Pieces In Play

This week’s story is influenced by Halo. If you know the franchise you’ll probably be able to tell. If not don’t worry it isn’t important other than this is a military sci-fi story. It has a bit of a twist to it too. Not going to spoil it but this is a longer story at 15,100 words. And that is why I think we should get into it without any further delay, enjoy!

Having departed the United Nations Navy, or UNN for short, Sabre class megacarrier Imidachi aboard a Petrel dropship, the four members of Echo Team are stood armed and ready in their Ramesses Foundry Division Dominion III enhanced capability full body battle armour. They’re headed for a nearby asteroid field. It has no name. It never needed one. At one time it was the property of the Ion Mining Corporation. In theory it still is. However, following the diminishing output of the Ardent Station facility located at the core of the asteroid field, which in addition to other financial issues afflicting the beleaguered company saw them undertake restructuring that resulted in this facility being abandoned and becoming forgotten.

Unfortunately, that is not how Ardent remained. Intelligence suggests it is now a base of operations for a separatist group known as Stolen Moon Resistance. They more commonly refer to themselves as SMR. Their origins date back to the Io Insurrection of 2154 when the UNN invaded the Jovian moon and placed it under martial law following a period of serious civil unrest.

However, that is all back-story. Details perhaps important to some but not Echo. Their op is to infiltrate Ardent and secure a stolen weapons cache supply meant for UNN allocation. It happened during a pirate run not performed by the SMR themselves but inevitably funded by them and performed by another. Which pirate group might have been responsible the Intel dossier did not specify. Maybe they didn’t know. More likely it wasn’t included because it does not pertain to this op. It might pertain to another. There is no way of knowing with the UNN because they are a vast military peacekeeping force tasked with protecting the citizens of human space. Some would brand them differently but that is what the UNN is publicly labelled as across all but the fringe, backwater colonies inhabited by people disenfranchised with centralist human government, whether that be at a system or galactic level.

“Hold tight we’ve got plenty of debris up ahead, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Yeehaw!” The pilot of the Petrel dropship informs over the internal comms link of the Mismire Ltd designed and manufactured transport vessel.

If you were to look at a Petrel from the outside you would find it reminiscent of an old twenty first century aircraft called an Osprey. The general shape is the same, as is the use cases. You see a Petrel is a twin sublight thruster equipped vehicle with short narrow stalk like wings which connect the engines to the oblong shaped fuselage. In fact the only real difference in appearance between a Petrel and Osprey is the Petrel’s lack of a wide tail. Rather, the Petrel’s rear section tapers to a smooth point that overhangs the rear doors and ramp. Much like the old Ospreys it is capable of carrying a mixture of both people and small vehicles within its hold. In general these small vehicles are Meerkats, three wheeled all-terrain twin seat bikes. They aren’t comfortable, but get the job done.

On this op there are no Meerkats. Echo wouldn’t have a use for them. They’re ground vehicles for planet-side use and where Echo is going could never be termed planet-side. All four of them have seen the plans for Ardent. It’s a space station built into and around a giant space rock floating in the depths of the unnamed asteroid belt.

“Excitable guy, don’t you think?” Chief Petty Officer Ioan Hernandez says with a dry tone. His voice leaking through his Dominion III battle armour which covers him from head to toe without leaving anything exposed or vulnerable.

The Dominion III is RFD’s latest development in full body battle armour and is currently in use only with special operations units like Echo. The idea, once further testing and field work has been undertaken, is that it could become the standard armour used by all UNN personnel. If that happened it would replace the tried and tested Ballistix, a nickname given to the Ballist IX, combat armour. Ballistix like most body armour, historically, covers only the vital parts of any human being such as the organs found beneath the ribcage and skull. Extremities such as legs and arms, they’re left largely unprotected save for shoulder, elbow and knee pads meant to reduce breakages due to excessive impacts upon those joints.

“He’s just a pilot loving his role in the UNN.” Petty Officer 2nd Class Amanda Stein replies with a sly grin across her face which no one can see because of her armours helmet and blue mirror shielded visor.

If she were new to suits like the Dominion III she might find it difficult to properly convey the intent of her statements without expressions being a readable metric, but she isn’t. None of Echo are newbie’s to the UNN, or Echo for that matter. They’ve served together for a long time. Know each other better than anyone else likely ever will or has. Might sound sad but that is what a lifetime in the UNN will get you, like it or not. Luckily the members of Echo do like it. Many don’t and so rotate out as soon as their time comes. Not a life any of Echo think they could live. Not after what they’ve seen and done. It hasn’t always been pretty but life rarely is all sweetness and like.

“Car, we going over the op again before we deploy?” Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Jiang queries changing the conversation that was never going to go any further than it had already.

Echo are not the most talkative bunch, but as ever Cynthia wants to stay on task. Anyone would think she is squad leader, Echo 1, but she is not. She is Echo 3, Amanda Echo 2, Ioan Echo 4 and Warrant Officer Carmine Briggs is their squad leader and Echo 1.

“Affirmative.” Is the succinct reply Carmine gives in response to Cyn’s question. It’s what they all call Echo 3 for short. Much like everyone calls Echo 2 Andi and him Car.

“All business as usual, I see.” Ioan mutters under his breath believing his team comm. link to be closed. It isn’t. Thankfully no one issues a retort, least of all Carmine. They know how each other operate well enough to not get wounded by any of the jabs one of them might make.

“Command has tasked us with infiltrating Ardent Station. It’s an ex-mining platform. Intel suggests SMR have taken it over and command want us to recover a cache of stolen weapons. That’s it, nothing else to it. We drop, we go, we get it done. Link back when ready for extraction by the Petrel, return to the Imidachi and jump to wherever we’re needed next.”

There is a short pause following Carmine’s re-run through their op. Following it he says, “Questions?”

Silence is all he is met with. If he had not been amongst these three for almost half of his thirty one years of life he might be concerned. However, he is well aware that this silence means there are no questions. He expected, anticipated, nothing less. All of them have run plenty of ops and know how these things go. Still, it’ll be nice to get out and stretch the legs, if only for a little while. Being crammed into the Imidachi isn’t any of Echo’s idea of serving the UNN, regardless of the megacarrier’s size.

Dimensions of the megacarrier are figures he can recite off the top of his head, without trying. And just like that they spring into the forefront of his mind and he hears: eleven thousand two hundred and sixty seven metres in length, twelve hundred fifty one metres wide with a height of eighteen hundred and seventy seven metres. Someone would find that impressive, he has no clue as to whom. Just don’t admit you know the Imidachi’s approximate weight of one point nine billion metric tons. That is a little embarrassing.

“Ardent ahead. Drop in thirty. Get ready cause we’re coming in hot.” The pilots twanging voice declares over the Petrel’s internal link speakers.

The four members of Echo exchange looks and shrugs. Each set of Dominion III a different colour. Carmine’s is a dull matte green, Ioan’s brown, Amanda’s is a dark almost black shade of blue while Cynthia’s is white.

“Are we under fire?” Echo 1 queries to the Petrel’s pilot. The response he gets is swift, “No sir, it’s just more fun this way.”

Carmine blinks. Without a doubt this Petrel pilot is unique. Never have Echo, as far as he can recall, come across a pilot so enthusiastic or seemingly reckless as the one they have currently. Sure, all Petrel pilots are a little mad. They have to be to fly into a hail of bullets to drop-off or retrieve UNN personnel like they do.

Pity the uniqueness of this pilot isn’t mirrored in his Petrel. The interior is standard issue grey; bare metal non-painted for efficiency both in terms of manufacturing by Mismire and maintenance/repair by UNN engineers.

At one time vehicles like the Petrel would have come under the UN Air Force but both they and the UN Army have long since been folded into the UNN, which means the navy is the last branch of the old UN Military arm still standing. In fact even the UNM has ceased to exist. The hierarchy goes UN, UNN, civilians, in that order. Sure, there are a myriad number of tiers amongst civilians but no UNN personnel concerns themselves which such distinctions, unless they are deployed alongside for assistance purposes. Then the UNN pay attention to civilian hierarchy. After all, they need to remain the ‘good guys’ even when there are groups like SMR who want to paint them as murderers and imperialists. Yes sadly that old label still hasn’t died for humanity in the twenty fourth century. It seems as though it refuses too, no matter how hard some have tried to coax it into a grave.

Suddenly the turbulence of the Petrel doubles. While before it was barely noticeable to Echo due to the multi-role actuators in their Dominion III suits, which are principally meant for enhancing their speed and strength capabilities, it is very much not the case now. All four members of Echo are quickly forced to resort to steadying themselves in the seconds prior to them activating the maglocks on their boots. That instantly erases the issue of being bucked and thrown about the metal seat lined sides of what is otherwise an open and empty cargo hold in the dropship.

“Is our cover blown?” Echo 1 asks with a steely tone of voice. He’s fully in operation mood now, not that most people would be capable of telling much difference, except for the members of Echo and command.

“No sir, just having to dance with these rocks. They keep moving you know. Not an easy feat to miss this many space boulders the size of carriers and stay off ping.” Is the reply the pilot shouts into the internal comms link system.

Evidently the pilot is no longer hands on with the transmitter. Instead he is keeping both hands on the Petrel’s controls as the dropship spirals and quickly dives in all manner of directions which would make most UNN personnel sick to their stomach due to the dropships simulated gravity. Echo have been through much worse, many a time, which is just as well because vomiting in a suit like the Dominion III is very ill-advised. That is especially true if you’re soon to drop into an op, one that will almost inevitably involve combat at some point. You might be wondering why it would be so ill-advised, well have you ever tried aiming, or seeing in general, when your vacuum sealed helmet is partially filled with a liquid which isn’t meant to be there? Didn’t think so, and don’t. It’s not the sort of thing you want to try, ever.

“Standby for drop in five… four…”

“Is he serious? We’re still moving. If we drop at this velocity we’ll end up as splat marks on the hull of the station.” Are the statements issued by Cynthia. She never gets a reply for the pilot screams excitedly, “Hatches open, bombs away!”

On cue the hatches snap open. They don’t part slowly as you might expect but in the blink of an eye. One second they’re closed, the next they are fully open. The four members of Echo rocket through the gaps. They were stood upon the hatches. Usually such a method is not advised in vacuum and instead those hatches tend to be used planet-side when in-orbit by UNN personnel who abseil down using the winches mounted directly above those openings.

You see Petrel’s are built for use in both vacuum and planet-side situations due to their magnetic seals. If they lacked such things then a lot of UNN personnel would be dead by now, except for units like Echo that is. Their suits are pressurised and have sufficient oxygen to supply them for ninety continuous minutes of incredibly strenuous and heavy breathing. Still, no one ever drops ops teams like Echo have just been. Like Cynthia said its suicide or would have been if the Petrel pilot wasn’t one of the best in the Fifteenth Fleet of the UNN, of which Imidachi is a part.

Regardless, hurling through the void toward Ardent at a higher velocity than any bullet has ever been fired from any gun is no easy feat. Thankfully Echo fire their armours brake and stabilising thrusters to slow moments before impact onto the outer hull of the former mining platform.

Carmine and Amanda land first. As soon as they’re down their weapons are up, levelled with fingers over the triggers ready to fire. Echo 1 has a bullpup burst rifle in his hands while Echo 2 has her old faithful HPR-44E.

In space perspective can be difficult but she would much rather struggle with judgement distance than be left in an open area, you can’t get anywhere more open than space, with her Snapside pistol.

The area is clear. Not that either Echo 1 or 2 believed it wouldn’t be. SMR don’t have Dominion armour of any version or variant. That armour is UNN only. Funded by the navy and kept under lock and key. No one, not even Echo, know where Dominion is manufactured. Rumours say it could be Mars. But then rumours also mention Baldur, Damascus Station, Ares, Heimdall, Kronos and so many more.

When Echo’s 4 and 3 land they too raise their weapons.

“See Cyn we’re fine, nothing to worry about.” Echo 2 says with a smile no one can see.

“Cut the chatter. We need to get inside. Schem’s show there should be a hatch somewhere around…” Echo 1 begins only for Echo 4 to interject and advise, “Found it.” Right after he chuckles. Echo 1 shakes his head in disbelief. Ioan is always the one to be in the right place at the right time when it comes to things like this. It’s like he knows where he needs to be in advance. He doesn’t but from time to time he does play to the notion that he does. On seldom occasions the other members of Echo play along. Usually when they’re on shore leave and Ioan is trying to pull. Echo 4 is by far the most social of the bunch. He grew up as part of a large family. That’s the explanation Cynthia gives as to why he’s the way he is. The rest of them, they keep to themselves and each other.

“So how come it’s not open already, four?” During ops Echo tend to refer to one another by their numbers. It’s a just encase scenario that was drummed into them in training. The idea is that if comms are hacked and compromised no one who is not a member of Echo, or any other squad for that matter, will know who is talking.

“I’m demo. Unless you want me to blast a hole in this stations hull its better someone else take this. And anyway I found the hatch; never said I was opening it.” You can hear the smile that must be on Echo 4’s face as he delivers his reply. Ordinarily Carmine would quieten Ioan down but they’re not inside yet and as long as this is the last mini-speech he goes on Echo 1 won’t have to. Generally the Chief Petty Officer knows when not to push his luck.

“Two, think you can do the honours?” Echo 1 orders in the least commanding way you can imagine, seeing as it sounds more like a request than a command.

The response from Amanda is a curt nod. It is followed by her rifle being lowered and her transitioning to the hatches edge. Out here she is the least useful member of Echo with the weapons at her disposal. Not a great deal is likely to change once they are inside the station either. Not that her status as a sniper changes how the rest of Echo treat her. To them she is a necessary part of the group. More than a few times she’s saved all of their lives. But then they have all saved each other from death countless times. None of them keep score. There wouldn’t be a point. Not in this teams eyes anyway.

While Amanda works on flipping the lock on the hatch Ioan, Carmine and Cynthia keep a watchful eye on their surroundings. If it weren’t an asteroid belt then it would be a great deal easier to keep track of movement. Alas it is and so that means everything is moving constantly, except them technically.

This would be the perfect time for an ambush Echo 1 thinks only to swiftly remind himself SMR don’t have the capability. They have starships don’t they? Fighters? Well yeah, he admits. Then SMR are capable of striking. That means keep your eyes up and head on a swivel. That last part Carmine hears in the voice of his old drill sergeant. He must be retired by now, long since. He was somehow a throwback from the old UNA days. The Warrant Officer hasn’t a clue how. He was under the impression the UNA was subsumed into the UNN a good while prior to when it would have been possible for the sergeant to have enlisted. Does it matter? He supposes not but does as he was drilled to do; he keeps his eyes up and head on a swivel.

“It’s unnervingly quiet out here.” Echo 3 mutters under her breath more to herself than to her team. Cynthia has a habit of doing that, talking to herself. Carmine tends to let it pass because it’s infrequent and never is more than a half dozen words. Most squad leaders would not. But then Echo are not like most units, special ops division or otherwise.

Dull clanks can soon be heard. It seems Amanda has given up on finesse and resorted to brute force. Carmine cannot say that he blames her but elects to give her a little more time until he checks in. She doesn’t need babysitting, none of them do. Hence that is why he returns to scanning his surroundings. The boulders, or whatever they should be called in an asteroid field, are enormous and hideous. He’s heard some people call them beautiful. He cannot understand as to why. To him they are mighty balls of brown, black and grey rock pitted with impact craters and sheer edges where something larger has cleaved them into two pieces or more. It strikes him that perhaps those he heard referring to asteroids are beautiful were miners. But somehow that doesn’t seem likely. All the miners he’s come across, which isn’t many to be fair, have never struck him as the sentimental types. The sort who would pine or swoon over an object which to most people is a resource cache, a means to an ends, a payday.

Out of nowhere there is a bang. It is swiftly followed by, “…and we’re in.”

Carmine drops his gaze from what has become a boring view of the asteroid belt and locks eyes with Amanda’s mirrored face shield. He nods his approval and gets one in response. Right after Amanda shuffles back.

“Three, you’re up.” Echo 1 orders with a quick lateral stab of his helmeted head.

“Copy.” Is the short reply provided to Carmine by Cynthia a nanosecond prior to her releasing the maglocks on her boots and throwing herself headfirst through the gaping hatch into whatever space might lie beyond.

A few seconds pass and then the units’ comm. link bursts into life. “Pressure cabin, sealed. We’re going to have to collapse before anything else.” That is the information Echo’s scout provides.

“You heard her, double time through the hatch.” Is the order given.

Without hesitation Amanda and then Ioan pass through the hatch and into the former mining platforms pressure cabin. A fancy way of describing an airlock corridor knuckle connection that links generally two or more avenues together. Carmine hopes it’s two and no more than that. That’s because two would mean one avenue leads back to the main station hangar, the one that’s sealed with blast doors, while the other would push deeper into the facility. More than that and the unit may need to divide.

Carmine, Echo 1, is the last to drop through the hatch. He does a final sweep of his surroundings. It remains the same uninspired view of the asteroid belt and then he performs his transition. As he slips through the hexagonal opening he makes sure to grab a hold of the locking wheel on the inside of the hatch and haul the slab of metal back to its closed position, except this time on the inside of it instead of the out.

With the hatch seated Carmine turns the locking wheel. Its squeals, he hears that and at the end of the three hundred degrees of revolution he is met with a solid green light which informs the pressure seal is activated.

He slams his open palm against a button on the nearby bulkhead which re-pressurises the cabin. As the pressure returns to equal that of the remainder of Ardent he turns to face the three other members of Echo. All are stood with weapons in hand, lowered, but more than ready for whatever might come next.

“Echo, Echo; this is command. Do you read?” A woman’s voice says ringing loud and clear into each of the helmets of Echo.

“Command this is Echo 1 we read you.”

“Echo your op has been amended. Repeat your op has been amended. This is no longer asset recovery. You are to proceed with asset denial. Repeat, your op is asset denial. Confirm?”

Ioan, Amanda and Cynthia exchanges looks from behind their mirrored face shields. Carmine does not. He keeps his eyes locked on a section where the cabins wall and floor meet but can see the movements of his squad in silent questioning as he replies, “Confirm command, change of op to asset denial is understood.”

“Confirm? We don’t have the gear for asset denial. This was meant to be a recovery op. How are we going to deny? We haven’t even found what we’re meant to be denying yet.” Ioan is the first to question. Shortly afterward Amanda and Cynthia add their two penneth in the form of nods of approval and, “We can’t deny unless they want us to deny the entire station and like four says we don’t have what it takes for that.”

Carmine is well aware. It’s why he hasn’t ended the link to command. Normal operating procedure dictates he should and would have but doesn’t agree with this decision. And what he wanted was his units input. They’ve given it without prompting and they agree, unknowingly, with their squad leader. Hence that is why Echo 1 soon advises, “Command, we are ill equipped for asset denial.”

“Order stands Echo 1, command over and out.” With that command sever the link between themselves and special operation unit Echo.

“Well that went well.” Amanda blurts without concern.

“No but we have our orders.” Cynthia offers with a shrug.

“Three is right. Orders are orders. We need to get this done.”

“Car, we can’t. I’m demo and I’m telling you there is no way… Actually scrub that. There is a way.” A smile slides across Ioan’s face. The idea which has dawned on him is stupid, reckless, almost certainly life-threatening but it would get the job done.

“What is it? I know you’re smiling under that helmet, Ioan. Tell me.” Ordinarily Carmine would have chastised Echo 4 for using names during an op but given their current situation, of having the rug pulled out from underneath them, it doesn’t feel right to. So, Echo 1 replies in much the same fashion, not to make a point or illustrate the mistake but because it’s clear caution has been thrown to the wind. If anyone has hacked their link, highly unlikely given that this platform is in the possession of separatists, then they’ll know the names of Echo. Not a lot to go on in the grand scheme of things, Carmine has to admit. After all, what can SMR do with names? The four members of Echo have had all their records sealed, a UNN command decision. Its means there is no mention of them or their backgrounds anywhere. For all intents and purposes they are ghosts, UNN ghosts, but ghosts all the same. That means you’d have to personally know Ioan, Cynthia, Carmine and Amanda to have any hopes of exploiting some weakness and there is no way an SMR member knows any of the members of Echo personally, now or ever.

Ioan throws his arms wide in preparation for his big reveal. He’s enjoying his moment in the spotlight and intends on savouring it.

“We overload Ardent’s fusion generator.” When he finally speaks that is all Echo 4 says. He gives no details. He doesn’t need too. Everyone in Echo is smart enough to work out what that will result in.

“That could work. We overburden the system and it’ll go into meltdown. Yes. Yes that would do it.” Cynthia assures as she works through the finer details in her head. Not because she has to but because that is simply how Echo 3 operates. She’s a detail orientated person who has a tendency to over analyse in a way which regularly benefits Echo.

“Would the yield be enough?” Echo 2, Amanda, queries. She assumes it will but feels it prudent to be sure. The last thing Echo want is an asset denial tactic which fails the denial part.

“If we assume that Ardent runs off an old ion fusion generator, which is safe to assume considering this facility was once the endeavour of Ion, then it would be a gen seven variant. Hmm.” Cynthia drops into deep thought. Details long dormant need to be dug out of the recesses of her mind, which takes barely any time at all for she is pretty sure a gen seven is a fifty thousand megawatt capable unit. If she’s right and she quickly does the maths to check then… “It’ll be more than enough.” Is the assurance Echo 3 gives and she is right. Fifty thousand megawatt production will not only eviscerate Ardent but a sizable chunk of the belt around it too. Just as well in space there is no air or it would become a radioactive toxic wasteland for tens of thousands of years following a detonation.

“Will the blast affect the Imidachi or the rest of the Fifteenth Fleet?” Echo 1 queries not wanting to damage UNN property.

He is well aware that when Cynthia says more than enough she means by tens of times rather than how it might sound which is marginally. If you didn’t know Cynthia you wouldn’t be aware but Carmine does, hence why he’s asked.

A period of consideration follows. At the end of it Echo 3 advises, “It will not, I don’t think.”

It might not be a guarantee but Echo are aware that guarantees are things which can seldom be given when it comes to anything special operations related. If they were then the UNN wouldn’t have need for units like Echo because everything would be to the letter, predictable, precise.

“Either way it’s the only choice we have unless we strike lucky and stumble onto some demo charges.” Amanda points out with a barely noticeable shrug of her shoulders. And she has a point. It isn’t likely. They all know it. So seeing as command wants these caches of stolen weapons denied and kept from the hands of SMR there isn’t any other choice it seems.

“Plan set; mark the generator on your maps and let’s get moving Echo.” Those are the orders Carmine gives but a few seconds prior to Echo releasing the pressure lock keeping them from the rest of Ardent Station’s interior.

In all the chatter Carmine hasn’t noticed that the cabin only links two avenues. If he had he’d have been pleased because it means they aren’t going to need to split off into pairs or singles to cover ground.

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