It was high noon. The sun was at its peak over the city of New Oman as the pair of Hornet VTOLs (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) sped closer, each carrying a four-man fireteam of Marines who were clinging to the sides of the aircraft. Corporal Krone could see the light gleaming off of the windows of some of the skyscrapers as they drew nearer. It was a magnificent sight; the city was surrounded by almost nothing but sand, but even that couldn't distract him from the uncomfortable feel of having to balance on the Hornet's starboard landing skid while in transit. Despite the assurance of the safety straps keeping him from falling off the side, he had to constantly adjust himself just to alleviate the sliding sensation of gravity.
The wind resistance wasn't helping much either, pushing against his matte-black armor plating. It wouldn't have been a problem if he were hanging on with both hands, but his right hand was occupied with his weapon, which he was all but certain would be used once they reached their objective: New Oman's financial reserve center that intelligence had confirmed to be the target of a terror threat by Insurrectionists. Krone couldn't think of any way to rationalize the attack even from the terrorists' perspective.
A few decades ago he would have understood trying to make a point by taking lives, but that was before they were engaged in near total war against an alien species. It's bad enough that humanity was under constant fear of alien attack, he thought, but even worse that mankind didn't unify under the common threat. Maybe the Insurrectionists saw hope in being enlisted into the Covenant ranks by continuing their campaign against the United Nations Space Corps (UNSC). It was clear that the alien empire had allowed members of other species into their pact, being comprised of multiple races; and it wouldn't have been the first time Insurrectionists tried to "fit in." Maybe some people were just inherently evil, Krone mused for all of a moment until the pilot announced, "One minute out."
Without warning the Hornet dipped, lowering their altitude and causing Krone's titanium reinforced boot to slip off the skid. Before he could be caught by his safety harness, he felt a hand grab his shoulder guard.
"I gotcha," said Lance Corporal Ashley Soto, positioned just behind him on the Hornet's right side as Krone reached back and used her arm to pull his leg back onto the skid. "Don't go taking the easy way on me," she joked.
"Thanks for that," Krone laughed, looking back at her with a grateful smile that was blocked by the opacity of his non-reflective, blue-tint visor.
"You'd do the same for me."
Like Krone, she wore the same matte-black armor and full helmet, which covered all features and almost made her look large enough to match the bulkiness of the .50 caliber sniper rifle pressed against her assault vest. But even that couldn't hide her tone; she meant what she said, and Krone knew that she spoke for everyone else in their team.
While this wasn't the Corporal's first mission, against insurgency or otherwise, it was his first time under the command of Sergeant Cortez, a beyond-the-call type of team leader who wouldn't dare let an outsider compromise her people. But Krone had been with them long enough to know most of them by first name, even befriending a few, such as Soto who he had accompanied during her time acting as an advisor for colonial police forces.
Krone simply nodded to Soto and then turned his attention back to the objective, which was just across the street from the building beneath them. That minute was gone as soon as it arrived, the Corporal thought as the pilot brought the aircraft to a low hover, keeping level at four feet from the rooftop as ready signals went off in two of the Marines' helmets.
Soto being one of them, she unhooked herself from the Hornet with a series of clicks and snaps then slapped Krone on the arm. "Good hunting," she said.
Before the Corporal could reply with more than a lazy salute, the marksman leapt off the side of the Hornet, hitting the rooftop with a roll. "Sniper team moving into position," she announced over the radio as she made her way to the edge of the rooftop, in stride with Private Illich, her spotter.
"Copy that," said Cortez. "Ground team deploying now. Lawson, rooftop's all yours."
"Acknowledged. Team two, get tactical. We're goin' up."
Not a moment sooner, Krone's Hornet was hovering just above the rooftop of the target building and his helmet blinked twice with a ready light, signaling him to drop. He unhooked himself, leapt off the landing skid, and landed feet first with a thud before dropping to a kneel, flanked by Lawson and Seva, who were already rolling into battery; the clicks and clacks of charging handles and weapon safeties being toggled.
Krone had already readied his weapon, a silenced M7 submachine gun. Compact and small enough to use one-handed, the M7 was perfect for this kind of an operationthe kind that involved maneuvering in the tight confines of hallways, stairwells. It was far more effective in close quarters than his longer, more ranged BR55 combat rifle, which with its medium range scope and heavier armor piercing rounds would have been more appropriate for street level combat. He only hoped it didn't come to that.
"Team twoin position," Lawson reported before gesturing Seva and Krone to the edge of the rooftop. They complied, positioning themselves along the safety rail and readying their harnesses as the Hornet rumbled in ascension, the pilot's voice filling their helmets.
"Albatross Five-One reporting successful deployment of both ground teams," she said. "Five-Two and I will be engaging in a holding pattern over the target area. Break. Sergeant, be advised, to avoid collateral damage we are not permitted to provide any close air support other than reconnaissance. Over."
"Copy that. All units, Team one is on the ground and approaching the entrance of target building now. Team two, you're clear to proceed."
Upon Lawson's acknowledgement, Krone clipped his harness around the safety rail and gave it a tug for good measure. Then in tandem with his two teammates, he graciously rolled himself over the side of the rooftop, placing his boots against the window and letting the rope catch his weight. From there, the three awaited instructions from their squad leader, which came almost on cue as they set down in position.
"Soto, how are things looking from where you are?"
"I see heat signatures on floors three, four, and seven. Two hostiles on the seventh floor corridor. Looks like they're overwatch. Should I light 'em up?"
"Negative. Wait for Team two. Lawson, they're all yours. Take 'em out so we can move in."
Lawson chinned his comm. "Got it. Out. Alright guys, let's move, nice and slow."
The three of the Marines slowly rappelled their way down along the side of the building, gliding in short intervals after kicking off of the structure, and finally coming to a full stop with a thunk as their boots made contact with the windows. Eventually after repeating the action twice more the fireteam was in position just above the seventh floor.
"Set," Krone said, keeping his weapon level in one hand with the rappel line in the other. Since they were above the window line, they couldn't get a definite sense of where the two hostile insurgents were without Soto's guidance. It would have been easier for her to take the shot, in fact Krone was surprised that Cortez didn't give the order to fire, but it did run a slight risk; for all they knew a civilian could be on the other side of the wall past the target. "How close are we, Ash?"
"They're shifting positions in the corridor. They should both be passing just below you in a few seconds. Standby."
Krone could feel his palms starting to sweat underneath his gloves as he tightened his fingers around the M7's handle. The suspense was unbearable. Hanging from the side of a building was easierHell, it was funwhen there was no risk of being compromised by a life threatening force. In the seemingly long intermission of two seconds, one thing was clear to the Corporal: the element of surprise was more fragile than most made it out to be.
"Hey, Lawson," Seva whispered, breaking the silence between his teammates. "Committing property damage on a finance building to kill some terroriststhat's kosher right?"
"Not your problem, Sev. Keep focused."
Dissatisfied with the answer, the Marine turned to his right at Krone, who did his best to shrug and said, "The UNSC's got it covered."
"Works for me"
He was cut off by the sound of Soto's voice piercing through the team comm, delivering a go-ahead right to Krone's ear. "Team two, breach, breach, breach!"
On cue, Krone followed suit with Lawson and Sev as they kicked off of the wall. Once aligned with the window below, the Corporal straightened both of his legs out and let the momentum speed him forward. He was able to catch a glimpse of the two Insurrectionists before he and the others opened fire. The armor piercing rounds peppered an elaborate pattern of cracks through the window which all but blocked the sight of the two insurgents engaged in a dance of death on the other side; arm flailing as the bullets tore through their light armored vests, blood staining their thick gray jackets and work-force fatigues.
The engagement lasted less than a second, concluded with the three Marines smashing through the window as glass chimed off of their armor and crunched under their weight as their boots made contact with the corridor's solid floor. Krone moved fast, checking to make sure the insurgents were dead before covering his side of the hallway. "Clear," he said.
"Clear," Sev concurred.
Lawson keyed comm. "Team one, the sentries are down. You're clear to move." With the wave of a hand, Lawson signaled Sev and Krone to follow. They shuffle down the hall like a formation of weaponized crabs with titanium-ceramic shells, moving in a staggered line along the wall, scanning every inch of the way through their SMG scopes.
"That next corridor looks clear," Soto informed them. "Turn the corner, and then about twenty paces down is where I'm getting a lot of heat sigs."
"Okay, got it." The trio rounded the corner. Krone almost counted his footfalls as they moved, envying Ashley's possession of thermal equipment every step. The squad's initial briefing was all based off of building schematics and floor plans, which left them with only a general sense of what was where; which rooms would be used for what, where to expect explosive threats on key structural pointsa whole lot of nothing for one who didn't think twice about such workings, but an arsenal of information for any trained mind. But it still wasn't enough.
That was why Cortez split the squad into two fireteams. The Sergeant and her team was tasked with establishing full security access to the building once inside by accessing the security center, this way gaining control of essentially everything they needed to pinpoint the location of each threat; security camera feeds, employee check-in times, and the like. Normally, they would have already had this kind of intelligence before an operation with the help of a Superintendent Class artificial intelligence, a computer algorithm that utilized a city's automated systems such as waste management or traffic controlbasically a caretaker for colonial cities. The problem was that in this particular case, the target location was a new installation; it had not yet been integrated with the city AI's network.
To correct this, the Marines would have to establish a manual link to their team comm, requiring Cortez's team to cover some bit of ground before reaching their goal, both burning up time and leaving them open for discovery. Lawson, Krone and Seva were the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) in the event Team One was compromised and couldn't continue. That was probably why the Sergeant insisted on constant radio checks.
"Lawson, we're inside the building. Minimal resistance so far. We're heading to the security room now. How are you guys holding up?"
The team leader pressed his shoulder to the wall as he neared the corner of the hallway. He took one peek around the corner to verify it was clear and spoke quietly into the comm. "We're about to stack up on the seventh floor's office room. Standby."
He reached back and slapped Seva on the shoulder, prompting him to round the corner and approach the first door on his left. Krone followed close behind, positioning himself on the side opposite to his counterpart. Lawson was the last to get into position, standing directly in front of the door with no cover. Normally that would be a problem, but with the quality of terrorist they were dealing with, the Marines only had to worry about shooting first. Their armor would protect against most incoming small arms fire, but the real threat was that of explosives, coming in all shapes and sizes and detonated in more ways than one. That kind of talent was the advantage that made Insurrectionists formidable as an enemy.
"Ready," Lawson whispered.
"Set," said Sev.
Krone gave his team leader a quick nod, then held up a hand and counted down with his fingers. Three, two, one. Punctuating the count, Lawson got a short running start, then brought his knee up to chest level and thrust his boot forward, connecting heel first with the door's lock and forcing it open. One by one, the three slipped into the room, Krone spearheading their entry with his weapon raised.
The Corporal had already locked onto his first target: a man drabbed in the same ash gray fatigues and light body armor vests as the others back in the hallway. In the short moment that Krone took to sidestep away from the door to allow Seva and Lawson to enter, he could see the man reaching for something behind the filing cabinet he was intent on leaning over. He didn't give him a chance. He cut loose with a one second burst from his SMG, the rounds tearing half dollar-sized holes through his torso as he jostled and fell back against a cubical wall.
By then, Sev and Lawson had begun firing as well, filling the room with a soft rattle of suppressed SMG fire. Krone was already turning left, shifting his attention to the remaining two fighters on his side of the room. He quickly snapped his sights on the nearest insurgent and fired a short burst into his chest before he had a chance to raise his weapon. The second managed to squeeze off a few rounds, but the shots clattered harmlessly against Krone's shoulder and chest plate as the Marine retaliated with a pair of short bursts.
The engagement lasted all of threemaybe fourseconds until the first "Clear" was shouted.
"Clear," Krone said firmly.
Lawson eased up and straightened his posture. "All clear. Sweep the room; double-check everything you see. SevARGUS."
As Krone scanned over the bodies, Sev let his weapon hang in one hand and drew an ARGUS reader from his vest. The device was a small, hand-held spectrometer that was designed to detect traces of explosive residue in the air. The scanner came to life and immediately started relaying data to his helmet. "ARGUS is clear. No trace elements."
"Keep scanning." Lawson chinned his comm switch. "Team two, checking in. Seventh floor is clear. We're ready to move to lower floors on your go. Over."
"Team one, copies," came the reply from Cortez, a little too fast to be on a patient plain of mind. "We've reached the security room. Mitchell is running a bypass now. We may have a situation on our hands. Wait one."
"Copy that. Holding." Lawson let out a long, quiet sigh through his helmet as he turned to see Sev looking up at him from his ARGUS scanner. "Keep scanning," he repeated.
The team leader's tone was thick with doubt. Krone and Sev exchanged quick, over-the-shoulder glances, followed by a shrug before they went back to arbitrarily standing about, making sure the room was clear. Cortez finally replied and broke the silence.
"Team two, come in."
"Finally," Lawson muttered, careful that he wasn't transmitting. The wait was actually shorter than it felt. Nerves did that in the middle of an operation. "Send traffic, one."
"We're inside the building's network. The roster shows an early shift of workers. There's twenty-three on record entering the building, not including security. Camera feeds show twelve of the civilians on floors three and four. Civvies mixed with shootersthey've taken hostages. Break."
"Damn it," Lawson hissed, Seva and Krone soon following with their own four-letter words. This batch of insurgents was proving more dastardly than most before them. The situation wasn't even turning desperate and they had already resorted to human shields.
"The eight floor cameras show hostages scattered among the server rooms with multiple hostiles numbering around ten. Reroute to the eighth floor and neutralize the threat. We'll clear three and four and regroup with you there. Out."
"Acknowledged. Rerouting. Out." Lawson turned back to the rest of his fire team. "You heard her. Form up. Krone you're on point. We're taking the stairs."
After a short jog around the open corridors, now under the watchful eyes of neighboring offices, Krone was leading his team up the vast staircase, rounding landing after landing to reach the next floor up. Now was the time to keep the pressure on them.
"Team two, this is Cortez. Third floor is clear; moving to second one now. They're getting antsy on the security feeds now. I think we tipped them off. Do what you can before they get a chance to cut and run. Out."
Before Lawson could reply, the comm channel closed. "RogGod damn it."
"That's really getting annoying," Sev said, finally speaking his mind.
"Glory hound's on her crusade again. She didn't even warn us about civilian casualties."
"Let's just get it done before it comes to that," Krone interrupted, stopping the discussion before it went someplace else. Aside from her ability to tear a new page from her UNSC playbook on soldiering, he had no opinion of Cortez, at least not yet anyway. Now certainly wasn't the time for it. She wanted to get the job done, and that's what mattered.
"Team two to Overwatch," the Corporal whispered into his mic, making his way around the last landing before the eighth floor. "Ashley, you got anything?"
"You guys are dark in that stairwelltoo much concreteand I've got nothing past the hallways on floor eight. The server rooms are blocking any heat sigs inside. They've probably got layered protection in the walls from climate change."
"Makes sense if you're trying to store tons of electronic financial data."
"Keep us posted. We're almost there. Out. Lawson, I'm moving up."
The team leader gave him the "go ahead" and Krone jogged up to the doorway leading into the server rooms. He kept a steady pace, not bothering to keep his sights at eye-level as he moved. He was four steps from the entrance when it suddenly occurred that it was wide open. Not ajaropen. Before he could react, an insurgent came rounding the doorway with a civilian model M90 shotgun trained on the Corporal.
Krone stepped right, firmly shoving the man's aim aside with his forearm and went to kick the man in the gut. Instead of trying to reacquire his aim, which would have given Krone the time and space he needed to use his M7S, the insurgent dropped his shotgun, deflected the kick and threw himself at the Corporal, grabbing hold of the shoulders on his assault vest and guiding him back toward the stairs.
With no room to maneuver, Krone instinctively mimicked the insurgent's action by dropping his weapon and fell back on his hand-to-hand training. Before the SMG was caught by his sling, he wound his arm back and threw a right hook into the side of the man's head, then looped his hand around the back of his neck and pried off to the side, landing him face first into the wall.
The insurgent recovered quickly and threw a punch. Adrenaline now pulsing through his veins, Krone blocked the strike and threw a punch with his opposite hand that connected with the man's nose. The Insurrectionist fighter tried again with his left arm, but that too was blocked, and the Corporal landed a second punch on the man's mouth, warranting a wet smack as blood now streamed from his nose and mouth.
Unsure of whether or not the man was finished struggling, Krone threw another trio of punches directed at the terrorist's chest, bypassing the protective Kevlar fabric of his body armor, punctuating the flurry with a knee to his abdomen.
His heart was racing; never had someone gotten this close with the intent to kill him. He had to insure that his opponent would stop. The possible threat plagued Krone's mind as he watched the insurgent keel forward toward him, prompting him to grab hold of the man's shoulder and side. From there, he used the man's weight against him and lead him over the stairwell railing
turning away just in time to hear the loud thud resonate back up the shaft.
Gathering his senses, he scrambled for his SMG and brought it to battery on the doorway. He could hear Sev and Lawson complimenting him on working his way out of the struggle as he did with something along the lines of "Good kill" and "Nice one." He ignored it, taking deep breaths as he followed them inside; he just eliminated a threat that tried to kill him, probably ended his life even. Whether he survived the fall or not didn't matter. But he did start to wonder if it was necessary.
The Corporal used what could have been classified as excessive force in the heat of the moment to defend himself, and that might have cost a life. Krone wasn't bothered by killing in the slightest when it came to fighting a hostile, but at that moment he did recognize that there was a loss in it. What if the man gave up his struggle? What if they were able to take him in alive? That could have been months of intel spared.
Krone dismissed the questions from his mind and moved on with his team. Somewhere along the line Ashley had announced that she reacquired a visual on the fireteam, and Lawson was now taking point, leading them down the hall toward the server rooms. They were close now. That was all Krone could think of as his tunnel vision fully cleared, and the hallways materialized into something definite. It was just a few rooms away from "mission complete."
Before he knew it, Krone felt his shoulder resting against the doorframe of the server rooms. This time their entry should be even smoother than the last; they had hands-on intel being streamed to them that gave a placements of both the terrorists and the hostages in respect to the Marines' entry points.
Krone took a quick breath and slipped a non-lethal flashbang grenade from his vest. "Set," he whispered, taking a glance at Lawson, who replied with a short, curt nod: Do it.
In a perfect symphony of actions, Sev reached over and opened the door, opening the way for Krone to toss in the flashbang from the other side. They turned away, not only to avoid the flash, but the heat and concussive force of the blast. The detonation shook the walls and lit up the room with a blinding white light. Cries of shock erupted from hostages and Insurrectionists alike as they staggered and fumbled about, disoriented and confused.
"Go! Go! Go!" Lawson shouted, motioning the team to action. They bolted inside, one-by-one like last time, breaking off in a different direction, though this time with a little less room to work with. The few initial terrorists were still staggering from the flashbang, which allowed Krone to focus on the ones that were making quicker recoveries first. Luckily most of the civilians were still on the ground, hands and feet bound with blindfolds over their eyes, which was actually good on this case. Not only did they miss out on being temporarily blinded by the grenade, but having no sight during exchanging fire, they would more than likely stay down for their own safety.
Still, Krone found himself reminding them as he drew a bead on the terrorist threat. "Stay down!" he shouted between bursts from his SMG as he worked his way across the room, finally meeting with Sev's line of fire. He made sure that he used no more than two to three rounds each target. No more than necessary, he told himself.
Sparks shot out from the damaged mainframes and servers and glass showered the room as the bullets tore through the layers of protective glass surrounding the electric equipment. The insurgents flailed and spun to the ground in bloody messes, holes torn in their fatigues from the combined rapid fire from the Marines.
"All clear!" Lawson was already in mid-stride toward the doorway leading to the next room. "Next one! Let's move!"
Krone about-faced and flicked the magazine off the side of his M7, slapping in a fresh one as he followed. Back in business, he formed up and was about to ready another flashbang when Lawson called him a second time.
"No time! We gotta move!"
By the time Krone reached the door with Lawson, Sev had gotten a running start and built up enough momentum to shoulder his way inside. They followed close behind, strafing their way inside. To the team's surprise, the room was empty; no terrorists, no hostages. The mainframes were wide open however, as was the door at the end of the room. Whatever the insurgents had come for they were now leaving with.
"Damn," Lawson cursed keying his radio. "Soto, we've got hostiles moving out of the server rooms. Keep an eye out."
"Krone, go back and give me a head count of the civilians."
Fearing what the team leader was implying, the Corporal did as instructed, drowning out Lawson's continued transmission to Cortez, informing her of the situation. He stepped over the dead terrorists from their previous engagement and started counting heads from the mess of weeping finance workers. Eight, he reminded himself. There should be eight. There were only seven.
"I count seven," he called back.
Lawson took a step back out of his ready stance and kicked the nearest object he could find, which turned out to be a recycling bin. "Shit! Ashley, we need"
"I have visual," she cut him off. "Five hostiles, one civilian. They're moving along the north side toward the maintenance elevator."
"Keep tracking them," he said, leading the team back into the halls.
The three of them broke into a full sprint as soon as their boots touched the carpeted corridors, barreling down the seemingly endless hall to the next corner. Krone was spearheading the formation this time, now more motivated after seeing the lengths these people were going. For a moment, he almost convinced himself into believing this was a personal grudge against the Insurrection just to keep him sprinting ahead of his team. But that notion was about as sentimental and foolish as his rationalizations came.
Maybe that thought came from Lawson's zealous demeanor, that selfless image of military service that he displayed. He never once placed the hostages before the objective, even after Cortez's orders to prioritize hostiles first. Admirable, Krone thought, but his motivations to go beyond the call were unclear. Perhaps the man had his own personal reasons, or maybe it was heat of the moment, just like Krone's experience in the stairwell.
"Step on it, guys," Ashley said, "They're already in the elevator. I can't get a shot without hitting the hostage."
As the Corporal neared the corner of the hall, he slung his SMG on his thigh and reached back for his BR55 rifle, toggling the fire switch from safe to semi-automatic, which would only allow him to fire one shot per trigger pull. Krone was confident about controlling his own rate of fire, typically leaving it on the automatic setting and doing the rest of the work, but in hostage situations it was better to err on the side of caution. That's when he realized that he was calculating, not thinking. He was chasing an objective, not a vendetta. There was no point getting more involved in the mission than he had to.
The revelation came just in time for the trio to round the corner, met face to visor with the last hostage
and one of the five insurgents holding her bat the wrist from behind, causing the team to halt as two more fighters arrived at the flanks of their comrade, hummed to a stop a few feet down the hall. The final two insurgents were manually working the elevator doors open just behind the first three, working on their escape route. They were at a standoff.
Their captive was not far into her thirties, wearing typical office wear. Makeup streamed down her terrified face in black streaks and her cries were muffled behind a duct tape gag. It didn't take long for Krone to detect the bomb vest they had strapped to her and the detonator that she was being forced to hold.
He had the man in his sights now, but he knew that he was the only thing keeping the bomb from taking out the whole north side of the building. The rifle's scope gave the Corporal enough magnification to read the insurgent's expression: a mix of contentment and focus, just like his own. The only difference was that Krone was now able to manage a slight smile. He didn't know what his next move was going to be, but he was certain that it didn't involved detonating along with everyone in the hallway. He wasn't going that far.
"I have a shot," Ashley announced. "Should I fire?" Locked in a stalemate, no one said a word; they were too busy plotting out their next move. "Talk to me; should I take the shot?"
"Hold," Krone finally replied, eyes still forward. "Take the shot if we come under fire."
Factoring everything into this one standoff took no more than a few seconds. Both sides had equal numbers; the Marines may have had better equipment and training, but the terrorists had a hostagea quick and cowardly card to use in a fight, one that left Lawson fuming beneath his helmet as he saw the Insurrectionist whisper something to his hostage. Sev, on the other hand, was more focused on the bomb vest, which was a good change of pace. Krone could only deal with so many zealots at once.
"You're gonna be fine," the team leader said, as though hoping to counteract whatever the insurgent was attempting to poison her mind with. Krone half-expected this to provoke a chuckle or even a smile from the guy, but he proved the other half correct by keeping his composure: He'll do what he has to, and nothing more.
On cue with the elevator chime, the Insurrectionist aligned his thumb with the hostage's, clamped it down on the detonator switch, then sent her stumbling toward them with a rough shove. Krone dug his feet into the floor and got ready to sidestep the incoming hostage, but Lawson had already completed that action for him, shoving him out of the path as he rushed forward, throwing his weapon aside. All in an instant, he caught the hostage with both arms, clutching a hand over the detonator as he pulled her down, spinning into a crouched position, shielding her from the inevitable gunfire.
Krone cursed, out loud this time as he readjusted his sights, only to see the hostage taker vanish into the elevator shaft, all the while Lawson was busy playing hero, costing them precious seconds. Sev fell back behind cover as the bullets started flying but Krone wasn't as fortunate to be standing that close to the corer. He took a few rounds that clanked against his armor. One round hit his shin guard, sending enough pain shooting through his leg to know he'd be feeling the bruise for some time as he fell to a kneel.
He was still in the middle of trying to readjust his aim when a vapor trail suddenly phased through one of the attackers, throwing him against the wall with a fist sized hole through his torso, the resounding boom of Soto's .50 caliber rifle soon followed. The other was taken off guard by his comrade's sudden demise, giving Krone enough time to raise his weapon and place three rounds into his chest.
"Thanks, Ash," he said quickly, struggling to his feet.
He turned to his team leader and tried to hold back the frustration in his tone. "Lawson, you okay?"
"We're fine," he said, giving the hostage just enough room to comfortable move, keeping a hand over hers. "Sev, it's a dead man's trigger. Can you defuse it?"
"Yeah, just keep her thumb on it."
Krone immediately moved toward the elevator shaft and keyed his radio as he watched it descend, carrying the terrorists away to freedom
or certain death depending on how well Cortez managed her time while clearing the lower floors. "Team one, this is Team two. All hostages secured. We're defusing a bomb threat now. Break. Three plus hostiles are egressing to the lower level."
"They must be heading down to the parking garage. Go after them."
The Corporal slacked his shoulders. "I repeat: we have a hostage with a
"We're nowhere near the lower level. Take the service elevator and reengage. We are not letting them get away. You hear me? Gut the bastards."
Krone balled his hand into a fist and came through with a reluctant, "Yes, sir." He turned and looked at Lawson. "Cortez wants us to reengage."
"Bullshit," he spat. "If you hadn't noticed"
"I got it," Krone snapped, interrupting him. There was a brief silence before he backed himself with a calmer tone. "Stay here in case Sev needs help removing the vest. I'll take care of it."
With that, the Corporal turned about and readied his spare harness. He didn't give Lawson a chance to object as he clipped his line to the nearest cable hook sturdy enough to support his weight. He didn't need to hear about how Cortez made the wrong call, or how the hostages needed to be cared for every step of the way. Maybe Cortez was being a little gung-ho, authorizing all levels of force and overriding a civilian priority just to stop a handful of terrorists, but their objective still stood.
It wasn't long before Krone had caught up with the last of the insurgents. After they left the elevator and rushed to their vehicle, he had a trail to follow, the security cameras made sure of it. They also confirmed that the three that he was pursuing were the last of the Insurrectionist strike team All he had to do was keep a steady sprint through the lot until he finally cornered them at their escape vehicle: a white, unmarked van just as he expected—lots of space for a small contingent, the equipment to arm them, and very inconspicuous. In the end, it was a whole lot of dead weight.
The driver never made it into his seat, cut down by a three round burst of armor piercing rounds, now propped up against the tire with a streak of blood on the van highlighting where he had fallen. He was still breathing, with his weapon not too far from his hand. Just next to him was the bomb man from the hall, who had taken a round to his shoulder from the short exchange of fire between them and Corporal Krone, who was now mere meters from the remaining two.
The bomb man tried to raise both hands, succeeding in raising only the one that hadn’t been shot. The second man reluctantly did the same, but it proved to be just a ruse as his hand shot down for his thigh holster. Krone snapped his sights on him and fired. The shot hit the man in the forehead, landing just slightly off center, causing the bomb man to wince.
Smoke still pouring from the barrel of his rifle, Krone approached the van, sights trained on the last standing insurgent. Each step he replayed everything in his mind; the shootout in the server rooms and how they used hostages as human shields. Cortez’s words echoed in his mind, as did Lawson’s. Live or die; hero or rogue. There had to be a middle ground.
Kill or apprehend, he thought to himself, reminded of the level of force he had used on the insurgent in the stairwell, the life he had taken to insure his safety. Either way the mission was still completed. This man wasn’t going anywhere, nor was he a threat. Their fight was done.
Krone took a step closer to the wounded driver, who looked up at his comrade with pleading eyes.
“I can help him if you let me,” he said. The struggle to ignore his own pain was obvious, as was his intention to put another life ahead of his own.
At the end of the day we’re no different, Krone mused as he kicked the driver’s gun aside, sending it skittering down the asphalt. He then glanced at him, rifled still trained. “That all depends on you.” He gestured his barrel toward the insurgent’s waist then back to his chest.
The man was hardly reluctant this time around. He didn’t need to hear it from the trooper to know where his options were. With his good hand he reached across for his holster and tossed the pistol forward.
“All callsigns, this is Krone—team two. Threat neutralized. Two for medivac. We’re done here.”