The Eve of War
The marines were ushered into the briefing room; a circular room of bare power lines and exposed plumbing with a small hologram projector the size of a bar stool squatting in the center. Being of Caldari design, the Helios spared nothing for comfort or visual appeal, which ironically enough gave it an honest and welcoming feeling to its inhabitants. The marines had lived on the Super-Carrier their entire lives, a total of eleven years now. Twelve if you count the first year they spent fermenting in vats of growth accelerants and proteins. They were "Tube Children", manufactured to be the greatest warriors to ever step foot on a battlefield, but they were not Dust Marines yet. They were not yet valuable enough to the corporation that created them to validate the cost of cloning technology that the Dust Marines enjoyed. They had no second chances; there would be no new body to wake up to if they were to die. Their creators liked it that way, it made them more cautious, and they only wanted the strongest.
The private scanned the room with a passing glance. The ship's captain was standing in the corporation's formal military dress uniform, his stern face chiseled from stone. Beside him was the highest of his senior staff, all in similar attire, and beside them was a new face. It disturbed the private to not know him. The man was the epitome of military perfection, not a single wrinkle in his uniform, or a single hair out of place or a single bit of stubble on his chin. His posture was unnaturally perfect and he remained motionless, unblinking. Once all the marines were seated, sixteen in all, the captain spoke. A hologram of a dust-worn desert planet sprung from the middle of the room
"Hello gentlemen, today you're going to complete your training. This next mission will determine which of you will become immortal, and who will rot in a hole on some mud-ball. In the past few months there has been a dramatic increase in Angel Cartel activity in the region. We suspect that a new under-boss has gained control of local Cartel forces and have been attacking corporation assets. Intelligence reports that the Cartel have started occupying colonies and mining facilities in order to set up extortion rings, black markets and Lord knows what else. Recently one of our mining colonies went dark, no communications of any kind. We suspect it may be the Cartel." The hologram unfolded into a flat plain and zoomed in on a city, a massive mountain of factories and processing plants. The view panned across the city until it centered around a large building with a large dish situated on its roof. "Your objective is to secure the communications array and upload a tracer program into the systems local communication relays. Once you-" a hand raised from one of the marines. "Yes corporal?"
"Sir, isn't it standard procedure to secure the corporation resources first?" For a moment the private could have sworn he saw the unfamiliar man twitch, almost as if he flickered into a face of disapproval and back.
"Normally you would be right," the captain responded, "but we have confirmation of a signal from the planet that left a virus in our relay network which cut all connections with the array. Fortunately, it wasn't fast enough. We detected a secure connection made between the array and a separate external network just before the connection was severed. When you upload the program it should let us access that network and find the Cartel's base of operations." The captain looked over at the stranger standing in the corner and added, "Also, you will not be under my command for the mission, a capsuleer has been sent to lead the assault." Looks of bewilderment went across all the faces in the room, except the strange man, who flickered again and disappeared, only to appear standing on the projector where the communication array blueprints were displayed moments ago.
The man's lips moved awkwardly, out of sync with his voice which came over the Helios intercom in a raspy, metallic tone "Thank you captain, I will handle things from this point forward."
"Yes sir." The captain retreated back to the line of his senior staff, clearly less than comfortable with his ship at the command of someone else.
"I have been sent to monitor your performance and ensure the mission is successful. As of this moment I will be assuming direct control of this fleet." Then, ignoring the confusion, the pod pilot's hologram shrank and panned to the side. A large view of the city surrounding the array materialized next to the hologram and he spoke again, his lips now simply opening and closing in what looked more like a mockery of verbal speech than any attempt to imitate it. "The basic combat troops will be sent in on all the standard invasion targets, you will be dropped covertly in this park several blocks from the array." The view zoomed in on a large solemn looking patch of soot-coated dirt doted with the slender corpses of a few scattered trees. A reticule appeared and slid smoothly to a clearing in the dead park that the map immediately measured and displayed to be approximately seventy meters in diameter. "Saber one-twelve, your squad will be dropped here." This was the squad the private belonged to, he immediately memorized the layout of the park and the positions of a few rocks large enough to act as cover. "Longbow six-seventeen, you will provide sniper support from the roof of this public housing complex" the reticule shifted and floated over the roof of a run-down metal box ten stories high and several city blocks long. "Hammer eight-fifty and Chevron two-zero-three, you will be placed in these forward positions, defend Saber as they bring in the tracer program. You will report for drop in fourteen hundred hours, dismissed" the marines stood in unison and walked out into the hall.
The war barge was immense, but it still seemed insignificant in the hanger of the Helios. Maintenance drones floated around the hanger like leaves in a light breeze, going from place to place with leisure. The barge itself was a great mass of welding that smelled of thruster exhaust and the mud of alien worlds. Spines of drop-pod launchers lined the hull on its sides and underneath like massive keels, communication relays protruded from its bow like giant needles. A visor of glass led from bow to stern in a large ring, the glass angled downward to give officers a perfect view of any battlefield. The Helios was preparing to jump when the alarm sounded that warned of the immanent nausea. It was the only form of mercy any crew had from the ruthless maneuvers of a capsuleer. Ten seconds later a hiccup in the laws of physics pounded on the private's chest like a wrecking ball, the entire hanger separated in colors. One side blue-shift and the other red-shifted; a sickening feeling overwhelmed the marine as his molecules were stretched as the ship passed the event-horizon of the Cynosural field. The feeling passes quickly and the light spectrum returns to normal as the Super Carrier re-enters normal space. A sudden barrage of thuds began to pound the hull like a war drum as enemy fire was absorbed by the shields. The Helios had been brought directly into battle, the swarms of ships outside were meant only to distract the pirates until the barge could escape the hanger and drop its deadly arsenal of ground forces on the planet below.
Because his squad was to be among the last to go into battle, they were permitted to stay and watch operations on the control deck. Unlike normal ships, the war barge did not have a bridge; instead it had a deck that wrapped around the outer hull of the ship that connected the six command pits and the helm into one long hallway. Saber quad stood in one of these command pits. It was filled with displays of every kind imaginable: troop vital signs, communications, vehicle command, and so many more it could make one dizzy. The private simply looked out the window as the barge began to move; slowly at first but quickly accelerating. Outside was a myriad of dots and silhouettes of gargantuan metal monsters, who lashed out at each other in brilliant displays of fire and destruction. Flashes of light pierced the void of space with enough force to destroy cities only to harmlessly dissipate over invisible walls. Frigates raced across the faces of the battleships and dreadnoughts, firing attacks that could only annoy their targets, only to be purged from existence by the larger ships when they became too much of an annoyance. Entire destroyers were engulfed in flames. They looked like fireflies to the private; their immense scale was utterly lost against the void of space. A nearby Gallente dreadnought was writhing in its last death throws as a cloud of smaller ships picked at it like a swarm of locusts. It littered the space around its metal corpse with various debris: furniture, bulkheads, munitions, and the twisted forms of crew members who were ripped from the hull breaches like blood from an open wound, their hands torn to shreds from when they scraped at the walls in futile efforts to stay in the dying ship that would have been their tomb anyways. The destruction was vast, countless crew were dying every moment in what would to be recorded to be just a skirmish. A condor flew past, chased swiftly by an angry rifter whose auto cannon silently wheedled down its targets shields. The barge had made it across the warzone to where the drop pods could be launched and a stream of dark shapes leapt from the barge and began their descent. Suddenly a claxon sounded on the command deck and the barge began a cautious decent into the atmosphere. The pod pilot appeared in front of the marines, this time his hologram wore a flight suit and a day's worth of hair on his chin. "The forward troops will reach the ground in approximately sixty seconds, report to the drop ships immediately." He then swiveled in the air to an officer at random. "Maintain continuous sensor feed to the Helios, I want to be up-to-date on all events" then his shape melted into a pillar of light and receded into the projector he stood on and the marines ran to the barge's hanger to load themselves on the drop ship. They were all in full combat gear when they got to the hanger, sand-gray uniforms plated with lightweight metal pads and a full-face mask with a dark visor and a compact gasmask.
Several drop ships were suspended from the ceiling of the hanger by large clamps, fuel pumps ran from them into the ships while making a soft throbbing sound. The other squads were already in their drop ships and when Saber squad reached theirs a countdown began over a loudspeaker and the two large doors on both sides of the drop ships slid shut with a loud boom that shook the marines in their helmets. A trapdoor under each drop ship slid away to reveal the speeding ground kilometers beneath them and the fuel lines were reeled into alcoves at the wrists of the docking clamps. The inside of the private's drop ship was completely dark. He bit together his back teeth with a clack and his helmet's night-vision switched on so he could ensure his supplies were in order; his squad had done the same. Saber, the squad leader had already completed his check and was analyzing tactical data in his visor, apparent by his two fingers held up to his left temple where the controls for the communications were. Every squad's call sign was given to the squad leader as his name, since they were the only ones anyone outside of the squad ever referred to by name. At birth they were given only numbers, so all other marines were given nicknames by their squad mates. Jack was busy calibrating his sniper scope. Jack was given his name for being the top of all the training courses early in life, but later on it seemed his true gift was that of the long range kill. Tank was leaning against the ship hull in the corner, his head bobbing slightly to the beat of one of his incredibly loud metal music tracks that was popular with some of the Galente youth. Tank got his nickname from the time he "accidentally" destroyed a tank with a well placed anti-personnel mine after the mechanic had boasted to him about his tanks' "impenetrable" new armor plating, and ever since then he was the squad's demolition expert. The private, who was locking an ammo clip into his rifle, was the first in his squad to be given a name. His name was Sev, simply because the number given to him at birth ended in seven. Sev had just managed to ensure his gauntlet's combat knife was in working order by flexing the muscles in his wrist, causing a six inch titanium blade to spring from its housing on the side of his forearm when the countdown reached zero on the loudspeaker outside the drop ship and the docking claps carelessly released the ships one by one out of the openings in the bottom of the barge's hull. The ships immediately tipped their noses toward the ground until they were in an almost vertical drop and fired their thrusters; a massive and deep boom could be herd by the flight crew of the barge as the ships shattered the sound barrier. It wasn't until they were less than a kilometer from the ground did the ships decelerate; the engine pods swiveled and the wings unfolded into an upside-down V. Daylight pierced Sev's eyes as light cascaded in through the doors as they slid open to reveal the passing spires of the colony's capital city. Combat raged bellow as the forward combat forces struggled to take the cities important districts. A number of troops seemed to be pinned down in the wreckage of what was once a one story recreational building, the faded mark of a rival corporation made it clear as to why it had been destroyed. The bullet of a sniper rifle was detected by the marines' helmets as it raced across the street and hit one of the pinned-down troops. Jack raised his rifle and honed in on where the computer told him the bullet came from. He waited for the ship to steady out enough for him to compensate and located the sniper; a cold-faced Amarrian pirate whose uniform bore the signature of one of the Cartel's sects. However, it was too far away to make out which one it belonged too. Jack turned a dial on his rifle, cycling through ammo until he had what he needed and a veinshredder round went soaring through the air and curved into the window of an office building and sent large splashes of blood spraying out across the walls around the window. The drop ships began a wide turn as it spiraled down to the landing points. Sev could see the park and blinked twice, zooming in his view of the park until he could see the trees and rocks protruding from the gray dirt like the exposed bones of a dead animal. The ships split up and headed for their drop points, Saber squad's drop ship glided across the park to the clearing and hovered centimeters from the ground just long enough for the marines to bail out into the cloud of soot being thrown into the air by the ship's thrusters, then rose quickly with a high pitched whine and sped away. The same process was being done with Longbow on the roof of the building behind them and the two ships holding Hammer and Chevron disappeared behind some low suburban buildings in front of them to be dropped at the end of the block. "Why does Longbow get the fun job?" Jack asked in a raspy voice that was slightly horse from when he was hit in the throat by a rubber bullet in training as a child.
"They sit on their asses all day while we rack up the kills, how do you figure they're the ones with the fun job?" Tank responded.
"Cut the chatter!" Saber snapped, bringing two fingers to his temple to respond to his radio. "Get to cover! Now!" he shoved Sev into a dried-up stream and combat-rolled behind a rock, followed by Tank and Jack. Just as they were out of sight, three Hobgoblins screamed through the sky above them. The two on either side of the lead drone broke off formation and the lead dipped its nose toward the block ahead, its guns tore the air with a volley of railgun fire that shattered the street ahead like glass. "Hammer! Chevron! Do you read?" Saber was in a panic "Damn it! Move, now! Go, go, go!" the squad immediately jumped from their cover and ran at a dead sprint down the street to where the buildings disappeared in a cloud of powdered concrete.
"How did they see us coming?" Tank yelled over the sound of debris raining down on the street. "The ships were supposed to be undetectable on radar!" The sound of a scream could be heard in the clearing cloud of dust; a marine from Chevron squad was lying on the ground in a puddle of blood. His right leg was a meter away attached to his thigh by a string of shredded meat. Another marine from the same squad was kneeling beside him, his helmet in the dirt by his knee.
"Psycho, damn it, stay awake!" the marine was hysterical, trying desperately to keep the wounded soldier from slipping into a coma. Blood poured from the wound like a fountain of dark crimson. The dying marine called Psycho mumbled something incoherent to his squad mate, and then went limp. The hysterical squad mate began shaking the wounded marine. "No! You don't just die! Stay awake! Stay awake!" he kept yelling, despite that the man was already dead. The screaming wail of the Hobgoblins' thrusters could be heard again.
"Incoming!" one of the other marines shouted as he launched a grenade at on of the drones; harmlessly encompassing the shields with smoke and a flash of flame.
"Get out of there, Sid!" Another shouted from cover at the marine kneeling in the street, but it was too late. The cry of the engines crescendoed in a defaming scream as their railguns ripped apart the air, filling the block with a hail of plasma and lead. An anti-armor round came flashing through the air and into the side of one of the Hobgoblins sending a stream of smoke pouring from its side. The drone broke off formation and began zigzagging through the air as it attempted to stabilize itself; the other two immediately lunged toward the housing complex. The horrible thuds of the railguns sounded like a battle cry as the two drones tore the building apart in a hale of fire.
"Longbow, do you copy? Longbow, come in!" Saber was in a rage, but he composed himself just enough to switch comm channels to the barge that was now floating over the capital of the planet. "This is Saber one-twelve; we have multiple airborne hostiles at our position. We are pinned down, repeat we are pinned down!" the response could only be heard by Saber, but it was apparently a good one as a yellow blade of light sliced off the winged gun of the wounded Hobgoblin. The arm tumbled to the ground like a severed limb and the rest of the drone dropped from the sky and smeared across the ground line butter, sending shreds of metal and wires flying in every direction. An Amarr fighter swooped down from nowhere and pulled a turn to face the other two drones that would snap the neck of any human pilot. The fighter's guns sent another blinding lance toward the Hobgoblins, this time piercing the face of one right down the middle from bow to stern, slicing it in half and sending both pieces tumbling to the ground like dead insects. The third drone had broken off its attack and was now trying to escape the advanced fighter, but it turned too wide and another column of fire as hot as a sun clawed at the side of its hull; detonating a fuel tank and engulfing the drone in flames. Molten metal and pieces of electronics rained down on the sandy, soot stained streets where the marines were watching the deadly ballet of the fighter. It arced again in an inconceivably tight turn and with the boom of a ruptured sound barrier, it was gone.
Sev looked out at where the two marines were only a minuet ago, only to see a smoldering hole where a lead charge had impacted the ground, and the charred arms and legs of the man Sev had just learned was named Sid. The railgun had completely incinerated Sid's torso, and the corps of Psycho was reduced to even less than what it was when he died in the first volley of fire, now nothing more than a burning pile of ash and blood stained armor. Saber composed himself with a show of great restraint and turned to the remaining marines, only two of Chevron were left. Hammer squad could be seen across the street with their rifles at the ready.
"Report, what's your status, Chevron?" Despite Saber's best efforts his voice shook slightly in anger.
"They came out of nowhere, sir" Chevron said. "The drop ships are supposed to be stealth models; they should have never seen us!" Chevron was standing next to his only remaining squad mate, who was staring dumbly at the charred wreckage of Psycho and Sid, his rifle hanging limply at his side.
"We still have three blocks to go until we get to the comm array, and they defiantly know were coming. We need to move fast." Hammer squad had sprinted across the street to where Saber and Chevron stood. Their armor was scraped and dented, but they seemed to be in one piece. Hammer pointed to the giant dish of the array that could be seen protruding from the skyline of the city ahead of them.
"Then let's get moving." Saber had regained full composure now. Chevron walked over to his squad mate who was still staring at the carnage.
"The best thing you can do for them now is finish the mission." His words seemed to wake the solder from a trance. They all turned to where the array stuck from the top of the buildings like a metal flower and began to run down the street, not knowing what else awaited them but willing to face it for the sake of the mission and, if anything, for the sake of the two piles of ash that was left in the street behind them. If they died for something, it would hurt less, that's what Sev thought.