The air rushed by, the superheated crack ringing out for miles, audibly crashing against the surface of the lush planet below. The thin metal skin of the orbital drop shock pod glowed and began to peel back, exposing the vulnerable life within.
The chute above tugged at the metal frame, slowly bringing the pod to more manageable speeds. The air stopped whistling so harshly, the metal skin was no more. Around the first pod, nine others plummeted onwards and ever downwards. The metal bullets of rain lanced through the sky a final moment before the reverse thrusters kicked in. The sudden upward jolt brought the pods to an almost upwards direction, but were silenced as they landed upon the surface of the planet.
ODST Lieutenant Johnson stepped gingerly out of his pod and looked around at his assembled troops, or at least the ones in visible sight. His men had been scattered over the rolling hillsides, they would soon find their way to him though. That was the plan. Surveying the area Cain breathed in the sweet air of the new world. His first off-world mission leading a squad into actual combat. It was… exhilarating.
A crackle came through Cain’s in ear mic and Riley reported in, he had found Ethan and Mark and they were converging on base HQ. The minutes passed quickly and soon the entire team was assembled in front of Cain. His team, it had still didn’t sound true.
“OK people, this is for real now. No more training sims, no more dummy targets. We will be taking on the Covies on their own ground. They’ve captured a city no more than two miles from here and will probably be ready for us,” he said quickly, gazing into each set of eyes.
“Good,” Dwight muttered, “Wouldn’t want to get em when they’re sleeping, where’s the fun in that.”
The others grinned at his remark before looking back at Cain.
“What’s the op, Sir?” Rodriguez asked first.
“Search and Destroy. Find any civvies, we evac em. Find any covies,” Cain hefted his battle rifle and chambered the first round, “we do what we do best.”
“Yes Sir,” came the unanimous reply.
“Load up and move out,” Cain said finally.
Within moments the unit was ready, each member having his or her weapon ready for immediate use.
“Which way?” Cain asked Sam quickly.
“Bearing 105 degrees, this way LT,” she answered after a brief pause.
They moved silently through the dense woodlands. Sam’s directions kept them on course and Ethan’s eyes scanned the surrounding vegetation. Cain glanced at his chronometer, they had travelled just over a mile and a half in under twenty minutes. Not bad considering the terrain he thought.
In the distance the skyline of Juventis city loomed, growing larger with each moment. Above hovered a giant Covenant cruiser, the blue energy glows radiating in the evening light above the city. Suddenly Ethan’s hand shot up in a balled fist; stop.
Cain slipped forwards towards his point man and looked at the spot Ethan’s gaze was fixed on. Three grunts were standing lazily in the middle of a small clearing. Their strange chattering echoed in the still trees. Holding up three fingers Cain pointed towards the grunts and then jolted his hand up and down. Time to kill.
Stepping forwards Cain avoided putting any weight on the thin twigs. Taking up position against a large tree trunk he brought his rifle to bear and sighted the aliens. Mark and Amy appeared beside him. With a soft squeeze of the trigger Cain let of a three shot burst instantly lacerating the throat of the closest grunt. Moments later Mark and Amy’s rifles coughed in the woods. The three bodies fell to the ground in a heap, their methane tanks leaking out their precious gas.
“Quick, we’re getting closer. Ethan scout ahead, stay in radio contact,” Cain ordered.
“Aye sir,” Ethan whispered before disappearing into the foliage.
“Move up,” Cain said to the rest of his troops. At once the unit moved forwards, soon Cain’s mic clicked.
“What is it?” he asked quickly.
“The wood stops two hundred feet ahead Sir, clear ground up to the city walls. We’re either gonna have to sneak real slow or sprint it,” Ethan replied.
“Enemy contact?” Cain inquired after a break.
“None that I can spot. Banshee fliers are circling in the distance, not sure how far they can scan for hostiles.”
“Affirmative, hold position until we arrive,” Cain said finally before increasing his pace.
They covered the ground rapidly and approached Ethan’s hidden position. He looked up at the sound of approaching movement but returned his watch to the flat ground before him when he identified the friendlies. Cain lay prone next to him and raised his binoculars to scan the horizon.
“That storm drain,” Ethan said quietly, “Thirty degrees East, see it Sir?”
“Yeah,” Cain replied, already knowing what Ethan was about to say.
“I figure it’s our best way in. If we can get there undetected.”
“If,” Cain repeated looking out over the fields. The thin grass rose about a metre and swayed gently in a light breeze. Perfect cover thought Cain, as long as the God dammed flyboys didn’t pick them up on thermal.
“Ok people, we’ve done stealth before. Target is just under a quarter of a mile away. I’ll go first. Stay low and move with the grass remember. See you in a few.”
With that Cain bent low and began a quick jog across the fields, he could hear the banshees in the air and the rustle of the team behind him, but focused all his energies on making it across undetected.
The entrance was just ahead now, the high wall above providing reassuring cover. This whole area looked like it had once been a riverbed, now long since dried up. Hopefully the shore wasn’t too boggy. Suddenly alien sounds could be heard up ahead, glancing upwards Johnson saw shadows flirting on the edge of the wall. Covie Patrols were moving in this area and they had been unlucky enough to run into one.
Moving more cautiously now, Cain brought his rifle up to his chin and carefully took aim above the wall, just in case. A crash shattered the tranquil silence and Cain spun to see Sam trip and slam into the bedrock. Her gun clattered to the ground with a loud crunch, which seemed to echo on forever. Up above on the wall the shadows moved more rapidly closing in on their position. Cain spun once more to face the wall and activated the digital scope of the rifle. Two jackal heads appeared in the targeting reticule, taking quick aim Cain drew a breath, let half out, held it and fired twice in quick succession. The bodies could be heard dropping to the ground. Never taking his gaze from the wall Cain motioned for his team to move up quickly. They were sure to have brought unwanted interest from nearby parties.
Dwight came trotting up to the front and crouched next to the grate. After a quick once over of the solid metal he reached into his pack and pulled out a small can similar to biofoam. But this stuff would not help you seal a hole, much the opposite. Holding down the nozzle Dwight ran the can around the edge of the circular opening, leaving a trail of expanding orange foam in its wake. When he had completed the full 360 he put the can back in his pack and removed a tiny cylinder. Twisting the top slightly he depressed it down until it clicked then pushed it into the orange foam. Backing up he motioned for everyone else to do the same.
The small cylinder emitted a small beep before the orange foam glowed with a blinding flash and sizzled back into the wall with a quiet crunch. The corrosive foam had done its work, quietly, for which Cain was grateful. The large grate fell forwards into the hands of Mark and Rodriguez who placed it carefully next to the now open tunnel.
Cain quickly peered around the edge into the gloomy tunnel. It extended for as far as he could see, pin pricks of light shafting through the darkness from overheard covers every few metres. No obvious signs of movement, but then none would be expected.
“OK, looks clear,” he announced to the team, “let’s get moving before any more patrols come. Ethan, take point. Dwight, cover our asses.”
The going was slow. The low ceiling forced Cain and his team to assume a half crouch position, not ideal for rapid or stealthy movements. Up ahead another grating let the last few rays of daylight down into the tunnel. According to the mission chrono they had been travelling for over an hour. Up ahead Ethan looked cautiously up the narrow shaft, seeing no danger he moved on.
Cain knew they were near the objective now. The residential district of this particular city was to the north, yet they were headed east from their current position. Some of Cain’s team had realised this, continually looking down north facing tunnels expecting the captain to change direction. But before anyone could voice any concerns Cain stopped at a large intersection, telling the rest of the squad to do the same.
“OK, change of plans,” Cain announced, his team groaned, “Dwight give me the SHA-1, the rest of you, move up this tunnel to the res area.” Cain motioned with his gun to the north passage.
“Where are you going Sir,” one of the team asked quickly. Taking the small backpack device from Dwight and securing it in his own rucksack, Cain looked up at the assembled team.
“I’m gonna get court-martialled for this, but ONI has a job for me. It seems they’ve left something behind here, something the Covenant want,” Cain said with a grin, “and I’m here to make sure we don’t share.”
“Sir, permission to come with you, Sir” Riley said before anyone else could offer. Cain’s smile widened.
“Sorry, but permission denied. You all know what I’m going into. You just get those civilians to the drop ship. If I’m not back by 0400 hours, leave. That’s an order,” Cain said wiping the grin from his face.
Taking one final look at his assembled troops, Cain nodded and said “Move out people.”
As each soldier turned and left up the north passage they each saluted the captain, some saluting, some just nodding in a solemn kind of way.
When they were all on their way Cain turned himself and looked down the south passage. It certainly seemed a lot darker by himself. Having confidence in his team, Cain moved down.
The voices grew louder now, inhuman, alien, evil. Cain flirted the orange shaft of light cast by a streetlight down the grate. He was close, very close. Remembering his ONI instructions Cain began looking along the walls for the control panel. ONI never built a facility without at least one emergency exit. Or entrance in this case.
As Cain’s hands brushed over a smooth glass display it winked to life underneath the thick layer of dust and grime. Suppressing a smile he began to type in the authorisation codes he had into the small display. Upon entering the last character the screen blinked for a few seconds before flashing green. A wall next to the panel slid back on silent runners, revealing a passage of the side of the new entrance.
Taking a final glance each way, Cain moved into the new tunnel and closed the door behind him, the faint hiss the only give away that a six tonne block of titanium-A reinforced concrete had slid slowly back into place.
After five minutes of careful walking Cain entered the next security block. In front of him stood a massive vault door reminiscent of 21st century design. The large circular opening had a dozen metal cylinders jutting out into the wall. Another touch screen lay waiting to the right of the door. Cain moved up quickly and began imputing more strings of letters and numbers. After a small pause the inner workings of the door began retracting themselves from the walls. With a silent and near fluid motion the door swung out towards to Cain, revealing the inner workings of the ONI Installation.
Cain immediately moved forwards to a computer terminal, unhooking his wrist PDA and linking it to the mainframe. After a bit of negotiation Cain got a floor plan of the entire building, security reports and the location of the AI Core Access Office; his target.
Suddenly as Cain was about to remove the PDA something flashed on the map, a tiny red dot. Engaging a wireless link Cain moved like a cat around the office until he was right next to the red dot on the map, he himself shown as a blinking orange dot. There was nothing here though, Cain did a 180 and came back to staring at the map.
Slowly, Cain looked upwards, from above came the sound of heavy footfalls and weapons fire; plasma weapons. The Covenant had infiltrated the building. Hurriedly returning to the emergency exit Cain pulled from his backpack the SHA-1 device. The incendiary device was enough to initiate the buildings failsafe fire protocols, flooding the structure with Halon gas. Cain quickly took another glance at the digital map and headed for the elevator.
Prying open the doors he snapped a glow stick and let it fall down the shaft. It fell. And fell. And fell. Sighing to himself Cain pulled out his micro-rappel unit and snapped it onto his harness first and then the closest cable. Then removing another device he placed it on the floor and hit a button. Four shots rang out as it fired bolts into the ground beneath it. Grabbing a rope from the top of it, he attached that to his harness as well. Letting his feet leave the safety of the office floor Cain hung suspended over the chasm below him. Three hundred feet to the first sub-level, then another two hundred before his destination.
Taking one last breath Cain squeezed the clamp and he began falling, faster and faster. A digital meter on the rappel unit counted how far he had travelled. 100. 200. 300 feet. After 400 Cain began releasing pressure on the clamp and his descent slowed. Just as the meter ticked over to 500 feet Cain came to a perfect stop. Removing both cables from his harness Cain looked at the doors and another panel. This one needed only a small code, but the noises from above reverberated down the lift shaft putting Cain on edge.
As the panel blinked green and the door opened Cain quickly scanned the new opening with his rifle. His map showed nothing on this level, but Cain would never fully trust a machine. Pulling himself up he looked across the wide hall to a door at the far end. Unlike every other door on this floor, the stark steel plate that made up the access to AI-CAO looked daunting. Almost running to the panel Cain entered the last code, an almighty beast of a pass phrase. As the door clunked open Cain brought out a tiny disk from his chest pocket, moving into the gloom of the office Cain made no attempt to turn the lights on, he would be done soon. Placing the disk into a brightly marked slot Cain watched a near by screen light up. On its display words flashed by, meaningless at first.
AI-CAO ACCESS / OPEN SSH ACCESS
NEG 255.127 / INT EMER PRT AZ99
AI-CAO ACCESS / PERM GRANT
AI-CAO ACCESS / BEGINNING AI PURGING PROCESS
A progress bar appeared beneath the text and Cain watched it crawl across the screen, at this rate it would take at least ten minutes to complete and Cain knew he had to stay and retrieve the disk. It would hold the files deemed most important and critical for evacuation. Cain smirked, files deemed worthy of evacuation.
Suddenly the elevator shaft shook, Cain ran to the door and peered around the edge. Rubble was falling down, it looked like a set of lift doors. Cursing Trak glanced at his map display. It was dead. Cursing again Cain realised that only base functions would remain now the AI was dying, lighting, heat, emergency protocols. Advanced sensor readings and wireless data streams were hardly critical.
From the lift a dull thump echoed outwards. Cain peered around the edge but immediately pulled his head back. He swore he had seen something. Suddenly a blue beam passed across the room, scanning for anomalous surfaces. Cain knew it must be a scout robot or similar.
Looking at the computer display once more Cain saw the bar was only at 15. Picking up a disk case Cain held it at an obtuse angle so he could see around the edge of the door. A small purple turtle like device lay on the carpet of the hall. Tilting the case more Cain saw what he least wanted to see. Two elites were walking out from the lift. They each held a plasma rifle and looked ready to fight.
Cain took a last a glance at the monitor (30) and pulled two fragmentation grenades from his belt. Kissing them each once he pulled the pins silently and then counted to three. Releasing one grenade he rolled it towards the left of the corridor. A split second later its brother rolled up on the right side.
The two elites looked down and before they could even comprehend what the small brown balls were they were thrown into each other by the force of the twin blasts. Cain leaned low around the edge of the door and fired three shots into each elites unprotected face.
New noises were heard now, lots more. Returning to the safety of the room Cain looked at the display, 75, nearly there Cain thought to himself. Peeking around the corner again Cain yelped in surprise as the disc case was blown out of his hand by an unseen foe.
Cain quickly placed his gun against the edge of the door and let loose a volley of lead. The surprised occupants had nowhere to hide and took a fair few hits, but their shields took the brunt of the force.
The computer beeped loudly in the still aftermath. Cain looked up hopefully at the screen and saw it winking at him.
AI-CAO ACCESS / PURGE COMPLETE
AI-CAO ACCESS / PRIORITY 5 DUMP COMMENCE
Cain swore out loud as another progress bar appeared, this one moved much quicker, but it was still another encumbrance. Pulling another grenade from his belt, Cain sprayed a fresh round of bullets into the aliens before rolling it out. As the blast took down the new foes Cain ran forwards, grabbed the now completed disk and ran out through the corridor.
Clipping on only the second rope Cain looked up, in the distance more figures were abseiling down towards him. Grinning Cain remote activated the high speed accelerator of the second device and began his rapid ascent. As he passed the next set of aliens his eyes locked onto one. That face, Cain knew it.
As the aliens continued on below powerless to climb back up Cain whispered downwards “Trak?”
200 feet from the surface Cain pulled another remote from his pocket, the SHA-1s. Even from 150 feet he could feel the blast wave. Pulling on his gas mask from his backpack Cain levelled his rifle and faced the direction of the approaching doors, a fresh clip of ammo just waiting to fly.
The office floor came into view. Great jets of gas billowing down from the ceiling. Elites and Jackals lay writing on the ground, Cain felt no remorse for them. Grunts ran around wildly not knowing what to do, their private methane supplies the only reason they lasted so long. As Cain walked between the desks he smacked the grunts to the floor, rupturing their precious life giving tanks.
With a smirk Cain arrived at the exit and opened the door. Walking out with a powerful stride Cain sealed the door and began his quick jog back to the pelican.
Suddenly in the darkness a shadow moved. Cain spun, his back pressed against the wall. Looking around the slight bend in the tunnel he saw hunched shapes coming closer. Pulling his last grenade from his belt Cain took one last look before removing the firing pin. As he swung around the strut in the wall Cain almost tripped trying to hold on to the grenade. Riley came out of the shadows, his gun pointed at his CO. When he saw the grenade in his commanders hand he grinned.
“What Sir, you thought I was a dam covey.”
Cain just shook his head and placed the pin back into the grenade before securing it to his belt.
“I thought my orders were clear soldier,” Cain replied with his own wry grin.
“Sorry Sir, I must be going deaf,” Riley replied banging the side of his helmet.
“Come on,” Cain said moving forwards, “Did you get the civies out?”
“Affirmative Sir, we found a whole bunch in a church, mostly kids and women. The others are leading them out.”
“Good, good” Cain replied still keeping one eye out for trouble, “Any problems?”
Even though Cain was in front of Riley he could feel the soldier lower his head. “Mark got stuck defending the last of the survivors. Before he could make it in the tunnel the Covenant hit the church with some kind of mortar. He escaped the blast, but… but the tunnel collapsed in on him.”
Cain looked away; he had to be strong now, for his men. “He died a hero’s death, that’s all we can ask.” Cain knew it sounded corny, but the greatest sacrifice a soldier could give was his life.
“So Sir,” Riley said trying to change the subject, “Your OP?”
“Completed, you know that’s all I can say.”
“Yes, Sir,” Riley replied forming another grin, “But how many covey you get?”
“A whole building full,” Cain said breaking into a smile. Behind him he heard Riley swear in jealousy and the smile widened.