|This article, The Onyx Chronicles/Playing Defense, was written by Ahalosniper. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.|
“Oh, this is bad.” Dyne murmured, shifting his weight anxiously from one armored foot to the other. Through the golden faceplate of his helmet, he stared into the dense undergrowth of Onyx’s forests with his SPI armor’s gauntlets wrapped tightly around the grips of a TTR-loaded MA5K.
Breezes traveled through the canopy far overhead, swaying branches and casting strange patterns of shadow across the green-gray armor of two young Spartans that had yet to activate the SPI's camouflage systems. They sat very still, hidden at the edge of a glade where shafts of sunlight shone on a bright orange flag planted in the center. Beyond the clearing’s edge, the morning’s gloom permeated the forest’s lower levels, surrounding the glade with emerald mist.
Both Spartans kept a sharp watch on that edge, scouring the perimeter for any sign of movement, and Kodiak found himself agreeing with Dyne’s prime tactical assessment. Their team had been matched up against Saber for the morning’s Capture The Flag exercise, which was bad enough of a start. Saber was turning out to be one of the best squads in the entire company, maybe the best. Machete, in the meantime, had run into a slump and was barely staying ahead of Jian’s score at dead-last. If they lost, Jian would finally have someone to brag to.
And now that seemed like it was going to happen. As team leader, Kodiak had opted for a defensive strategy when the game began, but Morgan hadn't seen it his way. Instead, she'd struck out alone to go on the offensive, and not about to be outdone, Amber had done the same with the intent to beat her to Saber's flag. Accepting that he wouldn't have been able to hold either young woman back with Warthogs and towcables, he asked their last member, Tara, to go after them, and see if the quiet but imposing girl could do anything to help them.
Not about to leave their flag defenseless, Dyne and Kodiak had elected to stay behind, and sure enough had heard over TEAMCOM when the girls were ambushed, and their vitals on TEAMBIO registered them tagged, down, and out. Now, all five Sabers were likely coming right for them.
Not sure what else to do, the flag's last two defenders had hidden nearby in a place with cover and a good view, waiting for the moment they’d catch a glimpse of one of their opponents before surely being cut down by armor-locking paintball rounds. After a long time spent listening to the leaves rustle overhead, Dyne risked a glance at Kodiak and shrugged. “Maybe we can move up, fight ‘em early and take ‘em by surprise?”
Kodiak laughed humorlessly, still concentrating on the edge of the glade. “Good idea. Why don’t you ask Morgan how well that went for her?”
“Alright then, you think of something.” He retorted, clearly not excited by the idea of Ash-G099’s team shooting him with training rounds until he was numb. Again.
Kodiak gritted his teeth. He had been trying to figure something out, from the moment Amber’s voice had cut out with a yelp over the radio, but there just weren’t a lot of options in the position they were in. Advancing to face Saber head-on was defeat for sure, and abandoning the flag to fall back was defeat just the same.
That was the bleeping problem with protecting a position, he thought. This was how the Covenant were winning the war. Humanity had nothing to counterattack against, no reason for the Covenant to play defensive. They could attack when and where they wanted, and the UNSC had to wait and hope its inadequate defenses could hold. Machete was going to get crushed just the same. You couldn’t abandon a place, and you couldn’t move it . . .
Or maybe, His gaze strayed to the flag, . . . you could.
He stood up, leaving cover and walking into the open. Startled, Dyne’s attention became split between the direction of Saber’s side of the woods and the sight of his teammate pulling their own flag out of its base. “What are you doing?” He asked.
Turning around again, Kodiak looked down briefly to fix his own weapon to the magnetic strip on his thigh. “Taking some initiative. You coming?”
Confused, Dyne remained where he was a moment and glanced back into the clearing, “Is . . . is this allowed?”
Kodiak snorted, the faceless helmet giving him a brief stare. “Come on!”
“Right.” Dyne said, surprised he’d ever have asked such a question. Shaking off the hesitation, he plunged into the gloom behind him.
Once they’d left the glade behind, Kodiak soon lost touch with any wider sense of location. Everything, every branch he ducked and every creeping root he jumped off of, was wreathed in mist. Beyond ten meters or so, not even his sharpened eyes could see. The world ended at the edges of his perception, though as he plunged through the jungle, that world constantly changed from one hurdle to the next.
He could’ve activated his SPI’s camouflage now. It offered some of the best visual cloaking technology mankind had available, and in this fog it would render him an easily-mistaken phantom. But he’d wait. Kodiak didn’t need stealth at the moment, he needed distance, and he knew that the trail he and Dyne were leaving was going to be picked up very soon. Besides, he couldn’t mask the hunter’s orange flag flying directly over his head.
Before long, he heard Dyne behind him open fire with the MA5K, and knew Saber was catching up with them. He reappeared in Kodiak’s field of vision as a green outline lit up in his Heads-Up Display, the photoreactive texture panels on his armor making him blend into the mist.
“They seem ticked!” Dyne shouted needlessly over TEAMCOM, engaging both his fight and flight responses by firing a burst backwards akimbo. Kodiak risked a glance back, but only saw the paths of the rubber training rounds stir the mists without hitting anything solid. Were the other recruits cloaking, or had Dyne seen anything at all?
A half-dozen holes suddenly perforated a broad leaf just above Kodiak, and he instinctively altered course. He didn’t need to stay ahead long, just long enough for the mission timer to run out and end with a tie. That’d be enough to keep them ahead on the scoreboard for another day.
More tracers zipped by, and Kodiak nearly stumbled as several caught the back of his shins. He didn’t look back this time, they were definitely close. Their lead wasn’t going to last long enough at this rate. Saber had them outnumbered and Ash would figure out a way to outmaneuver them, they needed a way to throw off his coordination.
Another idea struck him, and he started looking for the right place to execute it.
Dyne had just finished reloading to continue with running and gunning when Kodiak got his attention with a hand signal. The pair changed direction again at once, leaping onto the huge trunk of a fallen sequoia. They were in the open, but not for long as he followed Kodiak in vaulting the upturned roots at the end of their makeshift bridge across the uneven ground.
Dropping to the fresh earth on the other side, he flicked his eyes to his motion tracker and looked up in the direction of Kodiak’s yellow friendly indicator, and found him holding out his MA5K for Dyne to take.
“Here. Try taking them by surprise when they pass by, just give me time!”
“Time for what?” Dyne asked, figuring out the balance of a one-handed grip. But Kodiak had already sprinted off again, vanishing into the mist with the flag rustling in his wake. Then the mist settled, and Dyne was alone.
He pressed his back against the tangle of roots and earth that had been pulled up, listening to only his own breath and finding he needed to calm it down. As it settled, the green fog started to press in again, and Dyne swallowed nervously. He hated this part of the forest, so close to Zone 67. It felt sometimes like he wasn’t alone, that there was something not far away hidden in the mist. And then he heard the sharp noise of SPI boots striking the tree trunk, and knew it for sure.
The footsteps rapidly approached, and Dyne readied his weapons. Reloading would take more time than he was likely to get, so he had to make the two magazines count. A humanoid distortion appeared over his head, jumping down right in front of him. Fortunately, the person was intent on the pursuit, and didn’t think to look backwards for an enemy.
As they got up from a crouch and ran forward again, Dyne raised both rifles and fired a double burst. Recoil made them rather clumsy shots, but at close range, it didn’t make much of a difference. Red paint pellets burst across the Saber trainee’s back, and they suddenly became visible as their armor froze up. Holly-G003 seized up at the sudden shock and pitched forward, falling into the ferns without so much as the shout of anger Dyne was sure would’ve echoed inside that helmet.
Looking at his motion tracker again to look for the next target, Dyne was sure at once that he’d made a mistake. He’d managed to get the jump on their point girl, sure, but now the rest of them knew exactly where he was and just how to deal with him.
One dot seemed to be coming around the left side of the tree, and Dyne swung one arm to aim, but saw nothing until a forceful blow slapped his arm aside. He reflexively pulled the trigger and sent a few paint pellets harmlessly into the brush, while Olivia was already bringing around another attack. Something sharp impacted Dyne’s midsection, and he stumbled back without Kodiak’s gun. Off-balance and free of the melee, Mark’s marksmanship suddenly hit him from behind, and he toppled over in stiff armor a moment later.
The pair of Sabers didn’t relax with him down, though. Mark swept around on watch as Olivia moved forward, slapping a yellow sticker on the prone Machete’s back and tagging him ‘dead’.
“He doesn’t have the flag.” Olivia confirmed after a brief check-over.
Ash emerged from the foliage in other direction, having circled around in case Dyne tried to break and run. “Of course not, he was trying to delay us. How’s Holly?”
“Not out cold, but not moving.” Replied Dante, who was kneeling beside her a short distance away from Saber’s fourth kill. “And not happy, either. Kody’s trail is still clear.”
“And now he’s unarmed.” Observed Mark.
Ash nodded and made a signal for his team to move out, adding verbally, “Stay close and in formation.”
He was fairly sure Kodiak’s plan thus far was the result of desperation, but Ash didn’t want to underestimate his opponent. After all, he and Dyne had just accounted for his team’s first casualty, when they’d dealt with Machete’s more competent members without a snag. And the last thing he’d been expecting when they converged on Machete’s flag site was to find its holder empty with no resistance whatsoever.
The goal just not being there hadn’t made any sense to him. He’d even double-checked with his team to make sure they hadn’t taken it already. But then, it had hardly taken Holly a glance at the ground to figure out which direction their defenders had gone once they started searching. Normally, such an obvious trail meant a trap, but with only one man left ‘alive’, Machete couldn’t have been planning this.
But that didn't mean they couldn't improvise.
Saber moved on, following a trail of torn moss, flattened ferns, and bootprints in the mud through the gloomy understory. Each of them was able to keep a sharp ear out, the entire team moving in silence to prevent their quarry from hearing them. Ash soon slipped to the back of their formation, ready to assist any of his three teammates if they found Kodiak, and started double-checking the signs Mark was going by when a sharp blow suddenly impacted the back of his head.
Seeing stars, Ash stumbled forward, but wasn’t knocked unconscious as the attacker had hoped. He spun, bringing his carbine around to put him down quickly, but before he could bring it halfway to bear an SPI gauntlet locked around his wrist and held the weapon away. Ash came visor-to-visor, and was about to growl a warning to his teammates when the other trainee headbutted him hard enough to send him sprawling onto his back.
Forcing his eyes open again despite the pain of an oncoming headache, Ash realized he’d dropped his carbine. Looking around, he saw Kodiak going for it, lying a few feet away in the fallen leaves and understood at once. Unarmed, Kodiak might’ve been able to take Ash one-on-one, but he wouldn’t stand a chance against his team without a weapon. Flashing the rest of Saber a warning with his acknowledgement light, he lashed out with a kick and swept Kodiak’s feet out from under him.
Ash pushed himself back up, knowing their scuffle would only last a few seconds now that his team was on its way. Kodiak didn’t bother, instead scrambling towards the carbine, but it was only a feint. Ash sprang at him, and Kodiak rolled over and pistoned his legs into Ash’s stomach to send him flying head over heels.
Rolling to his feet, Kodiak dashed towards where Ash had landed doubled over as he heard someone approaching through the brush, and saw too late the carbine his opponent had landed on top of. He felt his armor seize up as paint pellets broke against his cuirass, and toppled off-balance into the loam.
Ash sat up, sucking the wind back into his lungs as Dante burst through the undergrowth. Disabling his cloak, the armored trainee took in the scene quickly, and came up with the obvious. “You got him?”
“Yeah.” Ash said, exhaling for the first time. “Get the flag off of him and let’s head back.”
Dante nodded and crossed over to Kodiak, Mark and Olivia arriving as he did. Seeing Ash on the ground, Mark tilted his head quizzically, and Ash waved a hand dismissively to let him know he was okay. Kneeling down as Ash got up, Dante started checking over Kodiak’s body and rolled him onto his back. “Ah . . . he hasn’t got it.”
“What?” Ash asked, darting over to see for himself. Sure enough, there was a definite lack of any bright-orange flag in the compartments of Kodiak’s armor. “Look around. It can’t be too far away.”
The rest of Saber started spreading out and forging back into the jungle, when Ash looked at his mission timer. There were only seconds left in the game. “Bleep.” Ash muttered, and hauling Kodiak partway up by the front of his armor, pressed the button on the underside of his helmet to polarize the visor. Behind it appeared a face of a boy with pale skin and brown hair, his eyes closed in mock serenity.
“Where’s the flag?” Ash demanded.
Kodiak moved his mouth as little as possible to respond. “Shh. I’m dead, idiot. Don’t you get the concept?”
Grunting in frustration, Ash dropped him unceremoniously as the mission clock hit 00:00. An air horn blared from somewhere in the distance and signaled the all-clear, the match a draw.
He watched as Kodiak’s armor unlocked by remote, the fabric under its ceramic plates becoming pliable again, and offered him a hand up. Kodiak ignored it, pushing himself up instead with noticeable effort and tenuously stretching his sore muscles.
“Where was it, anyway?” Ash asked, not expecting a response.
Kodiak's visor was still unpolarized, allowing Ash to see the grin he wore as he pointed straight up. Following the indication, Ash spotted a bright orange flag nestled among the leaves of a low branch, with its pole blending in by hiding behind a branch.
Ash's shoulders slumped in disbelief that it’d been over his head the whole time, and after a moment of staring found to his chagrin that Kodiak was watching him smugly. He sighed in annoyance, feeling cheated of a rightfully-earned victory. “Come on. Let’s go find our teammates.”
Dante, Olivia and Mark joined them presently as they traipsed through the ferns in no particular rush, and before long they picked up two contacts on their motion trackers coming the other way. Dyne and Holly stepped through the brush, the paint still drying on their armor where each had been hit.
“Taking our own flag!” Dyne larked as soon as he spotted Kodiak, and tossed him the extra MA5K he’d brought along. “I bet Morgan wishes she’d thought of it.”
Holly was much less amused. Angry and embarrassed she’d let herself get jumped, she looked just about ready to start a fight.
“That was a dirty trick, Machete.” Holly growled. “You knew you couldn’t win, so you turned tail and ran.”
Kodiak just shrugged, holstering the carbine on his thigh. “Nothing in the rules said we couldn’t.”
“I think we ought to call it ‘pulling a Machete’.” Dyne chimed in, smirking through his visor in a way that was sure to provoke her. It was as much excuse as she needed, Holly had just curled her fist to throw the first punch when Ash’s voice stopped her in her tracks.
“No. It was smart.”
The six other trainees turned to look at him curiously, and Ash explained, “They knew they were going into a no-win scenario, and instead of throwing themselves pointlessly into a pitched battle, they found an alternative. It’s something we can afford to learn from, Saber.”
The rest of them continued to look on in silence as Ash started walking again, and he switched to his own TEAMCOM again to say, “Fall in, guys. Let’s get debriefed and grab some lunch. Besides, I’ll bet Mendez won’t let them pull that one a second time.”
Without a word, the other four Sabers followed suit and continued into the mist, leaving behind two perplexed young Spartans to wonder why Ash hadn't been sore.
"That insufferable bleep." Dyne pouted after a while, his fun ruined.