Chapter 11: Operation CHARLEMAGNE
|1100 Hours, January 10, 2496 (Military Calendar), in orbit above Ehilend, Eridanus system
Are we ready for this?
Lieutenant Felix Martel didn't know if the others were just as nervous as he was, but the silence was stifling. Maybe it was the fact that they were about to be deployed on their first official operation as subjects of Project ORION. Maybe it was the knowledge that their enemies were waiting at Eridanus II, just around the other side of the satellite. Or maybe it was just because they were approaching the briefing room, and the mood was too solemn to talk.
He glanced at Jess. She had been recently promoted to Staff Sergeant, having performed exceptionally and even entering the ORION top 8 rankings. A surprise to many, considering the heat she got from ONI after that court-martial where Anton...
Felix sighed. It had been five years since that disastrous court-martial. He had heard from Jess what had happened. Watts is more cunning than we thought. And Anton's still in prison, thanks to him. He knew that Jess had come under questioning for misinformation after the trial, but someone (he suspected an officer in charge of ORION) must have helped keep ONI off her back.
At first, both he and Jess had been wary of Watts. Would he try and erase them, just to be safe? But it seemed the Colonel was being closely watched; he had been ousted from ONI as a "temporary measure" but still hadn't been allowed back in. Felix doubted he could do much for the Insurrection with so many eyes on him, and having lost his access to the crucial UNSC data he needed.
And someone at HighCom is taking notice. Without Watts to do much more than sit on his secrets, Barrie's control over Eridanus II was deteriorating. The Insurrection had finally broken out two years ago, when the rebels had captured a UNSC corvette, the Callisto in the 26 Draconis system. When three UNSC light destroyers were sent to retake it, the rebels detonated a nuclear warhead, destroying one of the ships and severely damaging two others. Lieutenant junior grade Preston Cole, the only surviving officer aboard one of the intact ships, the Las Vegas, lured the Callisto to dock, feigning surrender. When the rebels tried to capture the Las Vegas, Cole fired the ship's last Ares missile at them, crippling the corvette. The incident had sparked the war between the UNSC and the United Rebel Front.
Now they had to remove Barrie from the equation before things got out of hand. I don't know how much longer he can keep the Insurrection at bay, Felix thought. But we have to act fast before things get ugly at Eridanus II. Or worse, spread to the other colonies.
Felix looked around at the others walking with them. Over the last five years, he had gotten to know them really well. Avery Johnson, Roy Koel, Gilly, heck, even Lester Morales and Nathaniel Cortez felt more like brothers than older, more experienced servicemen. We've become a family. And now we're about to take on our first mission.
Will we all come back? I want to believe that, because we've all been trained so well. But only time can tell. There's a war out there now that we have to fight.
They reached the briefing room, and filed in. The room was large, and seats were laid out in rows and divided the room in two. Following Jess, Felix found a seat near the front, and they waited as everyone settled down.
Captain Warson stepped into the room from the opposite door, joined by a few black-uniformed men. Everyone went quiet immediately. He looked over them and gave a nod of approval. He stepped to the pedestal at the centre of the front, and spoke. "Subjects of Project ORION, we are glad you are here today. Please listen carefully, as what I have to say is extremely important.
"Five years ago, you have volunteered for this assignment, and allowed us to run a number of tests that have proved very useful. It had not been easy, and there had been..." The Captain's eyes swept the room. "...complications. This had caused some of our volunteers to leave the program, or the UNSC entirely. But your resolve never wavered. Our experiments have enhanced you, almost as flawlessly as we hoped, enough to give you a distinct advantage in combat.
"Most of you have never engaged battle before with the Insurrection, and none of you as a unit in a tactical deployment. But as of today, the UNSC is initiating Operation: CHARLEMAGNE.
"So from hereon today, we are sending you out on your first official mission. You will head down to Asphodel City and retake it for the UNSC. You will find the rebel leader, Gerald Barrie, and capture him alive if possible. Your goal, however, is not to eliminate rebels in the city, but to go in and come out with little incident. You should try to avoid combat unless absolutely necessary, and above all, do not create havoc in Asphodel City.
"You may have to get creative once you're down there. But I know every one of you will know what to do once you're on your own. Good luck, everyone."
Asphodel City, Felix thought, staring at the distant city as the team approached it under cover of night. What a fucking mess it is now.
He remembered how different it had been ten years ago. After being forced to leave the Sanctuary, he had lived in the city. He never liked it there, but at least it could be considered a home. I still remember escaping through the city with Jess, with the rebels on our asses. That had only been the beginning...
Now Asphodel was almost completely rebel-run. The entire city had become a war zone, and civilians were rarely seen out on the streets. When they were, they always travelled in groups, looking dishevelled and on edge. Barrie's turned this place into a complete hell.
Felix had been half-hoping that Barrie would relinquish his iron grip on Asphodel after Watts' influence on him was weakened. But the damage had already been done. Taking in the smoke-filled skies and the eerie quietness that enveloped the city, he doubted Barrie could hold back the floodgates now if he tried. Watts has created a monster out of these rebels, and Barrie's just struggling to keep the chain on it.
"Two more teams have infiltrated the city," Jess said to him quietly as they took cover in a ditch on the side of the road that led into the eastern district. "We should head a bit into the city and follow the outskirts."
"Just like the good old days, back on Taradia, huh?" remarked Cortez. Morales silenced him by raising his hand.
"How many more teams still need to get in?" he asked. She repeated the question into her COM.
"Four," she said. "They've spotted sentries and are working their way around them."
"We've got trouble too," Cortez said, sobering up. "Over there, looks like a rebel team on approach."
"Let's get out of sight," Felix said. They moved into the cover of an alleyway, and Jess activated her COM again.
"What is it, Koel? Are you serious? Okay, we'll meet up with you soon. Hang tight." She turned off her COM. "Gilly's team is in trouble. There's a riot in the northeast district, and the rebels are opening fire. They can't get out of the area without drawing attention to themselves."
"Alright, let's draw their attention then," Felix said. "We'll cut through these alleyways, come on."
Everyone was wearing light armoured suits rather than their standard armour; it included a helmet that didn't cover the entire head, but had several useful features, such as a visor that covered the eyes as well as a breathing mask that was connected to a small oxygen tank on their backs that allowed for ten minutes of oxygen. They currently had night-vision enabled, so it wasn't too hard to proceed quietly through the alleyway and see where they were going.
As they headed in a general north-east direction, Felix ran over the recent events in his head. CHARLEMAGNE had begun because a number of government officials had been attacked and kidnapped if not killed by the rebel forces on Eridanus II. Asphodel alone had lost seven hundred civilians in the last few weeks. The only reason they hadn't been evacuated was because the rebels' control over the city was too strong...and because they didn't have time to figure out who was on what side.
He was also glad to know that Roy Koel had recovered from his state of depression following the after-effects of the augmentations they had received. Although most of the subjects had recovered from the procedure with little or no side-effects, some had disastrous results, causing permanent physical damage to some and even death in a few instances. Koel's friend Albert had teetered on the edge for six months after everyone was supposed to have recovered, and eventually became one of the fatalities. As a result, Koel suffered from depression and was taken out of training throughout 2492 and for most of 2493. It was only thanks to Tom, assigned to help him, that he was now back on his feet.
Felix had initially been concerned for Koel, but it seemed he was doing just fine on his first mission in years. Who knew Tom would have turned out to be such a prodigy? Healing wounded is one thing, but as an adolescent, psychologically curing an ORION subject sure is impressive.
"Hear that?" Jess whispered to him. "We're getting close."
Felix listened carefully, and could hear distant shouting, and objects breaking. There was gunfire too. Forming up just shy of the road, Felix whispered into his COM, "Sergeant, we're here. Where are you guys?"
"We're inside the café," replied Gilly. "We made it inside but we were spotted. We've barricaded all the entrances, but there's not much time. If you're going to do something, do it now."
Felix peeked out onto the street, and could see insurgents trying to smash through the windows of a small diner with anything they could lay their hands on. The bodies of a dozen civilians lay dead on the ground, some of them sprawled farther down the street. Riot ended pretty quick then, he thought. This is bad. The civilians don't stand a chance. Drawing back, he said to the team, "Got twenty or so hostiles. Doesn't look organized enough to be rebels. Insurrectionists most likely, they don't have a lot of proper weapons. All the same, be careful. We're going to take them by surprise."
One of the Insurrectionists was pounding on a window with a long metal bar. A muzzle flare from inside the diner showed Gilly's face for a moment; the pane shattered, and the insurgent was thrown back as bullets sprayed him. He fell back, twitched once, and died. Yelling in outrage, the other Insurrectionists rushed to the window, but Gilly withdrew and the barricade was quickly slid back in place.
"You might want to hurry, Lieutenant," she said over the COM.
"Get your team ready, Sergeant," Felix replied. "When you hear the flashbangs go off, throw some frags, but stay behind cover. We'll take care of the rest."
"Gotcha. Ready when you are."
"Marines, deploy flashbangs," Felix said.
Jess, Morales, and Cortez threw three flashbangs, each landing far apart enough to cover the entire group. They detonated, causing the Insurrectionists to clutch their ears, screaming.
Four fragmentation grenades sailed out the broken windows of the diner, their pings barely audible as they hit the ground. The explosions wiped out most of the hostiles; leaping out of the alleyway, Felix and the Marines gunned down the survivors.
"Inside, now," he ordered. The barricade on the door was shifted aside as they entered the diner, and moved back into place. He didn't know if the Insurrectionists were resourceful enough to have snipers, but he didn't want to take that chance.
Felix was glad to see that all four members of Gilly's team were uninjured. They didn't look hassled at all after their close call. Koel was talking to another Marine, and they were reading something on a datapad. "Are your boys ready to keep moving?" he asked Gilly.
"Yes, sir," she replied. "We were on our way to meet with a group of civilians inside the city who know a way to get to Barrie."
"We've got his location?" he asked.
"Yes, a drone has spotted an armoured building five minutes ago. But things are getting ugly up there, Lieutenant."
"What do you mean?"
"Warson says the URF are pulling all the stops. They've deployed freighters, corvettes, fighters, stealth ships, anything spaceworthy and throwing it at the UNSC. We've got six destroyers up there right now trying to deal with them. The rebels are even trying to capture a sub-orbital transit station."
"Dammit," Felix said. "If we take out Barrie now, it'll just kick the hornet's nest."
"We don't have a choice," Gilly said. "That space drone that got a fix on Barrie's location was shot down by a corvette right after it transmitted the data. We know where he is, but we have no way of getting in there with what we have. And the rebel ships are dug in above it, so we can't get any more recon. We'll have to rely on our contact. He claims he knows an easy way past the building's defences."
"Can we trust him?"
"I don't know, but it's the best we have. Still, we need to be careful because there are a lot of civilians that are siding with the rebels. And Insurrectionists are crawling all over Asphodel. The URF is hardly keeping a leash on them."
"Okay, where's our contact?"
"About three klicks away, waiting for us in a storage facility."
"Alright, take point."
"Ma'am, I've got good news," Koel said, walking over with the datapad. "We've managed to sneak a stealth drone past the wall of rebel ships."
Gilly looked impressed. "Where'd you get a stealth drone, Lance Corporal?"
"It took a bit of convincing, but Warson launched it for us. It's hovering forty feet above us, and can pick up heat signatures in a two hundred metre radius."
Felix felt encouraged by the news. No rebel ships would be able to detect something that small at forty feet, especially when it was designed for stealth. It would also be able to pick up any incoming air patrols before the drone itself could be even detected by enemies. And most importantly, the drone would be able to locate enemy snipers or other hostiles in their vicinity, so the team would have an advantage over them as they moved through the city.
"Then we should get going," Gilly said. Roy handed the data pad to his fellow Marine, and grabbed his S2 AMB Sniper Rifle off a nearby table. After checking that the area was clear, the eight of them stepped onto the street and headed west, into the heart of Asphodel.
"Not picking up any heat signatures apart from our own," said the Marine with the data pad. He had a distinctive Irish accent. "No civilians in this area."
"Keep your eye on that thing, Byrne," Gilly said.
Felix felt slightly unnerved as they walked down the street. They were sticking to the side, close to crevices and buildings they could use to hide, but they were still caught in the open. He still scanned the rooftops, just in case. Don't trust everything to machines. They can be fooled.
They reached the end of the street without incident, and turned the corner, weapons sweeping both directions of the road. It was clear. Now that I think about it, this area does seem pretty deserted. Not as many abandoned or destroyed cars as I expected, and hardly any bodies. The buildings weren't even that damaged.
"Lieutenant, what do we do if we come across civilians?" asked Cortez. "Like Gilly said, we don't know if they're on our side or the rebels."
Felix contemplated this question. He knew what Cortez was asking. Do we kill them, just to be safe? Their mission would take a downturn if some rebel sympathizer spotted them and then ran off to give away their position. The safest thing to do would be to kill them on sight. But what kind of message would that bring to the ones that support us? Finally, he said, "If we spot civilians, we'll move out of sight and wait for them to pass."
"And if we can't?"
"We'll find another route."
Cortez nodded. Felix wondered if he had the same thought. The more dawdle, the harder it will be to complete this mission. But our purpose is to save lives, so we can't shoot innocent people to make it easier for ourselves.
"Got two heat signatures, on the west side of the next intersection," Byrne reported. "Elevation twenty-seven metres above the ground."
"Sounds like enemy snipers to me," said Gilly.
"And they're right between us and our objective," said Koel, bringing up his sniper rifle. The team halted, and the Lance Corporal edged to the corner of the intersection.
"Hold on," Felix said, putting his arm in front of the young Marine. "Make sure they're snipers before you open fire."
"Got it, sir," Koel said.
"That's not all. You should have someone to help so you don't have to switch targets."
"This is the only sniper rifle we've got, sir. I can do this."
Gilly gave Felix a look that said "Just trust him". He hesitated, but then nodded. Koel shifted out of his cover, aiming down his sights.
There was a momentary pause, then he fired the first shot. Shifting his grip and panning his weapon to the right, he fired the second shot less than a second later. Taking his eye off the scope, the Lance Corporal said, "Clear."
Felix was impressed. As the team filed onto the street and headed west, he asked, "Are you a sharpshooter, Koel?"
"No, sir. But I am the best shot on the team."
The team cut through a civilian district, and it became harder to distinguish the hostiles from the civilians. They mostly avoided contact with them, and the few times they encountered trouble was quickly dealt with.
"All teams have been in the city for almost two hours now," Gilly said. "Still not so much as an injury on our side."
"That's good," Felix said. "How's the fight going in space?"
"Not so well. We've lost a destroyer. These rebels have to know they can't win though."
"I think they're just trying to do as much damage as possible," said Morales. "Get a point across."
"You think Barrie ordered it?" Jess asked Felix.
"I don't know," he murmured. He didn't like thinking about Barrie, or what would happen once they found him. Take him alive if possible. That likelihood is growing thinner by the minute.
Did it bother him that Barrie was going to be captured and likely killed? Yes. But it's become clear that it's necessary to stop him. He remembered how much effort the Commander had tried to keep the rebels at peace with the UNSC, before Watts intervened. Things weren't friendly, no. But Barrie wanted to continue negotiations. How did he change so much?
Does he know what I'm doing? Did Watts tell him?
"Our contact is just in there," Gilly said, indicating a storage facility set into an alley behind what looked like a delivery bay. The team formed up on the side door. "It's not locked," she said, opening it. They entered quietly, Koel closing the door behind them.
The facility was huge, and lined with storage crates in arrays. "Where's your contact, Sergeant?" Felix asked.
"Hugo, come out!" Gilly called. "This is Sergeant Buckler, your UNSC contact."
A stocky, well-built man stepped out from inside a container. He looked wary but not anxious. He was dressed in civilian clothes that was smeared with dirt and more besides. "I was expecting more of you," he said as he approached her, ignoring the fact that everyone was watching him carefully.
"Safety in numbers doesn't really apply right now," Gilly said. "Better not to be seen."
"That's true, I suppose," he said.
She led him over to Felix. "Hugo, this is Lieutenant Felix Martel, the ranking officer in this ground operation. Lieutenant, this is Hugo Mahaffy. He's going to help us get into that building."
"Damn right I am," Mahaffy said. "Rebel bastards gunned down my wife last night on the street. I ain't going to let that go."
"Are you ex-military, sir?" Felix asked, sizing him up. He didn't seem as nerve-wracked as the other civilians he had seen in Asphodel.
"Militia," the man replied. "You're in charge of this party, kid? You look a little young."
"I'm Naval Special Forces, Mr. Mahaffy. You don't need to worry about me."
"If you say so, Lieutenant. So, enough talking, we going or what?"
Felix frowned. "You're coming with us?"
"Course I am. I've got a score to settle with them rebels. So don't try and talk me out of it."
"If you come with us, we'd have to protect you. You'd be a liability."
"I can take care of myself, kid. And only I know how to get you inside that armoured building without four tons of explosives. I'll tell you once we're there. We got a deal?"
Felix gritted his teeth. He didn't like bargaining with someone outside his chain of command, even if they were militia. But they didn't have time to argue. "Fine. We've got a deal."
"Good. Now, any one of you got a weapon? I'm not going to be hiding behind you soldiers until we're there."
Koel took his Magnum and SMG off his waist. "I'll need a sidearm too, so pick one."
Mahaffy took the SMG and pulled back the slide. "Thank you, soldier."
"Marine," the Lance Corporal corrected, replacing his M6 on his side.
"Whatever. Let's go while the getting's good then."
"Stay in the centre, Mr. Mahaffy," Felix said. "Staff Sergeant Morley here will be taking point, if you don't mind."
"No, I don't mind, Lieutenant. Thank you for asking though."
As the team moved out of the storage facility, Felix gave Gilly an exasperated glance. "Where'd you find this guy?" he muttered.
She gave a half-apologetic shrug. "You have to take what you get, sir. He's our best chance of breaching that building."
"If he's telling the truth."
They were close to the armoured facility now. There were a few more run-ins with Insurrectionists, but Mahaffy hadn't compromised them. He even took down a few of the rebels without breaking a sweat.
"Nothing much to these idiots, is there," he grunted.
"They're Insurrectionists," Felix said. "The real threat are the guns sent out by the Rebel Front. They're more organized and are armed with UNSC weaponry."
"Then you guys ought to keep a closer watch on your ordnance."
He chose not to answer, and instead asked Gilly, "Status update?"
She checked her tactical pad. "We're doing good. A few other teams have made contact with civilian informants. They've engaged some rebel hideouts and are clearing out the areas around us. There are enemy vehicle patrols being sent through Asphodel, but they're pretty easy to spot. Johnson says his team will try to link up with ours. They're heading east and are sixty minutes out." She scrolled down. "Still no casualties."
Not bad, considering how outnumbered we are. ORION's proving itself to be a success.
"Got more riots," Gilly continued. "Civilians that are fighting rebels, our teams, or even each other. It's turning messy. The UNSC has Orbital Drop Shock Troopers on standby if they're needed."
"That's the place you're looking for," Mahaffy said, pointing at a two-story armoured bunker in the distance.
"The drone's picking up dozens of hostiles in that area," Byrne said. "I'm transmitting visual now. It doesn't look like Insurrectionists. Too professional."
So this is it, Felix thought. The United Rebel Front's protecting the facility with their best.
Something beeped on Byrne's datapad. "It's detected an incoming missile!" A moment later, the screen faded into static, and there was a distant explosion in the sky. The Marine cursed and shut off the datapad. "I think we've just been detected."
"We need to approach the building out of sight, then," Felix said. "Everyone, back in the alleyways—"
"Enemy vehicles!" shouted Jess. The sound of Warthogs was speeding down the street from both ends.
"Take cover!" The team moved behind phone booths, ducked into alleyways, or dropped to the ground. One of the Marines knocked into Mahaffy, and he stumbled. Two troop-transport Warthogs sped by, and the rebels on the back sprayed the team with gunfire. The man jerked as bullets riddled him, spraying blood all over the ground. He dropped without a sound as the Warthogs slowed, turned around, and headed for another pass.
"Everyone, into the alley!" Felix got to his feet, picking up his rifle, and dashed with the team into the alleyway, rounding the corner just as bullets sprayed the narrow crevice between the two buildings. The sound of engines didn't fade away.
"Move! They're disembarking!" Taking up the rear, Felix, Morales, and Koel pulled the pins off their fragmentation grenades and tossed them up the alley. As the rebels rounded the corner, they exploded, the force of it so confining that it partially collapsed the walls on either side, blocking off those that hadn't been killed in the explosions.
The team stayed together as they dashed through the alleyways, and it wasn't long before the sound of their pursuers faded. Calling a halt, Felix made sure all eight of them were present.
"Shit," Gilly said. "We lost Mahaffy."
"Contact the other teams," said Felix. "See if they've found anyone that can get us inside."
Koel was peeking out onto the street. "Lieutenant, we should be careful. That armoured facility isn't too far off. There are rebels everywhere. They could be in the alleys."
"I hear you," Felix said. "Stay sharp, everyone. Keep your eyes above us too."
Gilly was listening intently into her COM. "Are you sure? Absolutely sure? Okay, I'll spread the word." She cut the connection and looked at Felix. "Bad news, sir. Johnson says his he's found an informant, who knows that the rebels are keeping government officials and civilians captive inside the facility."
"Can we take his word for it?"
"I don't know, but we can't risk an air strike. And Mahaffy never told us what his plan was..."
"If he had one."
"That's not important. We need to contact Warson ASAP and tell him not to authorize an air strike on the armoured facility. Remember he said he would call in the bombing squads if we didn't manage to breach the facility by 0700."
Felix checked his mission clock. It was 0652. They didn't have much time.
"Okay," he said. "Tell him right away."
Gilly adjusted her COM. She frowned, and tapped various controls, looking more and more flustered. She continued doing this for almost an entire minute, muttering, "Come on, come on..."
"I can't get a connection," she said. "Something must be going on up there, unless the rebels found a way to jam us." After trying without success for another minute, she gave up. "Screw it, we'll have to get to the facility ourselves."
Felix shook his head. "There's no way we'd get inside within five minutes. And even if we did, we have no way of letting Warson know. If we can't get through to him, then he can't get through to us. He'll assume we didn't breach the facility, and call in an air strike, with us inside."
Gilly swore. "So what do you suggest?"
He hesitated. "We have to wait for the air strike."
"There's nothing we can do about it. Keep trying to get through to Warson, but in the meantime, we need to get to the rooftops and take out those hostiles with missile launchers. That's the best we can do." He sighed. "Relay the order to all ground teams. Let's move."
They headed through the alleyways, careful not to remain visible to rebels patrolling the streets. Felix was hardly paying attention to where he was going, so immersed was he in thought.
"Hey, you okay?" It was Jess. She was walking beside him, looking concerned.
"This entire operation is going wrong," he said quietly, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice.
"This isn't your fault," she whispered. He bristled. As if that was what he had been thinking!
"Doesn't change anything," he said, barely keeping his voice low enough so the others wouldn't hear. "What happens after this will have repercussions, Jess. You know that."
"What the hell was ONI thinking? Sending us on this mission without all the facts? Just because we're part of this project..."
"We can do this," she said. "We'll find Barrie and things will be okay."
"Barrie..." Felix's grip tightened on his rifle. "I hate this. This whole war. Why did everything have to change? Why didn't Barrie—!"
"Sir," said Koel, stopping and turning around. "I think that's a way up." He was looking at a series of ladders leading up balconies at the back of an apartment. Felix nodded, putting his frustration out of his mind. The team climbed up the ladder, one by one; Jess gave him a reassuring look before she grabbed the rungs and followed Cortez. He climbed up after her.
The rooftops in the area were clear. The team stayed low as they quietly headed across the roof, jumping to the next one when they reached an alleyway below. They were heading closer to the armoured facility.
The sound of gunfire erupted on a roof a hundred metres away, across the street. It looked like another team had engaged a rebel with a missile launcher. The fight didn't last long.
Koel swept the area with his sniper rifle scope. "Doesn't look like we were spotted. There are more near the facility."
Gilly activated her COM. "Team, stand down. Hold positions and stay low. We'll take care of the others." She faced her team. "Right, how many of you have marksman rifles?"
Felix put up his hand, as did Koel, Byrne, and Cortez. "Okay," she said. "We'll stay here, you guys should get a bit closer and take them all out at once, so they don't run off."
"Good idea," Felix said, nodding. The others laid flat on their stomachs, and he led the three Marines to the next roof, crouching and making as little noise as possible. They made it across three more buildings before he called a halt.
"Okay, any closer and we'll be spotted. Let's spread out." The four of them picked spots on the roof so they wouldn't be in the other's line of fire. "Koel, how many missile launchers do you see?"
"One second, sir." Koel scanned every rooftop quickly but carefully. He checked it again. "Seven."
"You sure it's all of them?"
"Okay, you're the only one with a sniper rifle. So you take out the farthest three. Byrne, you take the two on the left — they're very close together. I'll take the middle one. Cortez, you take out the one on the far right."
"Ready, sir," said Byrne.
"I'm good," said Cortez.
"Okay, fire on three. One. Two. Three!"
Bullets flew through the air, dropping four rebels. Koel shifted his aim and took the fifth through the chest and Byrne discharged three more rounds, killing the sixth. Felix, Byrne, and Cortez opened fire on the last one, but their rifles weren't accurate enough at long range; Koel fired a third shot that barely missed the rebel, who ducked and was running for the edge of the rooftop. After a barely detectable pause, the Lance Corporal fired the last round in his magazine.
It took the rebel straight through the neck, cleanly ripping off his head. The missile launcher fell from his hands as the decapitated body tumbled off the roof with the weapon.
Koel ejected the empty magazine from his rifle. Felix sent Gilly the all-clear signal, and everyone got to their feet.
"We've got five teams in total positioned around the facility," she said. "How long until the air strike, Lieutenant?"
He checked his mission clock. It was 0701. "Warson must have already sent the fighters. I'm guessing they'll be here in less than a minute."
And surely enough, the sound of B-65 Shortswords filled the air. Then four of them cut through the cloud cover and flew over them, speeding towards the armour facility. The sound of unguided bombs dropping shrieked shrilly as the aircraft passed over it and arced upward, followed by explosions engulfing the building. The force of it sent tremors through the streets that Felix could feel shaking the rooftop he was standing on.
There was silence as the armoured facility lay smouldering. The street below was littered with bodies of the insurgents caught in the blast. The facility, surprisingly, was still standing.
Then the surviving rebels looked up. They spotted the teams on the rooftops, and opened fire.
Felix ducked back from the lip of the roof as bullets cut through the air in front of him. He checked his belt for grenades. "I'm out of frags."
"Me too," said Koel. They had both used up theirs in the alley.
Byrne and Cortez were priming theirs, however, and tossing them down to the streets. Felix could see the others doing the same. Explosion after explosion sounded below, and then there was silence.
Felix activated his COM. "Everyone, get down to the ground level. But watch for survivors."
They headed down to the alleyways, and regrouped in a clearing just off the street. He checked their numbers. Forty. He was surprised that they still hadn't taken casualties, but not unpleasantly so. "Okay, it's time to finish this. We're going to get as close as we can to the facility, and then make a straight run inside. Identify any civilian bodies you see, and if any of them are alive, keep them somewhere safe."
"Lieutenant, that facility has at least five floors underground," Gilly said. "How many rebels are in there?"
"We'll have to see," Felix said. "But we have to be quick. I'm guessing that every rebel, Insurrectionist, and civilian on their side will be headed here very soon. So we have to get inside and capture Barrie if he's alive. If he's not, we have to confirm it. Let's move."
The team ran quietly through the alleyway, without a single word being exchanged. There was a solemn mood among them, but Felix was encouraged by the sight of them all still standing and ready to charge into combat. Let's hope our luck holds.
The alleyway ended with a sharp turn to the left that led straight onto the street where the damaged armour facility was. Felix looked over the team one more time and nodded. They charged into the open.
There were only three rebels standing outside the facility, and they were killed immediately by bullets fired from a dozen guns. Without even the slightest pause, they reached the half-melted door. Koel kicked it in, and no less than eight flashbang grenades were thrown inside.
They went off almost simultaneously, and the team charged in as one, gunning down the stunned rebels and taking positions beside doorways. Johnson disabled the elevators.
Felix activated the team COM. "I'll need ten of you to guard this entrance. Do not let any hostiles past you." He assigned ten of the team to remain in the main room, and turned his attention to four others. "Head up to the second floor...or what's left of it. Clear it of all hostiles, free any hostages you find up there." He hoped there hadn't been any on the second floor; he would be amazed if there were any survivors on that floor at all. "The rest of you are with me."
As he led the team of twenty-six down the staircase that led into the below-ground levels, he realized that he had been here before. After we were forced to evacuate from the Sanctuary, Barrie would carry out everything here. This facility hadn't been armoured when I was last here though. There weren't any underground floors either. Then again, there was no war back then...
The team was practically unstoppable as they reached each floor, covering each other by firing sequentially and spreading out far enough for proper movement. Most of the rebels didn't even have a chance to return fire before they were killed.
The first underground floor was a single large room, and it was easily cleared. Felix assigned three from the team to hold the floor and proceeded with the rest. The second one looked like a storage room, and had more cover for the rebels to hide behind. But it didn't take too long to clear, and three more were left to guard it.
The third underground floor had a series of extra rooms. There were three groups of rebels positioned around the room, and opened fire as soon as the team was spotted. But a few flashbangs quickly stopped their fire, and they once again cleared it easily.
One of the rebels, still blinded by a flashbang, pulled the pin and clumsily threw it in the team's general direction. Johnson snatched the explosive out of the air and tossed it back at him. The explosion wiped out the remainder of the rebels and blew down one of the room's walls.
It revealed a half dozen civilians, bound and gagged and laid on the floor. The terrified-looking rebel, covered in dust from the destroyed wall, grabbed one of them and put a pistol to his head. "Stop, or I'll kill him!"
Koel snapped up his rifle and put a round straight through the gunman's mouth. The civilian gave a muffled scream as the side of his head was sprayed with the rebel's blood. The team checked every room on the floor to make sure it was cleared. "Morales, Gladys, secure those hostages and escort them up one floor." He assigned three others to guard the floor, and proceeded with the others.
Each floor became more difficult to clear as the team's numbers thinned. But they still eliminated every rebel they could find with cold efficiency and rescued each hostage that was found. They went down not five floors, but eight. Felix assigned Gilly, Koel, and Johnson to guard the floor, and headed down to the end of the staircase with Jess.
To his surprise, they were in a vehicle bay. There was a long tunnel that led out of it, illuminated by lights that showed it curving off into the darkness. There were no rebels in sight, and the bay was almost devoid of vehicles save three Warthogs still in their parked spots.
Felix felt a surge of dread. Don't tell me... He grabbed his COM. "All teams, report in. Have you identified any of the bodies as Barrie's?"
The others reported in, one by one. They confirmed his fear. Slowly, he disconnected the COM. "Jess," he said quietly. "I think he got away..."
"Shh, listen!" she interrupted. He fell silent. There was the sound of someone close by, gasping in pain. The sound of it echoed through the vehicle bay. He beckoned for Jess to follow him, and they slowly marched towards the sound, watching for movement. Jess pointed at the booth positioned next to the tunnel, where the sound seemed to be coming from. Felix nodded, and they stood on either side of the door. Keeping one hand pointed at the entrance, he flung it open.
There, lying slumped against the wall, was Gerald Barrie. He was clutching his pistol, bent over in agony. Blood covered the floor around his legs. Looking carefully, Felix say that both his knees were shattered from gunfire.
Seeing him, Barrie stopped gasping and clenched his teeth. He propped himself upright against the wall, breathing heavily. "So this is how it ends, huh Felix? I should have known that one day it'd come to this."
Keeping his rifle trained on his former friend, Felix asked, "What happened to you?"
Barrie gave a humourless laugh, which quickly turned into a grimace as more blood streamed from his kneecaps. "Oh, those cowards who were supposedly my followers were scared shitless when you guys came calling. They thought it'd be easier for them to escape if they left me here. Remind you of someone?"
Felix ignored the remark, although he knew Barrie was reminding him of the day he betrayed him and escaped with Jess. "That's not what I mean."
The rebel commander groaned as he sat up straighter, awkwardly shifting his useless legs. "I know what you mean, kid. Why did I have to listen to Watts? Why did I change things? Why did I decide to turn Eridanus II into a hellhole instead of what I wanted it to be in the beginning?" He laughed again. The bleeding became worse, but this time he didn't seem to notice it. "You want the truth, Felix? I fucking hate this war. I really do. I wish we didn't have any of it. But even though you probably think that I've turned into an evil prick, I have one thing to tell you." He raised his eyes, defiantly meeting Felix's gaze. "Ever since I gained leadership of the rebels in this system, my goal has never changed. I wanted unity to exist between the Earth Government and the Rebel Front. And I wanted that to happen at any cost."
The fire faded from his eyes, and it was replaced by sadness, mixed with that old gentleness Felix had missed so much. "If there's you've figured out anything since you've left us for the UNSC, kid, it's that people can't learn to agree...You think you're the heroes who are saving the goddamn universe, but that's just another lie. Even in your military, some of you are tearing each others' throats out..."
At these words, Felix thought of Anton. Barrie read his expression, gave a sigh of resignation that didn't quite erase the pain from his tensed brow. He closed his eyes, looking more weary than ever. "Before Watts came along, I used to think I was doing something good. I...I knew that I was blindly hoping something would come out of it, so...I kept trying. I would keep telling myself that I could fix things...that if I tried hard enough, there would be no need for war." He opened his eyes, breathing out his next words with a strained effort. "If you want to know the truth, Felix, I was hoping that...one day you would take my place. You were...you really were...the brightest kid in the Sanctuary, and...I would always feel reassured that if my...methods of peace didn't succeed...you would do it...you would somehow do it."
Barrie's eyes darkened, and his fist clenched around his pistol, turning his knuckles white. "I guess Watts changed all that. He told me I was going nowhere, that he had seen how ruthless the UNSC was. He told me...I had to create something they couldn't hold back...I knew he was right, as much as I wished he wasn't...That wouldn't be the last time I wished he was wrong." His gaze returned to Felix. "I knew you wouldn't want to be on the same side with someone like Watts. I was hoping that if I became like him, you would as well. I guess I should have known better.
"Don't get me wrong," he said abruptly. "I don't regret these last few years. I knew what I had to do. I guess that's one thing we always had in common, even after everything changed..." His right arm moved, and his pistol came up. Felix flinched and almost pulled the trigger when he saw that Barrie had put the weapon to his own head.
"Commander...don't do it..." Felix said. Barrie gave a harsh laugh.
"What? Were you planning on dragging me back to the UNSC so they could question me before throwing me into a deep prison cell to rot?" As the rebel commander spoke, Felix surreptitiously motioned for Jess to disarm him. She slowly inched towards him.
"You can stop that," Barrie said without looking at her. "You should watch this at the very least, since it was your friends I killed nine years ago. With this very weapon, in fact." He shifted his gaze back to Felix with a final determination in his expression. "And as for you, Felix, my words have not changed. If you thought this war is bad now, just wait. It will become worse." He closed his eyes. "Save lives, Felix. Save lives."
Felix saw Barrie's trigger finger move, and he instinctively squeezed his own eyes shut as he heard the gunshot. It echoed in his ears, like it was going to deafen him, but he still heard the metal penetrating flesh and bone, followed by the slick, sickening sound of it exiting the other side.