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Fear (part 1)
0300 hours, August 23, 2552
Epsilon Eridani System, UNSC Frigate Hawkeye
In orbit above planet Reach
I glance at my TACPAD. According to the orders listed, I’m to report to Gunnery Sergeant Markin, who’s right behind this door in front of me.
In a meeting.
Taking a deep breath, I square my shoulders and tap my access code into the pad on the wall.
Even though the door slides open without a sound, all of the room’s occupants turn to look at me as if I opened the door with a grenade instead of a code.
“A rookie,” growls someone. Mutters wash through the room.
“Settle, people,” says the man at the head of the table. “Corporal Denovich?” this to me.
“Yes, sir,” I reply.
“I’m Major Selkirk. Glad you could join us. Please, sit.” He motions to a chair.
“Sir,” exclaims a woman, rising to her feet. “This is a senior officer’s meeting. A corporal, and a rookie at that, has no place here.”
“A corporal, yes, but a rookie he is not. Corporal Denovich has more missions under his belt than you do, Sergeant Major Walker,” Major Selkirk tells her.
“Well, then pardon my asking, but why is he still a corporal?”
The Major ignores her and again, motions me to a chair. I sit, and Sergeant Major Walker glares at me before taking her seat as well.
“As I was saying, we’re going to drop into grid 45. Our mission is to destroy the Covenant base in that grid and to recover a lost ordinance.”
The Major clicks a button on his remote, and the satellite image of Reach on the screen behind him zooms into the grid in question. You can scarcely see the ground for all the Covies.
“This is a combat drop, people. I expect our very best,” he says. “I am assigning the recovery detail to Gunnery Sergeant Markin and his men.”
Sergeant Major Walker makes a noise of protest.
“Let the man speak, Walker,” exclaims a man seated to my right.
“Our demolitions team will be Lieutenant Pike’s special ops crew,” Major Selkirk continues, as if he has not been interrupted.
Sergeant Major Walker stands, livid. “With all due respect, sir, what the hell will the rest of us be doing?”
“Sit, please, Sergeant Major,” Major Selkirk says. “You and the rest of the ODST will be running support to Lieutenant Pike.”
The officers on either side of Walker force her back into her chair.
“I want all of your men ready and in the drop bay before 0500, people. Time’s a wasting.”
“Feet first into hell!” roar the assembled officers as one. The Major claps three times, grinning, and the meeting is dismissed.
As the others file out, I approach Major Selkirk.
“I’m sorry for interrupting, sir,” I say. “I was unaware of the nature of Gunnery Sergeant Markin’s meeting. Had I known, I would have waited until you were finished.”
“No, no, it’s all right,” the Major says, clapping me on the shoulder. “It’s just as well that you know ahead of time what you’ll be doing, since Gunnery Sergeant Markin was unable to attend today. He will be forwarded a recording of the meeting, but I would appreciate it if you would give him your personal input.”
I salute. “Yes sir.”
The Major returns my salute. “Dismissed, Corporal.”
As I leave the conference room, it occurs to me that I have no idea where Gunnery Sergeant Markin and his men are. I consider asking one of the officers filling the hallway, but before I can approach any of them, someone taps me on the shoulder.
“Corporal Denovich?” asks an ODST, reading from his TACPAD. His thick Scottish accent wreaks havoc with the pronunciation of my name.
“Yes, sir,” I say, seeing a sergeant’s chevrons on his sleeve.
“I’m Sergeant Shasti,” he says. “Gunnery Sergeant Markin sent me. You’ll be with my squad for the drop, and recovery.”
He turns and walks down the hallway; knowing it is expected of me, I follow. Shasti leads me to a separate drop bay than the one I had previously been assigned to. When we enter, all the ODST look up.
“A rookie,” someone growls. I sigh. Everyone always assumes that I’m a rookie, just because I’m new to their squad. Shasti gives the growler a look that makes the ODST scowl, but shut her mouth.
“Alpha squad!” Shasti bellows. “Form up!”
Seven ODST stand and line up in front of Shasti and I. “Alpha, meet Denovich. He’s joining us for this mission as a test. If we find we work well together, we keep him.”
Alpha Squad’s members eye me skeptically.
“Now, I expect that you’ll want to break in your new toy, but I warn you, he’s nice and shiny for a reason, and if we don’t return him to HIGHCOM in the same condition we got him, its our tails on the line. So play nice.”
And with that, Shasti abandons me and goes to meet with the other Sergeants. Alpha Squad comes up, in my personal space.
“A rookie,” someone whispers.
“A corporal,” someone says.
“Look,” I say. “I’m not a rookie. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I have plenty of battle experience.”
“Do you now,” says the largest ODST, whose nametag reads Harybi.
“I don’t want trouble,” I tell them.
“What a shame,” says Harybi, “Trouble just found you.”
I can’t help it. I roll my eyes. It’s an incredibly cheesy line.
Instantly, Harybi has me in a headlock. “I don’t know who you think you are, Denovich,” he growls. “But you’re not wanted by Alpha.”
Shasti creeps up behind Harybi and cracks him across the shoulder blades with a tactical baton. Harybi releases me.
“The way I see it,” Shasti says, collapsing his baton, “Denovich here is dropping with us, whether you like it or not, Private. And Alpha had better shape up, or we won’t be dropping at all.”
Harybi salutes Shasti, sneers at me, and stalks back to his SOEIV.
“Well?” demands Shasti, staring down the rest of Alpha Squad. They all salute him.
“Sir, yes sir!”
“Dismissed,” Shasti says to them, and to me: “Gunnery Sergeant Markin needs to speak to you.”
I follow his pointing finger to where I can see the Gunnery Sergeant silhouetted against a window.
“Corporal Denovich, reporting for duty!”
Markin waits a long time before turning.
“So. You’re the ONI spook they assigned to my platoon,” he remarks.
“I prefer the term intelligence officer,” I say.
“You’re a damn spook, and ain’t nothing going to change that,” he snaps. “Have you ever even done a combat drop?”
“I have,” I reply.
“When? Where? With who?”
“With whom,” I correct him.
“Not ‘with who’, ‘with whom’.”
“What’s your point?”
I shake my head.
“I dropped with the 19th over Coral, Arcadia, and…” I trail off.
“And what, spook?”
“Paris IV, sir,” I say.
“Ah,” sighs the Gunnery Sergeant. “Now I see. Tell me more about your drop over Paris IV.”
I pause, uncertain.
“With all due respect, sir,” I say. “That information is classified. And even if it wasn’t, I’d rather not. I lost someone during that drop.”
Gunnery Sergeant Markin locks eyes with me. “Your SOEIV is next to Shasti’s, spook,” he tells me.
I salute and walk away, without waiting to be dismissed.
He doesn’t call me back.
I collect my weapons from the arms locker, then sit inside my pod, hatch open, watching the other ODST until 0500 rolls around.
By the time it does, Markin’s ODST are silent, standing or sitting near their pods. When the alarms start blaring, the ODST enter their pods and close the hatches, making ready for the drop.
I follow suit.
When the hatch seals, small screens flicker to life, displaying Shasti and Gunnery Sergeant Markin.
The pods swing out over the open bay doors.
“Get ready, men,” Markin shouts. “We drop in seven!”
There are three small beeps as the pod counts down, then is released, and everything is rumbling and shaking.
And as the pod enters Reach’s atmosphere, the air inside heats to almost unbearable levels.
Then, almost as soon as it began, the drop is over, in a jarring impact with the ground. The explosive bolts on the hatch arm, and there’s another three-second countdown, and then the hatch blows off, and I’m running. I can’t see anything but clouds of dust and bright splashes of plasma and Shasti running ahead of me. A bolt of plasma fire comes out of nowhere, clipping his arm, and he pumps the area it came from full of lead, running all the while. There’s nothing, and I shout victory.
Suddenly Shasti flies backwards over my head, his chest armor burning with plasma fire. A roar shakes the earth beneath my feet, and before I can turn, a Brute appears in front of me and hammers me to the ground.
“Shasti’s down!” I yell into my helmet mike.
The Brute lowers his spike rifle towards me, snarling a little. His finger curls into the trigger, and I roll to the side. Right over my fallen SMG. I snatch it up and empty the magazine into the Brute’s chest and head. He reels back one step, roaring. Drops his weapon. I tear out my combat knife and roll to my feet. Grab the Brute’s spiker. Pour the rest of his rounds into the neck where his helmet doesn’t quite reach his armor. His energy shield’s down, but I don’t stop to question my luck. Slam the combat knife into his open mouth.
I retrieve my knife.
“Denovich!” Gunnery Sergeant Markin’s voice crackles through my helmet’s speakers. “Report!”
“Shasti’s down, sir,” I gasp. “Status unknown. Probably dead. The rest of our squad didn’t fall near us. Haven’t contacted them.”
There’s silence. I crouch near the fallen Brute’s corpse, hiding for the moment. A Grunt runs at me, yelping. Probably doesn’t even see me. I pick him off with a headshot from my pistol.
“Join Charlie Squad, Denovich,” Gunnery Sergeant Markin says. “Uploading coordinates. Check Shasti on your way.”
I scurry back the way I came. Almost make it back to the drop pods before I find Shasti. He’s twisted and bloody and dead. Radio it in and head past the drop pods to Charlie Squad’s LZ.
Stay low, eyes up.
Clear out a nest of Jackal snipers with a carefully tossed grenade.
A fuel rod cannon round strikes the ground three feet to my right and sends me flying. My helmet comes off on impact. I lie slightly stunned, my vision hazy. An Elite swims into view above me. He steps on my chest and levels his plasma rifle at my head. I stare at it, unfocused, detached. Can’t imagine what the expression on my face is.
He doesn’t shoot me.
He stares at me.
I stare back at him, still dizzy, slowly coming back to myself.
Then he tilts his head up, away from me. I assume he’s listening to his com. He looks back down. At me.
He fires, turns, and walks away.
He missed? He missed!
I’m alive, but my arm is burning. Roll over it until the fire is out. It’s burned through my armor and my flesh is still smoking.
It’ll have to do.
I stumble to my feet and sweep for the Elite. He’s gone. In fact, no one’s around. Somehow that’s funny to me. I laugh hysterically, lurching insanely towards where I can see more flashes of plasma.
A needle pierces the rear of my shoulder, propelling me face first into the dirt, breaking my hysteria and reminding me that I never picked up my helmet.
The needle shatters, halfway inside my body.
I scream. I scream like a girl. It freaking HURTS.
Crawl slowly to my helmet.
Slide it on.
“Denovich!” Gunnery Sergeant Markin is shouting. “Corporal Denovich, report!”
“Hey man,” I whisper, forgetting who I’m talking to. “Needles are a killer.”
“Sorry, sir,” I say. “I’m in sector 3. Pinned by a sniper.”
“Roger that, Denovich. Charlie Squad is en route. They have a medic. Help them set up an aid station.”
“Don’t die on me, spook.”
He kills the link and I’m forced to wait for an indeterminable period, the microfragments from the needle forcing their way deeper into my flesh each time I move. Finally there’s a single crack from a good old UNSC issue sniper rifle, and then there’s a flurry of activity around me as the ODST of Charlie Squad set up the aid station.
I have to help.
I manage to get to my feet, only to find myself lying facedown on a cot before I can blink. The medic is quick and efficient. She applies a local anesthetic to my shoulder and scans it for the radiation-filled needle fragments. After that, I hear her rummaging in her bag for a long time.
“Alright, Denovich, can you hear me?” she asks.
I manage to grunt an affirmative.
“My name is Connly. I’m a medic. I want to try an experimental procedure to remove the needle fragments from your shoulder.”
I nod into my pillow.
“I should warn you; it will hurt. It will hurt a lot. What I’m going to do, basically, is use a device to draw each fragment up and out of you. Straight out. Fortunately, none got lodged under your shoulder blade, so we won’t have to worry about that.”
I nod again, more vigorously this time.
“Right, then. I’ll start.”
I hear her “device” hum to life above me.
Pleased to report that I don’t scream this time. Just yelp a bit. But the needle hurts even worse coming out than it did going in. Like threads of acid cutting through me. Also, the anesthetic does not help. At all.
“There,” Connly says. “That’s all of them. I’m going to pump a little biofoam into the holes to close them up, but that’s the best I can do.”
“My arm,” I say.
“Right,” mutters Connly. I can tell she’s not listening. She sprays a tiny bit of biofoam into each entry and exit wound, then rolls me over. “Your arm,” she says.
“Plasma burn,” I tell her. She nods. She pulls what’s left of my arm plate off, straps a new one on. Sticks the nozzle of the biofoam canister under it and sprays until the space between my arm and the armor is packed with the tissue-regenerative foam.
“Ok, Denovich,” she says. “That’s the best I can do for you. Get up, get your guns, and get back to the fight.” She stands, pulls me to my feet.
“Thanks,” I say. Connly nods and passes me my SMG and pistol.
“Good luck,” she tells me. It’s my turn to nod. I slide my pistol into its holster and check the ammo readout for my SMG in my heads-up display (HUD). Full clip. Someone’s reloaded it. I glance at Connly, but she’s already moved on to the next injured man.
I find the nearest ODST. My HUD tags him as Private John Ramsey.
“Private,” I get his attention. “Corporal Denovich reporting for duty. Who’s your CO?” He stares at me. I can’t see his face through the polarized helmet visor.
“Private,” I snap when he doesn’t reply.
“Corporal Denovich?” he asks. “That makes you the ranking officer, sir. Our Sergeant got gunned down on the way over.”
“Any other wounded in your squad, Private?”
“Do you have orders?”
“We protect the aid station until it moves again. Then we pass guard duty off to Bravo Squad and head back to sector five to continue the recovery op.”
“How many more in your squad?”
“Adams, Melvin, Hurley, and Shelley. Us and Sergeant Pratt were the only ones who survived the drop.”
“Carry on, Private,” I say, and go to find the other ODST of Charlie Squad. Adams, Melvin and Hurley are patrolling the perimeter they’ve set up, and Shelley is guarding the entrance to the aid station. They all repeat what Ramsey said about their orders.
I pace restlessly, unsure what to do. Never been in charge of a squad before.
“Denovich!” Connly yells from the tent. “I need you!”
I head over and duck inside. All the cots are filled; a steady stream of wounded have come and gone since Charlie Squad set up the station. Connly stands near the back, she beckons me over.
“I need you to hold this guy down while I set his arm,” she says. I look at the Marine on the cot.
“He’s in pretty bad shape,” I say. “Are you sure his arm is what needs tending to most?”
“He won’t die,” Connly snaps. “And as soon as I set his arm, he can go sit somewhere and this cot can be used for someone who needs it more.”
“Calm down, Connly,” I say.
“What do you want from me?” she demands. “I’m doing the best I can.”
“You’re the one who called me in here,” I point out.
“Shut up and hold him.”
I shrug and comply. As she sets the Marine’s arm into an auto-cast, we hear a Warthog rumble up.
“Medic!” comes a panicked scream. At the same time the thunder of the Warthog’s chain gun, and under that, the roar of an Elite. Connly shoves the cast and arm into my hands, snags her bag, and flies out of the tent. I give the Marine back possession of his arm and follow.
“Corporal!” shouts Shelley. He’s taking fire from the Elite, which has its back to me. Without thinking, I sprint forward, jumping to kick the Elite down.
They’ve always been faster.
It dodges, and I sail past and hit the ground hard. Shelley opens fire on the Elite, giving me time to recover.
“Shelley, I have an idea. We’ll catch him in a crossfire, draw him into the chain gun’s range,” I say into my com as I get up.
“Sounds good, sir,” Shelley replies. Just as I draw my pistol, the Elite roars and shoots the Marine manning the Warthog’s turret. Connly abandons the wounded driver and runs to the gunner.
“She’s dead!” Connly cries. The Elite snarls and fires at the medic, who rolls away just in time. I fire at the Elite’s head, missing entirely, but drawing his attention away from her.
“Adams!” I shout into my com. “Get on that gun!”
“Roger that, sir,” the ODST dashes for the Warthog, only to get pinned by the Elite, who’s totally ignoring Shelley and my potshots.
“Ramsey!” I spot the private holding off a horde of Grunts from the aid station entrance. “Where are Melvin and Hurley?”
“They’re sweeping the back to make sure none got around there.”
“I need Adams on that gun, Private. There are enough wounded in there who can still fire their weapons. Let them protect each other, and get Adams on that damn turret!”
Ramsey turns and shouts orders into the tent, then runs to help Adams.
Time slows down.
I see the Elite aiming his plasma rifle at Ramsey. I know that he’ll never make it. Glancing at Shelley, I see his helmet visor de-polarize, his face twisted in a snarl. I draw my combat knife. I’m closest. I begin to run.
Time speeds back up.
The Elite wheels and fires point-blank at me, but I keep running toward him. I boot him in the gut, knocking him backwards, and slip my knife under his helmet and into his brain. He staggers.
Time slows again.
I look down to see that I’m on fire. When I look up, I see the Elite fire at me again, before Adams makes it to the turret and riddles him full of holes. She’s yelling something at me, something about death and hell and victory. Connly appears in front of me, spraying me with a fire extinguisher.
“Come on, Denovich,” she whispers.
“Banshee!” yells Ramsey. Behind Connly, Adams swings the chain gun up to track the incoming aircraft. The Banshee fires its bomb. Adams leaps out of the turret just as the round hits the engine of the Warthog. It explodes, flips end over end.
The last thing I see before I lose consciousness is Adams hit the ground, her battle armor charred and smoking.