Pieces In Play

“Why do miners always make these places contrived?” Echo 2 cannot help but murmur in frustration as the special ops unit winds down the zigzagging corridors all of which are identical to the last one they navigated their way through. In fact the only differences have been when they are on an upward or downward incline and that has only turned out to be a few. Yet, as to why the avenues have ascended and descended is anyone’s guess.

“It’s a mining platform. They build where there are no ore deposits. The universe, potentially billions of years in the past, decides these things not the miners. They just come along, set up shop, dig and drill until they can no more and then pull out leaving, well this.” Cynthia explains in far greater detail than Amanda was probably looking for. It’s Echo 2’s own fault and she knows it. What she should have done is mute herself on the unit link and then speak her rhetorical question into her helmet so only she would hear it, but alas she didn’t and so she got what she got.

“I thought this place was supposed to be infested with SMR?” Ioan, as the next to speak, queries without dropping the barrel of his heavy carbine a millimetre.

“No one said infested, just procured.” Echo 2 reminds with a quick glance to the back of her CO’s helmet. He offers no reply to the chatter. Before long he will, she knows it, they all do. But until then they’ll continue as they please or until the conversation peters out.

Amanda has her Snapside in her hands. Not much use for a sniper or her rifle in enclosed tunnels like these corridors. Even the t-junctions and crossroads wouldn’t suffice to make using a rifle a suitable option. While she knows that, feels it, she cannot help but feel uncomfortable not having her old faithful HPR in her hands. That is how accustomed to it she is. It’s like an extension of her and she feels naked without it.

“I don’t see the difference.” Is the grumbled reply Ioan offers in response.

“Cut the chatter. Corridor opens up ahead. Be ready for anything.” Echo 1 orders bringing a swift end to the conversation. It didn’t and doesn’t annoy him that they were talking but as squad leader he has to keep his people on task. Not that at any point they were off task, he is fully aware that they were not. Rather, they were engaging in idle talk to break up the monotony of trudging down identical avenues with nothing but the kinks, turns, junctions and occasional pressure cabins to act as ‘changes.’ And that is something they could barely be called for most were barely noticeable. It’s why Carmine is mildly surprised to learn this jaunt has taken them three point one kilometres, according to the heads-up in his visor.

The counter is down in the very bottom left corner and forces him to purposefully look that way if he wishes to see it. Unlike the map projected into the top left of his vision which he can see as long as he keeps his eyes vaguely forward.

Without issue Echo reach the room beyond the corridor. It isn’t vast as you might expect of a mining platform. In fact it looks far more like a workshop, crammed with tools of the single user variety. By the looks of things the miners left in a hurry. Carmine only thinks that because all the tools and replacement components have been left behind. By the looks of things no one tried to exfil with anything. It’s a strange thing to see but not that unexpected. Companies like Ion rarely care much for wasted equipment or to inform their employees of why a station is being evacuated. More than likely Ion wasn’t intending to leave all of this here permanently but in the financial issues that followed misplaced the entries which detailed the existence and potential monies tied up in Ardent. What comes of needing a restructuring he guesses, unaware of if that’s right or not for his only job has been serving in the UNN.

In a whispered tone of voice, completely redundant as Carmine’s voice cannot be heard outside of his Dominion III armour, he orders, “2, 4; take the right side.”

No verbal confirmation of the order is given. Rather, Amanda and Ioan pulse their links to convey understanding in the moments prior to them peeling off leaving Echo 1 and 3, Cynthia, to cover the left side. It looks and sounds empty but appearances can be deceiving. That is one of the first things all of them learnt in boot camp at the tender age of seventeen.

Burst rifle levelled, Carmine leads the way down the left side. Behind him covering the rear Cynthia keeps her Splinterswift SMG pressed into her shoulder. She doesn’t need to due to the capabilities afforded to her by her Dominion armour but habit is a difficult mistress to turn away from. And Cynthia should know more than anyone seeing as because of habits she has needed to contend with a lifetime of idiosyncrasies all of her own making. Some are barely noticeable, such as her insistence on knocking three times when the need calls for it, others meanwhile are glaringly obvious. Yes, her need to think things through is one of them, as is her need to frequently do it aloud. For Carmine, Amanda and Ioan they are what makes Cynthia, Cynthia. If they ever did annoy them then it was a long time ago when they were first introduced to one another. Not a chance meeting or even one of their choosing but when they were thrown together to serve as a squad on a training exercise. Since then they have remained together, inseparable in all ways that matter.

“Obstructions up ahead.” Echo 1 warns for Cynthia’s sake. It’s the least he can do seeing as she is backing up making sure they are covered from behind. Sure, it’s unlikely any target might approach from the rear, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Another lesson drilled into them during training.

Echo 1 often wonders if there is anything in his head that doesn’t relate to drills and training. He can’t be sure, in a joking sort of way, because he thinks he could relate everything back to his command of Echo if he wanted to. Not necessarily on purpose but…

“Contacts; nine metres ahead, next room, confirm?” Amanda’s voice advises from out of nowhere.

Echo 1 shifts his gaze, searching. He can see nothing. No contacts and then, movement. He catches the tail end of it. No doubts, nor ifs, but or maybes.

“Confirmed targets ahead in next room; number unknown. Close with caution but do not engage unless absolutely necessary.” Again Echo 1 whispers his orders into the team wide channel. And when he says absolutely necessary he means, do not fire unless you are spotted and fired upon first. It’s a standard order and while this isn’t a stealth op it will be much easier to execute if they go undetected. That is until they overload the generator. Doubtful they will remain undetected then. And that is doubly so when they call in the Petrel for pickup and withdrawal.

“Has anyone seen the socket wrench?” A voice, belonging to one of the SMR members, calls out loudly.

“What? Nah. Why the hell would we have seen whatever that is?” Is the response delivered in kind.

“If you don’t know what it is how can you be so sure you haven’t seen it?” The counterpoint is a good, fair, one but meaningless to Echo who are close, having stacked up on either side of the open doorway which links the workshop they’re in to the room beyond occupied by SMR.

From the limited view afforded to Carmine it looks to be a bigger space. That would be his conclusion. He can’t say by how much or if he’s at all correct but he and Echo should soon find out. Preferably without having to engage in a loud exchange of weapons fire.

“I count eleven. All armed. They’re pretty spread out.” Amanda informs using her HPR’s scope to read body heat signatures through the bulkhead. It’s not a function she has much need of regularly, at least not when they are planet-side anyway, but it comes in handy on ops like this. Beyond a shadow of a doubt the SMR have nothing comparable. Sadly the scope option can’t give details on the sorts of weapons the separatists are wielding. More than likely they’ll be older Union models, maybe a few Cardene’s here and there, but nothing modern. Separatists, SMR or otherwise, don’t have access to modern firearms. They’re all for UNN, unless they’re stolen. It seems whatever is in the stolen weapons caches have not been doled out as yet. That will soon change. Especially if these weapons were to get out, as that would again spark discussions over the need for UNN registration grip locks. It’s an inelegant name for palm recognition, or some variant whose origins relate back to such a concept. If that happens the UNN will inevitably refuse for it would cause issues with current and future body armour plans for all personnel. After all, Dominion III has no way of granting access to a wearers palm print in any form that would be termed either suitable or swift while in combat scenarios. That is why the tech has never gotten off the ground. If the UNN had wanted it, it would have come along leaps and bounds, but it didn’t and hasn’t. Rather, the UNN went down a different path judging personnel’s hands and fingers to be of a higher importance than the occasional weapons cache theft.

“Route through without contact?” Queries Echo 1 immediately after the update provided by Amanda. He holds no hope there will be, not because of a lack of faith in Echo 2. No, instead he holds no hope because that, in his experience, is simply not how ops, the universe, life in the UNN generally, works. So when Echo 2 relays, “Indeterminable.” he isn’t surprised.

“Found it!” The voice cries apparently having located the socket wrench he had, for reasons unknown to everyone but him, been seeking out. Still, he rejoices all the same with a fully stretched arm reaching up above his head gripping the wrench in hand while his other has hold of an old Union assault platform which hangs limply, barrel pointed toward the deck beneath his feet.

“We going loud?” Ioan asks with a smile in his voice. Its presence unmistakable because of the way the words leak from between his lips. In fact, Cynthia is surprised none of them can hear Echo 4’s lips smacking loudly together in anticipation, but they can’t. It might be Ioan is muting himself so as not to give quite that much away. Why, she hasn’t a clue and is afforded no time to consider as Carmine orders, “Negative. We make every effort to slip past, unseen.”

“Car, there’s nowhere to take cover.” Echo 2 advises.

“How do you figure that, there’s plenty?” Is the confused tone Echo 3 possesses as she delivers her query. With her own two brown eyes she can see plenty of places behind which they could duck into for cover.

“What’re you seeing Andi?”

“Couple of sep’s are just on the other side of this wall. We breach and enter, they see us. No way they don’t.” Echo’s sniper exhales sharply. Not because she’s annoyed at Cynthia having questioned her but because this, as is often the case, is not ideal.

You’re used to not ideal. True, but for once I’d like it to be different. You had it different and hated it. That wasn’t the same; I was only a kid back then. And that’s why you joined up, to serve in the UNN; regretting your decision yet? No, I’m not. And stop using my father’s voice to antagonise me, you know I hate that.

Amanda is the only member of Echo who ever uses the term sep’s. There are reasons for it. All of them are classified. Much like this op is, will be, whatever. But there’s no harm in revealing just a tad about her background. She was born on a separatist world out on what, used to be, the fringe of human space. It isn’t anymore but had been when she was growing up. Her father raised her, in a form. He wasn’t a separatist but held no issue with their cause seeing as he despises the UNN and blames them for Amanda’s mothers’ death. From everything Echo’s sniper has read it wasn’t that cut and dry. Her mother, Lilianne, was no innocent bystander. She was a smuggler who worked exclusively for any group who was not the UNN or aligned with them. A known and well documented criminal with a litany of charges marked, many unconfirmed, against her name. Ultimately, she wound up doing a job with a no longer operational group who used her, and others, as human shields.

“It sounds like we’re going loud to me!” Echo 4 blurts with a merry tone which is swiftly followed by a hearty laugh. It’s not the killing Ioan enjoys; it’s the thrill, the adrenaline rush. He could get it many other places in many other ways but the UNN is his home and Echo are his family. He wouldn’t turn his back on Amanda, Cynthia and Carmine for all the riches in the universe.

“Stow your excitement Chief Petty Officer, but yes we’re going loud.” Echo 1 advises only to quickly add, “Same teams, same sides. Understood?”

“Copy.” Is the trio of in unison calls that Carmine gets in response and that draws a fleeting grin across his face.

“On my mark we go. Three… Two… One…” Echo 1 closes his raised fist at the end of the countdown he performed both verbally and with the fingers on his right hand. Throughout his left remained clamped on the grip of his burst rifle.

With the order given Echo slip around either edge of the open doorway into the room beyond.  Echo’s 1 and 4 go first, 2 and 3 bring up the rear. The twin SMR members just on the other side of the bulkhead, which Amanda pointed out, are the first to react, unsurprisingly. Unfortunately for them they are not quick enough to prevent their lives from being ended by a blast from Ioan and Amanda respectively.

On the left side Carmine and Cynthia dispatch a target each. Both were atop stacks of crates overlooking the area. They weren’t the closest targets but they certainly posed the greatest potential threat for they had perfect sightlines over Echo and would have been capable of not only pouring lead down on them but issuing orders to better direct their allies. No such issue exists now that they are dead. Alas, with four targets down that leaves seven remaining and Echo’s presence revealed.

The four of them collapse into cover positions spread along a wide band across the room. No point in making the SMR’s lives easier by gathering up and clustering together. That is a sure fire way of getting you and your unit killed as all the SMR would need is a single coordinated push or grenade. Yet, the use of explosives is unlikely on Ardent due to potential decompression, but then you can never be certain with separatists. They are often more extremist than intellectual, at least the grunts in the frontlines are anyway.

Seconds after folding themselves into cover Echo are met with walls of lead being shot in their collective direction. None of the projectiles pose any threat to the four special ops unit members as the crates, machinery and conduit pipes are assaulted, their surfaces battered, pitted and torn asunder.

“I count four left and three right, confirm?” Echo 1 says seeking confirmation of the brief glimpse he managed to secure prior to ducking behind cover in anticipation of the current onslaught.

The query is directed toward one member of the unit in particular, Amanda, but anyone is free to respond if they are able and willing. Ioan and Cynthia are not. They did not catch sight of their targets prior to collapsing into cover. Cynthia’s view had been largely blocked by a cluster of wide pipes which jut from the left wall only to disappear into the floor a few metres over. A stack of crates in addition made it impossible for her to see whatever was happening on the right side of the room. It’s like SMR planned this. She doubts that they did. More than likely they were not expecting a UNN assault. If they had been there would be more people, she thinks. Experience tells her that and she agrees without cause not to. No qualms, reservations or hesitations present themselves for it sounds right. Not perfect but correct. There is a difference, at least there is in her head.

Ioan sadly suffered from a similar lack of viewing angle for much the same reason but mirror flipped, except he wasn’t limited by wide pipes but machinery in the form of large drills. Not the single asteroid drilling kind but ones twice the size of any averagely proportioned human. He makes that judgement well aware, and informed by, the fact that Amanda and Cynthia are of a similar height to himself and Carmine. It’s one of the requirements to be considered for the special ops unit, you have to be tall, resilient, strong, determined. If you weren’t then you wouldn’t get through the easiest of ops you’d be sent on, let alone the hardest.

Following a quick scan from Amanda and her HPR she repeats, “Four left and three right; confirmed.”

That is all Carmine needed to hear and issues, “Pattern Sickle Delta Three, execute.” as his order.

In the blink of an eye all four members of Echo emerge from their chosen cover positions. The SMR are caught off-guard and hesitate unsure as to who to shift focus toward first. This short window of hesitation is more than enough and sees Carmine and Cynthia each take two SMR targets down with ruthless efficiency on the left, while on the right Amanda takes two out with her HPR leaving Ioan with the final charging separatist who does not get as close as perhaps he believed he might.

Even with all targets are dispatched Echo do not lower their weapons. Rather they collapse into a clear-ish section of the large vaulted room to ensure all angles of fire are covered by overlap encase anymore SMR feel inclined to assault their position. They do not. Rather, a sudden, deafening, blare of an alarm fires into life.

“Think that’s for us?” Amanda asks with a wry smile which accompanies a chuckle.

“Either that or Ardent’s about to crash into something.” Cynthia replies ever her analytical pragmatic self.

“And how likely is that?” Is the rhetorical question from Ioan.

“Intruder alert. Intruder alert. Seal all avenues. Personnel report to forward sections on the double.” Come the orders shouted over the top of the blaring alarm, answering Ioan’s question.

“Oh look they can speak military.” Echo 2 then adds sarcastically. Her statement results in a deep chuckle from Ioan. It comes to an end when Carmine orders, “Echo, focus. Generator remains our goal. Eyes peeled and engage only if necessary. Move out!”

With that Echo depart the battleground, returning to the boring uniform corridors.

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