Something happened to Harris and it wasn't an accident. He could feel it in his gut.

      Silva picked up the folder from the desk, opened it and threw a pile of photographs on the table. He closely observed the soldier's movements as they stared at the pictures. "I want all of you to take a good look at these pictures." He said. The marines scrambled to pick up the photos. Mike frowned at one of the photographs. What is this?, he thought as he strained his eyes. His eyesight wasn't too accurate, so he put on his glasses.

      The photo he was holding depicted heaps of shrapnel and destroyed buildings. Dead bodies lay on the street, surrounded by clouds of dust and fire. The picture terrified him. He closed his eyes, took off his glasses and dropped them on the table.

      Scott kept his eyes fixed on the picture: same landscape of destruction, but depicted from another location. The other marines stared at each other; they couldn't understand why the Lieutenant was showing them this. What was he trying to tell them? Was he going to send them to clean this place up? They didn't even know where this place was.

      Silva crossed his arms and gently scratched his rugged beard. "This is what remains of Silverborough, a city on the outer colony of Mamore - destroyed three days ago in a nuclear explosion." He said as he rested his arms on the desk. "Casualties are … severe." He looked at one of the pictures, sighed, and squeezed it back into the folder.

      "All civilians have been evacuated from the destruction site," He continued, his voice steady and calm. He grabbed a glass of water, took a sip and cleared his dry throat, "Damage assessments indicate that this was a ground assault, most likely performed by insurgents." He said.

      The soldiers were silent, constantly staring at the young Lieutenant. His necklace waved around as he slowly strolled to and fro in front of the table. He tapped his lower lip with his index finger. It was time he showed them something just as disturbing as these photographs.

      He reached for the folder and pulled out a small plastic disk. The computer on his right was already turned on, barely making any sound. He turned toward the display, placed the disk into the panel and closed the hatch shut. The holo-screens started showing overlapping thermo-graphic pictures of an industrial complex.

      The marines straightened and rotated their chairs toward the screens. They didn't know what to make of these maps, but they looked like farming stations on Harvest. Their guesses weren't even close to what Silva was going to tell them.

      "This is a United Rebel Front factory on the northern continent of Mamore. It supplies their militia with explosive material and weaponry." He said and zoomed in on one of the pictures, "As you can see, the radiation levels are huge, which indicates that they're not manufacturing ordinary explosives." He paused, "These are the nuclear warheads stolen right from under our noses on Europa, approximately forty of them." he said as he wiped his forehead.

      Scott apprehensively drank the water out of his glass. Now I've heard everything, he thought. "However, the worst is still to come," Silva said, "This is the only insurgent factory the Office of Naval Intelligence could pinpoint. Best guess, they've probably got a dozen more planetside and in orbit." He paused and sat back down at the desk. "They're organizing a war against us. Strange thing is, we thought we took them all out after Operation TREBUCHET." The Lieutenant said.

      Mike clenched the glass of water in his hand. He was too worried, and too disgusted by the horrifying pictures to drink anything. He'd never seen so many corpses in his life.

      Silva closed the folder, "The reason I've gathered you here today, is because Reach HIGHCOM ordered the fourth platoon to retrieve the nukes." He broke eye contact with the soldiers. "If you have any questions before I brief you on the mission, now is the time to ask them." None of the soldiers spoke.

      The Lieutenant shook his head, and revealed a slight smile on his face as he rose up from the table and walked toward one of the holo-screens. He picked up a long metallic stick and pointed it at a random part of the map. "This is where you will be dropped off from orbit." He said and made a circling gesture with the stick. "The factory is surrounded by over twenty kilometers of dense forests. That means your visibility will be drastically reduced as you head for the target."

      Scott pulled out his pocket laptop and started typing Silva's instructions in his reference file. He always carried it with him during orbital drops.

      Silva began dragging the stick through the map, pointing it at the entrance way to the factory. "The entrance is heavily guarded by militia and patrols." he said. Mike raised his eyebrow, paying close attention to Silva's movements. "The compound is surrounded by a fence of barbed and electric wires, so your only way in is through the main entrance."

      Scott didn't feel worried in any way. He had Diana on his squad, the most experienced sniper in the platoon. Taking out the guards wouldn't be a problem. He kept typing down the instructions on his laptop.

      Silva moved the stick forward into the courtyard of the facility, "You will be coordinating an attack on the primary development station," he drew a red circle around the section of the map, "and eliminate all hostiles before they can get a chance to sound the alarm." He pointed to another part of the courtyard, "You will then secure the perimeter, and proceed to the second target: The material deposit where the explosives are stored." He paused, and hesitated. "Once you have secured the targets, you will wait for a strike team to arrive on-scene, which will transport the warheads out of enemy territory."

      Mike liked the plan, it was simple, and not nearly as difficult as he would have expected. "If however," Silva continued, "the alarm goes off before you can secure the targets, there's not much you can do except run, and regroup here." He pointed the tip of the stick to the shore of a small lake, located beyond the forest line. "It's a long run though, so you'd better pack plenty of water for the trip." He said.

      The soldiers nodded, and murmured a sound of approval. Scott put his laptop back in his pocket. The pictures on the holo-screens faded, and finally disappeared. The Lieutenant slowly walked toward the table, rubbed his hands and faked a smile.

      "Any questions?" Silva queried.

      Mike raised his hand, "When will we be leaving, sir?" he asked. Silva turned his head toward Mike, meeting his gaze, "Tomorrow, six-oh-four in the morning. You will be picked up in the airfield and flown to Station Gamma in orbit." He answered, his voice slightly less stressed. "And another thing, make sure you carry a knife, just in case you tangle your parachute in the trees."

      The Lieutenant straightened, and looked away from the marines, "I have high expectations from this platoon." He glanced at Scott, "Don't let me down."

      "Not a chance, sir." Scott answered. The marines rose to their feet, and saluted the Lieutenant. Silva promptly returned the salute, lowered his hand and sat back down at the table as the marines strolled out of the room. He relaxed his feet, crackled his fingers and closed his eyes. I can only hope these guys are as good as they claim to be.