|1225 Hours, January 3rd, 2550
El Morro Point, Onyx, Zeta Doradus System
Revenge was often something that sounded great until it was actually carried out. That was something that Team Jian had learned several weeks ago, though the lesson had yet to fully sink in.
"Still no movement," Mary-G130 whispered over TEAMCOM. "Same as it's been the past hour."
From their vantage point atop the rocky hillock, the five trainee Spartans had a superb view of the surrounding jungle, which had been littered with motion sensors, stun-mines and other nasty traps in preparation for the day's training exercise. Having set out shortly after dawn, both they and nine other teams within Gamma Company had been pitted against each other in 'warm-up' matches to prepare for final selection exercises. Though they had been informed in no uncertain terms that they would all be punished if a winning team did not emerge by sundown, Jian had chosen to simply find a spot and hold it instead of risking a potential ambush by advancing into the jungle. Camouflaged by their suits of Semi-Powered Infiltration armour, which helped them blend into the rocky terrain, and the midday sun glaring down on any who looked towards their perch, the trainees were more confident in their chances than usual.
"Who d'you think got taken out earlier?" said Simon-G294 after a long pause, breaking the silence. "Shoto, maybe?"
Twenty minutes ago, the sounds of a fierce firefight half a mile away had drifted over the treetop, culminating in several explosions and a final lengthy rattle of gunfire before the jungle fell quiet once more. Though their head drill instructor, Chief Mendez, occasionally announced which teams had been eliminated in these competitive matches, they had heard nothing from him since this morning.
"Cut the chatter," snapped Jake-G293, the team's leader. After a moment, he spoke up. "My bet's on Hatchet."
Simon shook his head. "C'mon, Jake. Shoto's nearly as bad as us. If anyone's going out first then it's-"
The Spartan stopped mid-sentence as a shot rang out in the distance, forcing Jian to hunker down immediately. Spread out in a rough circle, they kept their weapons close as the two members facing the direction of the noise - Jake and Cassandra-G006 - snapped their carbines up. The team's fifth member, Ralph-G299, slowly inched through the grass to cover them. It took another two shots from afar for them to recognise the MA5K's distinctive staccato burst, which confirmed the presence of at least two competing teams nearby.
"Don't fire until I say so," Jake said, not moving an inch. "Let them come to us."
Sure enough, the firefight began to drift closer to Jian's position. The young Spartans grew tense, though their training kept them stationary even as every instinct told them to either attack or withdraw. Half-hidden behind the winding trunk of a banyan tree, Simon found the growing discomfort of facing away from the enemy unbearable, and shifted his position slightly. Mary, who had been laying prone next to him, gave him an annoyed kick for leaving his position but did not raise the issue over TEAMCOM. The last thing either of them needed right now was a lecture from Jake.
"I see them!" Cassandra hissed, half-excited and half-worried. "Eleven o'clock, by the bushes."
Though their fellow trainees also possessed SPI armour, the camouflaging properties of its photoreactive panels tended to lose effectiveness when struck, or if the user moved too quickly. As a result, Jian caught sight of the three hazy figures backing away at some speed through the undergrowth almost immediately. Still following Jake's command, they held their fire and observed the trio, who alternated three-round bursts as they covered their retreat. Unbeknown to these trainees, this carried them directly into the shallow riverbed at the base of El Morro point, directly in Jian's field of fire.
"Simon, Mary, light 'em up!" called Jake.
Mary opened up on them at once, hitting one of the other trainees in the side of the head with her first burst. Used to be as close to real fire as possible, the Tactical Training Rounds loaded into their carbines locked up the target's armour at once, simulating a fatal headshot. Simon, who had moved position without Jake's knowledge, took several seconds to realign himself an open fire, though his shots went wide as the third member of the depleted team below dived for cover as his other comrade went down to Mary's shots.
"I missed one!" Mary called, trying to cover for Simon.
Ralph, who had been watching the pair, was having none of it and stood up, exposing his position to get a better angle on their target below. The moment the enemy trainee peeked out from cover to return fire, Ralph took him down with a single well-placed burst. Watching the body slump over, he gave a snort of mirth and crouched beside Simon and Mary.
"Next time, hit what you're aiming at, moron."
A spray of fire cut barely an inch above his heads, making Ralph instinctively throw himself backwards before he realised it had come from Jake, who had turned over on his back to shoot one-handed.
"That's enough," Jian's leader said, the cold fury apparent in his voice. "Our position's compromised, so we'll have to push up."
No one bothered to argue. Even Simon, always the one for a snide retort, resigned himself to sullen silence as they quickly reloaded their weapons and began to make their way downhill. Moving slowly down the steep hill, their armour's camouflage shifted to match the greenery as Jian slipped back into the jungle. Halfway down, Jake raised a fist to make them halt as the foliage ahead of them twitched slightly. It was the first team's pursuers.
"They'll see us," whispered a panicky Cassandra.
Jake made a slow cutting motion. "Hold on."
For some reason, the second team were not as wary as they should have been. Perhaps they were too driven by adrenaline and a desire to chase down their fleeing quarry to check for secondary targets, but it was a mistake that Jian would gleefully exploit. Four others soon emerged, visible only by the faintest shimmer and the tall grass being brushed aside as they moved. Jake's hand slowly snaked down to his belt pouch, and fished out a single black orb: a stun grenade. Much like the TTR they used in these exercises, the stun grenade was designed to disperse non-lethal fragmentation that would have a similar effect on their armour to the training rounds. As the camouflaged team began to fan out, steadily approaching the three immobilised trainees, Jake primed the grenade and flung it towards them. Though they attempted to scatter as the orb sailed through the air towards them, the resulting burst of light dropped two of them immediately. Before they hit the ground, Jian went on the attack.
Simon took the lead, eager to make up for his earlier mistake. Ducking around a wide tree, he sighted one trainee on one knee, levelling an MA5K towards Cassandra as she advanced several metres away. He snapped off a flurry of shots, keeping his finger on the trigger until his target keeled over. Before the satisfaction of a successful 'kill' could set in, Simon caught a flash of movement to his left and barely dodged out of the way as a hail of TTR peppered the nearby tree. Two rounds struck his left shouder, causing a momentary spike of pain followed by a numbing sensation as his armour locked up around the affected area. Mary and Ralph soon moved up to cover him, firing and advancing on the hostile trainee to keep his aim away from Simon.
"You hit?" Mary called, pausing for a moment.
"Barely scratched me."
"Then get your ass moving and help out!"
Had that come from Ralph, Simon might have taken it as a personal jab instead of an encouraging command. Momentum was important in any battle, though as this hapless group had learned, throwing caution to the wind when you think you have the upper hand is a bad idea. Pinned down by three others, Simon's target finally broke cover in an attempt to retreat, only to be hit in the neck and side by Cassandra, who had held back to keep the others suppressed. Jake, who had rushed ahead to cover their right flank, let loose an entire magazine into the treeline, reloaded, then popped out of cover, waving for the others to follow.
"Got 'em!" he called.
Barring Simon's minor 'injury', Team Jian had somehow pulled off a perfect ambush. Taking out eight other trainees without any casualties was something that even the higher-graded teams would struggle to accomplish, so this was a momentous occasion for their little group. Strolling over to one of their incapacitated foes, Ralph checked the tag affixed to his pauldron.
"It's Wakizashi," he announced happily. They were an unremarkable team with some unpleasant members, though it did little to dampen their spirits.
Still riding high on their victory, Simon and Mary jogged to the bodies of the first team they had ambushed. They were from Team Shoto, another group not much better than Jian. Simon sighed in annoyance. Their entire strategy of holding a point to ambush the other teams from was not one devised to combat teams their level, but to outmaneuver and humiliate some of their rivals, namely the utterly hated Team Scythe. Known for their devious tactics that involved deliberately sabotaging exercises and trying to disable other trainees before they set out and a completely callous attitude to anyone not within their five-man group, they had earned Jian's ire a month prior after they responded to a desperate Simon's attempts at bribery by waterboarding him for an hour as a 'punishment'.
For all their faults, the rest of Jian were still protective of their own, and immediately abandoned the objective of their next exercise to attack Scythe directly, resulting in a brawl that they were still recovering from. Even Ralph, who had treated Simon to his usual acerbic comments with a broken nose afterwards as they were carried off to the brig by their instructors, had not complained once when the prospect of seeking proper revenge was brought up. Today was their big chance, even if they had eight other teams - Shoto, Wakizashi, Gladius, Tanto, Rondel, Hatchet, Spatha and Etoc - to compete with, Jian was determined to take those smug bastards down.
"Other teams will have heard that," Jake said, having stolen a few extra magazines from their incapacitated foes. "We'll have to head back up the hill."
"Wouldn't that be the first place they'd look?" interjected Cassandra.
"Not if we're quick. The sun's still high and we should see them coming if we're careful-" he jabbed a finger towards Simon, "-and if we don't leave our positions."
Simon gave no apology, but nodded in agreement.
Ralph glanced up. "What'll we do if no one comes? Once it starts getting darker, we'll have to move."
"True," Jake replied, clicking his tongue. "But so will they. Worst-case scenario, we pack up and-"
Jake suddenly pitched forward as gunfire sounded from above, his back and head littered with TTR impacts. Swearing loudly, Simon threw himself behind the nearest tree as Jian prepared to return fire on the source. To his dismay, he soon realised that this new attacker was positioned on the same hilltop his team had been defending only a few minutes ago. Steadying his carbine as best he could in spite of his numbed shoulder, Simon waited for a few moments until he shooter fired on the team again, training his weapon towards the muzzle flash before unleashing half a magazine's worth of TTR at the enemy trainee. Before he could confirm a hit, a shout went up from Mary over TEAMCOM.
"We've got more hostiles closing in from both sides!"
Simon swung round, suddenly aware that the rest of Jian had scattered after Jake was hit. The IFF tags of Ralph, Cassandra and Mary flashed up in the undergrowth about thirty metres away, indicating that they had chosen to run instead of shooting back. A stun grenade detonated amidst trees, the explosion drowning out the din of gunfire, though the rest of Jian avoided incapacitation. Very aware that he was now cut off from the others, Simon chose to abandon his current magazine in favour of a fresh one and waited for another unfamiliar burst of fire to pinpoint exactly where their attackers were. As the two teams began to battle each other in earnest, he picked out at least two others in the treeline to his left, slowly closing in on Jian while another duo hit them from behind.
Though he wanted nothing more than to hunker down and wait for the opportunity to arise, Simon knew that doing so would come back to bite him once this was all over. Unsure as to whether or not he had killed the enemy marksman, he kicked off from the ground into a sprint, crashing through the greenery without any semblance of stealth. As he closed in on the source of the gunfire, a flash on his heads-up display informed him that Ralph had been marked as 'KIA', leaving only two of his comrades to fend off their attackers. Simon ran faster, carrying his primary weapon in one hand; there would be no room for precision fire this close.
He ducked around a tree, surged forward, ran right into the waiting butt of a carbine.
Simon's visor nearly cracked from the force as he crashed backwards into the dirt, his head ringing. Only training and instinct saved him as he opened fire immediately, gunning down the armoured trainee who had knocked him down as he span his carbine around. Had he simply waited for Simon to come rushing in he could have shot him down immediately; this one had been either arrogant or stupid to try dealing with him at close range. The trainee's partner wasted no time in firing on Simon, hitting him several times in the lower legs as he scrambled behind the tree and into the bushes. His left leg seized up immediately, as did his right foot, severely hampering his mobility. Before his opponent could close in, Simon blind-fired the rest of his magazine, and quickly reached for a new one as the carbine clacked empty. Several rounds thudded into the tree behind him, and as it let up for a moment, Simon edged out to find the other trainee mid-reload. He rewarded his mistake with several shots to the chest, though as the other trainee collapsed, May's IFF winked out as well.
"Simon," Cassandra spoke out over TEAMCOM, "They rushed out position. I can't move my right arm that well, but I think they've missed me. What's your status?"
With his legs all but frozen, Simon could barely walk. "My legs are gone," he muttered. "Best I can do is draw their fire."
To illustrate his point, Simon fired at random into the trees before half-dragging himself from tree to tree. Unable to stray very far, he eased himself into a patch of overgrown ferns and crouched down, steadying himself against a fallen log. After his suit's camo systems shifted into place, he was practically invisible. The jungle grew quiet once more, with no sign of movement from either Cassandra or the enemy team for several minutes. The prone bodies of the two trainees he'd shot lay out in the open before him, though they were unable to communicate with their teammates once their armour systems registered them as 'dead'. It was the perfect bait.
Eventually, Simon caught sight of the slightest shift in the bushes to his left as a green-tinged shimmer inched its way through. Moving with near-imperceptible slowness, he turned his MA5K and fingered the trigger. A moment later, he opened fire, sending leaves flying as the TTR ripped across the undergrowth. His target barely evaded the first volley, though as Simon adjusted his aim he felt something gently tap the back of his helmet. He froze.
"Drop it," said a familiar voice. Simon felt his stomach turn.
Of course, this happens to me. How else could this shitty goddamn exercise possibly end?
Standing with an MA5K levelled directly at the back of Simon's head was Clayton-G045, the leader of Team Scythe. Though he was prepared for the inevitable gloating, Scyhe's members being regarded as the biggest braggarts in Gamma Company, the fact that Clayton hadn't immediately shot him meant that the other trainee likely had something much worse in mind. Even so, he let the carbine fall to the floor. Clayton kicked it away, and his comrade emerged from across the clearing, completely unharmed.
"Just shoot me already," Simon said tiredly. "You got me, all right?"
To his surprise, Clayton laughed. "Well shit, it's the runt! I thought we had it easy when we caught you guys off-guard, so that explains a lot."
"Not so good when you're not bushwhacking, are you?" the accented drawl of Ezra-G323 emanated from his comrade's helmet. "Typical Jian."
"You sure talk big," Simon spat. "Your boys over there didn't do so well."
Clayton gave him a fierce kick in the ribs for that, sending Simon sprawling to the ground. Bad mistake, he thought as he wheezed in pain. While they treated the rest of Gamma with barely-disguised disdain, Scythe were ridiculously protective of each other. If anything, they were likely twice as determined as Jian were to get revenge after their recent brawl. As he got to his knees, Clayton tapped the side of his helmet with his carbine again.
"Since we've got time, runt, how about Ezra and I give you a little beating to make up for what you did to Jiang and Clayton? Heck, I'm even willing to call it even for our last fight after this. What do you say?"
Though he admittedly had little of it to speak of, pride made Simon instinctively begin forming some curse-laden retort that would likely get him an even lengthier beatdown, though the thought of he and his team simply being left alone by Scythe after this was a promising one. He was no stranger to pain, after all, and the rest of Jian might even thank him for it. Looking up at the opaque faceplace of his captor, Simon sighed.
Before he could finish, Cassandra burst through the trees behind him, holding a pair of MA5K's. Before Ezra and Clayton could properly register their attacker she opened fire, spraying TTR everywhere in a wall of light and noise. Ezra went down, struck first in the knee and then repeatedly across his neck and upper torso. Clayton took several rounds to the side as ducked into a crouch and, taking in a split-second as Simon fell to one side. Using his captor's moment of ignorance, Simon fished his M6C sidearm from its holster and raised it.
Clayton realised his error half a second too late. Though he span to finish Simon off, all it took was a single TTR shot to the centre of his visor and his entire suit locked up instantly. Team Scythe's leader collapsed stiffly to the ground, and as Simon picked himself up, he was certain he could hear a roar of anguish from within his opponent's helmet. Balancing himself on his frozen leg, Simon gave Clayton a good kick in the gut and nearly fell over.
"Simon, are you okay?" Cassandra called, crossing the clearing. She had discarded one of her carbines, and the arm she held the other in had been locked into place by repeated TTR hits, allowing her to still carry the weapon.
"Just about!" he replied, half-hopping towards her. "Thanks for the save."
Cassandra nodded, barely acknowledging him as she looked around at the incapacitated Spartans. Once the drill instructors came for them and deactivated the TTR's effects on their armour they would be right as rain, but there was something eerily corpse-like about the way they had fallen, which he supposed was the entire point. Even so, he had little pity for Team Scythe, of all people. After years of dealing with their selfish, bullying ways, Simon had finally one-upped them in the most humiliating way possible. Winning the exercise with their current injuries seemed unlikely, but at this point he knew he'd won a greater victory.
As he approached Cassandra, however, she jerked to one side, crying out in alarm as another figure emerged from behind a tree. The trainee fired before she could get a shot off, striking her again and again as she staggered backwards. Simon snapped his pistol up towards the intruder, though the second it took to compensate for his frozen leg gave his attacker enough time to fire on him. They hit each other simultaneously, Simon scoring surprisingly accurate hits across the neck and chin while his torso was hosed down. He staggered backwards as pain sensors pinged across his torso, eventually slumping to the ground with his back to the tree as the other trainee collapsed.
As his eyelids fluttered with exhaustion, the TTR's powerful anaesthetic working with his own semi-powered armour systems to render him unconscious, Simon vaguely recalled the marksman he'd fired on earlier. It was Ianto-G200, Scythe's fifth member. He glanced towards Cassandra, who lay in the grass with her frozen limbs splayed out at strange angles, and could only let out a deep sigh. It wasn't quite a victory. It could never really be a victory. He closed his eyes.