The Sharp End
"We found it sir..."
"Yes? Is it..."
"Yes sir. The distress microburst identification code was checked and confirmed. It's the Machiavelli. It apparently crash landed on one of the outlying colonies of the system. We picked up a distress signal yesterday as the task force arrived in the area."
"It's almost two systems away from its planned flight route.... what the hell is it doing there? You said you just picked up the distress signal yesterday?"
"Yes Sir. It was logged as missing almost a month ago, just after the initial incursion. All quiet until 0230 yesterday, then the beacon was activated"
"I see. Inform the assault task commander that we may have survivors down there, and continue deploying in this system as planned. What did recon flights reveal about the condition there now?"
The cabin vibrated violently for several seconds as the dropship reached the peak of it's atmospheric insertion. Even as the vibration eased moments later, there was no time to rest. Like everyone else, Sergeant Locke was doing final preparation; checking oxygen tanks, weapons, and ensuring there were nothing loose that might violate noise discipline. Suddenly a red warning light blinked above... it was almost time. The crew chief gave the order and everyone stood, one hand grabbing the upper handrails, the other pulling here and there on the gear of the person in front, inspecting. A tap on the helmet if all was good to go. Everyone was. They waited anxiously for the light to turn green....
Back on the command carrier high above, third platoon was also getting ready for action. Rather than the sleek black uniforms of the pathfinders, they donned the traditional TSA armor. Some muttered in hush conversations with each other, some prayed or performed some other pre drop ritual... and some were silent. Each handled the anxiety in their own way. For most of third platoon, this would be their first combat drop. Others were veteran. They were the silent ones, preparing their equipment methodically, with the subtle resolve only experience provides. Third platoon was just one among hundreds of others in this system, all simultaneously preparing for the massive system wide campaign that would begin in a few short hours.
The rush of falling from 40,000 feet was something Locke would never get used to. He didn't have time to worry about it however; like the others, he was concentrating on not loosing his comrades in the dark. Getting separated at this stage would lead to the loss of initiative on this planet and create a weak point in this entire sector. Locke tried to reassure himself... There were other pathfinders out there, somewhere, making a drop on a planet like this at this very moment. Somewhere, high above, there are SEAD, CAP, SAR, and other support assets.... and above them is the command carrier, with a brigade of soldiers. Behind them is an entire task force dedicated to the extermination of the threat in this sector, and behind them is the rest of the fleet doing the same in other sectors. All the support he could ever ask for..... Locke train of thought was interrupted as he felt a vibration on his wrist. It's time... only a few more seconds... The eerie glow illuminating the cloud formation the team just entered revealed the entire drop zone would be blanketed in a fog that would seriously hinder their ability to find their objective if they were somehow dropped off target. Still, the HUD's positioning computer decided they were right where they should be. Locke wondered if they ever fixed those bugs he'd heard about... suddenly he was jerked from horizontal to vertical as his drogue chute deployed, and another jolt as the drogue released. Already the micro turbines were cycling up, but the whir was drowned out by the rush of air screaming past Locke’s face. The jetpacks reached peak burn a moment later in the deceleration phase, and the team touched down gently on the massive gray metallic object. Right on target... Locke could even see the emergency access hatch a few meters ahead, even though the dense fog limited his vision beyond that. The team simultaneously hit the release on their shoulder harness to shed the jetpacks and HALO harnesses before forming up. All accounted for... time to move. Their wetsuit like thermal masking and cooling garment underneath their dark gray armor would hinder the enemies’ ability to detect them, but it would only be a matter of time, and a wrong move could alert the rest. A quick thermal scan with their HUD revealed nothing through the fog. So far so good. As they arrived at the emergency access hatch, three of the team members kneeled and stood guard, while the other two began working. A shadowy figure slid open an access panel next to the emergency hatch. Computer down... not surprising. Luckily, they bought along ample provisions for such a bind. Locke looked up and watched as electronics officer Nicole Rhodes stuffed what looked like play doh around the panel. Nice. Nikki gave the thumbs up, and they waited. Locke looked at his watch. As the second hand slowly creeped around, he counted to himself. It would be morning soon. Just another minute or so until the arranged time hack.....
The prep call was announced. Time to wrap up prep and head out. One by one third platoon stepped through the access door to the embarkment room and sounded off as they lined up in front of two large diameter circular disks. Fully geared up now, their large rucks and array of weaponry sharply contrasted those of the sleeker pathfinders, but then again they were looking for a fight, while the pathfinders were looking to avoid one. In the background, the LT could be heard talking to someone about how they were formed and ready, and something about a survivor, but most of the rookies were too anxious to notice. Many were going over bits of training in their mind, hoping not to foul up. "Exhale... eyes open, step, step, weapon up" they thought to themselves, recalling their instructors words. They've all done it once in the training facility, but never under combat conditions. Today, the most experienced of them were eerily quiet. There were no jokes about rookies forgetting to "step, step" and meeting an unpleasant demise as they get telefragged by the next marine... it was far too serious to tease newbies that today. This shift out of the ordinary probably scared most of the rookies even more. The veterans were busy with their own thoughts, like how soon the pathfinders will be done, and how those stupid rookies better not bork up.
The platoon was part of a recently formed battalion that saw its first taste of combat during the initial counter attacks. Staged shortly after the first colonies were overrun by the kharaa, back then, even the vets were rookies. Only six survived to earn their combat drop badges and be considered veteran. The rest... well they borked up.
Now that the third platoon's ranks are full again and about to go back into action for a second time, the vets couldn't help but see the replacements as already dead. Nothing to do now but hurry up and wait...
Locke turned and closed his eyes to prepare for the concussion, when a muffled thump came from the panel, followed by a puff of smoke. He looked back at the hatch just as it hissed and opened slightly. He readied his weapon and nodded to the team. Two of the figures slowly lifted the hatch as he raised his weapon to his shoulder and peered into the void. He saw an eerie glow through his HUD in thermal mode, as he swept the room, but no hot spots. He gave a hand signal and dropped down, landing silently. Weapon still raised, he silently moved towards one of the walls and crouched as the rest of the team dropped in. The room was completely dark, and there was no sign of life. A door hung off its hinges, and the broken access panel sparked every once in a while. The team couldn't see the blood stains on the wall through the thermals. They stacked and began moving through the corridors swiftly and silently, following routes they remembered from the briefing. Their silenced LMG's raised, they cleared corridors as they went. Still no signs of life.... maybe intel was wrong Locke thought. Or... maybe not. The team dropped to a crouch but remained pointed at their individual sectors. "No such luck" Locke thought, as a familiar tapping sound on the hard floor grew louder. He stared forward at the four-way corridor ahead. They can't be caught now.... everything is at risk...an engagement at this point would no doubt compromise the teams presence, if not exact location. Locke slowly put his finger in the trigger guard and softly took up the slack on the trigger. The sound stopped. Locke held his breath and felt the hand on his shoulder squeeze a little, letting him know that Nikki was now also covering the forward sector, towards the junction ahead. An eternity later the steps began again, and a hotspot in the shape of a large dog appeared on Locke's HUD. Of course this was no dog... and it was about to be well ventilated by a burst from his silenced LMG. Just as Locke was about to pull the trigger, the hotspot turned and headed down the corridor ahead of the team. Holy crap.... Locke eased up on the trigger and watched the hotspot get farther away. Only after it took a turn and was no longer in view did he take his finger out of the trigger guard and begin breathing again. The team stood and continued towards the objective.... then they came across the bodies.
There were dozens of them in the room, dimly lit by one of the emergency lighting modules that still worked. Most were just so destroyed that it was hard to even tell they were human.... It looks like this was one of the locations where the crew made their last stand... and they lost. It wasn't a military ship, and the pistols and one LMG laying next to the body wouldn't have put up too much of a fight. A spore probably penetrated the hull...by the time the crew realized what was happening, the intruders may have already had an active hive somewhere in the bowels of the ship. By now.... there may be even more. Never had a chance.... oh well. We have a job to do, thought Locke. The team continued on.
The ship looked more and more damaged as they approached their destination, and they began running across infested locations. Soon, the team finally entered a room that the HUD indicated was their objective. The transportation room... and what they needed was already waiting for them. Nikki inspected two of the round disks on one side of the room and determined that one was completely destroyed, but the other was salvageable. Digging through her drop thigh pack, she pulled out a tool and quietly began fiddling with it, illuminating the object with a red light she held in her mouth. If the intel was right, the target for the marines would be just on the other side of this wall. Given the sounds coming from there, it was probably right. That's a first, thought Locke. A few minutes later, the guard watching the door raised his hand causing everyone to freeze. Something was coming. Scrambling to get out of sight, Locke saw another dog like hotspot in the doorway, only this one was different. It was.... fatter. It didn't make the clicking noise either. It didn't matter, Locke thought, as he gave the nod to the team member hiding next to the doorway. Drawing his knife, he lunged at the creature and drove his blade into its neck. Even with its mouth clamped shut, it squealed loud enough that they were compromised for sure.... Locke cursed and got up. Crunch time. "Get that thing up, we're going to have incoming,” he said. There were already new sounds coming from the next room. Nikki said she was almost finished as she began fiddling with the object again. Moments later, just as Locke heard the familiar tapping sound again, in spades this time, he was relieved to hear the hum and glow of the phase gate powering up.
GO GO GO! Yelped the sergeant in front as the phase gates in front of third platoon sprang to life. Exhale... eyes open... step....step....