Chapter 22: XVIII: Consolidation and Intrigue

"The terrain lended itself to hit and fade strikes, that's what I remembered. The streets were built tightly on top of one another, without a logical structure. Housing had been built on the fly, and the tactics required to survive had to be similarly adaptive. Command's first preference would have been orbital bombardment; to simply clear hotbeds of waiting ambushers with coordinated Hellfire missile strikes. We weren't sure if it was the proximity of civilians in the target area or the potential risk to Orbital Two; the word was given: we were to advance deeper into New Cadiz.

Rules of Engagement were clear: only fire if fired upon.

I never thought I'd say it, but I missed fighting the Covenant. Things were simpler then."

- PFC S. Hiciano, Third Platoon, Second Infantry, UNSC Marines, on street fighting in New Cadiz

Merrill stepped out onto the street, nostrils twitching from the stink of it all. The smell of cordite; of burnt flesh and voided bowels. A mortar shell had cracked open a sewer main, and a glistening film of foul grey water flooded the street. With the immediate danger gone and the adrenaline spike receding along with it, Merrill felt numb, deflated. His took another swig from his canteen, his throat raw and sore.

Free to proceed unmolested, the rest of the convoy had trundled forward, nudging past the burnt out wrecks with shrill squeals of scraping metal. The Rangers had assembled themselves in overwatch positions formerly occupied by the insurgents. They did their best to ignore the wanton butchery that had been unleashed. Reinforcing them, strong and silent, were the Spartans. Four more of them had materialised, each as towering and menacing as the next. One of them was high up on a sniper perch, the sun glinting off its purple armour. Two others stood out in the street, weapons silently panning over their murderous handiwork. With a start Merrill realised one of them - the one in the digital pattern desert pattern - was a woman. Only a slight different in height and a certain leanness in build set her apart.

Yet another giant, this one dressed in an industrial orange-silver armoured skin, prowled around at the far end of the street, picking over the bodies of the fallen.

Spartans. Merrill shook his head in disbelief. They had actually sent Spartans.

Merrill had never seen one before. He'd heard the stories, of course; had seen the propaganda videos the Section Three newscasts pumped out time and time again over the ChatterNet. Romantic vid-casts of stoic armoured figures silently mowing down hordes of mewling aliens, accompanied by heroic low angled camera shots and a stirring orchestral swell. He'd dismissed such stories at once; just another lie passed down from command to keep the ground pounders' spirits up. In many ways he was right: seeing their true potency unleashed on a baying mob of humans, lightly armoured and untrained, made for a considerably less idealistic viewing.

Merrill looked over at the carpet of broken bodies, torn apart by small arms fire, flayed by spearing shrapnel and burst by anti-material rounds. The street was a charnel house, an abattoir. To his surprise, he felt nothing. These were the people who had thrown rocks at him, spat at him, who had fired bullets and hurled grenades and thrown down AT fire from on high. They would have done the same to him, an ugly voice in his head sneered. Worse, even.

They had made their decision, and the Spartans had responded in ruthless kind.

Merrill's foot brushed against something. A discarded Ranger helmet. Its monocular lens was missing, and the side of the head-plating was smeared with an oily scorch. Merrill absently picked it up, turning it over in his hands. Rensen, the name stencilled over the front said. One of the enlisted men from Charlie Company. No longer. The nametag was rudely punctuated by a single bullet hole.

A shadow fell over him. Merrill looked up into the opal visor of the blue giant.

"First Sergeant," the giant's voice had a modulated rasp to it, courtesy of its helmet filter "We need to move. Are your men in a position to advance?"

Merrill looked back at the burning convoy,

"My Rangers got hit hard, Spartan. We're only fifty percent combat effective, with the rest either walking wounded or in immediate need of CASEVAC."

Merrill looked back from where they had come from. He was still unconsciously toying with the broken helmet in his hands.

"This was FUBAR from the moment we arrived, Sir. No roadblocks, no blockades. Just an empty road, waiting for us to barge right in. They wanted us to come in here and command led us right into their hands. If you hadn't shown up…" Merrill trailed off.

Damien looked over at the slumped, burning buildings where Innie heavy weapons teams had been rooted out by concerted grenade attacks. Embers and curling smoke still floated out from blackened windows.

"Mounted emplacements bracketing a centralised point of engagement. Elevated positions, with proximity charges designed to neutralise target mobility." the Spartan noted coldly. "A classic kill zone."

"Textbook." Merrill agreed, as he spat dusty phlegm onto the broken road. "The Covie War taught a lot of the wrong people all of the right tricks."

"It's what I would have done." Damien replied.

The Spartan took another look back at the mauled convoy, and then nodded, raising a hand to the side of his helmet.

"Chimera One to Carpathia Actual."

Eric's voice answered him.

"Go ahead, One."

"Ranger element is pretty shot up, Sir. This city is laced with ambush points. Professional level stuff – you'll see it on the Tac-Feed. We can move, but it's going to be slow going. R.C.T. Bravo are going to need time to regroup."

Damien was drag-marking waypoints onto his Tac-Pad.

"Request permission to take Chimera ahead of the main force and neutralise any further ambush points along the route; establish a common line with R.C.T. Charlie, due east of our position."

"Do it, 451, but be advised; orbital scans are showing multiple hostiles consolidating two klicks due north of your position. Expect heavy resistance."

"Solid copy, Carpathia Actual. We'll take care of it, Chimera out."

Damien looked back at Merrill.

"Secure this area. Evac your wounded, and keep the reservists on side. They'll look to your Rangers for guidance. We'll forge ahead; spring any traps that need springing. Keep the home fires burning, and make sure we have a fall back point we can rely upon if things deteriorate. I'll send word once the coast is clear."

The Spartan turned to leave. Merrill stopped him.

"You're going deeper into the city?" there was no hiding the disbelief in Merrill's voice, "Alone?"

"I have four other Spartans with me, Sergeant." The Spartan cheerfully clapped Merrill on the shoulder, nearly bowling the sturdy Ranger off his feet, "I'm never alone."

Levine was trying to marshal the rest of the convoy up to the school house. Complications arose in the amount of debris cluttering the road. One crumpled Warthog in particular was causing problems. The M312 Recovery Vehicle didn't have enough room to ferry its way up beside the convoy, and the ground teams were having difficulty attaching a tow-hook to the wreckage, as it was currently ablaze. The field engineers shied away from the searing heat.

"Problem?" a filtered voice behind him said.

Levine turned around. He was staring at a steel coloured breastplate. Then he looked up.

The Spartan was a dark steel colour head to toe, with a golden slit of a visor hidden behind a protruding facemask that could only be likened to a welder's helmet. At 6'1, Levine was not a small man, but even so he only barely came up to the Spartan's chest height. Levine took a moment to speak, conscious of just how massively large the armoured killer was.

"Uh… the wreck?" Levine managed, pointing lamely over his shoulder. The flames crackled behind him.

"Want it moved?" The Spartan had already started past him. Levine followed, having to take two strides for every one of Luke's. Levine was holding the tow hook from another M12LRV in his hands.

"The fusion core lit off, we've been waiting for the flames to die down before we can-"

There was screech of metal as Luke wrenched the burning Warthog back onto its broken wheelbase. He pressed his shoulder against the scalding metal, shoving it, wrestling it. Within moments the abused wreck had been neatly shunted to the far side of the street, opening the way for the vehicles behind. The six man clearance team behind him looked on, dumb-founded. The tow hook in Levine's hands felt very useless all of a sudden.

"There." the Spartan said as he took a step back, dusting his gauntleted hands against each other with some satisfaction. His shield system glowed back to full strength with an electro-static hum.

The giant turned back to look at Levine.

"Anything else?" Luke asked brightly.

Levine numbly shook his head.

"One, a word."

Damien stood up from the huddled group of medics discussing evac plans. He looked over to where Rashid was, hunched over a neat line of bodies at the far end of the street.

"Go ahead, Rash."

"I think it's best you come and see for yourself, Sir."

Damien approached Rashid, who had laid out three relatively intact insurgent bodies to the side of the road. Each corpse had a shaved head, and was solidly built. Their glazed eyes stared up a bright blue sky they would never again see. Rashid was picking over them, prodding at them with a medical scanner he'd borrowed from one of the field medics.

Damien cocked his head to one side.

"I'm pretty sure they're dead, Rash."

"Noted, Sir. But take a closer look. They're different from the others. Most of crowd were insurgent sympathisers; rebels without form or focus. Crudely armed, primitively trained. But these men, they're something else."

Damien crouched down beside Rashid.

"Go on."

Rashid turned one of the bodies over. At the rear of the shaved skull was the insertion dock for a UNSC neural interface. The docking port had been cleanly excised and laser sutured. Only the faintest pink ribbon of scar tissue remained.

"What the hell…"

"Precisely my reaction. Those are neural lace plugs. They've been removed."

"Removed? Isn't that impossible?"

"Only with the most advanced and delicate surgery, Damien. Expensive surgery, I might add." Rashid's singular target lens looked at him gravely, "These men are former UNSC service personnel. Trained soldiers, well-disciplined and highly skilled. Special Forces, were I to hazard a guess. Their ambush tactics would indicate as much."

"The Rangers thought the same thing. Force disposition was straight out of a FLEETCOM black-ops combat manual."

"And another thing. Notice the mark on their right hands, on the open-side of the wrist."

Damien pulled one of the corpse's hands. The skin was clean and smooth; unblemished.

"I don't see anything."

"Switch over to UV."

Damien blink-switched and his VISR cast the world in a luminous fluorescent blue. The mark appeared, black and ugly: a single black band, encircling the wrist. In its centre, a red hand, adorned with the wings of a UNSC eagle.

"A unit tattoo?"

"It bears ritual significance, certainly. Not a religious brand, not in this century, but perhaps something else. A political brotherhood, something subversive and unquestionably dangerous."

Rashid looked down at the body again. He let the dead man's hand fall back to the ground.

"I believe there may be something else going on here." Rashid's voice was grim, "Something we need to get a handle on, and quickly."

"I'll brief command." Damien rose to his feet.

"Already done, One. Kaizen is looking into it."

"Good job. Keep me posted - in the meantime, daylight's burning and we need to press the advantage. If you see any more of these guys, let me know."

Damien stepped over to the middle of the street.

"Chimera, on me."

The Spartans gathered in a loose circle. Damien looked at each of them in turn. Only confident visored helmets stared back at him.

"We've been cleared to advance along the I-79. R.C.T. Bravo will regroup and consolidate, advancing only when we give the all-clear. Our immediate objective is to clear a path to R.C.T. Charlie, who are advancing up the eastern canal, approaching the Cameroon Bridge. Connect the convoys, establish a common front. Groundside commanders dropped the ball on this one. It's our job to pick it up."

A waypoint blinked into life one klick east of their position.

"Vee, you're on point. Let's go to work."

Kaizen's eyes were white orbs. They stared at nothing, yet saw everything. Through gun cams affixed to Pelican dropships ferrying ground forces planet side, from orbital readers synched to the Carpathia's ground-quaking Point Defence Cannons, from news fliers and recon drones and local closed-circuit security lenses; even inbuilt cameras in discarded ChatterLinks. A thousand eyes generating a million thoughts, and all of them processed instantly.

The A.I. surfaced once more. She blinked, the data code resolving itself into a pair of deep, violet pupils once more. She looked up from the projection pedestal. General Stape looked down at her, awaiting a response. He was in a foul mood: ground command had committed the R.C.T.'s prematurely, without waiting for orbital backup.

With any tactical initiative squandered, the General was having to pull out all the stops just to stop the situation from deteriorating further.

"Ground targets, incoming on R.C.T. Charlie's position. They're looping around from the eastern badlands, hoping to assault the convoy from the rear."

"Force strength?"

"Thirty light vehicles; dune buggies and converted technical, with a number of looted Warthogs to boot. Visual feed was from orbital scans taken directly from the Carpathia, but I can confirm they are carrying light RPGs and anti-tank weaponry."

Eric folded his arms across his breastplate.

"A lightning raid, operating from one of the insurgent's desert camps." he said. "Chimera won't be able to get there in time."

"Trying to sting the convoy from behind. Smart." Stape conceded with a growl, "Nearest interception group?"

"The 31st/1st are on station in the immediate area, providing operational security to inserting ground teams."

"That'll do. Get me a com line to Kodiak One. It's time for our walker jockeys to stretch their legs."

"This is Kodiak One, reading you loud and clear, General. Orders received."

Stride Commander Kale "Wallaby" Williams grinned as he flexed his legs, glad to be finally doing something useful.

Kale reached past the post-pinup of a remarkably under-dressed girl overhead and flipped three switches. There was a reverberating shudder in the chassis around him. The photo-reactive camo-net masking him and his two fellow Stride members popped free of their holding clasps. The sheeting slid away. Three gleaming metallic green hulls glinted bright in the harsh light of the midday sun. He gripped the control yoke in his hands, nursing it backward. The fusion core cycled to life with a throb that shook his chair. The pilot cage rattled around him.

The Mantis Assault Walker rose up from its crouched position with a hydraulic hiss. The weapon systems unfurled from the central body frame, whirring as they clacked into the "ready position.". The muzzle-lock of the missile pod opened up, exposing the tips of the rockets to the open air. The M655 Anti-Material 20mm gun-pod micro-adjusted in its weapon sleeve, the cooling feeds green-lighting, the barrel mounted auto-sensors slaving themselves to the targeting monocle sitting over Kale's left eye.

Kale's Mark IX Mantis Pattern Armoured Defence System, nicknamed All She Wrote, stood just over twenty feet tall. A decorative stencil had been painted onto the side of the walker's snub-nose: a wallaby, its furry head stuffed under an oversized, rakishly tilted UNSC infantryman's helmet, an MA5 clutched enthusiastically in its diminutive paws. A well chewed cigar was jammed in its mouth. Capable of land speeds of up to sixty-five kilometres per hour, the Mantis was the Marines' go-to light attack vehicle in difficult terrain, offering a fire support platform capable of handling terrain threads simply couldn't manage. While strike drones granted the UNSC automated fire support from the air, the walkers were also an essential psychological tool. They instilled fear, and with good reason.

A Marine unit, Stride Team Kodiak was one of three Mantis teams operating on Granica V, and certainly the most experienced.

Now it was time for all that experience to lace up and put the boot in, as his instructors used to say.

"Systems powered and online. Stride is a go."

His Stride Wing rose up with him, thumping forward on lunging, hunting strides. Standard open atttack pattern. To the front and left was Black Betty, piloted by Kodiak Two, Sergeant Terry Jones; to his right, the Midnight Cowboy, piloted by Kodiak Three, Ross Currie.

"Radar signatures detected and marked for waypoint now, Stride Leader." Currie reported smoothly, his waypoint marker fixing itself on the tracking screen in front of Kale. As navigation officer for the Stride, Currie's Mantis had been outfitted with an additional uplink suite; a bulky radome that nestled on the back-right shoulder of his walker.

"Targets sighted, Stride Leader." Jones reported, his Mantis forging ahead. "Range, three thousand metres."

"Let 'em close, Two." Kale replied, switching his own view magnification to maximum. "Let's get some elevation on these guys."

The terrain ahead was a broken expanse of wasteland. Irrigation ditches marked the land in evenly places trenches, and the only landmark to be seen was a broken JOTUN or two; unlucky automatons that had drawn the ire of the marauding raiders. The city of New Cadiz rose up in the background, shimmering in the dizzying heat. A dozen plumes of smoke rose over the city, like burning oil wells.

Between the city and them was Circular I-42, an orbital road circumnavigating the entire city. It was along this stretch of open road that the targets were speeding now, keen to loop into the eastern part of the city and ambush the UNSC elements invading up the eastern branch of the Hydaspes River.

The walkers found their perch not far from the roadway, on a low hill overlooking the verge leading up to the road. All She Wrote rocked back on her haunches, settling into a waiting stance. Kale rested his fingers on the trigger yokes, his targeting monocle sweeping over the highway. The weapon systems swivelled to track the movements of his helmet.

"Range, two thousand metres. Tracking." Currie reported, his own gun pods humming as they followed the train of the incoming convoy.

Amazingly, they hadn't noticed the three massive walkers lurking off the roadway. Too distracted by the fighting going on in the city, Kale reckoned. Had they simply turned their heads right instead of looking left at the city, they would have seen death waiting for them, perched on stilt-like legs.

"Let 'em close to eight hundred. Weapons free on my signal."

"Aye, Sir. One thousand metres."

"Sir?" Kodiak Three's voice cut in.

"Yes Three?"

"May I?"

A smile crossed Kale's lips.

"I think it's about time we gave them a traditional Kodiak welcome, Jones."

Terry Jones reached up to a special short-link he had in the bottom right of his control display. Go Time, the icon read. He tapped it with an enthusiastic finger.

Music blared from the P.A. system fixed into the under-snout of Black Betty's chassis. The system was meant for public broadcasts; crowd dispersal notices, intended for dissuading rioters. Kodiak abused it for an entirely different tradition. Music, as ancient as it was raucous, shrilled out, filling the still desert air. A cymbal crashed. Thumping drums, steady and stomping. A guitar riff, sounding out over the dunes. The members of Stride Team Kodiak had little to no idea which one of them had found the old song, nor did they particularly care to remember. After all, all three of them had been hammered drunk at the time. All they knew is that some traditions were worth keeping.

Ram Jam's Black Betty was one of them.

"Whoah, Black-Betty Bam-A-Lam! Whoah Black Betty Bam-A-Lam!"

That was the only go-code Kodiak needed.

All She Wrote stalked forward, weapons locking. The hostile convoy was thirty vehicles, all rag-tag converted civilian models for the most part. Less than a match for a single Mantis, let alone three. The vehicles heard the wafting music as they entered the kill zone. By then it was far too late. The target monocle in Kale's helmet pinged red. He squeezed the right hand bracket of the steering yoke.

The anti-material gun-pod licked out sheets of flame. The walker chassis shook from the vibration. The steering yoke buzzed in his hand, vibrating like an electric toothbrush. The lead vehicle was torn apart in a storm of automatic fire; the plating sheering away in metal puffs of peeling shrapnel. Kale loosed off two missiles for a good measure. A tumbling fireball blasted the third vehicle in the convoy away. Technicals swerved on their brakes, scattering in all directions from the mayhem. It didn't save them. Black Betty sent a combined brace of rocket fire into the heart of their ranks. Fireballs and thunder split the roadway.

One technical swerved too close to Kodiak, hoping to scoot between them.. The Midnight Cowboy didn't even bother diverting its blazing gun pods from the murdered roadway.

A descending boot crunched through the roof of the vehicle, pulping the driver's cabin underfoot. Flames whooshed up from the exploding fuel core, licking harmlessly off the Cowboy's shield system.

"Nice touch, Currie."

"I aim to please, Stride Lead." Kodiak Two commed back breezily.

Decimation on an industrial scale: the raiders had equipped for a darting, probing ambush on a lumbering, trundling convoy, of flat-tracked APC's and hemmed in Warthogs. A lighting blitz by a trio of fully shielded assault walkers took them by storm. The song hadn't even finished playing by the time the raiders were pasted across the desert; the asphalt an ash-land of crackling flames and scattered debris.

Jones closed off his PA. The music died out, replaced by the stomping clank of armoured feet, the crackle of flames and the wailing cries of those unfortunate enough not to be murdered outright. One insurgent actually dragged himself to his feet, his skin all but peeling off. He advanced on All She Wrote, his MA5K Carbine spitting angrily. The bullets pinged off the chassis to little effect, absorbed by the shield array.

"Extra marks for enthusiasm, mate." Kodiak One muttered.

Kale casually pulped him with a trigger squeeze, and then dispassionately opened his com.

"Uh, Carpathia Actual, this is Stride Lead. Kodiak reports targets cleared and permission to proceed into the target area and support R.C.T. Charlie."

"Denied Kodiak actual. Specialist ground teams will lead the convoys in. They can take it from here. Strike Kodiak are to maintain a holding pattern outside the city and continue to provide operational security."

"Copy that, Carpathia Actual," Williams replied, suppressing a sigh, "Returning to Rally Point Indigo."

The three walkers reluctantly trudged back through the knee-high smoke, returning to their desert overlook point.

"Funny," snorted Jones, "I thought we were the specialised ground teams."

Privately Kale Williams wondered the same thing. They had just eliminated an enemy raiding force fully ten times their number.

What could possibly be scarier than us?