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Scoop - Chapter One: Downed
Posted By: kr142616<kr142616@aim.com>
Date: 1 May 2009, 3:40 am

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Chapter One: Downed

Rear Admiral Johnathan Sheppard:
The Security Committee has come to the decision that GNA will be allowed one correspondent attached to a marine unit on Fidelity. Statistics show your theater has the current lowest casualty rates, and as you know, battle lines have remained stable. This may be the morale boost we need. If GNA is right and something is going on there, though, do not let it come out. End it quickly and quietly, as necessary.

-from the desk of Fleet Admiral Lord Terrence Hood, Chairman, UNSC Security Committee

0035 hours, January 20, 2549 (Earth Standard Time) – 0835 hours (Fidelity Local Time)/ UNSC Dropship Alpha 382, en route to Camp Lexington, Fidelity

      Aaron Hayes, for maybe the third time since leaving the September, felt his stomach grumble. Space travel wasn't kind to him, never had been, and he tried to distract himself. The Pelican's engines rumbled dully in his ears, more felt than heard, and the seats were uncomfortable, especially in the GNA-issued armored vests. Only the best for their correspondents, he thought with a grunt. Five years he'd been planet-hopping across the Colonies, and all they could manage was a too-large, uncomfortably warm antique, back from before even the Insurrections thirty years ago.

      Five years since he'd gotten his first break as a freelance journalist caught on the front lines of the war. Since he'd seen the face of the war for the first time, catching sight of the enemy and seeing how alien they really were. He'd seen cities burned, soldiers and civilians alike murdered. He'd seen the end of a world.

      It'd been the best thing that ever happened to him.

      The correspondent grimaced. Fucking spaceflight, he thought as his stomach lurched again. Trying to keep his mind off of is stomach, Hayes glanced at the other occupants of the troop bay: a pair of marines sat across from him, occasionally exchanging words, and a third marine snored loudly, closer to the cockpit.

      Hayes hit a key on his watch. The red light in his eyepiece lit up, indicating he was recording, and Hayes adjusted his frames, focusing on the pair of chatting marines. Ideally the correspondent would have let one of his free-floating cams loose to record on its own, too, but there were only so many angles you could get in a cramped troopbay. Mentally, he shrugged.

      "Excuse me," he said, smiling pleasantly at the two marines. "Do either of you mind if I ask you a few questions? My name is Aaron Hayes, with—"

      "GNA, right?" a drawling voice asked. "Don't usually let you journo types onto the front lines, do they?"

      Hayes turned his attention to the corner near the cockpit, where the once-snoring marine sat. He had a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his face, slumped in his seat like it were a recliner and not the uncomfortable folding seat it was, and for all appearances he was asleep.

      "No, sir, they don't," Hayes replied, feeling a little smug. "I'm the first official one."

      "That right?" the man drawled. "I've seen a few journos here and there, and you know what?" The Texan looked up from underneath his hat, smiling. "They don't last."

      Hayes smiled patiently at the Texan NCO, managing to keep a straight face and holding in a derisive laugh. Don't last? Five years ago I watched Amethyst burn, and it made my career. I've spent every minute since trying to come close to that, and this walking stereo type has the balls to say I won't last?

      "Don't mind him, sir," one of the marines, the one on the left, said, smiling kindly. "The sergeant there's fond of giving civvies a hard time." From his corner, the Texan grumbled a dismissal and pulled his hat back low. "He's been like that since he boarded."

      "How long ago was that, marine?" Hayes asked innocently, focusing his camera again to include just the one marine.

      "A few days after us, sir. The September's been jumping all around the Colonies, picking up and dropping off stray units."

       "No need to call me sir, marine, you're not much younger than me," Hayes said, flashing bright white teeth. "I'm just a reporter." From his corner, the Texan snored loudly.

       "Now, tell me a bit about yourself."

      "Alright," the marine replied. "My name's Private First Class Joseph Lewis, from Reach." Lewis had that neutrality of tone and expression Hayes had found soldiers were so good at. And they always say their rank. It's like it's part of their name.

      "How long have you been in the corps?" Hayes asked.

      "A little over three years," the private replied.

      Aaron nodded, going for a thoughtful look. "Where's the rest of your unit, private? You didn't say where the three of you boarded, did you?"

      There was a brief flicker across Lewis' otherwise blank face, and another snort from the Texan that said you damn well know he didn't say. Lewis continued, though.

      "We're joining our units planetside. Each of us have been assigned new units here on Fidelity."

      "Why new units?"

      "Sorry, sir. Operational security," Lewis replied, looking sincerely apologetic.

      Hayes dropped his smile for a more sober look, leaning forwards. "You can tell me where you came from, private. I can guess the rest."

      Lewis hesitated, looking like he was about to speak, when the pilot's voice interrupted over the troop bay's speakers.

      "Entering Fidelity's atmosphere," the pilot said matter-of-factly, the dull rumble growing in intensity. Hayes felt his stomach's rumble grow in turn, but he managed to keep the discomfort from his face. "We'll be landing at New Boston in no time."

      Aaron turned his attention from the cockpit back to the two marines. The one he'd been speaking to, Private Lewis, still looked hesitant, while his friend was starting to look hostile. Screw it, Hayes thought, leaning back again.

      "It's all right," he said, not quite keeping the annoyance out of his voice. "I'll find out eventually. It's my job."

      The private's hesitation vanished, his face again to polite neutrality. "Do you have any more questions, then?" he asked. The relief in his voice was obvious.

      Hayes was about to oblige when the second marine interrupted. "I do, for you," he said, nodding towards Hayes and leaning forwards himself.

      "And what's your name?" Hayes asked, smiling again. He adjusted the camera's focus to remain on both the marines now with a few taps on his watch.

      "Lance Corporal Ben Giles, sir," he said.

      "And you want to ask me questions?" Hayes asked, feigning curiosity but already constructing a response. He knew the question. It was one he got a lot.

      "Yes, sir," the corporal replied. "Do you think you're helping humanity in your line of work?"

      Straight to the point, huh? "What do you mean, corporal?" Aaron asked innocently, practiced smile still on his face.

      "Your job," the corporal said simply. "You report on the war. All of it."

      "Ah," Hayes said. "Do you want this conversation to be off the record?" he asked.

      "Off, on, I don't give a shit," the corporal said, waving his hand dismissively, as if he were swatting a fly.

      "Off, then," Hayes said, keying his watch again. The red light in his view blinked off. "You mean I report on what ONI covers up." He once again leaned forwards. "I report on the losses."

      "Yes, sir," the corporal said, and Lewis seemed suddenly engrossed in the metal grating of the troop bay's floor. "There's a reason for covering that up. We need the morale."

      Aaron laughed. "You marines get on fine without the morale. You know full well the scope of this war."

      "What about the civilians?" Giles spat. "If you reported half the stuff that goes on, the amount of fear that would spread—"

      "Fear?" Hayes laughed. "They should be afraid! This is a war of extinction, and very few seem to get that."

      "If the Innies knew how the UNSC was faltering—"

      "They'd what?" Hayes said with a sneer. "Throw a few more angry rocks at the UNSC barracks? They're all but gone, along with half the Colonies."

      The corporal's eyes smoldered. "Your agency is spreading fear, sir," he said heavily.

      "And your government is spreading lies," Hayes quipped back dismissively. "So, to answer your question, yes," he said. "I'm helping humanity to fully realize the gravity of its situation."

      The corporal stared pointedly at Hayes for a few seconds more, and leaned back into his seat, armor plates clacking.

      Naïve bastard, Hayes thought, switching his camera back on. If a government's willing to hide its losses, what kind of other shit do they keep secret?

      "We give 'em hope, journo," the Texan said, as if reading Hayes' thoughts. "People give in too easy if they think they can't win. People need that."

      "That'll be a comfort when the boys in black come knocking at my door late one night," Hayes replied, and the Texan again snorted, undoing his restraints to shift into a more comfortable position.

      Glancing one last time between the marines, decided he had enough footage for now. He removed a datapad from his pack on the seat next to him and synced it with his camera rig. The brief conversation he'd had with Lewis, along with previous footage, transferred over, and, satisfied, Aaron began reviewing the footage of his voyage to Fidelity.

      Before he could so much as press play, though, the dropship lurched violently, Hayes' stomach with it. He heard the Texan curse loudly. The bay's white light flickered and was replaced by red emergency lighting, and the entire ship began to shudder.

      "We've been hit," the pilot said, managing to maintain an even tone. "If we're lucky we'll touch down just a short while from New Boston. I've still got some control of this bird. Just hang on."

      Thing are heating up already, huh? Hayes thought. The correspondent shoved his datapad into his pack when the ship lurched again, even more violently, and his vision exploded into black.

      Staff Sergeant Francis Quitidamo sat in a camp chair, book in hand. Slowly he turned the crisp pages, letting the words sink in. Rain pooled on the tarp above him, heavy drops spattering against the section barracks. Still, he flipped the pages, engrossed. Not enough paper books anymore, he thought to himself. Some things need to be bound.

      Quitidamo heard footfalls approaching, loud splashing ones, and a heavy thud as a body slumped into the camp chair across from the sergeant. For several more seconds he read in peace.

      "A paperbound book, sarge?" the marine asked, his voice friendly. "Odd. Don't see much of those anymore."

      "One to talk, Wingnut," Quitidamo said gruffly, not looking up. "Where you been?"

      "Taking a nap," Winger said. "Beautiful weather, huh?"

      The staff sergeant glanced up from his book. "You were sleeping in the rain?" he asked, voice level.

      "Yup," Winger said cheerfully. "It's more comfortable than it seems. You just need to watch you don't sleep with your mouth open." The private winked. "Or you'll drown."

      "I can only imagine how you figured that out," Quitidamo replied, not needing to look up to see Winger's goofy grin. "Don't go doing that, though. I'm lucky I've got you and Salbatore. Most are lucky to get one NSG boy."

      "Aw, sarge, I love you too," Winger said, the seat creaking as he stood up. "Well, I'm off to take a shower."

      "A shower?" Quitidamo asked, back again to his book. "You were just out in the rain."

      "Said it was comfortable, not sanitary, sarge. Mud gets in all kinds of places." To demonstrate he wiggled his toes, eliciting an obscene sucking sound from his boots. Then, straightening, the marksman left, his splashing footsteps drowned out among the heavy rainfall.

      Quitidamo shook his head. Salbatore needs to keep a closer watch on him. He wouldn't let it bother him, though. Winger was harmless, and reading was one of the few pleasures he had left on Fidelity. He'd be damned if he didn't enjoy it. Something always tried to make sure he didn't, though.

      After scarcely a minute, as if on cue, the whir of a Warthog interrupted the sergeant. Quitidamo ignored it, flipping the page with care, until he heard a splash of mud and rain, and looked up to see the platoon sergeant, First Sergeant Harrison, approaching. Reluctantly, Quitidamo stood up.

      "Staff Sergeant, I've got a job for you," Harrison said in lieu of a greeting. "I need you and your men to respond to a downed Pelican. Covenant AA team's on the loose again."

      "Alright, sergeant," Quitidamo said. "Location?"

      "They're a few klicks out, in the woods. There's a crash beacon; here's the coordinates," he said, handing Quitidamo a datachip. "Take your section out in your HRVs, and a flatbed for the survivors."

      "Yes, sir," Quitidamo said. "How many contacts?"

      "Not enough to worry about, intel says," Harrison replied. "But watch yourselves, anyways," he added, smiling knowingly. "Them getting past intel is worry enough."

      "Understood," Quitidamo answered, easing his finger out of his book's pages and removing a bookmark from the back flap.

      "Thank you, sergeant," Harrison said. "Have a smooth run there."

      Quitidamo nodded by way of reply, sliding the bookmark between the pages and turned to enter the barracks. His book would have to wait for now.

      "What did he say his name was?"

      Hayes slumped groggily to one side, head pounding, held in place by the straps across his chest. The correspondent heard a click and pitched forward, slamming into metal grating. He gagged, but nothing came up, much to his relief.

      "Hayes, I think. Yeah, said his name was Aaron Hayes."

      "Hayes!" the first voice said urgently. "Shift it! We're in trouble!"

      Hayes pushed himself from the grating, realizing he wasn't on level terrain. His head was throbbing. Then it hit him. He wasn't on solid ground at all, but still in a UNSC Pelican's troop bay, and—

      Shit, he thought. We were hit.

      With a jolt, Hayes was pulling himself to his feet, accepting the hand offered him by one of the marines. He couldn't remember if it was the hostile one or his more polite friend. Both now wore identical blank, no-bullshit expressions.

      "We were shot down," one said, the one that had remembered his name, his voice urgent but calm. "Pilots didn't make it. Texan, either." The second marine nodded to the sergeant, his body in a heap across the troopbay, limbs at awkward angles.

      The first marine bent over the body, pulling the Texan's dogtags from his neck, and almost as an afterthought, reached over and placed the man's hat across his face. He then looked over the sergeant, pulling an M6 from its place at the dead man's hip and sliding a magazine in. "Take it," he said, tossing the weapon to Hayes.

      "Thanks," the correspondent replied, noticing the red record light still lit in his eyepiece as he caught the heavy pistol. Great, he thought. This'll make some good footage.

      Hayes turned away from the first marine as he began rummaging through a survival kit, removing an assault rifle and several magazines. The correspondent found his pack thrown across the troop bay, and opened the top, shifting around inside until his hands found a roughly spherical piece of metal and plastic. Bingo.

      "Anything useful?" the second marine asked, seeing the look of satisfaction on Hayes' face.

      The correspondent rose, tossing the sphere into the air. At the top of its arc it began emitting a soft whirring and remained in place, a dark optical lens trained on the marine. "My freecam," Hayes said, smiling.

      The second marine's face remained blank, but when Hayes turned to the first he wore a scowl. Ah, Hayes thought. The other one's Lewis, then. The first marine—Giles—opened a belt pouch, placing the Texan's and pilots' dogtags inside. He turned back to the cockpit and removed a submachine gun, tossing it to Lewis.

      "Let's go," he said, and Lewis and Hayes both nodded. They'd need to find cover fast. Someone would come looking for survivors.