0800 hrs, August 31, 2561 (Military Calendar)/
D CO 19th BN 24th INF 105th DIV
Sergeant Neil Smith led his squad—or what remained of it—inside a wrecked corner shop, MA5C assault rifle in hand. Four pairs of boots crushed bits of delicate tableware as they moved further inside, taking cover from the gunship that had wrecked his platoon less than five minutes prior. The LAAT/i gunship, a staple of the former Grand Army of the Republic and now the Imperial Army, was hunting Smith and his men, seemingly intent on finishing the job. The GAR had used it with awesome effect on the droid forces of the Separatists during the Clone Wars, and it was proving to be just as deadly against the UNSC's ground forces; they referred to it as The Reaper.
Smith did not know that Operation: LOW GEAR, the liberation of Alderaan, was actually going well, with the UNSC pushing forth relentlessly against the Imperial defenders despite a concerted enemy counter-attack, the latter of which was hindered by the concentrated efforts of the Alderaanian Resistance, itself supported by the nascent Rebel Alliance. In the ODST non-com's world, there was just him, his Marines and the gunship that was stalking them.
"Motherfucker doesn't know when to give up," said Lance Corporal Heather Nicks. She clutched an SRS99D S2 AM sniper rifle. She was very good with it, but the weapon was useless against the thick armor of a 'larty', as they were known.
Corporal Eric Saunders peeked around a corner, his finger on the trigger of his BR55HB battle rifle. He was Nicks's spotter, but at the moment he wasn't spotting targets. "He's hovering, Sarge. I think he knows we're here."
"If he did, we'd be toast already," said Private First Class Don Bratton. He was a medic, and he held an M7 submachine gun. "Unless he's just screwing with us."
"Stow it," Smith said. "And stay still."
The signature sound of the LAAT/i's engine reverberated through the shop, an ominous rumbling sound that went into a higher pitch when the gunship moved. The bits of china still intact in the shop tinkled, some falling to the floor and shattering. The ODSTs held their breath. Accustomed to being outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded—part of the job description, some joked, though it wasn't far from the truth—the ODSTs nevertheless held the same fear for The Reaper as the rest of the infantry. And none of the Marines in the shop had the ordnance to take it out.
The engine pitch went higher; the gunship was moving off. The four ODSTs stayed still until the sound vanished, leaving only the distant pops and explosions that signified the continuing assault. They breathed a collective sigh of relief. "Let's move further up," Smith said. "Rooftop."
"Won't that expose us, Sarge?"
"Our mission is to spot artillery targets and cover the rest of the company," Smith replied, though he felt his words were hollow.
Evidently, so did Bratton. "Sarge, we just lost the entire fucking platoon. The bastard that did it is still out there. And we don't even know where the rest of Delta is." He didn't have to add that with the enemy gunship and its powerful electronics package still out there, they ran the high risk of luring it back as soon as they activated their radio, which Saunders was carrying.
Saunders suddenly hissed, "Contact. I've got eyes on twelve stormies. They've got that new armor on."
Further down the street, a dozen Imperial stormtroopers moved carefully towards the shop. They wore pure white armor that was like yet unlike the famous clone trooper armor. The signature T-visor was replaced with two small eye-holes, making the helmet look very skull-like. As far as intel knew, every single storm trooper unit was replacing the Phase-II armor with the new set.
"Fuck," Smith said. "That gunship must've deployed them." There was only one way to go. "Let's move to the top floor and set up there. See if we can call in support."
The others raised their eyebrows, but nodded. There was no way they could fight off twelve storm troopers in that enclosed spot. Carefully, they moved up the stairs, keeping an eye out for enemies following them.
"Blast it, blast it, blast it," Moff Brannock muttered, clutching the case tightly as he ran up the ramp into the shuttle. The contents of the case were very precious indeed; he had been told by none other than Palpatine himself that should it fall into enemy hands, Brannock was as good as dead. And Brannock knew exactly how Palpatine liked to execute his victims: a long, drawn-out affair with all the Grand Moffs watching as he died a slow, excruciatingly painful death. He'd be lucky if a stray bullet or blaster bolt caught him instead.
Foolishly, he had decided to stop over at Alderaan to visit his son, who had been deployed there ahead of the UNSC's expected invasion. He hadn't anticipated that UNSC warships would suddenly appear in the sky, dropping off scores of shock troopers and fighters and tanks. And now, those shock troopers were poised to take the main spaceport in Aldera.
The shuttle pilot was impatient, his engines set to take himself and his passenger far away from Alderaan. He was listening to the incoming reports, and his frown deepened. The UNSC was pushing forth relentlessly, despite a spirited defense in the air and on the ground. It was only a matter of time before the remaining Imperial fighters were blown out of the sky, rendering him unable to fly; he was sure that the fearsome F/A-32 Spatha fighters—or worse, the F-117 Katana interceptors—would immediately shoot down an Imperial shuttle. He had only one trick left to play.
His co-pilot rushed into the cockpit. "He's onboard," she said.
"About karking time," the pilot muttered. "Let's get the hell out of here, and keep an eye out for those blasted fighters. We're going to be flying at treetop level 'til we're well away from here."
The co-pilot frowned. "They'll still detect us."
"Not if we have our shields down."
"Civilian air speeders don't have shields, and I've slapped a civilian transponder on here," the pilot explained. "Hopefully, the UNSC wouldn't dare shoot down a civilian vehicle."
The shuttle roared out of the hangar bay, just as ODSTs charged into the area. A few of the black-clad men fired a few shots at the shuttle, purely out of frustration. All of the rounds fell short, and none would have pierced the thick armor anyway. But the captain leading them decided that even if he didn't get the fleeing HVT (High-Value Target), someone else would.
UNSC Oahu (FFG-848)
3000 meters above Aldera
The overall operation was being directed from the cruiser Valkyrie, in orbit above Alderaan. But one particular segment of the operation, namely the air operation, was being run out of the frigate Oahu. The Imperial fighters were putting up one hell of a fight; a large thirty-craft formation of ARC-170 heavy fighter/bombers had managed to force the frigate to retreat a few miles north of the city. F-117 Katanas were pushing back, but the damage was done and the reason behind the determined counterattack was realized. TAC had detected a launch from the main spaceport, and ODSTs on the ground had confirmed that it was a Theta T2-c shuttle, used by high-ranking Imperial officials. They'd almost succeeded in fooling them; the Oahu's sensors had registered the shuttle as a civilian vehicle for some reason, and only the ODSTs' presence had managed to correct that assumption. The problem was that none of the UNSC's air units could get to it. They had a track on the shuttle, which was of little comfort to Oahu's CO.
"The target's moving south-southwest, sir," TAC reported. He looked up. "A mechanized unit's moving in there to reinforce a company of ODSTs that were jumped by Imperial airborne units. 1st Armored Cav."
"What kind of vehicles?" the CO asked.
"Alert them, and tell them to shoot it down the moment they see it." Better that the bastard be dead than escape, he thought.
"Aye aye, sir."
D CO 19th BN 24th INF 105th DIV
Bratton fired a spray of 5x23mm Full Metal Jacket rounds down the stairwell. The helmeted face he'd shot at quickly vanished back into cover. "They're trying to move up the stairs, Sarge. And I'm running low." He flicked the setting to semi-auto to conserve ammo.
"Drop a frag in there," Smith replied.
"Got it." Bratton grabbed an M9 fragmentation grenade, pulled the pin, flicked off the thumb safety and tossed it down the stairs. He jumped backwards to avoid the lethal hail of shrapnel as the grenade exploded. He peeked back down. Shouting and curses echoed up. "Dunno if I got anybody, Sarge. But if they're still alive, they sure ain't happy."
That wasn't much of a relief to Smith. Sooner or later, things would go bad. "Good," he said anyway.
Saunders looked up from his corner, where he'd been trying to work the com gear. "Sarge, we've got good news. 1st Armored is on the way, and a Cougar's coming to pick us up."
That was a great bit of relief. If the LAAT/i was the terror of the infantry, the M184C Cougar Infantry Fighting Vehicle was its bane. The dual-barrel M70 Gauss Cannon could tear through it like it was nothing more than a moth.
"There it is," Nicks said.
The odd sound of the gunship's engine once again filled the air. It had returned to finish the job. But before Smith could do anything more than swear, another sound was heard: the rapid metallic-clanging-sound of a Cougar's M70 firing for all it was worth. The Gauss rounds tore through the gunship's cockpit, and it spiraled to the ground with an almighty crash. Marine regulars ran towards the crash site to secure it.
"There's the Cougar," Nicks smiled. "Hello, boys."
"Friendlies coming up!" came a voice from below. A head wearing a green helmet appeared. "Put that thing away, son."
Bratton lowered his SMG as a Marine captain came up the stairs. "We're your relief, Sergeant. Let's get out of here."
"What about the artillery spotting, sir?" Smith asked. Now that the immediate danger was out of the way, he could think about why he was here in the first place.
"Not important anymore," the captain replied. "We've got new orders."
"Eyes on an Imp shuttle," Nicks said suddenly. "Flying low and fast. It'll overfly us."
The captain whistled. "Speak of the devil." He spoke a few words into his boom mike.
Once again, the M70 rattled away as the shuttle approached. The gunner was good; he waited until the last possible moment so that the pilot couldn't evade in time. The gauss rounds pierced the portside engine, and the shuttle veered off, trailing smoke. "Nice shot," Saunders said.
"Anyone can hit anything with a gauss cannon," Nicks said derisively.
"Let's move," the captain said. "We have to secure the crash site."
As they ran down the stairs to the street, they saw eight storm troopers kneeling with their hands on their heads, watched closely by a few Marines, while four others lay side by side. Bratton grinned. "I knew I'd got some of them."
Imperial Shuttle Corulag
8 miles Southwest of Aldera
The co-pilot groaned. The crash had given her a nasty bump, knocking her out. She didn't know how long she'd been unconscious. So, the gambit had failed. She'd almost been sure that they would make it. Intel had said there were no UNSC forces to the south and that they had retreated from the airborne units' counter-attack.
That assumption had ended quite abruptly by a stream of hypervelocity rounds. She wondered why she was still alive. "I'm OK," she said. "I'm alright." She turned to the pilot and realized why she was the only one in the cockpit speaking.
The pilot's neck was bent at an unnatural angle, his face showing an expression of mild surprise. She didn't bother to check his vitals; even if his neck hadn't been so obviously broken, his eyes were glassy and unseeing. The co-pilot unbuckled herself, realizing at once that her ankle was sprained. Nonetheless, she limped towards the passenger area to make sure their charge was alive.
One look told the story. A piece of bulkhead had hit Moff Brannock in the head, leaving it a horrible, red pulpy mass. A blood-spattered case was still gripped in his hands.
She sat down heavily, spewing a stream of curses in Huttese. This was all Brannock's fault. The blasted idiot just had to make a little side-trip. All he had to do was head straight to Korriban. By all rights, they should have been there already. Now, the brightest thing she could look forward to was being captured. Would she be captured? She didn't know. She'd been told that the UNSC took no prisoners, that they let injured soldiers bleed out, or shot them in the stomach to make death extremely painful. The ODSTs were supposed to be the worst; being female, she would be used as a plaything until they finally killed her.
She stiffened. She could hear an engine running, the crunch of wheels on dirt and gravel. Voices now, urgent and clipped, orders being given. She couldn't hear them clearly. The light from the cockpit was briefly blocked, and she knew they were looking inside. "Pilot's dead, sir," she heard a man say. "Fuck, poor bastard's neck is broken."
There was a screech of metal, and light flooded into the passenger compartment. Armored figures were outlined against the sunlight. "Jesus," said one, holding a long rifle of some sort. To the co-pilot's surprise, it was a woman's voice. "Blood all over the place."
"Wait!" said another. "We've got a live one!"
The co-pilot didn't even bother going for her sidearm, which was quickly yanked out of its holster. Two figures loomed over her: a man in green armor and a man in black armor. The latter had a full-face helmet with a silver visor, an ODST according to the intelligence reports. The other was a dark-skinned male, looking on with concern. That was another surprise. "Get a medic over here!" the ODST shouted over his shoulder.
"She OK, Sergeant?" asked the man in green.
"Broken ankle, Captain," the ODST replied. "Leastways, that's what it looks like." He leaned closer. "Ma'am, can you hear me? Ma'am?"
The co-pilot could only nod, but the ODST seemed to take encouragement from that. So did the captain. "What's your name, young lady?" he asked kindly.
"…Anna Badure," she managed to whisper. "Lieutenant, Imperial Navy."
The captain looked at what was left of Moff Brannock. "Who was that unfortunate bastard?"
Badure was disoriented, but not enough for the UNSC captain to get her to talk about classified things. "I can't say."
The captain grunted. "Judging by all those red and blue blocks, he's a Moff. Why don't we just stop wasting time and get to the point, before ONI gets its gloves on you?"
Another ODST ran up, pulling out a med kit. He snapped to look at the two others. "Captain, Sarge: I appreciate the importance of what you're doing, but she needs medical attention. Questioning her can wait."
The captain glared back. "Private, don't test me—"
"Bratton, go ahead," the first ODST said, interrupting smoothly. "Sir, if you'll follow me."
The angry captain was led away. The ODST medic depolarized his visor to reveal a normal human face. "Don't worry about them, ma'am. You'll be alright." He stuck her with a needle, and she quickly drifted off to sleep.
The 1st Armored Cavalry Division ended up breaking the Imperial counter-attack, allowing the UNSC to place anti-air batteries around Aldera. With the air above the capital now denied to them, the Imperials had little to hold off the UNSC frigates, which proceeded to destroy most of the remaining Imperial fighters. The surviving pilots either voluntarily surrendered, landing their fighters and making for the nearest UNSC patrols to turn themselves in to; or, in the case of the ARC-170 pilots, used their built-in hyperspace drives to retreat from the system altogether. The battle was a major victory; the UNSC had seized a Core World, and support for the Empire was dwindling.
Moff Brannock's body—and the case he held—was recovered by the Marines, who handed it off to their Field Intelligence officers. From there, the Office of Naval Intelligence took possession of both. From intelligence taken from Aldera they determined the dead man's identity, while they discovered that the case held a datachip that was so heavily encrypted that even their best AI weren't sure they could crack it within a year. ONI noticed that a few high-ranking Imperial officials mysteriously died immediately following the recovery of the Brannock Chip, as it was now being called, and some presumed that it had something to do with the chip itself.
Lieutenant Badure was taken to Aldera General Hospital for immediate treatment. From there, ONI officers took her into their custody, ignoring the protests of the hospital staff. ONI transferred her to the hospital ship UNSC Hopeful, where she was placed in a secure ward and interrogated lengthily, albeit gently, for a week. Badure refused to divulge any classified information she knew for four days, then finally let slip Brannock's intended destination on the fifth day. Two days later, her interrogators determined she didn't know anything else that was relevant to their investigation and she was transferred to the POW Ward to convalesce alongside other Imperials captured in combat.
ONI was also interested by the massive slaving operation on Kashyyyk, where the native Wookiees were disappearing by the thousands, packed into transport ships that went off to destinations unknown. Admiral Marcus Stanley, head of ONI, pressed for and finally received approval of a covert operation on Kashyyyk. The goal was to find out where the Wookiees were being taken to and disrupt the slaving operation. Their other, long-term goal was to crack the encryption on the Brannock Chip and prepare a mission to Korriban.
Not a single person involved in the operation knew that they had set in motion a series of operations that would reach well beyond anything anyone could have predicted.