2545 – May 20th. In Earth orbit.
The buzzer’s piercing trill jolted him awake. Instinct made him instantly reach for the loaded and racked M6C/SOCOM laying unholstered on the stand by the side of the bed. Lieutenant Pete O’Grady realized that his finger was already putting micropressure on the trigger and he backed off, exhaling as he realized that he was awake and no longer dreaming about the annoying sound to his left. He squinted in the dark room by the light of the datapad and checked his sidearm, relieved that the safety was still on. Sitting upright, rubbing a hand over his face in an attempt to snap out of the crap that passed for sleep these days, he grabbed for his buzzing datapad and touched the screen to stop the incessant noise. 3.5 hours of sleep. That’s what the chrono on the pad indicated. 0415 ship time. What the fuck, he thought. That was supposed to be an eight hour rack. He tapped the pad to bring up the menu and figure out why it woke him up.
Encryption Code – DELTA
FILE ********* BEGIN ENCRYPTION*********
TO: LT. O’GRADY, PETER
FROM: CAPT. JAMES, SEBASTIAN
Pete – I know you just started liberty, but I need to call you back. There’s a Pelican on its way that will shuttle you to Cairo Station. Meet me there 0630 for briefing. No word to anyone where you are going or why. Apologies to do this to you, because god knows you deserve the break, but to make this an official communiqué, this is a Priority Recall: Code Word VORTEX
Capt. Clark has been notified, and Hercules is on station until we release her. See you shortly.
FILE ********* END ENCRYPTION*********
CLOSING LINK>>> DELETING STACK>>>COMMENCING LEVEL 5 SSD SECTOR OVERWRITE.
“Damn,” Pete said out loud to himself in the dark cabin. All he wanted was one solid night of sleep. As he sat there he realized that it was no use. He wasn’t sleeping well after the last deployment anyway. Too many memories of horrific things were still swirling in his mind. The post-deployment psych exam yesterday hadn’t gone that well, but the staff Doc, some girl fresh out of the academy by the looks of her, said he was fit enough, and signed his dossier. Probably didn’t even listen to half the shit he was saying. What was worse? Having to live through it, or be the one to listen to some poor borderline PTSD jarhead tell it to you like some friggin campfire horror story.
It didn’t matter now. He was officially called back. Lt. Pete O’Grady took a navy shower, geared up, and headed out of his cabin toward the hangar deck.
Once at the hangar staging area he found the on-duty NCO at the observation deck. “Lt. O’Grady,” he said by way of greeting, “There’s a Pelican inbound I’m supposed to catch?”
“Yes sir,” the NCO said, “must be something special, your ride just bumped a Flag shuttle out of the line with some VIPs onboard.”
Pete scowled at the man and simply said, half to himself, “Great. Makin’ friends everywhere…”
The controller then pointed out through the panoramic glass into the vacuum of the hangar beyond and said, “There’s your bird. Better get down to the airlock, she’s coming in fast. Hard seal in ninety seconds. Number two.”
Pete turned and headed for the airlock leaving the Deck NCO and the other controllers behind, the sound of them communicating with the other ships waiting to dock, now bumped out of line, fading behind him.
Airlock Two was flashing red when he arrived. The countdown timer on the door seal mechanism was counting down to zero, currently flashing “00:19, 00:18, 00:17…” Pete stood there watching the numbers tick down…
The sound was deafening. Even in full armor it was impossible to hear anything. It felt like being strapped to the outside of a Longsword’s Atmospheric Booster Rocket Package, except instead of launching out of the atmosphere, he was hurtling down through it toward the planet surface. He concentrated amidst all the rumbling and bone shattering shaking and could now pick out voices on the comm. It was all a jumble. Everyone was shouting at once. There were screams, shouts, calmer voices telling someone, or everyone, to “Hang in there!” and “Ride it out!” or “You were trained for this!”. Pete reached out for the grip near the hatch on the SOEIV drop-pod just to have something to hang on to. He clenched his jaw tighter because it felt like his teeth might break just from chattering into each other. He concentrated on the timer to touchdown.
Touchdown. Not even close. More like Violent Impact. But to the trainers, touchdown had a comforting ring to it that the recruits wouldn’t balk at. At ten seconds, the braking chute deployed, and the force of deceleration was so great that Pete felt his spine compress and pop. Wincing in pain he further braced himself for the coming surface impact. The display flashed “:03… :02… :01…”
There was a pleasing “ding” followed by the distinctive pop-hiss of a door seal being broken, and Pete’s eyes irised back into instant focus. He was standing there in front of Airlock Two as the immense vacuum door slowly slid open, the flashing red light now a steady green. Not in a Drop Pod, not back into the nightmare. He could feel the beads of sweat at his hairline but ignored them when he stepped through and realized that standing just inside the airlock was what appeared to be a Naval Officer. A man stood there in the airlock, possibly in his late thirties with short brown hair and intense eyes, not quite at attention but not quite at ease either. He was dressed in a very black dress uniform, no nameplate, no ribbons, just one simple badge under the emblem of the Navy. A pyramid surrounded by a circle with the inscription “UNSC Office of Naval Intelligence”
“Hello Lieutenant. I am Major Wright. ONI has a job that needs doing and we agree that you are our man for that job” The intense man said with a satisfied look on his face.
The door to the airlock hissed closed behind Pete and for the first time in his career, he wished he really was back inside that Drop-Pod…