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Annual Award Best Collaboration This collaboration, Halo: Vae Victis, directed by Brodie-001, slowfuture, and Actene, was voted as the Best Collaboration of 2014 in the Seventh Annual Halo Fanon Wikia Awards.


Annual Award Best Collaboration This collaboration, Halo: Vae Victis, directed by Brodie-001, slowfuture, and Actene, was voted as the Best Collaboration of 2016 in the Ninth Annual Halo Fanon Wikia Awards.


40px-Terminal.png This article, Halo: Vae Victis, was written by Brodie-001, slowfuture and Actene. Please do not edit this fiction without the writers' permission.
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This article, Halo: Vae Victis, takes place in a canon-following story in an alternate universe, and it should not be considered as part of any official timeline.
VV Cover

Plot Overview

It is August, 2552. Reach, mankind's last fortress world before Earth, is under attack. Having barely held off the initial Covenant assault, the United Nations Space Command is moving in a large portion of its fleet to help defend the planet. As the full might of the Covenant Empire is brought to Reach, the Human forces on the ground will be faced with their toughest battles yet as they fight to survive the planet's final days.

Dramatis Personae

The primary groups in Vae Victis. Various secondary characters will also have some part in the story. Links to character articles can be found here.

  • Three Hotel - A group of troopers within the UNSC Army's SPECWARCOM, Three Hotel is tasked with defending settlements around the Viery Territory from Covenant attack and assisting in civilian evacuation efforts. With enemy forces starting their final assault on Reach, mission directives may change as the situation grows more desperate. — Written by Brodie-001
  • Charlie Platoon - As part of the 11th Shock Troops Battalion assigned to the Epsilon Eridani Defence Fleet, Charlie Platoon consists largely of hardened veterans who are no strangers to fighting the Covenant. As the fighting intensifies they are deployed to several hot zones around the planet where they are needed most. — Written by Lieutenant Davis and Brodie-001
  • Echo Team - When news of the attack on Reach arrived, the UNSC Navy hastily recalled a number of Spartans from other deployments to assist in the planet's defence. While they haven't all been working together for long, these Spartans are all very experienced fighters assigned to help with the fighting in heavily populated areas. — Written by slowfuture, The Pale Kestrl, Brodie-001, and Actene
  • Gauntlet Team - One of two Spartan groups under the UNSC Army's SPECWAR/Group Three, Gauntlet Team has seen action on a number of planets over the years and work well together as a unit. The Fall of Reach will be their toughest fight yet as they battle the Covenant legions descending to the planet. — Written by slowfuture
  • N'Marz Legion - Known for their ferocity and fighting prowess, the N'Marz Legion is a feared force within the Covenant military. They have served with distinction on many campaigns during the Human-Covenant War and took part in a number of battles long before that. With some of the finest Sangheili warriors assigned to them, the Legion intends to descend on Reach and massacre all Human opposition there in the name of the Great Journey. — Written by Actene and Brodie-001

Chapter Guide

Prologue

1732 Hours, August 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Resurgence, Epsilon Eridani System

"We have a confirmation. The enemy Supercarrier is down."

On the bridge of the UNSC Resurgence, a cheer rose up from the assembled crew as the massive Covenant ship was torn apart by the slipspace rift. Had their ground forces not initiated Operation: UPPER CUT, it would have caused untold destruction to the planet below. As the burning wreckage fell towards Reach's atmosphere, the Captain called back to one of his bridge staff.

"Lieutenant Grunwald, contact FLEETCOM HQ on the ground and let them know they've got reinforcements arriving."

"Yes, sir!"

Kathrin Grunwald tore herself away from the sight of the wrecked Supercarrier and returned to her station. Their Frigate had been among the first few ships to turn up when word arrived of a Covenant attack, alongside the UNSC Dragon, Reunion and Revelation. Still, they would have been annihilated had they attempted an attack on the gargantuan vessel, and were forced to stand by near one of Reach's refit stations, Anchor Two, until the remainder of the fleet arrived. Grunwald opened up a COM channel to the planet below.

"FLEETCOM Headquarters, this is the UNSC Resurgence. Operation UPPER CUT has been confirmed as a success. We're moving in to pick off stragglers before the rest of the fleet arrives, over."

The reply came after a few seconds. "Copy that, Resurgence. We can see it coming down from here. Out."

Grunwald turned off the COM. She couldn't help but smirk at the thought of the higher-ups watching the burning wreckage coming down towards their cushy offices in New Alexandria. Still, at least the threat was gone for now. The rest of the bridge staff had more or less resumed their usual places as the Frigate slowly moved forwards. The Dragon had already taken point ahead of them, and was well-equipped to destroy any smaller ships still around in orbit. Across the bridge, an ensign called out.

"Sir, I'm reading multiple slipspace ruptures around the planet."

"It's probably just the rest of the fleet arriving," the Captain replied. "Stay on course."

"They're not at the assigned exit points."

"What do you mean?"

"We're getting pings below the orbital defence grid."

On the other side of the bridge, a familiar warning klaxon began to sound. They all knew what it meant. At once, the bridge crew began checking their monitors as dozens of panicked voices filled the COM.

"Covenant!"

"-must be their whole damn fleet!"

"We've got more slipspace ruptures across the system!"

At her station, Grunwald turned off her COM feed and checked the nearest satellite uplink. Sure enough, the feed showed dozens of Covenant ships - Battlecruisers, Destroyers, Corvettes - exiting Slipspace just above the colony world. She took a deep breath, and turned to the Captain's chair.

"Sir, how long until the rest of our fleet arrives?"

His voice was solemn. "A few hours, give or take."

Taking one last look at the growing fleet appearing above Reach, she moved back to her station. The four ships in their battlegroup wouldn't do much against a force this size, but they had to try. It was all they could do.

Part One: Landfall

Standby

1745 Hours, August 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Army Base Camp Kilo, Viery Territory


"Murphy, you hearing this?"

"Yeah, we're screwed."

Nearly two dozen Army troopers sat around the small encampment, listening to reports and tactical readouts from UNSC forces across Reach. It was confirmed: Another Covenant fleet had arrived. They had only just received news that the damn Supercarrier had gone down, too. Corporal Leon Sikowsky emerged from one of the tents, rifle in hand.

"What's the word, Steinworth?"

"What do you think? More damn Covvies."

The Corporal sighed. The unit had already taken losses fighting on Szurdok Ridge a couple of days ago, and this news would only serve to lower morale further. By the looks on the faces of the men and women around him, things had gone from bad to worse.

"Got anything from the fleet?"

"Not much. We've got more ships arriving every hour, and I guess the ODP's will slow them down, but they're coming. Nothing we can do about that."

"I hear ya." Sikowsky looked up to see several UH-144 Falcons descending on the base. A couple still bore noticeable dents and plasma burns from the last battle. If they were back so soon, then it probably meant that it was time to move out. Steinworth turned off the nearby radio and clambered to his feet, picking up his helmet as he did so. Two Hotel's squad leader called her unit over, and a few troopers walked off.

"Hey Leon," Steinworth muttered. "You think we're gonna get thrown right at the first Covvie landing zone?"

"I doubt it, Jacob," he replied. "SPECWAR groups like ours usually get the glamorous assignments."

Steinworth laughed. "Yeah, if you can call it that."

* * *

Across the camp, Sergeant Major J.P Lee exited the command tent, followed by a much larger figure in light blue armour.

"Clear and evacuate, those are your orders from the Colonel."

"I understand, ma'am." Lee turned to face the Spartan, glancing down at the robotic prosthetic she had in place of her right arm. "But don't you think that regular Army units would do for this mission?"

The Lieutenant Commander's face was behind an opaque silver visor, but he could tell that she was slightly annoyed at this. Lee had been fighting this war since it started, and was used to all kinds of missions - recon, search and destroy, assaults - but he couldn't help but question why Holland wanted his unit on a simple evac op.

"You're all we have left in this area while our larger forces mobilize, Sergeant Major. I trust that it won't be a problem for someone of your caliber?"

"No, ma'am. We'll get to it."

Lee saluted the Spartan, and watched as she walked off towards the Falcons. Three Hotel had worked with NOBLE on a few occasions, but he still found her a little too abrasive for his liking. He sighed, and approached his unit. Most of them were still grabbing equipment, but were otherwise combat-ready. The Sergeant Major cleared his throat and spoke.

"Listen up! We've just received orders to lead the evacuation of nearby settlements - Visegrád, Mezőgazdasági, Kikötő and the like. We're up in five minutes, people!"

At once, Three Hotel sprang to life. Lee was pleased to see that they weren't grumbling about their assignment, though that was probably because they weren't being sent against the Covenant. He watched Two Hotel's Falcons head off to the west, and quickly ducked inside the tent that served as their temporary armoury. Private David Murphy glanced up at him for a moment before affixing an eyepiece to his helmet.

"Heard the reports, sir? About the Covenant?"

"Yes. They say over 60% of the fleet is heading here."

"You think it'll be enough to hold Reach?"

Lee shrugged. "Let's worry about what happens on the ground, Private." Taking a glance at the half-empty weapon rack, he grabbed an M739 LMG, better known as the SAW. These things were a rarity in the Army these days, so he made sure his unit kept a few around. After loading up with ammunition, the Sergeant Major emerged from the tent to where Three Hotel stood ready. The skies seemed to be growing dark unnaturally early today, possibly hinting at one of the area's frequent rainstorms.

"Okay, we're moving out!"

While the troopers made their way aboard the waiting Falcons, Lee noticed the familiar sight of Spartans exiting the command tent. Wherever NOBLE was being assigned, it was probably worse than his destination. As they boarded their own helicopter, he realised that they were missing a couple of members. Chances were that they were already deployed, so Lee dismissed the thought and followed his men into a waiting Falcon. The aircraft rose into the air and flew off, flanked by three others.

Mission Brief

1805 Hours, August 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: En-route to UNSC Army Base Camp Kilo, Viery Territory


Beneath the armoured heel, the ground whizzed past, barely a brown blur. From her vantage point on the UH-144 Falcon, Bren could see the orange sun begin to dip behind the vast mountains that made up the Viery continent on Reach. The armoured Spartan had been recalled to receive new orders, having spent the majority of the previous engagement acting as reconnaissance for NOBLE. She had a growing feeling that her and her team simply couldn’t be kept out of combat any longer. Bren felt a nudge on her shoulder, she turned to face Raquel.

“What’re you thinking?” Raquel said over a private com channel.

“Nothing, just worried,” was Bren’s succinct reply.

“Me too. NOBLE knocks that carrier out only for this bigger fleet to hit us.” The armoured head of Raquel shook in clear disapproval at their luck. “Any word on the fleet coming to aid?”

Bren shrugged her soldiers. “Just rumours as yet. I heard one ell-tee say they’d be here by this evening, while some are saying sometime within the next three days. It’s all fucked, truly.”

“Jesus,” Raquel whispered. “Is there even much of the current defence group left?”

Bren held her hands up, offering an apology. “Raquel, I really do have no idea.” There was a pause. “We’ll play it by ear. It’s not our fight, not yet.”

“You got it.”

Bren nodded, and drew a small smile with one finger across her visor. Her attention turned to the rest of the four-man Spartan Team known as GAUNTLET, sitting directly opposite her and Raquel on the aircraft. Raul-B151 and Kevin-B077, fellow Spartan-IIIs but unlike herself and Raquel, they weren’t from their Alpha Company – they were Beta, the group supposedly better than them. She’d never met any other Betas in the field, so she could only wonder if they’d met the same fate as her company. She gently tapped the foot of Raul and pointed to the side of her helmet.

“Ma’am?” He said almost immediately.

“What’s your gut telling you?” She asked. Raul had a particular skill for sensing ambushes and it had served her and GAUNTLET significantly in the past.

“Well, there’s a huge fleet overhead, we’re still waiting on naval reinforcements.” Raul gestured wildly, “I can’t say my gut is full of optimism.”

Bren grunted. She could hardly argue with his assessment. Truth be told she was struggling to believe it could be won, but she would never allow her team to know this. She kept her body language hidden and her back straight. The aircraft wide com buzzed, “We’re landing now. Colonel Holland has requested your presence upon touch down, Bren.”

“Understood, sir.”

The Falcon gently touched down and the four Spartans had all vacated the vehicle before the rotors had stopped spinning. Bren turned to face her team and spoke across the squad wide channel.

“Okay, who knows what deployment we’ll get so Raquel and Raul, stock up on ammo and get some serious explosives just in case. Make sure to find me some special bullets.” Raquel and Raul nodded, Bren turned her attention to Kevin, “Kevin, find as much medical equipment as you can, just like we don’t know where we’re going, I don’t know how long we’ll be gone for. Make sure you have plenty of everything, especially bio-foam.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He replied curtly.

“Go, we’ll meet back here in fifteen.”

The team nodded and quickly went about their business. Bren took off her helmet as she walked into Holland’s command tent, she ran her hand over the tightly shorn head of hair. Since graduating she’d not once let her hair grow out again. She liked it this short. Upon spotting Holland she stood taller and saluted. “Sir.” She said.

“At ease.” Was Holland’s terse reply, he didn’t return the salute. “Over here.” Bren headed towards Holland who was not standing in front of a holo-tank displaying the Viery continent. Holland zoomed in on the city of Pálháza. There had been reports of intense fighting in the surrounding areas of the city, but Gauntlet had been kept well clear of it thus far.

“ONI Recon Group Theta Four had been reporting almost non-stop of a sizeable Covenant force in and around the city of Pálháza, we’ve got the 3rd Infantry Regiment currently stationed there and 2 Hotel are currently en-route. You and your team are to assist in the defence of the city should, as we believe, the Covenant attack.”

“Sir, you said Theta Four had been reporting almost non-stop.” ONI Team Theta Four had worked with Gauntlet before on Tribute, she knew them as The Colour Gang and they were among the best non-Spartan operators she’d ever worked with.

Holland grunted. “Yes, I did.” He tugged on the top of his grey regulation trousers, “they’ve been silent for about twenty minutes now. They were on the outskirts of the city reporting on a massive column of armour.” He stopped and thought for a moment, clearly thinking about what to do to resolve the situation. “Discovering what happened to them and rescuing them if possible is to be a strictly secondary objective. Your primary objective is to hold that city until evacuations have been completed. Understood?”

“Clearly, sir.”

“Good. I’m uploading the objectives to your HUD. Make sure your team get them. Dismissed.”

“Thank you, sir.” Bren scratched at her cheek before putting her helmet back on. Kevin sat on the floor of their Falcon, quietly scrutinising everything he had managed to gather. It wasn’t the big spoils she had been hoping for, and it was worrying. She’d reached Kevin just as Raul and Raquel returned with a rather large kitty bag full of ammo.

“What did we get?” Bren asked.

“Well, we’ve about half a dozen C12 charges, two M168s and two dozen thermite grenades.” Raquel said as she started handing out the grenades.

“Fantastic.” Bren replied, rubbing her hands together excitedly. “What about guns and ammo?”

“Raul was able to get a SAW and about seven hundred rounds for it. I’ve got some heavy armour-piercing rounds for our snipers, as well as two clips of incendiary ammo. There’s a few MA37s in there, some BR55s and I think one or two M392s?” She turned to Raul.

“We got two.”

“Okay, so two M392s.” Raquel stood back and rotated her shoulder blades. “We can choose weapon load-outs en route; there’s enough there to keep us going for most engagements.” There was a pause. “So, what’s the mission?”

Bren uploaded the objectives to her squad’s HUD.

“Pálháza. I’ve never been.” Raul said.

“It’s lovely this time of year,” Raquel replied quickly.

“The Colour Gang are out there?” Kevin enquired, breaking his silence.

“Holland made it unequivocally clear that anything to do with them is strictly secondary.” Bren looked around, “personally I think we owe it to them to make sure we get whoever’s left out.”

Gauntlet nodded in agreement. Friends were hard to come by in their profession, and when they were made you stuck by them whatever the cost. The team began climbing on board the Falcon and it quickly took off, heading west towards their destination.

“Once we’re in Pálháza we’re to rendezvous with 2 Hotel before finding the 3rd Infantry’s CO.”

“Another SpecOps team?” Raul asked.

“Yeah, they were sent about ten minutes before we got here.”

The sun had lowered further in the sky, its once brilliant orange hue had turned to a thick, watery gaze that reflected off the Spartans’ opaque visors. Each of them preparing for their first engagement of the campaign.

Manned Meteors

1815 Hours, August 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Kasaan Bay, Low Reach Orbit


Master Sergeant Ash Mitchell stood by the holotable inside the UNSC Kasaan Bay's drop bay, shifting between the holographic image of a city on the surface below, and the nine other ODSTs in the bay. Before assembling everyone in the bay, he had taken the time to look over everyone's CSVs. Staff Sergeant Davis was a decorated veteran of the war, Kidrov and Braun have both served since before the war, even Privates Maxwell and Calzaghe have shown to be promising. He had come to the conclusion that the Brass had assembled a team of some of the biggest badasses the Corps had to offer. They would need their collective skills and experience to handle the missions that lay ahead. Mitchell smiled to himself as he called the others to the holotable.

"Alright men, let's bring it in. We got get this briefing over so we can get down there and kick the Covenant's collective ass off Reach."

"What're we lookin' at Mitch? I ain't seein' a whole lot a Covvies down there." said the heavily accented Davis.

"Yeah, all I'm seeing is a bunch of towers." Corporal Mal Roberts spoke up as he walked to the holotable.

"Gentlemen, I know you aren't going to be thrilled with this, but we've been tasked with the evacuation of HVTs, specifically, the several high-value ONI officials and an important A.I. for relocation off world. With luck, we won't encounter any Covenant at all."

Mitchell watched as several of the men rolled their eyes, as they walked over to the weapon racks, taking down their personal favorites. Davis instinctively went for the M739 LMG, while Robson went for his BR55HB Battle Rifle. Mitchell retrieved his own MA5B Assault Rifle and helmet, and walked to his pod, motioning for the others to follow suit. As he stepped inside his pod, he heard the mechanical hiss off several pod doors close, his own sealing soon after.

Mitchell sighed as his pod door shut and the automated system began moving the HEVs into position. The Covenant weren't going to give up until every last building on Reach was a smoldering pile of radioactive rubble. He also knew that the UNSC wouldn't give up either, and would throw ever man and machine at its disposal at the Covenant until they left or everyone was dead. That was how it had to end, in an apocalyptic battle for the ages, and his job was to make sure that if it did end, it would end with a bang.

At that instance, the clamps holding onto the pods released, sending the small manned meteors down to the surface below. From his pod, he could see fires all over Viery territory, remnants of previous battles. The place was already starting to look like Hell, and that was a small reconnaissance force, so he could not, or would not, imagine the devastation this larger fleet could bring, but even then, his thoughts began to wander as the HEVs rocketed downward.

The momentary peace he enjoyed so much was broken by Sergeant Viktor Kidrov coming in over the COM.

"Sir, what will we have in way of support? In case the mission goes south?"

"Very little, the Kasaan Bay, along with the Abukuma, Warsaw, and Sheffield are moving into formation to assist the Falling Star. Seems like her captain is attempting to bite off more than he can chew. We can't risk losing that carrier, given the size of the enemy fleet."

"How big is the fleet?" asked Sergeant Vincent Angelo.

"Big, a couple Assault Carriers, lots of cruisers, and dozens of destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. We've got more ships, but we all know that doesn't mean anything. We've already lost a dozen ships, including the Edinburgh, El Dorado, and the Emdem."

Upon mention of the Emdem, the other ODSTs went silent. The UNSC Emdem was one of the few carriers left in active service, and even fewer that were assigned to the fleet. Its loss meant a huge gap in naval force projection, and a severe lack of assistance to ground side forces. It was a few moments before anyone else spoke, then Oliver Braun, the heavyset German, spoke up.

"Oh man, we really /are/ in deep, aren't we? That's a lot of assets down the proverbial drain."

"I know, which is why we need to get in, get the HVTs, and get out as fast as possible. With luck, we'll be out of there before the Covenant get within three klicks of the place."

Mitchell leaned back into the seat of his pod as he heard the others mumbling in agreement. Maybe, he thought, he could enjoy the rest of the trip down to the planet. It was at this moment that the pods touched down near the ONI facility.

Divine Warriors

Cycle 230, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Location: Triumphant Faith, CCS-Class Battlecruiser

"The human pickets are moving to intercept us!" the navigations officer barked from his battle station.

Shipmaster Deyad 'Marakee glanced down from the platform that raised him above his subordinates on the Triumphant Faith's bridge. "Their numbers?" he demanded, hands clasped behind his back.

"Three at the fore, one supporting from the rear."

"They move to engage even though they have no hope of victory," 'Marakee's aide mused from the base of the command platform. "These humans truly are desperate creatures."

'Marakee eyed the tactical console in front of him. The human ships were indeed advancing, though from the looks of things their trajectory was slowing. He shook his head.

"They choose to face us head on rather than flee and be hunted down one by one," he replied. "At any rate, these ones hope to drive us upwards, back within range of their orbital defenses."

He nodded to the communications officer. "Order the Beloved Faith to take its battlegroup and engage the humans. Give them the warrior's death such valor merits. This ship has more important things to do then swat down stragglers."

He returned his gaze to the tactical display as the bridge crew hurried to carry out his orders. The fleet was lucky to encounter such light resistance, 'Marakee knew. It was only through the grace of the gods that the Long Night of Solace's premature assault had not ruined months of carefully coordinated planning. 'Marakee's mandibles curled at the thought of the supercarrier's commander's incompetence. A waste of a good ship and a fine crew.

'Marakee was determined not to make the same mistake. Had the Solace performed its duties properly, the Covenant would already have seized a firm foothold on the human planet's surface. But even with the loss of theSolace's detachment, the destruction of the human fortress world would not be forestalled for long.

The shipmaster glanced down at his aide as the bridge filled with battle reports from the deck officers and the rest of the fleet. "Alert the warriors in the holds. Tell them to be ready for departure immediately."

'Marakee allowed himself a small smile as the aide rushed to carry out his orders. The humans on the planet below were about to realize that what they had faced so far was only a taste of the Covenant's true power. The divine warriors of the N'Marz legion were about to descend upon them.

***

Alarms blared through the hold. Anxious Unggoy and impatient Kig-Yar dashed across the decks, racing towards their battle stations. Dropships whined to life in the hangar, their Banshee escorts floating into position beside them. Wraith tanks and Ghost hovercraft were raised into position beneath the waiting Phantoms as lances of infantry arrayed themselves in formation on the hangar floor.

The N'marz legion was going to war.

Field Master Stel 'Vadamee surveyed the assembled troops, a surge of pride rising within his chest. He had been waiting for this day for months now, amidst all the endless training and preparations that had preceded the Fleet of Particular Justice's assault on the human fortress world. The Vadam bloodline would achieve great honor here on this world known as Reach. Stel's older brother, Thel, was the supreme commander of the fleet, directing one of the most powerful battle fleets in Covenant history. It would be Stel's honor to serve as one of his brother's many blades, leading the N'marz to victory on the surface below.

He nodded to the warrior standing beside him, Zealot Cotoal 'Turlikee. "We are ready for battle. These warriors will sweep the humans away like dust in the wind."

The Zealot nodded. "My own warriors stand ready to serve in your ranks. The gods will smile upon us this campaign."

"Good. Disperse your Zealots as you see fit. Until we have a clearer understanding of the human defenses, you may take your own initiative in choosing where to fight."

Cotoal dipped his head in thanks and rested a hand on the energy sword that hung at his hip. "Then I will waste no more time. Expect to see me soon; I will remain close to your command center."

The Zealot strode away. The hangar floor was packed with troops now; some lances were already boarding the Phantom and Spirit dropships that would ferry them into battle.

The human world loomed outside the hangar's energy doors, a shining beacon beckoning Stel and his warriors into battle. It was an invitation each and every one of the N'marz warriors was eager to accept. Unfortunately, Stel would have to forestall his own descent for now. There were other matters that needed attending to.

He turned away from the swarming hangar and headed back towards his command chambers. "Send me Felo 'Ranakee and his officers," he said into his com unit. "I have a task for the special operations unit."

***

Fire. There was a fire burning in his flesh.

The call to battle had been made, but once again he was denied the right to venture forth and reclaim his honor. Disgraced and cast aside, he was condemned to live out his days in the shadow of his fellow warriors, never to be permitted the glory of battle ever again.

It was more than bear, yet he had borne it all the same for these long years, given mocking, menial tasks while his fellow warriors went out to claim honor on the battlefield. He had become lower than the meanest Kig-Yar, forced to consort with Unggoy laborers and Yanme'e drones. He had endured the scorn of his fellow Sangheili all this time as they trampled upon his pride and relegated him to cleaning crews and repair details.

Thel 'Lodamee's fists tightened at the memory of an armored human laid low before him, victory within the reach of his blade... only for him to be caught up in a gravity beam and dragged away from his prey, denied redemption by another's cowardice.

He had slain one of the human Demons in battle. That alone should have been enough to secure his ascendancy in the eyes of both the gods and his fellow Sangheili. But instead he had been disgraced and slandered by his commander's accusations of cowardice, and when a second Demon had been his to kill, that same commander had deprived him of his victory. The disgrace of that day still haunted Thel's thoughts.

There was no chance of redeeming himself in the eyes of this world. His commander's slander had seen to that. Thel no longer cared what the Sangheili thought of him. All that mattered was earning the gods' forgiveness and securing his place in the bliss of the Great Journey. And in order to do that...

Thel released his hold on the Major's neck. The dead warrior keeled over, only to be caught by the gangly hands of a waiting Kig-Yar. The avian mercenary lowered the corpse to the floor and motioned for her fellow brood-mates to begin removing his armor.

"Hurry," Chur'R-Kim hissed. "There is not much time."

Thel nodded. The armor the Kig-Yar were stripping from the officer he had just murdered bore the same maroon tinge of the rank he had once held; a painful reminder of both his past and the crime he had just committed to ensure his own salvation. He removed his own harness, a dull grey suit of armor that denoted him as one of the Triumphant Faith's support staff. Yet another element of his long humiliation.

"Forgive me, brother," Thel whispered as he donned the dead officer's combat harness. "Find peace within the Journey."

If he met his victim in the next life, Thel would beg for forgiveness for what he had been forced to do. But first, he would need to ensure that he earned his place in that paradise. His victim's sacrifice would be worthwhile, Thel swore to the gods. He would make sure of that.

He slipped the officer's helmet onto his head and appropriated the dead Sangheili's grenades and plasma repeater. Of his old trappings, he kept only his own energy sword. He would win back his honor with this blade.

The Kig-Yar divided Thel's discarded armor amongst themselves in seconds. Thel could not help but admire the perverse discipline with which the creatures distributed their looted prize. Chur'R-Kim tapped the beam rifle slung across her back impatiently.

"Time to go," she ordered, then caught herself, casting a sly look at Thel. "I mean, at your order, Major."

It had cost Thel every last scrap of money to hire Kim and her fellow pirates on. Fortunately, once bought the Kig-Yar were ferocious fighters. They would serve him well in lieu of the standard lance that should have been his by right.

Thel nodded to the Kig-Yar and strode out of the maintenance deck, leaving the body where it lay. By the time the corpse was discovered and his own supervisors realized he was missing, he would already be on the battlefield below, amidst the glory of battle and beyond their reach.

The Kig-Yar fell into step behind him, and despite the shame that burned within Thel he could also feel traces of his old pride returning as well. He had endured his disgrace long enough. It was time to take back his honor.

Thel offered three silent prayers of thanksgiving as he and his Kig-Yar retinue marched toward the hangar. One to the gods, and one to the soul of the warrior he had murdered.

And one to the humans who would pave the path of his Journey with their blood.

Evacuation

2009 Hours, August 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Visegrád, Eposz


The flight to the remote town had taken over two hours, and even with their armour and fatigues Three Hotel were cold and tired from the chilly winds. As their Falcons passed a nearby mountain, a sight came into view that snapped them all to attention.

"They're already here."

Sergent Major Lee nodded at Sikowsky's comment, and leaned out of the side of his Falcon to get a better view. Some of fields around Visegrad were ablaze, as were several outlying buildings. A crashed Banshee lay in a wheat field, spewing smoke. As The trio of helicopters began to circle the town, the pilot called back to Lee over the COM.

"Sergeant, it doesn't look like there's anything alive down there."

Lee shook his head. "We're going in. There still might be some survivors down there. "

"Copy that, taking us down."

The Falcons of Three Hotel descended on the remains of what was once a town square, its flagstones cracked and burnt from plasma fire. Lee exited his transport, followed by Sikowsky and Steinworth. The others swiftly moved in, weapons raised as they looked around for hostiles. The troopers sat in complete silence for nearly thirty seconds before the Falcons ascended to cover the surrounding areas. Lee waved a hand, and they began to move.

"Keep an eye out for any movement. Hold your fire for now."

Visegrád had been a beautiful town once, that was for sure. Now it was a ruin. With the sun already going down the troopers would have to move fast to assess the situation and look for any survivors. If there weren't any Humans left, then there were definitely Covenant troops in the area.

"Sergeant Major," Sikowsky whispered. "I heard that Holland dispatched a few squads to this area a couple of weeks back. Think they're still here?"

"Can't say for sure. Someone shot down that Banshee and I don't think it was the civvies. Keep moving."

They advanced slowly, and in pairs. Every now and then a couple of troopers would move into an abandoned building, only to emerge with grim faces. As they moved further into town, the signs of battle became more evident. A splatter of indigo blood on a wall marked where someone had wounded an Elite. The body lay nearby, peppered with bullet holes. Further up, voices could he heard. Lee turned to his troopers.

"Hear that?"

"Yeah. What're they saying?"

"Alien gibberish. Move up. Weapons free."

Sure enough, several large Sangheili warrior stood by a ruined house round the corner, conversing in their own language. Silently, Lee took out a grenade and pulled the pin before tossing it in their direction. As he did so, several of the troopers opened fire. By the time the grenade detonated their shields had already been drained, and the formidable aliens were blown to pieces. A cry from nearby sounded out, and several other aliens burst from nearby buildings.

"Multiple contacts, open fire!"

Lee backed up slightly and levelled his SAW before opening fire on a group of Grunts making their way down the street towards him. The diminutive aliens were torn to shreds, though half a dozen more were already on their way. Four Army troopers moved across to a side street, hoping to flank their foe. Lee moved back slightly as several crystalline shards smashed into the pavement near him. Though they were certainly outnumbered, the troopers' element of surprise and firepower gave them a distinct tactical advantage in this situation.

"Murphy, sniper."

"Got it."

Two more soldiers moved forward and pushed the remaining Covenant troops back with bursts of assault rifle fire as Private Murphy leaned out of cover and levelled his DMR. Through the sites he could just make out the spined quills of a Jackal sniper on a nearby rooftop. The moment his target twitched forward to aim. He pulled the trigger. A thin body crumpled and fell from the roof.

"Down."

"Great. Sikowsky, take Andos and Henderson through that building. Set up a field of fire, and cut off their reinforcements!"

The Private and his comrades left without another word, leaving Lee's squad to mop up the survivors. a burst of SAW fire gunned down an advancing Elite, prompting several Grunts to flee in the opposite direction. From across the street, well-placed rifle fire finished them off. The darkened street was finally clear. Despite a few close shaves, there were no casualties among Three Hotel. Private Steinworth led his group out from across the street, looking over the field of alien corpses they had created. As he passed one body, he stopped.

"Sir, we've got a live one over here!"

The rest of the squad quickly approached, a few breaking off to cover the side streets. Lee strode forwards to see a few of his troopers gathered around a badly wounded Elite. It had been shot repeatedly in the lower chest and once in the neck, but it was still clearly breathing. The alien looked up at the gathered Humans with what could only be a glare of intense hatred and disgust. Murphy crouched by it, quickly grabbing the Elite's dropped plasma rifle before looking to his leader.

"Uh, do we take prisoners?"

Lee looked down at his injured foe for a second before putting down his SAW. He then took his M6C pistol out from it's holster and pointed it downwards. His face was expressionless.

"I don't."

He shot the Elite twice in the head. It twitched for a moment and fell still.

"I want this area secured in five. Let's move."

Murphy wiped some of the alien's blood from his armour and stood up before following Lee and several others down the street. As the rest of the unit began to spread out into the nearby kivas, the Sergeant Major placed two fingers to his ear and activated the COM.

"Whiskey One-One, you still with us?"

The Falcon pilot responded after a few seconds. "Copy that, Three Hotel Actual. Sorry we couldn't help you out back there. Couldn't get a good shot in the narrow streets."

"That's fine. Anything on thermals?"

"There's something coming up the valley. Whiskey One-Two and One-Three are investigating, over."

Lee nodded. As he moved to deactivate the COM there was a burst of gunfire not far away, followed by the familiar sound of plasma fire in response. Murphy and the others glanced up as Whiskey One-One flew overhead, its main gun opening fire after a few seconds. Corporal Sikowsky's panicked voice came through the COM.

"We're under fire, west side of town. Henderson's down and we've got a ton of Covvies heading our way. Bastards must've been coming to reinforce this group." He was cut off momentarily as a large explosion sounded nearby. "Shit, they've got heavy armour! Going to need support here soon, Sir!"

At this, the rest of Three Hotel doubled their speed towards the edge of town. Heavy armour meant Wraiths, or at worst, a Scarab. They would've almost certainly seen the latter, and as a large globule of blue plasma soared overhead their thoughts were confirmed. Lee dived behind a concrete wall as the rest of the unit moved in.

"Ackerman, get some fire on those tanks!"

Lee began firing on the incoming infantry while Private Ackerman opened fire with her M41 Jackhammer. The missile streaked towards the nearest tank and struck it, the heavy vehicle crashing to the ground in flames. By the looks of it they had several more, including one armed with fuel rod cannons instead of the typical plasma mortar. Whiskey One-One hovered above, the pilot peppering the lead Wraith with rounds before the grenade launchers finally took the tank down. As it moved to engage another target, the AA Wraith began to fire.

"Oh shit!" the Pilot shouted over the COM. "Didn't see that one, we're gonna move around and try-"

From his position on the ground, the troopers could only watch in horror as the Falcon was hit by one blast after another, spinning out of control before smashing into the side of a building and exploding. Lee gunned down half an enemy lance before stooping to reload his weapon. This is bad. The remaining two Wraiths then turned their attention towards his squad. Ackerman was shot through the head with a needle rifle as she reloaded the Jackhammer, prompting Murphy to drop his rifle and reach for the weapon.

"Get down, get down!"

The next plasma mortar missed, but hit one of the buildings directly behind the troopers. Shattered masonry and burnt metal rained down on the surviving troopers, some of whom had already began to move back for better cover. Before Murphy could reload the missile launcher, a trapdoor burst open near one of the town's outlying buildings. Several missiles rocketed out, slamming into the side of the Wraiths and destroying them instantly. At first Lee thought it might have been some members of his squad, but a second look brought them into focus. It was a motley group of men and women in heavy clothing, wielding an assortment of outdated weaponry. They rained down fire on the remaining infantry, cutting the Covenant soldiers to pieces as they were caught between two groups of enemies. After a few seconds, silence fell once more across the ruined outskirts.

"Hey!"

A tall man approached the troopers, holding a rifle up in the air. Lee stood up and approached him, followed by several others. Behind him, Sikowsky and the remainder of Three Hotel exited the buildings, looking around warily.

"Sergeant Major Lee, UNSC Army. What are you people doing here?"

"Surviving, as you can see." The man indicated the trapdoor behind him. "We got as many people to the shelter as we could. when they arrived. Been hiding out here for a few days now."

He looked over the weapons carried by the civilians. Some of them didn't look like they were exactly standard issue for UNSC troops. Lee looked over the man before him. He was rather tall, and had the look of a hardened veteran in spite of his rather young looks. There was something about him that made the Sergeant feel slightly uneasy.

"So I see. Where did you get those weapons?"

"Here and there. Some came from the troopers that arrived here not long ago. They didn't last long when the Covvies arrived, I'm afraid. I take it you're the rescue party, then?"

"Yes." Lee had a feeling he knew exactly where they'd got the weapons from and who this man was, but the Covenant threat took priority over a couple of rebel holdouts right now. "We're evacuating civilians from this area to a nearby spaceport. You'll have to come with us."

The man nodded. "That's fair enough. I'm Bohater, by the way. I managed to raise the alarm and get these people down here before it was too late."

Bohater didn't seem to have the Hungarian accent that most people on the frontier possessed. Chances were that he was running guns through Visegrád when the Covenant arrived. Lee watched as nearly two dozen civilians clambered out of the cellar they had holed up in. He nodded towards Steinworth and Murphy, who moved to assist a heavily pregnant woman and her partner out of Bohater's hiding place. While most of the unarmed civilians moved towards the Army troopers, Murphy ducked inside for a few moments. Lee turned to Bohater.

"Thanks for helping these people. Some would just hole themselves up alone and wait out the storm."

The tall man nodded. "Someone had to help. What happens now."

"I'll call for extraction. Just join the others and wait here, it shouldn't be long."

"Got it."

Lee watched Bohater rejoin Visegrád's survivors, slinging his rifle behind his back. He'd probably be picked up by the authorities at a spaceport if they recognised him. He wasn't going to try and arrest an innie in front of a group of people he'd saved from the Covenant. Murphy approached him, a grim look on his face.

"Anything?"

"Looks like our man turned his cellar into a bunker. They've got a few weapon racks of outdated rifles. MA2B's, MA3A's and the like. Couple of Jackhammers and grenades, too."

"Any hard data?"

"Found a pile of burned papers and a wiped datapad. Sorry Sergeant Major, nothing concrete."

"That's fine." Lee looked around at what remained of Visegrád. It must have been a nice place to live, once. Quiet, considering its place on the frontier, but peaceful. Not any more, though. The Covenant had destroyed it, just like they had done with thousands of other places in the last few decades. He activated his COM.

"This is Three Hotel to Command. Visegrád was hit by the Covenant and we've got the survivors with us now. Requesting Pelican dropship support for evac."

"Copy that, Three Hotel. Birds are on the way, out."

He turned off his COM. It was dark now, and with the power cut off this place would be pitch black soon. They'd lost nearly a dozen troopers taking the town; Steinworth and some others were recovering the bodies. Still, with Covenant forces groundside things would only get worse. He'd seen it a hundred times now and it wasn't getting any easier to deal with. Still, they'd saved a few people. That had to count for something.

"Sikowsky, get some flares set up for our evac birds. We're leaving soon."

Sword and Sheath

2030 Hours, August 14, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Near ONI SWORD Base, Babd Catha Ice Shelf, Eposz


Private Yin Maxwell rubbed the sweat from his forehead as he and the rest of Charlie Platoon trudged through slushy snow on their way to SWORD Base. He was told to keep his helmet on incase of snipers, but if there were snipers, his helmet would not do much to stop them. They had been marching for a couple of hours now as they had landed about half a dozen kilometers away from the base, and despite the small amount of snow on the ground, it was still getting hot inside his armor.

"How long until we get there Sergeant? We've been walking for hours." Maxwell asked.

"Another half hour at most, if we don't run into any Covvies." Sergeant Angelo replied.

"But the Kasaan Bay didn't detect any Covenant nearby. We should be fine."

"We also didn' see a massive fuckin' Super Carrier a few days ago either. Plus, we dropped a couple hours ago, lots a thing coulda changed." Said Davis from the front of the group.

"I know, but wouldn't the base be able to tell if there are Covenant nearby?"

"Sensors were damaged when that Corvette attacked a few weeks back, so for the most part, they're blind." Private Armstrong said from near the back of the column.

"Alright gentlemen, lets cut the chatter. If there are Covenant nearby, we don't want to give away our position. Our scouts will be back in a minute and we need to be rea-" At that moment, Mitchell, who was leading the group was cut off at that moment as a lone ODST ran over the hill, bleeding and with burn marks on his armor. His helmet was gone so Mitchell could see the various cuts and bruises on his face.

"Corporal Roberts, where are the rest of the scouts? I sent five of you." Mitchell knew what the answer was before Roberts even opened his mouth.

"Covenant sir, a whole big group. Must be the remnants of that carrier's group. They got the others, and they're moving this way."

Upon hearing this Mitchell and the other Sergeants began giving orders to take cover and prepare for the Covenant assault that was inbound. They would not be able to stay here for long, as they still had to get to SWORD Base to get that A.I. and get it off world. Within a few minutes, the troopers were in position, just as the first few Grunts waddled into view. Private Maxwell raised his M6C/SOCOM and aimed at the first Grunt's head. He fired once in unison with several other troopers, dropping the first group of tiny aliens. After that, several birdlike Jackals and an Elite walked into the area. As they spotted the bodies, the other troopers opened fire with their larger weapons.

After this, the Covenant troops started pouring in the area, and immediately the situation turned bleak. One trooper had his arm burned off at the elbow by an overcharged plasma pistol shot, while another took a triplet of pink Needler shards in his chest. Sergeant Davis laid down suppressing fire with his SAW while Braun led some others to flank the Covenant's position, firing down on a trio of Elites and their Grunt cannon fodder.

Eventually the gunfire stopped, leaving an uneasy silence that worried Maxwell. One trooper cautiously walked out back into the field, checking for any surviving Covenant when a large plasma mortar crashed on him, vaporizing the poor man. The cries of "Wraith!" came in immediately after, causing the remaining troopers to scramble into the hills. Sergeant Mitchell yelled over the COMs, trying to get them to regroup.

"Regroup on the other side of the hill, we'll run the rest of the way to the base. If you run into any Covenant forces, engage only if you have to, I don't want to lose anymore men than I have too. We should make it by nightfall."

For the next hour, they marched through the darkness, occasionally running into small Covenant patrols. They mostly eliminated them from a distance, but once they were engaged by a Hunter pair, and with no heavy weapons available, were forced to withdraw from the area. After marching, they saw the lights of the base in the distance. They also linked up with the other groups, who had taken minor casualties; Calzaghe and Kidrov were both wounded by Needler shots, and another two were dead. They rushed the rest of the way to the base, and were greeted by a few Army troopers.

After Mitchell walked through the gate, he requested to speak to the head of security, when a Private directed him to Ádám Virág.

"You need to understand that the Covenant are on their way to this base, and these troops are scattered all over the place, there's no coordination, none of the defensible positions are properly fortified. I have no clue how you all made it until those Spartans got here."

Virág looked concerned, and shook his head, "We don't have enough troops here. All of ONI's security personnel were killed in the first attack, and most of the Army garrison have been relocated to fight elsewhere on the planet. We've made do with what we have, if you'd be willing to help defend the base, that would be wonderful."

Mitchell frowned, "I'm sorry, but our orders are to evacuate key personnel from the base, along with a certain AI, goes by the name Caladbolg." as he spoke, he handed Virág a list with the names of the HVTs. He watched as Virág looked over the list and frown.

"You want Caladbolg and the heads of research? You can't be serious, they are working on projects that could end the war."

"It doesn't matter what they're working on if they die here on Reach, which is why we're getting them out. We'll stay and help until the evacuation is complete, then we have to move on."

Mitchell turned and left the office as Virág sat there. He had people he had to get out of here, and soldiers to keep safe, and he wasn't going to let some ONI security officer mess it up. He went outside and began organizing the defenses with the other Sergeants and Army troopers. The base had nothing in the way of anti-air defenses, the only AA cannon had been destroyed by the Covenant after their first attack failed. The only thing keeping away the occasional Banshee were troopers armed with rocket launchers, which were quickly running low on ammo.

Mitchell was in the motor pool, taking inventory and was disappointed by what he saw, as the base's armory consisted of three rocket launchers and a dwindling supply of rockets, an M12, half a dozen grenade launchers, and a few dozen assorted small arms. He shook his head and was trying to think how to use his assets when he heard the distinct shriek of a Banshee and the thump of a rocket launcher as it fired. As he rushed outside, he saw the alien flier swoop around as the rocket impacted on one of its wings, blowing it clean off and sending it plummeting to the ground. Unfortunately, it veered straight for the trooper in a kamikaze style attack. The frightened trooper dropped the rocket launcher and tried to run, but was not fast enough and was crushed by the Banshee, which exploded moments later from the impact.

As the soldiers and ODSTs poured out into the courtyard to see what had happened, an eerie silence fell over the compound, broken only by the soft pops and cracks of the burning Banshee's frame, the purple fire glowing in the middle of the night. As they stood there looking at the wreckage, a single sound echoed throw the nearby glaciers and into the courtyard, which made the soldiers freeze and the ODSTs reach for their weapons; the guttural roar of an Elite, meaning the Covenant had arrived.

***

Corin sprinted to the nearest cover, a large shipping container as several bolts of emerald plasma hit the ground behind him. When the Covenant showed up, they arrived en mass, with Wraith tanks shelling the courtyard while infantry moved in through the new gaps in the walls, with aircraft covering from overhead. They had taken a few casualties when they first breached with three troopers down, along with a wounded ODST.

As he reached the container, he reloaded his SAW and checked his surroundings. As he looked around the corner, he was meet with the sight of a couple of Grunts. Smiling, he poked the weapon around the corner and let out a burst of automatic fire, shredding the tiny aliens. Satisfied, Davis quickly checked for snipers before bolting to a nearby barricade, and just in time as a plasma mortar came down on the container he had just been hiding behind. He mumbled under his breath as he looked around again, spotting a lone ODST lying face first on the ground. Not spotting any hostiles nearby, he made his way over to the body and was just about to move it when he heard a faint click. Terrified, he jumped away as the plasma grenades detonated, and felt the heat wash over him. He landed on the ground with a thud and sat there, and when he tried to sit up, he couldn't feel his legs and was certain he had lost them and would soon die of blood loss. When he flipped himself onto his back, he saw that he did in fact have his legs, but they were horribly burned, probably killed most of the nerves too.

As he sat there, he saw a plasma mortar vaporize three unlucky soldiers and the cover they were hiding behind. He slowly reached up and turned on his COM, "What's takin' so long? We're gettin' our dicks kicked out 'ere!" He waited a minute for a response and was about to try again when he heard the frightened and agitated voice of the head of security.

"My apologies but we are having some... difficulty. Caladbolg is ready for transport, as are most of the scientists."

"Then what's the fuckin' hold up?! Good men are dyin' down 'ere!"

"Dr. Halsey is refusing to leave her research and projects. We've told her that the Covenant are here, but she insists that she stay."

"Let me talk to the bitch, I'll get 'er to move. She's causin' brave men and women to die down her, so she needs to move 'er a-"

"Move my what, Sergeant? I believe there was more to that sentence then you let out."

Davis sat there for a moment, unsure of what to say, but was brought back by the distant scream of a trooper, "Ma'am, we are meant to evacuate you, but we can't leave unless you're either dead, missin', or with us."

"I'm afraid the latter of those is rather unlikely, so you might as well get the others out now, before any evacuation window you have closes. Also, the fact that Caladbolg is ready for transport, but is in immedient danger of being captured or destroyed when the means of retrieval and relocation is available means you are technically in violation of the Cole Protocol."

Corin furrowed his brow behind his helmet, "Fine, you wanna be like that? Mitchell, the big Doctor ain't comin' and we gotta get these people and that A.I. outta 'ere. We can't risk mission failure 'cause of one Doctor."

He heard sighs coming from the other end, before Mitchell responded, "Alright, lets get these people into the Pelican they preped and get out of here. Sergeant Panossian, you're in charge of clearing the way."

"Roger that, come on men, we need to knock the Covvies out of the way!"

Panossian and his men formed up and began moving towards the landing pad nearby, which was just out of range of the Wraith's mortars. They encountered minor resistance, with most of their forces preoccupied at the main entrance. Those they did find were quickly dispatched with a ruthless efficiency. Soon the way was clear, and the remaining ODSTs brought up the frightened scientists, one of which was carrying an odd boxy container, which Panossian assume was the matrix for the A.I. Caladbolg. As the last of the Troopers boarded the craft, Panossian saw the last of the Banshees crash in a ball of flame, clearing the skies for the Pelican to escape. The next few minutes were relatively quiet as the Pelican took off and headed for the atmosphere, leaving behind SWORD Base and the sounds of its battle.

Strafing Run

1330 Hours, August 15, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Pálháza, Viery Territory, Eposz

“What we got, Bren?” Raquel asked as she lifted her head from the scope of her M392 Designated Marksman rifle.

“Not sure,” Bren replied as she fiddled with the zoom on her scope. “I see Covenant forces en-masse. They’re not doing much though.” Bren and Raquel had taken a position on top of a financial building on outskirts of Pálháza as they reconnoitred the enemy. Raul and Kevin were with the leaders of the 3rd Infantry Regiment and 2 Hotel as they tried to thrash out some form of defensive plan.

“Gauntlet Three to Gauntlet Actual, over,” Bren’s earpiece buzzed.

“This is Gauntlet Actual, go ahead.”

“Just got word from Navy brass,” Raul began, “the EE Fleet has arrived, more en-route.”

“That’s good news.” Bren said, smiling slightly.

“Yes, ma’am,” was his hasty reply, “but the problem is we’ve no window to get the transport out yet. All space lanes from Pálháza have been declared red, too hot to extract.” There was a muffled noise as someone spoke to Raul.

“Yeah okay, I’ll let her know.” There was a small pause. “Colonel Ishido has just informed me that evacuations are slow, barely any of the evac centres are getting people.”

“Fuck.” Bren breathed.

“Yes ma’am,” Raul replied, “Master Sergeant Fletcher’s 2 Hotel are getting ready to inspect the centres to see what the issue is.”

“Good idea. Hold one, Three.” She turned to Raquel. “What do we think?”

“I’m concerned, truth be told.” Raquel started, she turned from her rifle’s scope and looked at Bren, “I’m not sure how long we can hold the city if we’ve got no spatial cover. That’s pretty big fuckin’ Covvie army out there. We’ve got what? Less than twenty SpecOps troops, an infantry regiment and militia and police. We’re setting up to lose, it seems.”

“Yeah…” Bren rubbed the back of her neck. “Gauntlet Three, you still there?”

“Affirmative.”

“Two and I are coming back. Will you inform Two Hotel Actual to post a recon team to our position, over?”

“Will do. Out.” Raul turned to Fletcher. “You get that?”

“Aye,” Fletcher replied in his thick London accent. “Okay. We’ll head out now.” He extended his hand towards Raul. “Good luck, Spartan.”

“Yessir.” Raul took it and shook it once and Fletcher left. There was a distinct sound of Warthogs starting that slowly faded as they rumbled further and further away from Alpha Base.

Raul turned to Ishido, “what’s our armoured capacity?”

“Negligible, truly.” Ishido scratched the short stubble on his chin. “We’ve a dozen Scorpions, and a about twenty Warthogs.”

“Where are the tanks?”

“Hidden throughout the city,” he laughed, “We can’t afford the Covenant air attacks to destroy them before we’ve had a chance to use them.”

“Agreed.” Raul ran a hand over his bald head. “What do you think our chances are, realistically, sir?”

Ishido sighed heavily. “Not good.”

“Thought so.” Raul stood up straighter as he heard a Mongoose engine kick and splutter outside the tent, “Is that everything, sir?”

“Yes.” Ishido looked laboriously over the plans of the city, “dismissed.” He saluted.

Raul returned the salute and exited the tent, Kevin was meticulously looking over his BR55 HBR, or Battle Rifle. Raul barely acknowledged his quiet team member and instead focused on Bren and Raquel re-joining them.

“Any sign of the Colour Gang?” He inquired.

Raquel shook her head, “not one sign.” She shrugged, “it’s genuinely perplexing, should be some sign of them.”

Bren shook her head, “not really. They were outside City bounds when we lost contact with them. We were still inside.” She then focused on Raul. “What do you know?”

He sighed, “it’s grim, ma’am. Only a dozen or so Scorpions scattered and hidden throughout the city. They hit us with armour in force, we’re gonna be lucky to get anyone out. That coupled with no cover from the fleet overhead, we’re fucked.”

“We got any air assets?” Bren asked, concern colouring her voice.

“I uh, I don’t know. Bar a few Falcons or so, I’m not sure we’ve much. The closest Air Force boys are being called to Visegrad, and New Alexandria. We’re on our own it seems.”

“Jesus.” Bren’s shoulders slumped and she leaned against the nearest wall. “Any word from 2 Hotel?”

“Negat – “ Raul was cut off by the screech of an alarm. Ishido bolted out of the tent.

“Two Hotel has made contact, Covenant are attacking!”

Bren quickly snapped out the relaxed frame of mind she had got in. “Raquel, Kevin take a Falcon give us a sit rep. Go!”

The two nodded and bolted towards their airship. Bren and Raul took up positions on the Mongoose that had been previously used. Bren took the driver’s seat, meaning Raul had the passenger seat. They set off and headed towards the outskirts of the city, overhead the Falcon containing Raquel and Kevin zoomed overhead, speeding towards the front.

“Colonel, give us an idea.” Raul said into the com.

“Okay, first battalion are at the northern entrance to the city, second and third, on the east and west; we got fourth in reserve.”

“Roger.” Raul keyed the com to pick up Raquel and Kevin, “Gauntlet Two and Four, sitrep, over.”

“East side being hit hard, Covvies moving against the west, too” Raquel replied.

“Copy. What do you want them to do, Bren?” He asked.

“Two, Four, land a couple of blocks away from the fighting in the east and advance from there. We’ll head west and support the line there.”

“Roger, out.”

As the pair of Spartans sped towards the fighting, the distinct hum of plasma fire became increasing drowning in the unique staccato of the UNSC’s ballistic weapons. In front of them, plasma burned and cracked the concrete, it was a blur of blues and greens sizzling the air and cooking flesh.

Bren skidded the Mongoose against a building and the duo jumped from the vehicle, weapons raised as the neared the end of their approach to the front line. The screams of wounded humans and the distinct smell of charred human remains confirmed to them they knew they had arrived.

“Where’s the Battalion CO, doc?” Bren asked a young woman covered in blood.

She didn’t say anything but nodded towards a small drab olive tent. Upon entering, there stood a dishevelled dark-skinned woman in her late forties. A small bandage was held in place by tape just above her left eye; it wept blood softly.

“SPARTAN team GAUNTLET is ready to assist, ma’am.” Bren said as the pair saluted.

“Spartans?” The officer mused.

“Yes, ma’am.” There was a pause as they examined each other. “What’s the situation?”

The officer, whom Bren’s IFF tag had identified as Major Kathleen Jenkins, moved towards the desk with a map of their frontline. “So far it’s been minor, Grunts and Jackals, few of those goddamn Elites. We’re holding currently, only a few casualties. Ishido refused my request for armoured reinforcements.”

“Yes, ma’am, us and 2 Hotel are all the reinforcements Pálháza are likely to get.”

“You’re joking.”

“Wish I was, ma’am. All forces are tied up.”

“Christ almighty.” Kathleen buried her face in her cut hands. From outside a soldier screamed a warning from the top of his lungs, alerting everyone to the strafing of two banshees. The Spartans has barely any time to react before a wash of heat swept over them, sending the pair of them to the ground. The tent collapsed, a large hole had been flash fried into glass. Bren looked over to find the Major Kathleen Jenkins, only she was now missing half her face having been burnt to a cinder.

Brothers in Arms

Cycle 231, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Location: Triumphant Faith, CCS-Class Battlecruiser

"It has been too long, brothers," Sur 'Ranakee said. "Far too long."

Felo 'Ranakee peered at his younger brother through the briefing chamber's dim light and wondered if he should chastise him for such a breach of etiquette. Sur might be his brother, but he was also a subordinate and they were surrounded by the other officers from Felo's special operations contingent. Fortunately, Rol got to Sur first.

"Indeed it has," the youngest of the 'Ranak siblings said, stepping up to Sur's shoulder. "But the time for pleasantries comes later. The chance to serve under our brother is a gift, not a privilege. Don't forget the task at hand."

Sur caught himself and gave Felo a nod. "Of course. Forgive me, commander. I misspoke."

Felo returned the nod, grateful for both Rol's tact and Sur's quick recovery. "Think nothing of it. I look forward to fighting alongside you both in the campaign to come."

He glanced around at his other officers. "This contingent is already filled with the finest warriors in the Covenant," he declared, raising his voice. "To have two of my kin counted amongst their number is an honor beyond words."

The other officers nodded and grunted their approval. None would accuse him of favoring his brothers on the battlefield, Felo would make sure of that.

Before further conversation could be made, the door to the briefing chamber slid open and an ornately armored field master strode into the room. Felo barked a quick order and every warrior in the room snapped upright, fists across their chest in a respectful salute. Stel 'Vadamee nodded and returned the gesture as he approached the holo-table in the center of the room.

I am not the only warrior with siblings in this fight, Felo noted as he stepped up to the table. The field master's brother commands this entire fleet. He wasn't sure exactly how Stel felt about that. Sangheili were raised and trained to be warriors from childhood; teamwork was critical, but rivalries between siblings could be fierce. Not all warriors were fortunate enough to share the bonds Felo and his brothers enjoyed.

"Commander," the field master said. "I apologize for holding you and your command back from the fight, but I have a more pressing assignment for you than simply securing landing sites."

"That is what we are trained for," Felo replied. "It is no slight to be used intelligently."

Stel called up a holographic map of a region on the human planet. Settlements and defensive positions were marked amidst rolling hills and forests. It was no different than any other human planet Felo had ever attacked, though the natural beauty struck him as he surveyed the hologram. It was a shame that the humans had blighted this world with their unholy presence, just as they had done to so many other worlds before. But even if these hills and forests were to be cleansed in fire, the humans would pay dearly for the defilement.

"Our legion is responsible for sweeping the humans from this region," Stel explained. "Reports from the Long Night of Solace's reconnaissance indicate that it will be heavily defended. I expect to be spending much of my time hear rooting the humans out of their fortresses and isolating their evacuation efforts."

The field master called up an image of a human complex nestled within the hills. From the looks of things, it was military, though not quite as extensive as most of the humans' compounds and airfields.

"This installation is a power hub, one of a series that networks energy throughout the entire region." Stel called up five more identical complexes, each situated at various points around the region. "The humans will no doubt have backup generators at their bases, but to cut them off from the energy network will make my main assault that much easier."

Felo nodded. "You want my warriors to destroy these complexes."

"The humans will no doubt have them well defended, but I trust that will not stop you from completing your mission. Besides, every human you kill is another that is not defending their other strongholds."

"Indeed. Will I receive support from the rest of the legion?"

"Aside from the Phantoms that deliver you to your targets, no. I cannot divert forces from my main assault."

Felo understood completely. It was important not to let the might of the armada assaulting this human world blind him to the larger picture. He and his warriors were simply another component in a far larger battle. "We will bring down these complexes, field master. You need not worry about the matter further."

Stel nodded and straightened. "Then may the gods smile upon you, commander. We will speak again once you have returned from your mission."

Felo and his warriors saluted again as the field master departed. Turning to his officers, Felo indicated a handful of strike team leaders.

"We will split up the contingent for this operation," he told them. "I want to hit the generators simultaneously, take them down before the humans realize our intent, and depart before they can marshal reinforcements."

"And how do you want these generators removed?" Sur asked, tapping a finger against one of the plasma grenades strapped to his armor.

Felo couldn't help but give his brother a small smile. "No need to leave the humans anything to repair," he replied. "Level your target and kill any humans who try to stop you."

Sur and Rol joined the other officers in an enthusiastic war cry. They were all ready for war.

Contingency

1405 Hours, August 15, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: CASTLE Base Omega Wing, Menachite Mountain, Viery Territory


The steel doors leading to CASTLE Base's Omega Wing were already open when Colonel Holland approached. Usually this place would be locked up tight to those without the proper password, but judging by the amount of traffic through the base in recent days, they had eased up a little with entry procedures. Nonetheless, the uniformed Army officer hesitated for a moment before passing through the threshold. Omega Wing was filled with people for once; ONI agents conversed in small groups while security guards and the odd scientist came through, carrying boxes filled with sensitive equipment. Holland glanced to his right and found just who he was looking for. A brown-haired man in a grey Army uniform stood in an empty office, speaking to a fearsome looking, skull-shaped AI.

"-so you know what to do, then?"

"Of course," the hologram responded, its simulated voice a low growl. The skull swivelled to face Holland as he entered.

"Araqiel, go."

The AI winked out. The man turned and shook Holland's hand, smiling as he did so.

"Colonel Holland. It's been too long."

"Colonel Ackerson. I thought I'd find you here."

Ackerson gestured to a seat and moved to sit down at a nearby table. The office door hissed shut automatically. Holland was reasonably sure that the AI was responsible for that. He chose to ignore it, and took out a small datapad from his pocket.

"I was halfway to Camp Hathcock when Whitcomb told me you were here. I thought you were helping out with the tests there?"

"They're doing a few more before the final run," Ackerson began, taking the datapad that Holland held out to him. "Still, it's for one of Halsey's creations, so I'm not exactly eager to turn up so she can gloat about the design."

Holland looked over and saw a darkened office across the hall. "She's still at SWORD, then? Last I heard the Covenant hit the base pretty hard. Official casualty reports-"

"-are probably bullshit." Ackerson cut him off. "Anyway, what's up with your group? UPPER CUT was a success."

"Correct. Problem is that we're having trouble finding two of them. Sierra Zero-Five-Two and Beta Three-One-Twelve. You're familiar with the second one, I assume?"

The Colonel's eyes narrowed. Holland knew all about how he'd been forced to give up the Spartan for Noble. Word was that Ackerson wasn't pleased about it. Still, he'd shut up once Noble were the first to report Covenant activity on Reach not long ago. With a full-scale invasion on there wasn't time to complain.

"The rest of Noble is heading to engage Covenant groups elsewhere on the planet. Heard that a few Covvie ships might be heading for New Alexandria. If so then we'll need more than just a handful of Spartans to hold the place down."

Ackerson nodded. "I see. There might be a group we can send in, though I'll have to check the rosters. Halsey was adamant that they kept her freaks back for RED FLAG. Right now most of them are being called away from combat zones to ready up for the mission."

All Holland could do was nod. Though he and Ackerson were the same rank, the man was the Army's liaison officer to ONI and was definitely someone not to be crossed. He tapped the datapad, and it switched to a slightly blurry image of a tall man in military garb.

"Recognise him?" Holland asked.

"Yeah. Little shit's surfaced again, has he?"

"One of my SPECWARCOM teams found him sheltering a bunch of civvies from the Covenant in Visegrád yesterday. They evacced the group to a spaceport, but he managed to slip away. He needs to be taken out."

"I agree," Ackerson replied. "Bohater's a slippery little bastard, but we need to nail him and whatever group he's holed up with sooner rather than later. With the Covenant attack they might try to steal equipment or ships while we're busy fighting."

"So, do you have anyone who can do this?" Holland asked. Ackerson smiled. He knew full well that the man's connections with ONI would give him access to the kind of people who could pull this off.

"Yes, I do. I've got some NAVSPECWAR operators, but they're not close enough right now. However, there are a couple of agents I can supply to take out our rogue Spartan. Ever heard of BRUTUS?"

"Only rumours," Holland lied. He knew full well who they were and what they did. Nobody ever spoke praises of that particular part of ONI, though BRUTUS wasn't there to be praised. Ackerson was obviously better-connected than he thought if he could get them for this mission.

"Agents 20 and 54 are present at CASTLE right now. I'll send one out with that platoon of yours when I can."

"Thank you," Colonel Holland slowly got up from his chair. It was just like Ackerson to use numbers instead of names, but his desire to get away from the unlikeable bastard outweighed his desire to know more about the agents. As he turned to leave, shouts from another office turned his head as a few ONI agents exited, heading in different directions. Ackerson didn't even leave his chair, and merely snapped his fingers. The flaming skull figure of Araqiel popped up over a nearby holotank.

"The UNSC King's Vortex was just destroyed, Colonel Ackerson. Estimated casualties of nearly three thousand, taking into account the Marine companies stationed aboard when it was hit."

"Thank you, Araqiel." Ackerson sat back in his chair and watched Holland leave. He walked out of Omega Wing, checking his datapad once more. Noble Five and Noble Six still hadn't reported back. It had only been a day since UPPER CUT, so he dismissed his worries about the Spartans under his command. Noble One had reported contact with Covenant forces elsewhere on Reach an hour beforehand, and Three Hotel were awaiting orders back at Base Camp Kilo. Having several units under one man's command wasn't easy, but he'd have to manage for the time being. It was what he was good at.

Gather at Alexandria

1405 Hours, August 15, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Leander, Orbit around Reach


Davis woke with a start in a bright white room, on a surprisingly comfortable cot. When he tried sitting up, pain shot through him, forcing him back down. He slowly managed to prop himself up using the wall the cot was next to. Looking around he saw that he was inside a medical facility, it only took a moment for him to realize that he was inside the medical ward of a ship. A moment later a door opened and a nurse and several familiar faces walked in. He managed a pained smile as Sergeant Mitchell walked in.

"'Ey Sergeant, how're ya?"

"By the looks of it, better than you Davis."

Corin chuckled for a moment, earning him a stern look from Mitchell.

"I don't know what you're laughing about Sergeant, you almost got killed. Nearly got the two guys who had to drag your ass out of there killed too."

His face suddenly took on a more serious composition. "So, after I went out, how'd it go? I assume it was at least a partial success considerin' that some of us survived."

"Yeah, we got them all out, scientists and the AI, but we took heavy casualties in the process. Your squad didn't make it, and most of mine."

"Damn, shame a bunch a good troopers had to die for some eggheads and a computer program."

"Good to see that grenade didn't fuck you up as bad as they say it could have."

Davis looked down at his legs, which were covered in gauze, "Yeah, about that."

"Don't worry, you'll be fine. They just grafted some new skin on, you should be able to walk again soon."

Corin smiled as the nurse injected him with something and he passed of again. Once he was under, Mitchell and the other two troopers who had stayed surprisingly quiet turned and left the medical ward. He sighed, Davis was right, they had lost a lot of good men and women for some scientists and an AI, but Command had told them that they were important enough to risk their lives over, meaning they were important enough to die over.

A few minutes later, he arrived at the ship's barracks where the survivors were, along with the new additions that had been assigned to the platoon upon their arrival to the Leander. He did the same thing that he did before the first drop and went over their files. He shook his head, sure they were skilled, you had to be to join the ODSTs, but it was a noticeable decrease in quality compared to the ones they had lost. None of them had served for more then seven or eight years, and most only had a few battles or campaigns under their belts. He walked up to his bunk and his fatigues and armor and helmet, which were covered in blood spatters, both human and alien. He sat down and got out his cleaning kit, first scrubbing his armor to a shine, then he disassembled his weapons and began going at them.

When he was done cleaning he began the careful process of reassembling his weapons. Even though they were rather simplistic in their designs he still had to be careful as one misplaced part could lead to catastrophic results. If it was within his power, he'd like to not be blown up by his own weapons. He wouldn't want to be blown up by any weapons if it could be helped, but he'd like to be covered, just incase.

Once he was done, a young naval officer opened the door to the barracks, with news that there was an ONI officer aboard that wished to speak with him. The Office of Naval Intelligence was the last group he needed or wanted bugging him at this point, but he nodded silently and slipped into his now clean armor and followed her to the bridge. Once he arrived, he saw the ship's captain conversing with a man in a crisp dark military uniform. If he had to guess, he would say that was the ONI agent that wanted to see him. Upon his arrival, the agent turned and smiled before speaking.

"Ah, Mister Mitchell I presume?"

Mitchell stood at rigid attention, "Yes sir, I was informed that you requested me."

"Indeed I did Sergeant, have you heard of Sovereign Industries?"

"The weapons manufacturer?"

"They're more than just a simple weapons maker, they also manufacture vehicles and armor, several of which are of a highly experimental nature. A few months ago, ONI subcontracted them for several prototype designs. Their headquarters and CEO are in the city of New Alexandria which is... uncomfortably close to current Covenant positions. In accordance with Cole Protocol, we can't allow the prototypes to fall into enemy hands, but my superiors don't want them destroyed either. They'd also like the CEO kept in one piece."

Mitchell frowned, "I'm going to assume you want my platoon and I to go in and secure them?"

The agent smiled, "You're very perceptive Sergeant, I see why the out you in charge."

Mitchell forced a smile, "Thank you sir, when should we be ready?"

The officer turned around to walk away, talking as he did so, "Within the next day or so, go and tell your men so they have time to prepare."

With that the officer went back to his conversation with the Captain and Mitchell was left standing there. After a moment, he too turned and left, heading back to the barracks to deliver the news. For the new guys, they probably had no clue what was going on, and the ones who'd just gotten back from the last mission, this wasn't going to improve their day any.

Echo Briefing

1605 Hours, August 17, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Falling Star, Orbit around Reach

Daniel-240 reclined nervously in his seat in hanger bay, his eyes fixated on the baseball he threw up into the air. The Spartan was not fully in his battle worn MJOLNIR armour, only his helmet was off. It was scarred and puckered from the countless times the glass had shattered, deeply cutting his face.

“We have got to be nearly there,” Jermaine-164 said. He, unlike Daniel, was pacing back and forth, fully armoured and readied for combat if and when it should arrive.

“We are,” Daniel replied as he strained himself catching the ball. “Filippa is talking to the Captain or whatever, she’ll know for us when she gets back.”

“I’m just not comfortable not being there. That’s Reach being attacked; it’s home.” Daniel set the ball down and leaned forward, joining his fingers together as he placed his weight on his elbows. “Jermaine, relax. There are Spartan teams on the ground already. Scuttlebutt says that the Oners are heading down there before we do.” He relaxed and smiled in his usual cocky way, “did you see how much of the fleet is here already? Reach is okay.”

Jermaine slumped his shoulders, upon reflection it did seem like it would take almost the entire Covenant fleet to take Reach, and from what he had seen and been told, there didn’t appear to be even that much at Reach. Perhaps it would be possible to hold the planet. “If you insist, Dan.” He finally conceded.

“I do,” Daniel quipped, “now do a weapons check. Gotta be ready.”

“Yessir.” Jermaine headed off to the small cache of ammo placed softly against the adjacent wall, ready and waiting for when the team was deployed.

Daniel sighed and stood up, he rotated his shoulder blades and picked his helmet up. He walked towards the cache, possible weapon choices running through his head. From the corner of his eye, he saw Filippa and two other people walk into the bay. One of them was armoured in MJOLNIR too, but Daniel did not recognise their gait.

“Jermaine,” he said, tilting his head towards the new arrivals.

“Who is that?”

Daniel shrugged and tucked his helmet under one arm before turning to watch the trio walk toward them.

Jermaine did the same, small beads of sweat glistened on his dark forehead. “What’re we thinking, Chief?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, genuinely puzzled by the mystery Spartan.

The thoughts were pushed from his mind, however, as the unknown Spartan shouted: “Officer on deck!”

Jermaine and Daniel instinctively straightened their back to this order and saluted at Captain Hanley Ramirez of the Falling Star.

“At ease, Spartans.” He said as he returned the salute. “As you are all acutely aware, Reach is under attack from the Covenant. While their fleet is large, their ground presence is substantially larger. Currently we have two Spartan teams deployed: GAUNTLET and NOBLE. I cannot tell you anything about Noble, but GAUNTLET are currently fighting in Pálháza.”

“Sir any truth in the rumours about S-IIs being deployed today?” Daniel asked, trying to reassure Jermaine.

“Yes – you are those IIs,” Ramirez replied shortly.

Any protest died in the throat of Spartan-240.

“Where are we being deployed to?” Filippa asked.

“Manassas. There is a huge Covenant presence and the ground forces have requested immediate support." the captain paused for a second and look at the assembled super soliders

Filippa nodded, “How are we getting to Manassas, sir?”

Ramirez smiled at her "That is the fun part, for you lot at least. In the next hanger we have four booster frames, you four will be flying in support of my battlegroup. Put down those covenant ships over Manassus and then get down there and push their ground forces back"

Daniel noticed Jermaine fidget next to him. "Sir, how are four booster frames going to be any use against a covenant ship, or a group for that matter?"

"These booster frames are the latest models, fitted with EM mines to strip those Covenant ships shields. You guys tag them and we bag them."

Daniel nodded, it was a risky move. Booster frames were nimble but also fragile, one shot hit in the wrong place and you were dead in space and a rip target for any Seraphs or laser gunners looking for a quick kill. But they also packed a hell of a punch.

"Consider it done sir," replied Daniel

Ramirez nodded and turned to the quiet Spartan on his left. “This is Layla. She is to be folded into your team for the duration of the conflict.”

“Sir?” Daniel protested.

“It’s not my choice, Spartan. It’s been done.” Hanley wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “For this engagement, you have been assigned the call sign ECHO. Good luck.”

The Spartans all saluted once more before Hanley turned and left. Fillipa and Jermaine went and shook the hand of Layla, who was a full head shorter than both of them. It was clear she was not a member of any class of SPARTAN-II.

Daniel finally clasped her hand and shook firmly. “Welcome to ECHO, Spartan.”

Part Two: Invasion

Opening Salvo

0625 Hours, August 18, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Falling Star, Orbit around Reach


Daniel nervously clutched the handle bars of his booster frame, try to familiarize himself with the new vehicle as much as possible before they were deployed. The team, ECHO, and their booster frames all hung in one of the Falling Star's hangers. Booster frames, unlike most other starfighters were deploy by being dropped from a hanger like this. It made for a sickening feel of vertigo that Daniel didn't like.

"When was the last time any of us has flown one of these?" ask Jermaine over their shared comm link "Because I think the last time I was in one it was a sim."

"It was a sim," replied Filippa "Booster Frames aren't used to often."

"Surprising really, seeing how effective they can be." Daniel looked over to his left where Layla was crouched over her own booster frame "What about you Layla, flown in these rigs much?"

The new spartan looked over at him "Not really, space doesn't tend to agree with me so a majority of my assignments were on the ground."

The curtness of her reply, while quite reasonable, put Daniel on edge a bit. He'd spent most of the last few hours trying to get to know her, help her integrate with the team. While she had responded with a similar polite but final attitude she'd not let slip much about her history. Daniel had decided that she was solid, but something felt off. Like she was a coiled spring waiting to go.

Before Daniel could mull it over in his mind any more Captain Ramirez's voice suddenly broke over their comm link "ECHO this is Captain Ramirez, we are a minute away from combat is your team ready to go?"

"Copy sir, we're ready to go." replied Daniel

"Excellent, we'll signal you when its time to drop."

All four spartans activated the displays on their booster frames, running the final system checks before the coming battle. The minute slowly crawled past as Daniel and his team waited.

Finally red warning lights begun to flash in the hanger and a siren blared, warning any remaining navy corps men to exit the hanger before it was opened up to the cold void of space. Eventually the sirens feel silent and a countdown flashed up on Daniel's HUD, ten second to drop.

"Remember team when he drop stick together, tight formation. Don't want them splitting us up, we'll be easier targets that way."

Daniel was met with a chorus of acknowledgement as the timer flickered down to five seconds. Below them the hangers floor pulled back, revealing the surface of Reach below. ECHO didn't have to time to admire the view as a few seconds later the hooks holding them in the ship detached themselves from the booster frames and the four man team drop gracefully from the underbelly of the Falling Star.

The spartans dropped for a few seconds before their engines kicked in and they rocketed forward. Pulling alongside the mass of the Falling Star as it and the rest of the battlegroup powered toward the covenant ships above New Manassas.

In the distance Daniel finally got to see his enemies. Five covenant ships hovered over the planet. Four of them were Corvettes, one of the covenants mainstay of space combat, and a single CCS Class Battle Cruiser hanging in the middle.

"Spartan Team ECHO this is Captain Ramirez, we will be beginning our attack as soon as we enter firing range. You will need to act fast if we are to bring those ships down before they take us understood?"

"Yes sir." replied Daniel, trying not to nod. Out in space he was taught to keep movements to a minimum.

"Good luck out there Spartans, Ramirez out."

Daniel switched back to TEAMCOM and highlighting the lead Corvette. "That will be our main target, one EM mine from each of us should be enough to strip the shields."

"Remember guys," said Filippa, "Don't rely on your shields to soak up damage, these are fragile starfighters."

"Somehow I feel like that was directed at me," said Jermaine, with a playful tone in his voice.

"I don't blame her," said Daniel "Everyone, maximise mobility and follow me in."

Each of the spartans booster frames quickly shifted position, moving the rider forward and extending a second set of wings. Daniel then gunned his engines, pulling ahead of the Falling Star and toward the covenant ships.

As they shot forward Daniel saw the lateral lines of the covenant ships flare as they spun around to face the approaching UNSC vessels. As they gently turned in space they disgorged their contingent of Seraph fighters. The tiny ships thundered out of their hangers and headed for the coming battlegroup.

"Those could be a problem," said Layla, her voice taking on a much more aggressive tone.

"The longsword's can keep them busy" replied Daniel "We've got bigger fish to fry."

In front of them their target was fast approaching, growing bigger with each passing second. So were the Seraphs. With only a few seconds before the enemy starfighters entered firing range Daniel fired off one of his missile pods. The square box shot from the wing of his booster frame and then split, unleashing a horde of explosive charges that slammed into the approaching Seraph formation. The blasts tore them apart and gave ECHO a few second gap to slip through.

They blasted through the wreckage and saw the hull of the first corvette before them. Daniel wrenched his booster frame left, coming parallel with the ship. His team keeping in formation. The purple hull of the corvette was now above them, blurring past as they dodged to avoid laser fire that burst around them.

"ECHO, deploy EM mines now!"

Daniel's thumb flicked up and pressed a switch on the left handle. A second later he felt one of his EM mines detach from it position on the wing and home in on the corvette. A few seconds later there was a flicker energy over the corvettes shields before a large EM burst spread all across it's hull. It's shields fell back from the EM field, leaving the ship exposed.

A few seconds later two MAC rounds from the UNSC Sheffield and Crimson Aurora gutted the corvette. It drifted to the side briefly before two more rounds shot forward and sliced the ship in half. The two sections slowly broke apart as ECHO team pulled away from it, already bearing down on their next target.

As the four spartans rolled around the destroyed corvette he saw the rest of the orbital battleground. Two corvettes were already destroyed with another just losing it's shield's, however the cruiser in the centre was still going strong. It's lateral lines suddenly flared and launched two lances of super heated plasma which carved their way through the void to splash into the hull of the UNSC Warsaw.

Already heavily damaged the two plasma torpedo's impacted but the bridge and the engines. Without power or control the ship lost control, Daniel saw lifeboats begin to eject as the lifeless vessel begun an endless float.

Daniel's mind was suddenly brought back to the immediate danger as Jermaine called over the COM. "Seraph formation coming up fast on our six, I think they realised we're a threat."

Daniel was about to respond when Layla cut him off. "I'll take care of them."

On his radar he saw Layla's signature pull back, through the inbound signatures to stop behind them. A few seconds later the the seraph's behind them begun to slowly wink out. Daniel wanted to risk a look back to make sure she was okay but the next corvette was now seconds away.

"Layla catch us up, we'll deal with the corvette"

She didn't respond but her signature did begin to gain on the rest of the team. Daniel put it out of his mind as they approached the ship. Just as before the three of them came in close to the belly of the ship, dodging pin point laser fire as they went. Their EM mines once again latched onto the enemy ship and stripped away the protective field. This time three MAC rounds collided with the unprotected corvette, tearing through it's engines and sending it spinning backward on it's axis.

Flipped backward by it's own momentum the corvette slammed into another ship behind it dragging both ships toward Reach's tortured surface. The purple hull of the two ships passed ECHO Team by as the zipped pasted it. All the corvettes were down, now all that was left was the cruiser.

"ECHO Team, this is Captain Ramirez, do you read?"

"We hear you Captain, all corvettes are down," replied Daniel as he wrenched the booster frame away from a cluster of plasma rounds from an approaching group of Seraphs. The alien craft were gaining quickly behind them as the four booster frames sped past the burning wreck of one of their targets.

"We see that," said the Captain. "The problem now is that your EM mines don't have the power to deal with that cruiser, and the battle group has taken a lot of casualties."

As Daniel and his team passed the wreck of the last corvette, dodging increasing fire from the Seraph's behind them, he saw something. The UNSC Warsaw, gently floating on the edge of the field. The ship was heavily damaged and sliced in half, certainly no longer viable as a weapons platform. But that didn't stop it being useful as a weapon.

"Sir, I may have an idea for that cruiser. If you let me deal with these Seraphs."

The comm clicked off and Daniel focused back on the Seraph's behind them.

"Fillipa, Jermaine, get behind these guys. We'll box them in."

His squadmates sent their ping's and rocketed back, flipping over the Seraph's like Layla had done to get behind them. As they did Daniel and Layla both braked and spun around. Bringing their auto canons to bear. Before the seraph's could move all four booster frames opened fire, cutting through their shields and into the hulls. Six bright explosions burst in front of Daniel as the seraph's detonated. The spartan team then reformed and Daniel linked back to the captain.

"So Spartan, what's the plan?" said Ramirez as his comm link activated again.

"We use the Warsaw as an improvised weapon, crush it into the cruiser. It should at least be enough to take down that cruisers shields."

"Using the corpse of one of my ships isn't an idea I relish, but I agree with your plan. If your team can activate your EM mines a few seconds before the Warsaw hits home we could take that cruiser out permanently. My battlegroup will try and keep it caged in, leave it no where to turn to get away."

"Understood Captain, we're en-route now," Daniel switched back to team comm "We're going after that cruiser."

"What?" said Jermaine "Our mines aren't strong enough to get past the shields."

"Exactly, we're going to weaken the shields and then we are going to crash the Warsaw into it." replied Daniel "So switch the mines to timed charges and get ready to pull some hostile fire."

Daniel shifted his booster frame to the left, passing through a tangle of burnt hulls and sparking plasma coils, and begun a dive down toward the cruiser. As they pushed forward, dodging mangled wrecks and the odd seraph Daniel caught sight of the Falling Star pulling into position behind the wreck of the Warsaw. The carrier gracefully stopped and a few seconds later unleashed a missile barrage right into the side of the defunct ship. Explosions blossomed along the Warsaw's broken hull as it begun to float toward the cruiser.

"Don't you think they're going to see that wreck coming at them?" asked Filippa as the team rocketed toward their target.

As if to answer her a wave of Longswords rolled over the cruiser, auto cannons spitting out into the hordes of seraphs while missile explosions blossomed against the shields of the massive ship.

"I think that's our cue guys," said Jermaine, his voice anxious.

"Agreed, everyone full power to thrusters." All four booster frames shot forward as their riders fed more power to the thrusters, engines flaring bright blue as the rocketed toward their target. Soon the team was once again coming alongside the cruisers hull. Laser fire and hull plating blurred past as the spartans passed by. Daniel felt something impact his frame, looking to his left he saw that part of one of the wings had been sliced off, the laser fire was getting intense.

"Dan this is some heavy flak," said Jerome as his flipped the booster from to the side, narrowly missing a laser blast as it singed its way past him "I'm not sure how long we can stay here."

"Just a few more seconds," replied Daniel, gritting his teeth as a Seraph formation tried to cut them off. The point where the EM mines would have the most effect was coming up. Three, the laser fire briefly became a wall of light so bright that Daniel had to look away, two, bursts of plasma fire splashed against his frame's shields as a passing Seraph took a pot shot at him, One, with in range.

Without a word all four Spartans released their mines before pulling to the left, in time to avoid a Seraph group that shot past them. The alien craft scattered to the side as the Spartans powered off, trying to escape the cruiser before it could draw a bead on them. On his HUD Daniel saw four signatures for the mines light up. All primed and ready to go.

Activating his comm link Daniel opened his mouth to tell the Captain that the mines where primed when Ramirez's voice broke over the link, initially broken by static his voice soon came in loud and clear.

"ECHO One do you read? If you can hear me fire the charges now the Warsaw is about to impact."

Daniel didn't even respond, as he peeled up from the cruiser he saw the Warsaw's grey and pockmarked hull almost as close to the cruiser than he was. With seconds to spare Daniel slammed his finger down on the detonate button, hoped to hell that the mines blew in time and sent a single order over Team Comm.

"Gun it! Get back to the Falling Star now!"

Feeding any remaining energy he could to his booster frames engines Daniel shot across the vacuum of space, his team keeping pace as best they could behind him. Behind them the cruisers shields rippled with energy, like someone had thrown a rock into a lake, sending out shock waves of water. As the energy shielding peeled back the Warsaw finally slammed into the hull.

There was a brief moment where the two ships became locked in a strange, silent embrace as the two hulls converged. Then there was a single explosion that bloomed on the cruisers hull which was soon followed by a wave of detonations all across it's surface as it's plasma coils overloaded and blew apart. As the Warsaw dug deeper into the alien vessel more blue tinged explosions ripped their way through the ship until finally the ships reactor was engulfed and tore the ship in two, burning both it and the UNSC corpse that had crushed it to death.

Daniel didn't have time to witness his work as he fled back toward the Falling Star, dodging the errant Seraph or floating debris. As they reached the edge of the battlegroup Phillipa's voice called over the Team Comm.

"Good thinking with the Warsaw sir." She ducked past a piece of hull plating, still glowing from the plasma that he burned it from it's ship "Just lets try not be near the impact zone a few seconds before impact."

Daniel let out a bark of laughter as the Falling Star came into view "Noted, i'll keep it in mind the next time we crash a UNSC ship into a Covenant Cruiser."

"I don't know sir," said Jerome "Maybe it'll catch on, teach it at Luna for all the new officers."

Daniel smiled, team banter was a good sign, meant that everyone was still in one piece, was still a unit. Looking at his HUD he saw Layla's signature just behind his. The new member, no banter from her. For now Daniel could understand a new teammate not talking, but joining in the group jokes. She was solid, but she didn't gel just yet. And there was something about her that Daniel couldn't pin don't, something about how she was, how she acted that he couldn't quite work out. Suddenly Ramirez's voice rolled in over the comm link and pulled Daniel from his reverie.

"Good work ECHO, the Covenant battlegroup is in ruins and we have control of this part of Reach's atmo at the very least."

"Understood Captain," replied the Spartan leader as his brought his booster frame toward the hanger, his team sliding in alongside him. "What's our next move?"

"Your to be debriefed in ten minutes, Spartan leader," replied the Captain, a hint of grimness edged his voice. "The Office wants a word with you, didn't say what and I'm sure it's good 'hush hush' bullshit all over it. Their agent will contact you in the comms room in ten. Don't be late, I'm sure you know the Office isn't kept waiting."

"Don't worry Captain, we'll be there."

The Crown Jewel

0847 Hours, August 19, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Vyrant Telecom Tower, New Alexandria, Eposz


"Sergeant Major, just got word from 7 Charlie. Two Corvettes just broke through our orbital line and are heading straight for the city. We're still trying to evac civilians down there."

"Any other units in the area?"

"We're closest to the northern spaceport, Sarge. Couple of Marine units nearby but that won't be enough to stop what's coming."

"Right. We're moving out."

The entirety of 3 Hotel had been stationed in the building since Covenant forces had first been sighted near New Alexandria the previous day, and were already anxious about the upcoming battle. Sergeant Major J.P. Lee stood up, grabbing his helmet and SAW from a nearby table as Corporal Sikowsky got the rest of the unit ready. Some of them had been happy to have their rally point within New Alexandria's famed Club Ererra. Lee wasn't very fond of the club himself, and walked at a brisk pace towards the exit. Outside, a few of his troopers were already prepping the Falcons.

"Sarge!" called Private Steinworth over the sound of rotor blades. "We've got eight birds ready to go!"

"Copy that!" he yelled back. The rest of 3 Hotel filed out and began clambering into the waiting helicopters. Lee waited until the rest of his unit had left the club before taking his seat within a nearby Falcon. Sikowsky soon joined him, Steinworth and Murphy before they took off into the city skies.

"Corporal, What's the word on the evacuation?"

"We've still got thousands of civvies heading for multiple evac points, Sarge."

"Didn't they get the damn order to leave days ago?"

"It's a big city. Plus we've only got so many ships to go round."

"Fair enough." Lee looked out over the city, watching dozens of Falcons and transport ships heading in various different directions. All of them wanted to escape the oncoming storm. As their formation dropped between several looming skyscrapers, the Army trooper caught sight of two Pelicans moving in with them. A voice crackled over the COM.

"This is Victor 091 and Victor 092. We're on station to provide close air support, 3 Hotel."

"Copy that," Lee replied. "Just keep our birds in the air for now."

As they swooped in over the city rooftops, New Alexandria's northern spaceport came into view. The familiar sounds of plasma fire in the distance got the troopers alert, many readying their guns and craning to get a good view of the place. It wasn't in good shape. Half the evac ships were smouldering wrecks, and the others were defended by barely two dozen soldiers. The shape of a Covenant SDV-class heavy corvette loomed overhead.

"Holy shit," Sikowsky muttered at the sight of the spaceport's remains. On the ground, a number of hulking figures stalked across the runway, gunning down fleeing civilians left and right. Lee didn't have to say anything; the Corporal had already opened fire with the Falcon's machine gun.

Lee activated his COM. "All units, fire at will! I want this port clear of Covenant ASAP!"

The Sergeant edged across to the edge of his transport and levelled his SAW, sighting the figures below. These weren't the average Covvie split-lips leading this assault; they were Jiralhanae, better known as Brutes for their vicious nature and penchant for tearing Humans limb from limb. The combined fire from the guns and grenade launchers of eight Falcons turned their half of the spaceport into a killzone, gunning down the advancing aliens in seconds. A few managed to retreat towards the destroyed ships, taking up positions to return fire on the circling helicopters.

"Pilot, take us low. Let's mop these bastards up!"

Lee opened fire with his SAW as the Falcon dropped closer to the ground. His bullets ripped through the retreating aliens like paper, and by the time he had to reload another thirty had fallen to 3 Hotel's relentless assault. The Sergeant Major turned to check on Steinworth and Murphy when an explosion from above caught his eye. The burning wreckage of another Falcon plummeted past, missing them by inches before it impacted on the hard ground below. While Lee initially thought they had come under attack by a group of Banshees, the reality was much worse.

"Sarge, that Corvette's firing on us!"

"Take us down, take us down!"

As heavy plasma fire rained down on the spaceport, Lee and the other troopers leapt from the Falcon before it even touched down. The helicopter began to take off again, only to be struck in the nose by a large bolt of plasma. Lee dropped into a crawl as their transport exploded. Most of the other Falcons had touched down and disembarked the rest of 3 Hotel onto the spaceport, though with that Corvette heading for them the survivors wouldn't last long. Lee crawled over to where the other three had taken up positions and activated his COM.

"This is 3 Hotel Actual, my unit is pinned down and needs assistance. Is anyone out there?"

There was no response. Private Murphy reloaded after dropping a trio of Grunts while Steinworth glanced up towards the Corvette, which had begun to turn towards them.

"I thought we were supposed to be the support, Sarge!"

"Shut it," Lee growled as he checked his weapon. "We're not out of this yet. We just need some heavy ordinance."

He was pretty sure that Steinworth wanted to make a clever remark, but the Private simply carried on firing at the incoming Covenant troops. This was already a disaster. Most of the civilians in this evac group were either dead, wounded, or were pinned down, while his unit was already under half strength. Barely a dozen troopers remained across the spaceport, tracker rounds and plasma fire flying over the scorched concrete. With more dropships landing troops nearby, Lee began to suspect that they had flown right into a trap. One of the Pelicans - Victor 092 - unleashed a volley of missiles into a group of incoming Banshees as it barrelled out of control and smashed into the ground with a massive explosion.

"Last mag!" Sikowsky shouted as he reloaded his DMR. Lee glanced back towards the spaceport's exit. It was across fifty yards of open ground littered with civilian corpses, and was their only way out. He shook his head at the thought of retreating, and spent the last of his SAW rounds downing a hammer-wielding Brute. As he took out his sidearm and levelled it at a group of approaching Grunts, his COM crackled to life.

"3 Hotel Actual, we've got your location marked. Help is on the way."

Downward Spiral

0908 Hours, August 19, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: UNSC Resurgence, Reach Orbit


"Captain, we're venting atmosphere on three decks and our fusion drive's in trouble. Another salvo like that and we're done!"

Five days.

That was how long the UNSC Resurgence had been holding the line over Reach. By some miracle the Frigate had survived against the steadily advancing Covenant Fleet for longer than most of their Battlegroup, maneuvering around the Epsilon Eridani System and leading several enemy ships away from the planet in the process. Even with the massive surge of reinforcements over the last couple of days, it soon became clear that they couldn't keep it up much longer. Glancing hits had killed dozens of crewmen and the Frigate's hull was scorched and damaged from far too many close calls with plasma fire. Their missile pods were almost depleted, many point defence turrets were out of ammo and the ship only had a single MAC round remaining.

"Sir, we can't hold out any longer. I think it's time to leave while we still can."

The ship's multiple hits and low ammunition wasn't the biggest problem. It was the crew. While the Resurgence had deployed it's entire Marine contingent early on, the stress and fatigue brought on by five whole days of hit-and-run tactics against a superior foe had worn down the crew to the point of exhaustion. They simply couldn't keep fighting.

"Ensign," the Captain straightened up in his chair, stifling a yawn. "Give the order. I want the crew out before we leave."

"Yes sir."

Though nobody else on the bridge said a word, he could almost feel the inward sighs of relief. Several objects pinged up on the nearby holotable; shapes representing UNSC ships arriving from Slipspace. Since the battle had escalated many UNSC ships had abandoned the standard arrival coordinates while heading to Reach, and were making jumps dangerously close to the planet. At least they could surprise the Covenant that way. To his right, Lieutenant Kathrin Grunwald glanced back as several lights flashed up on her console.

"Sir, got an incoming transmission from the Battlegroup."

"Patch it through."

Grunwald tapped a button, and a female voice filtered through the bridge's COM system after a short delay.

"This is the UNSC Death's Head. Resurgence, are you combat-ready?"

"Negative," the Captain replied. "We're losing power and I'm evacuating my crew. Can you cover us?"

"Affirmative, Resurgence. We'll hold the line."

The Captain watched as the Death's Head, followed by a pair of Hope-Class Destroyers, surged forward to engage the Covenant Corvette that the Resurgence had been trading shots with for the last hour. A trio of precisely-aimed MAC rounds tore the vessel apart in moments, giving the damaged Frigate a chance to move out of the firing line. He opened the COM one more time as he stood up.

"Thanks for the assist, Death's Head. Good luck out there, Resurgence out."

It was time to leave. The bridge crew were already packing up and reports were coming in that most of the remaining crew had reached their lifepods; a few had ejected already and were going planetside. He didn't blame them for wanting to leave the ship in this state. As he moved to input the commands that would wipe the Frigate's memory banks, making it useless to Covenant salvage teams, several large signals pinged up on the holotable. Grunwald raced over to it and checked the signals.

"Reinforcements?" the Captain inquired.

"No sir." The Lieutenant had proved herself in the last few days as one of his best officers, but for the first time even the usually-calm Grunwald sounded slightly worried. "We've got incoming Covenant ships. Big ones."

"How big?"

"Likely CCS-Class or around that size. Enough to blow us to pieces in seconds."

He swore under his breath, and finished the code that would wipe the Resurgence's databanks clean. He punched it in and turned round to the assembled bridge crew as they began to leave.

"Right, everyone get to the command shuttle, now! I don't know how much time we-"

The Captain was cut off as a deafening blast ripped through the room. A number of consoles sparked and exploded and the deck rumbled beneath their feet. Grunwald clung to the side of the bridge's main holotable as the main viewport cracked and smashed, exposing the bridge momentarily to the cold vacuum of space before heavy metal shutters clamped down. Then the lights went out.

Shit. Grunwald coughed, picking herself up from the floor as the ship's emergency red lights flickered on. Most of the consoles around the room had either lost power or exploded, and the holotable was barely functioning. Two massive shapes loomed above the flashing red depiction of the Resurgence, slowly heading away from the crippled Frigate. She looked over just in time to see the Death's Head wink out nearby, followed closely by the Destroyers escorting it. The situation had just gone from bad to worse. Covering her mouth to avoid breathing in the acrid smoke drifting around the darkened bridge, Grunwald made her way towards the exit. Corpses lay scattered across the floor, either embedded with shrapnel wounds or severely burned by the explosion.

"Lieutenant!" called a voice.

Waving away some smoke, Grunwald sighted a man in the familiar attire of a Marine limping up the corridor towards the bridge. Strange, I thought we'd sent our Marine contingent out already. She exited the bridge and made her way towards him, looking around for other survivors. There were none. She'd been far away enough from the rest of the bridge crew when they were hit to have survived. Everyone else wasn't so lucky.

"Why aren't you in a lifeboat, Marine?" she asked.

"Couldn't get there in time, ma'am. I was in the med bay when they gave the order, and by the time I'd got my things together we'd been hit. It wasn't pretty down there."

"How bad was it?" Grunwald hadn't had the chance to check the status on other areas of the ship yet; getting off the bridge had been her first priority. "Are you the only one left?"

The Marine shrugged. "Nearest I can tell, they blasted right through us. Took out a few of the lifeboats, too. That's why I came up here, Lieutenant. I'm pretty sure that's our only way out of here."

He gestured towards a side door, which lead towards the command shuttle. Normally only the Captain would have the authority to launch it, but seeing as she was probably now the highest-ranking officer aboard the Resurgence she had no other option but to get out before they broke up in orbit or fell victim to another Covenant attack. It was a small miracle that they hadn't lost gravity control yet.

"Right, let's go. What's your name, Marine?"

"Sergeant Grigore Vasilescu, Charlie Company of the 214th."

The pair made their way towards the Frigate's command shuttle, which lay open and ready for them. It was surprisingly spacious and was obviously built to accommodate at least a dozen people. Grunwald sat in the pilot's chair and initiated the ejection sequence, which would detach the shuttle from the Resurgence before handing over manual control. Vasilescu strapped himself into a nearby seat, wincing slightly as he set his injured leg down. The Marine had grabbed two MA5C rifles on his way to the bridge; with the situation down on Reach they'd probably need them.

"Okay, ejecting in three, two, one..."

The tiny shuttle jolted as it moved away from the wreck of the Resurgence, drifting lazily into space as it waited for Grunwald to take control. She waited nearly half a minute before doing so, hoping that any Covenant vessels would see it as just another piece of the Frigate breaking off. As the Lieutenant moved their shuttle past the wreckage of the Resurgance, she had to force herself to look away from the sight of the ship she'd served on for some time burning and breaking apart as it slowly descended towards Reach's atmosphere.

"So," Vasilescu spoke up. "What's our destination?"

"Groundside. We're a sitting target up here. Once the computer's finished plotting in possible landing vectors I'll take us down."

"Oh, so you know how to fly this thing?"

There was a pause. "We're all trained to. Mostly through simulations but the computer should do most of the work. I've just got to make sure we don't crash into an ocean."

"So we're going to crash?"

"Don't worry, these things are built for hard landings. We'll probably survive."

That didn't do too much to calm the wounded Marine's nerves. "Probably?"

"It's worth the risk. Like I said, we're easy targets up here. Once we get down there we'll activate our beacon and hope that some friendlies pick us up. I'm taking us down now."

Vasilescu snorted. "Fair enough. I'd prefer to die on the ground anyway."

With that, the command shuttle began its descent from the chaos of the battle raging in Reach's orbit to a similarly chaotic one below.

Bloodied Respite

Cycle 232, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Location: Reach, Human Colony World

Evening fell over the human settlement, though no humans remained to enjoy the sunset.

Thel 'Lodamee surveyed the human compound from atop the tallest of the thin-walled building. In the courtyard below, Chur R'Kim directed her fellow T'vaoans in laying out and searching the bodies who had lived here. Sangheili might have no use for human weapons and trinkets, but Kig-Yar certainly did.

Most of the humans killed here had been civilians, untrained vermin who quivered and cowered helplessly as Kig's subordinates shot them down. Only three among the dozen corpses war the armor of human warriors. Thel had led the Kig-Yar here in pursuit of them, and when the fleeing soldiers had tried to make a stand in this compound they had overrun it and slaughtered the inhabitants without hesitation. Thel had cut down two of the warriors while Kim had put a needle round through the third's face. Her crew had made short work of the civilians.

Thel's hands tightened around the hilt of his sword as he looked beyond the compound, out at the surrounding foothills and the battle he knew was still raging throughout the wilderness. If he commanded a true lance, he would have ordered the Kig-Yar to continue on to further battles. Had any refused, he would have executed them on the spot.

But he stood here now in the armor of a dead warrior—a warrior he had murdered—leading a crew of pirates who only followed him because he promised them plunder. He had not fully appreciated the enormity of this distinction until they had finished sweeping the compound and Kim had demanded time for her crew to rest and loot the buildings.

Perhaps I would be better off without them. Thel's palm burned as he squeezed the energy sword hilt. He could catch the Kig-Yar unawares, cut them down, and continue on his own. Find a battle that would bring him the glorious death needed to set his feet back on the path to the gods.

But then there was the chance he might fail. That they might, in fact, kill him instead. Kim's crew were all hardened fighters, he had seen that when they hit the field today. There was the chance, just the slightest chance, that if he betrayed them they might bring him down and desecrate his corpse just as they did with the humans below.

His soul would be truly lost then.

Thel looked up at the darkened sky and wondered if this situation—one that he had created—was some sort of judgement for the warrior he had killed to come down here. Don't you see? This is the only way. They left me no choice.

"So, glorious leader," hissed a voice behind him. Kim regarded him with amusement, a human marksman's rifle slung across her back. "My boys have finished up the plunder. A little bit of rest and we can move on in the morning."

"Or we can move on now. You Kig-Yar fight well in the darkness, or so I am told."

Kim laughed. "True, we can see better than most. But the ones who told you that didn't mention that we usually do it after a day's worth of sleep. We've been fighting all day, just like you wanted. If you want to go on ahead, by all means do. But we'll be staying here for the night. These humans had some lovely beds here."

"Post a guard," Thel ordered. "I want half of your troop on watch at all times."

"Of course. As you command." Kim cocked her head. "And in the morning?"

Thel turned his gaze back towards the foothills and raised his personal communicator device. "There is a human settlement not too far from here," he told her. "The advance forces have run into trouble assaulting it. We will head there. I'm sure your 'boys' will find plenty of plunder when it has fallen."

"You're learning, you're learning," Kim chuckled, backing away. "Feed us well and we'll find you all the glory you need, Major."

Thel ignored her. Insubordinate or not, Kim and her crew were deadly warriors. But he would need more warriors if he was to win true glory. Fellow Sangheili who would understand his need to seek out stronger prey.

If the situation at this human settlement was anything like the comms said, he had a plan to do just that.

First Last Stand

0938 Hours, August 19, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Pálháza, Reach

Bren ran an armoured hand over her head, the once tight cut had now become stubbly through the four days of hard combat. She and her team of Spartans had been pulled back from the frontline to consult with Ishido, the Commanding Officer of the 3rd Infantry Regiment. They stood beside each other, bent over a table with the holo-map of the city barely rising upwards.

Ishido pointed to a mass of grey with an arrow moving forward into the city. “Fourth Battalion is moving up to secure the front, here,” his finger reached what was now the end of UNSC territory in the city. Two-thirds of the city had been lost already and this was barely the beginning of day four. The Covenant onslaught had been relentless. He drew Bren’s attention towards a smaller grey mass with its arrow going in the opposite direction.

“First, right?” Bren asked.

“Yeah,” Ishido replied and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Decimated. Operating at 25% of full capacity. We’re bringing them back to operate what little we have left of our artillery, prep us for evac.”

“We’re leaving?” Bren asked incredulously.

“We have to, we are close to not being able to protect the evacuation centres. The spaceports are almost overrun.” He turned his attention to the third grey mass on the map, “Second Battalion is holding here at the last one, Reimer Spaceport. Last report seems to suggest that the Covenant are beginning to concentrate their attack on them.”

“What about Third?”

Ishido traced his finger along a lengthy corridor of road, sandwiched neatly between tall buildings before ending at a toll booth leading towards the motorway that acted as the main artery of the Viery continent. “They’re defending this. It’s the only remaining exit to the motorway we have.”

Bren scanned the map. She noticed something that concerned her. She traced her own path along the map. “If we take where Fourth will be holding, Second is all but gone.”

Ishido nodded pensively. “Yeah.”

“I’ll take my team and help defend it for as long as we can,” she paused as she mused over the thoughts in her head. “Let us know when you’re pulling out and we’ll begin our retreat.”

Bren left before Ishido could offer a word of protest. Outside the tent, she was immediately greeted by Raquel anxiously pacing back and forth. Kevin and Raul were sitting against the wall, their helmets off, sharing a canteen of water.

Raquel noticed Bren come out. “Well?” She asked, as she cracked her armoured knuckles.

“Reimer Spaceport.”

“How?”

Bren thought for a moment. They could try using two mongooses to push their way through to the beleaguered battalion, but the map had shown that to be an almost impossible task. The other option was an airlift in. More dangerous certainly, but it came with a greater chance of success.

“Air,” she replied. “Get the boys ready.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Quickly, the Spartans of Gauntlet Team assembled onto the Falcon, each of them fastidiously performing an equipment check as they flew over the skyscrapers. The dipping orange hue of the sun, reflecting from the multitude of glass panels that have given Pálháza it’s most unique feature. Below them, as Raul looked down, faint sounds of battle could be heard. The staccato of rifle fire, and the hum of plasma. All four of them privately retreated into themselves, getting ready for the violence that was close at hand.

“Thirty seconds out,” the Pilot called. “Wait a second… Banshees, seven O’clock!” The Falcon tilted heavily to the right, and a fuel rod sizzled past Kevin and Raquel’s side. Raul looked around, trying to find the banshee to get a shot.

“Hold it steady!” He barked.

“New contact!”

This time, the fuel rod impacted against the left rotor, causing it explode violently. Scorched debris crashed into Raul and Bren’s armour, without causing severe damage. The Falcon began to spiral quickly downwards, despite the protestations from the pilot who desperately tried to stop the terminal spin.

“We gotta jump!” Bren called through the com. The four Spartans stood on the edge, two on each side, waiting for the ground to be close enough to jump.

“Now!” Bren yelled, and the four jumped. The banshees returned for another pass and made for the doomed Falcon. It exploded under a barrage of plasma. Bren hit the ground hard and rolled, grunting as she did so.

“Everybody okay?” She asked as she rose to her feet. Three green lights flashed across her Heads Up Display. “Form up on me.”

“We far out?” Kevin asked.

“No,” was the curt reply. “Let’s go.”

The armoured hulks moved through the spacious streets with their weapons constantly shifting in all directions, trying to cover all angles. Scorched concrete and spent casing littered the ground, showcasing the battle that had once raged on the street. The fighting became clearer in the ears of the Spartans as they finally reached Reimer Spaceport.

Entering through the rear entrance, they were greeted by a sight of rubble, scared women and children, wounded soldiers and the overwhelming stench of burnt flesh. A man in his early thirties noticed the armoured hulks enter and approached them with a gait that told them he was absolutely exhausted. He was tall, with pale black skin. Cuts and bruises were painted across his face, a small trickling river of blood fell down his nose. He didn’t seem to notice – or care.

“Spartans?” He asked, more confused that expectant.

“Yesssir,” Bren quickly replied. “We’re here to help as best we can.” A pause. “What’s the situation?”

“Bad,” he said. “We’re down to about one and a half company strength. We’ve also got a couple dozen walking wounded guarding here. The Covenant are about two blocks away from finally being able to storm the Port, and we’re down to our last two air defence towers.” He paused and inhaled deeply. “I’m close to ordering a retreat.”

“Negative, sir, we can’t do that.”

“And why not?” He snapped, frowning.

“Fourth and third are setting up their defensive postures. We lose here, they’ll be annihilated.” Bren surveyed the room. “Civilians are still coming in, we have to hold until the transports are gone and hope we’ve a window to pull out. Do you have any vehicles for evac?”

He took a moment to respond, staggered by what he had been told. “Y-yeah. Yeah we do. A good few Transport ‘hogs in the Garage.”

“Okay. Raul, Raquel go upstairs, protect those last remaining canons,” she pointed to Kevin, “you take care of the wounded here. Take a check of what medical equipment they have. Do your best.” She turned back to the Commanding Officer, “Sir, point me to the front.”

Assisting Alexandria

0948 Hours, August 19, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Nearby James Ericson Memorial Spaceport


Mitchell looked towards the ruins of the James Ericson Memorial Spaceport and shook his head. The place was a wreck, dozens of smoke trails reached into the sky, the sound of plasma and rifle fire mixing together, and to top it off, a Covenant corvette floated above it all, firing contently down onto it.

"Alright men, we've got to get over there and help. The civilians are almost guaranteed to be dead, and those troopers will be joining them soon if we don't help."

A few of the new ODSTs sighed, some muttered, and more than a few made comments that were far from appropriate. Stupid rookies, Mitchell would've taken just a couple veterans over these punks. One of them, Thompson, spoke up.

"Sarge, is it really worth it? Going in there and risking out lives to help some Army guys, especially when we have our own objective?"

"Ever heard of 'No Man left Behind' Thompson? This applies, and no matter how much you bitch and whine, we're getting the pressure off of them."

"But there's a goddamn corvette sitting pretty right above them! I don't know about what guns you're using, but mine can't shoot down Covenant ships!"

"We'll figure something out, but right now we've got to find a way to take the immediate, groundside pressure off of them."

Mitchell sprinted off towards the building, the rest of the platoon following close behind. As they neared they heard grunts and growls coming from inside the spaceport. The horrible sounds meant only one thing, that the Covenant had deployed Brute shock troops to the spaceport, which meant that they needed to hurry. Mitchell sighted several Grunts guarding the entrance to the spaceport and he, along with Sergeant Robson, quickly eliminated the small aliens. As they breached the spaceport, the saw how truly devastated it had been. A dozen civilian ships lay smoking, with hundreds of civilians nearby in similar shape. Several of the troopers looked away, and not all of them were the rookies.

"Sir, I just got word that the UNSC Courageous is a minute or so out and can take out that corvette if we mark it."

"Right, thanks Maxwell. Tell them that we'll get on it immediately. We still need to clear out the infantry inside the spaceport."

He began looking around, and spotted a large group of Brutes, possibly a whole pack, headed by a large individual wearing the ornate armor of a Chieftain. He looked over to Davis who was setting up his SAW, preparing to open fire. He nodded before pulling out a grenade, thinking of the best time to throw it when a Grunt turned around. Just as it was about to scream, Mitchell ran forward and chucked the grenade, which exploded in the middle of the group. Davis took this as the signal to start shooting and did so with glee, mowing down Grunts and Brutes alike. The Brutes began returning fire with red hot spikes flying towards their position.

"Damn, we gotta take this big ape bastards down fast if we wanna take out the corvette!" Davis shouted over the sound of his SAW firing.

"I know that, but if you've got any better ideas other than just spraying them with bullets, feel free to let us know!" replied an annoyed Mitchell.

"Isn't that the only way to do it? I was suggesting that you all do it too."

"Hey Davis, shut up and keep shooting!" yelled Sergeant Angelo.

Maxwell spoke up again as his COM buzzed. "Sir, we've got orbital station 'Corageous on standby. They say it's on station and ready to fire, just needs targeting data!"

"Does anyone have a target designator? We need to laze that corvette for the ODP!"

Thompson spoke this time, "Sir, I see one by a dead trooper over by one of the evac ships! I'm going to make a run for it, cover me!"

Before anyone could object, Thompson had already leapt from cover and was running towards the target designator. Davis loaded a new drum into his SAW and began firing at several targets to cover Thompson. When he reached it, he had to pry it from the hands of a dead Army trooper, and turned back towards the platoon triumphantly. As he started to run back, however; the Brute Chieftain from earlier sprang out and smashed Thompson with its large hammer. Ash watched the designator go flying from Thompson's dead hand and land nearby, and when it landed, he jumped toward it, grabbing its handle. As he stood up, he barely managed to dodge a direct hit from the hammer, but the shockwave sent him flying, where he landed next to Davis, who began pouring all his ammo into the Chieftain. The Chieftain's overshield flared into life and let out a deep growl that could have been laughter as rounds bounced off of it. Eventually its overshield faded, and it was greeted by a shotgun wielded by Maxwell, which blew its head off.

Mitchell stood up and had to steady himself against Davis as he was slightly woozy after nearly being hit by the hammer and took aim with the target designator. He lined up the little green line with the middle of the corvette and smiled as it flashed red. He heard over the COM as Courageous confirmed the target and began firing preparations. A moment later, a MAC round from the orbital station penetrated and gutted the corvette, which began to descend into the city below. Satisfied, Ash smiled and activated his COM, "Three Hotel, this is Charlie Platoon, we've taken care of your corvette problem and a few of the Brutes. Should make your lives a bit easier. Charlie Platoon out."

With that, Mitchell turned toward the entrance and ran out, "Lets go, we've still got a CEO to get out of his cushy office!"

Reassignment

0953 Hours, August 19, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

James Ericson Memorial Spaceport, New Alexandria


"Holy shit, look at that thing go down!"

From their positions across the ravaged Spaceport, the remnants of Three Hotel watched as the Corvette plummeted downwards, throwing up a massive fireball as it impacted into the city outskirts. Sergeant Major Lee was surprised that they still had that level orbital support in the area; the fighting above had led to sparse communications between the UNSC's forces in space and on the ground. He activated his COM.

"Charlie Platoon, this is Three Hotel Actual. Thanks for the assist, over and out."

The rest of Lee's platoon began to gather nearby. They were under half strength already, and had barely managed to cover two of the evac ships during the escape. Several more remained empty, surrounded by civilian corpses. The survivors were all tired and low on ammo, but if they wanted to save New Alexandria they'd have to keep moving.

"Sarge," Corporal Sikowsky spoke up. "Where to now?"

There was a low murmur of agreement from the others. They'd flown straight in and paid the price. Now most of their Falcons and both support Pelicans were down, though not before they'd killed dozens of Brutes. Before Lee could answer, his COM buzzed, and he activated it.

"Sergeant Major," the familiar voice of Urban Holland filtered through. "This is Colonel Holland, is your unit still operational?"

"Partially, sir. We've taken a lot of casualties but the rest of us are still combat-ready."

"Good to hear it. I need your unit for a special mission, and I'm bringing in more troopers to assist you from other platoons. What's your current location?"

"We're in the Memorial Spaceport, north side of New Alexandria."

"Copy that Sergeant Major. I'm diverting several Pelicans your way now. It'll be a long trip, so you'll have time to stop and resupply back at Camp Kilo. Holland out."

This worried Lee. If Holland was diverting his squads out of the city, it either meant that he was confident that the city was already adequately defended - something very unlikely - or that the Colonel saw New Alexandria as a lost cause already. Still, Three Hotel was undermanned and in sore need of supplies right now, so he couldn't afford to complain about orders. His troopers on the other hand, didn't seem so keen on the idea.

"So that means we're abandoning the city, right?" Steinworth asked. "Sarge, these people need us."

"He's right," Sikowsky agreed. "We grew up here. We can't just let it burn."

Some of the other troopers seemed to agree with the pair. With so many losses in recent years, Three Hotel's main source of recruits had been Reach itself, leading to Lee being saddled with so many fresh recruits in what had once been one of the Army's best SPECWARCOM teams. Nonetheless, the Sergeant Major had neither the time nor the patience to deal with rookies refusing orders.

"We've been given our orders, troopers," he said in a low voice. Everyone shut up to hear him. "The evacuation's already underway here, and chances are that wherever we're going needs us more than New Alexandria does." He turned to face Sikowksy and Steinworth. "I know the situation's not good out here, but now isn't the time to be selfish. We're following these orders, understood?"

"Yes sir!" the pair responded, standing to attention.

"Good. Now keep eyes on the sky. I want a flare up the moment those Pelicans are in sight."

The troopers responded, spreading out to clear the area of corpses. Lee doubted that they really believed that they were going off to save people, but he didn't care. Sitting on the charred wreckage of a Banshee, he removed his helmet and checked it, running a hand over his greying hair. A nasty scorch mark from a near-miss had been scored across the side, but there was no immediate damage. Still, if that ship hadn't gone down when it had, the venerable Sergeant Major and his team may well have died here. He placed the helmet back on and stood up to go and help his comrades when the bodies.

* * *

It was nearly twenty minutes before the Pelicans arrived, coming out of the city's densely populated western sector. Private Murphy flew down a flare to mark their location and stood back with the rest of Three Hotel as one turned to land in front of them. As the rear hatch slid open, four distinctive figures clambered out. Lee approached and saluted the first one.

"Commander. It's been a while."

"Good to see you, Sergeant Major," Carter-A259 replied. "This is your ride. We're getting off here."

Lee nodded. "Should've known that Holland would send in NOBLE. This city needs all the help it can get."

"We'll do what we can here. Good luck with your mission, Sergeant."

"And you, Spartan."

With that, Lee stood as the Spartans strode past, barely casting a second glance over his awestruck troopers as they made their way towards the inner city. While the Sergeant Major had worked with the group many times over the last few years, most UNSC personnel had never seen one of these near-mythical figures in person. It took a few seconds before the rest of Three Hotel realised that Lee had already clambered aboard the dropship, and hurried in after him. The rear doors clasped shut and the Pelican took off, soaring over the skies of New Alexandria as it headed towards the far-off Camp Kilo.

I was wrong, the Sergeant Major thought to himself. Holland knew that New Alexandria needed reinforcements, and he wasn't going to abandon the city, so he sent his Spartans. If they can't hold off the Covvies there, then nobody can.

Painful Realisation

1006 Hours, August 19, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Winnipeg Boulevard , Pálháza

Bren hugged her rifle close to her chest as burnt concrete fizzed over her head, the sensation was complemented by a scream of a soldier to her right. She pushed herself up, and fired a burst into the mass of Covenant massing towards them.

“Sergeant!” She screamed as she fired another burst.

“Ma’am?” came the reply, barely audible over the cacophony that enveloped them.

“Bring the machine gun up here!” She motioned rapidly with her hands where exactly the gun was to be placed.

“Move, move!” She barked again before dropping her empty clip and slapping in a new one. The machine gun crew hastily set up. One of the soldiers awkwardly fumbled with the box of ammunition, causing it to fall to the ground which was met with a soft “shit”. He turned it up right and opened it, dragging the belt out, he began feeding it to the gun.

“Concentrate your fire left, 3rd platoon is close to being overrun,” she ordered. Bren didn’t wait to hear their response, she got up and moved down to line, ducking and diving from the plasma whizzing by.

She stopped by a beleaguered looking medic, as he applied bio-foam to a chest cavity. “How we doing, doc?” She asked passing him her canteen while she crouched.

He gratefully accepted it. He poured water onto his bloodstained hands, he set the canteen downed and rubbed them together, a small trickle of red fell down his fingers and palms and onto the ground. He finally took a sip of water, and handed it back, running the back of his hand across his mouth. “Thanks,” he said, before composing himself to answer the question. “Not good,” he nodded at the soldier he had just been tending too, “that was my last canister of biofoam. We’re out now. Only got bandages left.” He slumped against a wall. “I think I’m the last medic left.”

Bren looked around as she slotted the canteen snugly back into its position. “One of my Spartans is a medic, he’s back at Reimer. You should head back there.” She stood up and offered him her hand, when he took it, she pulled him up. “I don’t think we’ll be holding here much longer.”

The Medic nodded sagely and began jogging back behind the lines. Bren sighed and continued her trek behind the lines. As she neared a road crossing, a Warthog in front of her exploded, sending scorching hot debris over her. Her shields flickered and failed, causing her to jump behind the wall. The cauterised upper body of the gunner landed a few feet in front of her. His eyes reduced to smoking husks. “Fuck,” she mouthed. The shields flickered and slowly came back online, Bren got back to her feet for a third time, only more gingerly than before.

She stumbled towards the bombed out coffee shop that had been adopted as the command centre of the company still left in the field. Upon entering, she was greeted by a small staff of three soldiers, all of them bearing a thousand yard stare for the history books. Their faces pale, and covered in dust and blood and gunpowder. The radio began going off, but none of them registered it. All of them sat still, shaking ever so slightly, the world around them nothing but a faint noise. Bren stormed in and tuned her built-in radio to the frequency she needed.

“This is Sierra-Alpha Four-Oh-One,” she said, “go ahead, over.”

“Where’s Lieutenant Dan, over?” Was the reply.

“Incapacitated,” she said shortly, “brief me, over.”

“Yes ma’am,” there was a short pause. “The right flank has been completely overrun, Covenant forces are close to cutting us off. Left fl-.”

There was a huge blast that cut off the transmission mid-sentence.

“Repeat your last, over,” Bren said worriedly down the line.

“Left flank is crumbling, repeat, left flank is crumbling. Covenant forces are pushing.” A pause.

“Report!”

“Wait one.”

In the ten seconds that followed, Bren’s vision was blinded by a brilliant green glow in the distance, her MJOLNIR faceplate barely polarising in time.

“Scarab! I repeat, Scarab!” The link went silent and Bren hastily punched in the retreat orders into the command console in the room. She didn’t bother trying to rouse the men sitting there, they were dead from the neck up anyway. She bolted out of the room and began sprinting down the road back to the spaceport.

“Raquel!” Bren screeched into the radio.

“Bren?” Came the reply, the voice tinged with worry and confusion.

“Are those AA guns still working?”

“Yeah, but we’ve not seen much resistance.”

“Get that fucking gun ready, there’s a Scarab en-route and we’ve nothing else to fucking use.”

“Jesus,” it was so silent, it felt like a breath on Bren’s ear.

“Get to it, out.”

Bren’s augmented body began to ache as she pushed herself to run the five miles back to Reimer Spaceport. Fortunately, a Warthog going the same way pulled up beside her. She gratefully hopped in, and allowed herself a little respite.

“How many got out?” She asked the driver, more in hope than expectation.

He gave her a sad look. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think many did. If they didn’t, I… I’m not entirely sure they got far. Not on foot anyways. We’re it I think.”

“Shit,” she cursed. “We’re fucked.”

“Looks that way,” the driver bit his lip, debating whether or not to ask the question on his lips. “Will we retreat Reimer?” Bren sighed. “Not yet. Still a few transports left docked. Those civvies need to get out; after that, yeah, we will.”

The rest of the journey was quiet, all three of them glad for the quiet. Glad to be surrounded by the sounds of screaming soldiers, and the smells of burning flesh. Though, nestled at the back of their minds, was the acute awareness that they were trading an old hell for a new hell. These quiet moments allowed for them to process what they had went through, making it harder for them to continue fighting, testing their resolve. Not one of them relished what lay ahead, and none of them believe themselves capable of surviving it.

The warthog pulled up at the back entrance of the Spaceport. The driver exhaled explosively. Bren turned to him. “What’s your name, soldier?” She asked.

“Corporal Chinua Achebe,” he replied.

“Okay,” she said, “I’ll keep an eye on you.”

He smiled sheepishly. “Thank you, ma’am.”

Bren disembarked and headed into the dishevelled building – it was much busier than it had been when she left little over ninety minutes ago. Worried civilians sat against the wall, each of them pale, each of them pacing, twitching, bobbling up and down, and trying to relax. The children were the quietest. It gave the place an eerie feeling. None of these people were optimistic.

“Ma’am, are you back?” Kevin asked, “Your IFF popped up.”

“I’m back,” she replied, “any news?”

“Yeah, a couple of the Colour Gang guys are here. Pretty banged up.”

“Okay,” she said as she turned the stairs and began marching towards the anti-air guns on the roof. “I’ll be down shortly. There’s a scarab on its way, so if you could let soldiers know without worrying the civvies, that’d be fantastic.”

“Will do ma’am, out.” Upon reaching the roof, the sun had come out from behind the clouds and bathed the decaying city in a golden morning hue. Raquel and Raul sat against the guns, each of them now facing the only road wide enough to allow passage for the Scarab.

Raul noticed her first, “Welcome back, ma’am.”

Raquel turned hastily to see her squad leader “Bren – how was it?”

Bren shook her head. She pondered the right words to say, but she never had time. She was cut off by Raul.

“Shit, do you hear that?” He asked nervously.

They did, the three of them looked and saw the Scarab.

“Fuck…” The three breathed at once.

Bren ran to the closest gun, but before she could, her vision was blinded by a green ray, that burned incandescence before fading to black.

Rude Awakening

1832 Hours, August 19, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Northern Viery Territory, Reach


Grunwald's eyes fluttered open.

Shit. She sat up and looked around groggily. The unconscious form of Sergeant Vasilescu was still strapped into his harness several feet away. The rest of the command shuttle had been wrecked by the impact; glass and charred metal lay all around them, and the back of the craft had been torn apart. At least the pair of them had survived their fall onto the besieged planet.

"Sergeant!" She clambered to her feet and shook him. He jerked awake, looking round in confusion for a few moments before groaning.

"Fuck," he muttered. "Think I broke something." He shifted slightly and gritted his teeth. "Several somethings."

Grunwald unstrapped the Marine's safety harness, allowing him to step out and see to his wounds. Vasilescu's right arm hung loosely at his side. He glanced towards it and frowned, clearly in pain.

"Yeah, my arm's not in great shape. Can't fight well like this. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she replied hurriedly, searching through the wreckage for the shuttle's medical kit. Vasilescu limped towards a locker and too out the two assault rifles he'd brought with him, holding them under his left arm. As Grunwald fished out the red and white kit, he offered one of the weapons to her.

"I've got my sidearm."

"I can't fire a rifle like this. Take it."

She took the weapon and placed it on the floor before opening the kit. It was filled with a variety of equipment, ranging from bandages to biofoam. Treating a broken arm wouldn't be too hard, but the healing time would certainly make the Marine nearly useless in combat for now.

"Okay, hold still. Gonna try and patch you up."

* * *

It wasn't until they exited the shuttle nearby twenty minutes later that Grunwald realised how dark it had gotten. Vasilescu's arm was in a sling, and two stim-shots had done away with most of the pain for now. He still walked with a limp due to his still-healing plasma injury, but there wasn't much she could do about that right now.

"How long were we out for?"

The Sergeant tapped the side of his dented helmet, activating the built-in tactical eyepiece. It had been turned off during the crash, and took a few seconds to boot up properly.

"About nine hours. Hell of a nap."

Nine hours. Grunwald had expected them to land within half an hour, link up with local UNSC forces and get back to the fight. A lot could have happened in nine hours. Reach could have already fallen. She wondered how many Human ships remained in orbit, far above the darkening skies. It wasn't worth dwelling on for long, as they had to move. Most of their electronics and GPS systems had been knocked out in the crash, so aside from Vasilescu's eyepiece they had little in the form of technology. It didn't help that they had crashed in the middle of nowhere.

"Lieutenant," Vasilescu spoke up. "I know this might not be the time to ask, but what the hell happened back there?"

Grunwald shrugged. "I'm not sure, Sergeant. Probably got spotted by some Covvie flyers."

"Right, thought so. For a second there I was pretty sure we were going to die."

"Well, we're not dead, and I don't plan to wait here until they come back. Let's get moving."

The Marine nodded, and began following her across the field they'd crashed in. They would have to find shelter for the night soon if they didn't find help. He'd heard of Reach's wildlife, and had no intentions of getting acquainted with any of the planet's nocturnal predators. After checking Vasilescu's compass, the pair continued going west for some time until they found a dirt road heading towards the mountains.

"Think we're on the right track?" Grunwald asked.

"Probably. Roads mean settlements. Even with the evacuation order there's bound to be somewhere to stay."

"True. I'd imagine that we can get a linkup to command on-"

Grunwald glanced to the right and dropped to one knee as a set of bright lights shone over a nearby hill. Vasilescu took out his pistol and did the same, albeit with some difficulty due to his wounded knee.

"Vehicles," she whispered. "Human?"

He squinted towards the lights. "Think so."

The first set of lights were soon joined by several others as a number of vehicles crested the hill, heading in their direction. Grunwald fished into her bag and took out a flare, lighting and throwing it into the air to attract their attention.

"Wonder what a patrol's doing out here at this time," Vasilescu said as he holstered his pistol.

"Could be looking for survivors." Grunwald lowered her rifle as the vehicles drew closer, holding up one hand to see through the glare of the headlights. A Warthog rolled into view and ground to a halt several feet away. Two armed men climbed out while a third sat on the turret. They didn't appear to be wearing any uniforms.

"What're you doing out here?" one asked, strolling forward.

"I'm Lieutenant Kathrin Grunwald, UNSC Navy. Our shuttle crashed nearby and we're looking for help." she paused for a moment. "What group are you from, anyway. Colonial Militia?"

One of the men laughed as two more vehicles pulled up nearby. They were Spades - flatbed trucks designed as all-terrain transport vehicles. The passengers were also armed with an assortment of weaponry. Vasilescu looked around nervously as the warthog's driver stepped forward.

"I'm Jonathan Ulan of the United Rebel Front. Weapons down, oonskies."

Grunwald and Vasilescu had a dozen rifles and a turret pointed their way. They did as ordered. Grunwald put her hands on her head, while her Marine companion held up his undamaged left arm in surrender. After a brief search, the pair had their weapons confiscated and were led towards one of the trucks.

"Get the blindfolds on them," Ulan shouted as he clambered back into his Warthog. "We're heading home."

Business Trip

1832 Hours, August 19, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Sovereign Arms Headquarters, New Alexandria


By the time they had arrived at the headquarters of Sovereign Arms, night had already fallen. Mitchell was frustrated that it had taken so long to get to their destination, but Covenant resistance had been fierce after the left the spaceport, and they had lost three troopers getting here. He wondered if this CEO, Christopher Marcus, was worth the trouble of saving his sorry ass. Apparently he was responsible for several game changing weapon systems, but Mitchell hadn't even heard of, much less used, any of them. The time it took them to get there, he might have already been dead, which Mitchell did not want to except.

As they rounded the corner, Mitchell's heart sank. The front of the Sovereign Arms building was a mess, with fire pouring out of many of the windows, pieces of the building blown off or melted by plasma, and one section appeared to have collapsed, it was a miracle the place was still standing. Outside the building was a group of Grunts guarding the entrance, a blue armored Elite standing nearby checking its plasma rifle while the Grunts were playing with some marine helmets. He heard several other troopers growl in anger.

"Fucking bastards, with all their talk of honor and shit, they're still fucking animals." murmured one ODST.

"Yeah, we should go over there and kick their asses." replied another.

"What are you gonna do Hamilton? Run over and punch that split-lip in the face? Yeah, sure, go see how long you last."

"Stow it, both of ya. We ain't gonna get shit done with yer bitchin'." said a very irate Sergeant Davis.

At that, both troopers stopped mid-argument and looked back towards the Covenant soldiers. Mitchell frowned, if the Covenant were guarding the entrance, that means there were forces already inside. This CEO, if he was still alive, wasn't in the best position right now. He turned to one of the platoon's snipers and had him take aim and fire at the Elite, the large alien crumpling as its head was perforated, then the rest of the platoon moved in, eliminating the now frightened Grunts with ease. As they reloaded their weapons, they moved inside the lobby and were taken aback by what they saw. There were dozens of bodies strewn about the room, but not just civilians, several of the bodies had tactical vests and military rifles nearby, and non-UNSC identification patches.

"What the hell? These guys aren't UNSC, not even special forces wear this kind of gear. This is all Black Market stuff." piped up one trooper.

"You thinking rebels? I wouldn't think they'd do this during a Covenant invasion." replied the trooper from earlier, Hamilton.

"No, they didn't do this, those are plasma wounds. They aren't rebel either, look at those patches. Imes Defense Corporation." said Sergeant Robson.

Mitchell looked up from one of the bodies, "PMCs? The hell are they doing here?"

Robson looked around at the bodies as he spoke, "Probably hired by the company to keep their execs safe as the Covenant got closer. A lot of good it's done so far."

Mitchell stood up, raising his rifle as head moved towards the stairs, "Well, lets hope they've done at least a halfway decent job and kept the CEO safe. Come on, we need to move."

The rest of the troopers followed him as they began their slow descent up the stairs, stopping on every floor to search for any survivors or the CEO, occasionally they were engaged by Covenant forces who they could only guess were doing the same thing. As they neared the top, the engagements became more frequent, but there was something else that the troopers heard as they got closer; gunfire. When they reached the executive floor, they got their answer. A dozen armored men with large rifles stood at the door to the CEO's office at the end of the hall, with a pile of Covenant bodies in the way. The men raised their rifles as the ODSTs reached the top of the stairs, but lowered them when Mitchell called out.

"Whoa, calm down, we're friendlies. Who are you guys?"

"Imes Defense Corporation, we're assigned to protect the CEO. We were running out of munitions and were getting pretty desperate until we heard gunshots further down the building. We thought it was several other squads we had lost contact with." responded one man who appeared to be in charge.

"That would be us, we're here to extract Mr. Marcus on orders of the Office of Naval Intelligence. I wouldn't worry about your men downstairs either, we found what was left of them when we got here. We're sorry."

The leader of the group swore at this news before turning back to the ODSTs, "You said ONI wants Marcus?"

"That's correct, is he still alive?"

"Yes, he's in his office preparing some data or some bullshit like that."

"Alright, we need you to let us through. Maxwell, contact command, tell them to send us a bird ASAP."

Mitchell and several others walked past the mercs into the office, where they saw a man, obviously the CEO, leaning over a computer terminal, typing rapidly. As Mitchell approached him, the man turned, a civilian pistol in hand.

"Stay back you alien frea-. Oh thank God, you're human. UNSC correct?"

"That's right, Charlie Platoon, 11th Shock Troops Battalion, on a mission from the Office of Naval Intelligence to recover you."

"Oh good. I was panicking, I've been hearing gunshots and screaming for the past few hours. The mercenaries in the lobby and lower floors were using Black Market and standard issue military equipment, so I assumed they didn't last long. I gave those men outside prototype armor and weapons, and they've seemingly faired wonderfully."

"Yeah, we noticed. That was some pretty high quality equipment sir. There's an impressive pile of Covenant bodies outside your office."

"Wonderful, ONI and the UNSC will love to hear that the new prototypes worked. Good thing I've already collected the data needed. You needn't worry about the Cole Protocol either, I've already purged the data I couldn't bring with me. Is your evacuation craft arriving soon?"

"Let me check. Hey Maxwell, has command responded yet?"

"Yeah, they've dispatched a Pelican and it's on its way now. They're tracking lots of Covenant heading this way though, so we have to double time it out of here."

***

The Pelican arrived just as the group exited the lobby, thrusters kicking up dirt around the area.

The pilot spoke frantically, "Hurry up and get aboard, I spotted Covenant fliers inbound. I do not want to be in the sky with this much Covenant airpower."

Mitchell quickly got Marcus and the surviving mercenaries inside the Pelican with the ODSTs following suit. As they got into the air, Mitchell leaned back against the bulkhead and sighed, this was such a simple task for something so important to ONI, which was odd. Looking out through the rear window, Mitchell could see the city burning, scattered military equipment and bodies everywhere. How someone or something could cause this devastation still confounded him even after ten years of fighting the Covenant. As he closed his eyes to try and get a little rest before they got back to the ship, when suddenly the pilot cried out over the comms.

"Banshees, inbound!"

A moment later a bright green light washed over Mitchell as a fuel rod blasted open the Pelican ramp. Looking out the gapping hole, he could see the Banshee's cannon glowing from the shot. Suddenly it started firing its duel plasma cannons, hitting one of the engines in the wing and causing it to rupture and explode. The dropship began spiraling, the G-forces pushing Mitchell against the bulkhead of the Pelican, forcing his eyes shut. He was able to catch a glimpse, however; of Marcus clinging to the rear of the bay as the G-forces threatened him out. His last look at him was the fear in his eyes as he was torn from the dropship and hurled into the city below.

A few moments later the dropship crashed, sending its contents; weapons, equipment, and people, flying about the compartment. Mitchell had just opened his eyes as something large smashed him in the face, knocking him unconscious.

Homeward Bound

2345 Hours, August 19, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location:Ruins of Reimer Spaceport, Pálháza

Bren lay bathed in darkness, with a shrill ringing in her ears. She was fit snugly between two large pieces of rubble, none of them crushing her body. Bren blinked her eyes open. She was greeted by a yellow pane of glass on her left side, and dust swelling around her right.

“Fuck,” she breathed, “it’s broke.” Next, her ears were met with screaming and her nostrils smelt the burning flesh, and the coppery scent of singed blood. Bren pushed herself out of the rubble she found herself in, as she stood up, she removed her helmet and turned it upside down. After that, she fastidiously removed the coms and placed them over her head. She was almost completely blind now, she no longer had an IFF to find her squad mates. She searched the skyline, in the distance, and crucially, heading away from the remains of their spaceport, the Scarab was moving.

“Raul? Raquel?” She asked softly, “you still alive?”

“Yeah,” came Raul’s muffled reply, clearly in some form of discomfort. To Bren’ right, a large piece of rubble was pushed off and Raul came up. His armour was scorched and covered in dust, but seemed still serviceable. “You okay, ma’am?”

Bren nodded, and kept scouring for Raquel. “Do you see her on your IFF?”

“Mine isn’t on, wait one.” There was a pause as he turned it on, hoping to find Raquel’s. “No luck, ma’am. I can’t see her.”

“Shit,” Bren mouthed. “We’ll have to find her later.”

Raul nodded soberly, and headed for the stairs. The roof they had been on was covered with rubble from the building beside them that had been destroyed by the blast. Most of the Spaceport’s roof had caved in, Raul and Bren were lucky to have not fallen. The air was thick with dust and Bren could feel it coating her lungs. She was envious of Raul’s working helmet. The pair headed down the stairs, held together tenuously by the now crumbling concrete. The lobby was a complete mess, the glass had shattered, sending tiny pieces speeding into civilians and soldiers alike. Rooms once accessible, were now sealed forever more. The floor was covered in fresh blood seeping from new bodies.

“Kevin?” Bren called.

There was no response until Raul spoke a few moments later: “He beeped the three green lights.”

Bren nodded and lowered her weapon as Kevin stepped out from behind from two overturned vending machines. Kevin’s armour was considerably less damaged than both hers and Raul’s.

“Situation?” Bren asked.

“Not good,” Kevin whispered. “Almost all civilians are dead; soldiers too. Those who are alive are too wounded for me to do anything.”

“Fuck,” Bren replied, “The Colour Gang?”

“Crushed.” Kevin motioned to a fallen pillar.

“Jesus.”

Bren removed the headset and scratched the scalp just behind her ear. There wasn’t a lot of options available to the Spartans. They knew they had to escape this section of Pálháza and regroup with the surviving forces before finally exiting the city altogether. It was clear in was lost, and now without the spaceport to defend, there was nothing valuable left within the city.

“Raul, scan for Corporal Chinua Achibe,” Bren ordered.

Raul quickly set about to the task. It did not take long. “His IFF is on,” he said. “He’s in the garage. Alive.”

“Good,” Bren answered. “Let’s go.”

As they set off, Kevin spoke up. “Where’s Raquel?” He asked, finally addressing the elephant in the room.

“I don’t know,” Bren said quickly as they moved on.

To get to the garage, one had to go down in an elevator. Raul clicked the button. Nothing. Raul drove his gauntleted fingers between the point where the doors met, and drove it open. He looked down upon a black expanse. He took a flare from his back pouch and threw it down, the darkness was replaced by a brilliant orange. It was a long drop, certainly not for Spartans in MJOLNIR.

“One at a time,” Bren ordered, before jumping down into the pit. There was a large thud as her armour clattered off the remnants of the lift below. The only light came from the quickly dimming flair. Like Raul had done previously, Bren thrust her hands into the slot between the bottom elevator’s doors, and shoved them aside. She greeted by a dimly lit room, that attacked her nostrils with the smell of oil and petrol. The garage held three Warthogs, two were mounted with turrets, and the third was the troop-carrier equivalent. Its sides stained red. She walked in, gun limp in her hands as she surveyed, trying to find any sign of life. Her ears pricked up as she heard a footstep, the grip on her gun tightened. Her eyes quickened, as the footsteps got closer.

A familiar face turned the corner. “Bren?” They asked.

Bren breathed a huge sigh of relief at the familiar figure. “Raquel… Jesus.” “Yeah,” she replied. Bren took a few steps back and called for the other two to come down. After a brief exchange of disbelief between all four of them, they settled back into the proper mindset. “Any soldiers left down here?” Bren asked Raquel. “Yes, ma’am,” she answered, “five in total, three of whom are injured. Corporal Achibe is in charge.”

“Roger,” Bren looked around surveying the Warthogs. “Do they work?”

Raquel smiled. “Yes.”

Early Warning

0549 Hours, August 20, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location:Siófok Firing Range, Siófok, Reach


"Up up up, Marines! We've got enemy contacts incoming!"

The men and women of the 12th Marine Regiment's Fifth Battalion were roused from their slumber by piercing alarms, some falling out of recently set-up camp beds and bumping into each other as they crowded through, bleary-eyed, into the armoury. While technically a private facility owned by Ushuaia Armory for testing new weapons just outside the nearby city, the Siófok Firing Range had been taken over by the Fifth Battalion a week prior and turned into a temporary base. Weapon racks shuddered forward and electronic locker doors sprang open as the Marines approached, strapping on combat gear and loading rifles as a gate to the nearby courtyard slid open.

"Move!" roared a half-dressed Sergeant Major, waving a handgun in the air as he pulled on a shirt. "Covvies ain't gonna wait for you if you're tired!"

It was still dark and chilly outside, and many of the assembled Marines shivered as they trotted towards the outer wall that surrounded the facility. The local city of Siófok, once home to nearly thirty thousand people, had mostly been abandoned when news of a Covenant invasion arrived, though a few civilians likely remained. On the roof, sentries shot flares into the sky that illuminated the surrounding area. On the walls, a few Marines gasped as the light shone upon distant non-human forms on the edge of Siófok itself.

"Hostiles sighted!" called one Marine, readying her rifle. The others followed suit.

"Wait until they're in range then fire at will!"

Unsurprisingly, the distant aliens neglected to move closer to the facility, and retreated back into the city as more flares were shot their way. Before the NCO could give the order to pursue, their commanding officer came striding out into the misty courtyard, shrugging on a coat.

"What's the situation, Sergeant Major?"

"Enemy forces in Siófok, ma'am. Jackals, most likely."

The officer, a Major, shook her head. "How didn't we pick them up? If there were any Covenant landings in the area we'd know!"

"I don't know, ma'am. We got the warning less than ten minutes ago."

"Who from?"

"ONI, if you'd believe it. Turns out a Pelican they were sending our way detected Covenant movement and asked that they alert us."

"A Pelican? I wasn't told we were getting any-"

There were several flashes of light from above as a volley of missiles shrieked over the base and towards Siófok. Entire buildings went up in flames and the distant cries of dying aliens could be heard after the initial explosion. All eyes turned upwards as the shape of a matte-black painted Pelican dropship loomed overhead, slowly descending towards a nearby landing pad. The Sergeant Major and Major glanced at each other for a moment before setting off towards the craft, accompanied by a group of bewildered Marines.

"They just smoked half a city block!" The NCO exclaimed. "What the hell is that thing packing?"

"We'll find out."

The group halted nearby as the Pelican touched down, its engines shutting off. Though the base's floodlights illuminated most of the darkened courtyard, they could barely make anything out as the rear hatch clanked open. The Major stepped forward, clasping both hands behind her back.

"I'm Major Janice Folman of the Fifth Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, and the CO of this outpost. On whose authority did you open fire on that-"

As the dropship's occupants stepped forward, her voice faltered. There were four of them, each standing at around seven feet high and encased in dark green powered armour. After a few seconds of silence, one of them stepped forward and removed her helmet, revealing a pale, surprisingly young-looking face.

"I'm Filippa-193 of ECHO Team," she saluted, before indicating the other Spartans. "This is Daniel-240, Jermaine-164, and Layla-B101 - She's new. Sorry for the quick action, ma'am, but if we hadn't arrived you and all your men would've been wiped out by now."

***

Major Folman couldn't help but feel uncomfortable as she sat in the passenger seat of a transport Warhog. One of the Spartans - Jermaine - was driving, while Filippa was crouched atop a moving Scorpion tank just ahead. Above them, the other two Spartans remained in their Pelican as it hovered over the nearby buildings, keeping watch on armoured convoy as it rolled through the abandoned city of Siófok.

"This is Daniel," ECHO Team's leader spoke over the COM. "We've picked up signs of a Covenant incursion."

She switched on her own communicator. "Any living hostiles?"

"Negative. It looks like they packed up and ran the moment we engaged them. I'll do another sweep and report back then. Out."

While Folman held a lot of respect for the legendary Spartans and their incredible combat record, there was an unconventionality about them that bothered her; use of first names, greater operational freedom and their general lack of adherence to proper procedure, even for special forces operators. Still, she couldn't disagree when the supersoldiers had informed her that they needed the assistance of her Battalion in hunting down a Covenant attack force that had been spotted moving across the nearby area.

"How many citizens were left, ma'am?" the Spartan sitting next to her suddenly asked, glancing around at the empty buildings nearby.

"Not too many. A few hundred at most, probably left. Generally those who ignored evacuation orders or were unwilling to abandon their home. Idiots."

"Did your battalion intend to forcibly evict them?"

That sounded like an accusation. "If we had to, yes. Siófok might not be a particularly valuable strategic point to hold, but getting civilians out would have been our first priority."

Jermaine nodded, and steered the Warthog round a corner. Of the six hundred Marines in the Fifth Battalion, the Major had elected for four hundred and fifty to accompany them into the city while the rest remained at HQ, just in case. Some felt like it was overkill to send so many after a Covenant raiding party, but one could never be too careful. A thin mist drifted over the street ahead, deserted in the chilly morning. The only sounds Folman could hear were the wind and the engines of multiple military vehicles rolling forward. Two other convoys were circling round on their left and right flanks, while several Falcon helicopters buzzed overhead, scouting out the local area. Every so often their thermal scans would pick up something and the buzz of machine gun fire would fill the sky.

"Major, this is Romeo One-Nine," one of her pilots spoke through the COM. "Just eliminated a group of Jackal snipers up ahead, over."

She tapped her ear. "Good work. Keep scanning the area while we secure each city block. Out."

They drove on for another minute until the Spartan up ahead waved for them to stop. The convoy ground to a halt just before a large plaza, and Fillipa dismounted, approaching their Warthog.

"What's up?" asked Jermaine.

"Something's up," she jerked a thumb back towards the plaza. "Bad feeling."

Her comrade nodded. "I see what you mean. We should've run into trouble by now."

Folman crossed her arms. "Spartan, we've got a full armoured convoy heading into Siófok. Chances are that the Covenant simply retreated. "I say we have our Falcons scour the local highways for sign of enemy movement and have a SkyHawk eliminate them before they get too far."

While she couldn't see their faces, the Major could tell that the Spartans disagreed instantly. Filippa spoke first.

"Ma'am, we've dealt with groups like this before. Covenant parties rarely retreat, let alone over open ground. If you ask me, we're walking straight into a trap and should-"

Suddenly, the ground ahead split open with a loud crack, gouts of flame blasting upwards with such force that the lead Scorpion was blasted aside. Swearing, Jermaine reversed their Warthog as the entire convoy scattered, Filippa running alongside them as the concrete fell away behind her.

"What the hell is going on?" Folman yelled, clinging on for dear life as the vehicle span round.

A second eruption triggered nearby, vaporising the lower half of a building and sending the rest down on a group of retreating Marines. There was a loud, inhuman shriek as a number of Jackals emerged from the collapsed underground, leaping across the rubble and sending Needler shards flying towards the Humans. Filippa turned and downed three of the birdlike aliens with her rifle, giving Jermaine time to reverse into a side street where he and the others could dismount.

"They were in the damn sewer system!" the Spartan called, tossing a grenade into a nearby hole. There was a loud cry before the explosion sent bloody limbs and blackened armour pieces flying. "Must've hid there to avoid our scans."

"And the ambush?" Jermaine slid into cover behind an overturned Warthog.

"Plasma charges, possibly. Or AT-mines."

"Smart."

Several pistol shots rang out from nearby and another alien fell from its position in a nearby window. Major Folman emptied the rest of her magazine towards a knot of Grunts ambling out of a doorway before reloading and wiping her forehead.

"We've not got time to chat!" she barked. "Spartans, move up and secure this street, ASAP. I want fireteams clearing this place out street by street, building by building. Move!"

They did as ordered. Protected by their shielded MJOLNIR suits, the Spartans dashed between cover, firing one-handed at groups of retreating Covenant. This force seemed to be entirely composed of Grunts and Jackals; odd for a raiding party of this size. No Elites or Brutes had been reported yet. Filippa leapt down into a burnt-out sewer tunnel, where the smoking remnants of a shield generator lay. They hid behind shields while they set off explosives, then tried rushing us. Not bad. With rifle fire and the whine of plasma bolts echoing overhead, she set off at a steady pace, Jermaine plodding along the surface not far from her. Her COM buzzed for a moment.

"Filippa," Layla-B101 sounded excited. "We just got word from HIGHCOM. There's a Covvie CRS-Class Cruiser roughly eighty clicks to the north of our location. It's sitting tight down in a valley; must've tried to slip by below our radar."

"Good to know," she replied, casually shooting a fleeing Jackal in the back. "This a team job or are we bringing in the Marines?"

"We could probably do with the firepower."

"Got it. Let's flush out these rats and be on our way."

"See you in ten."

As the COM went dead, the Spartan emerged from the collapsed sewer tunnel and into another street. Three Warthogs sat quietly burning just ahead, their occupants torn to shreds by plasma fire. Two Falcons zipped by overhead and a tremendous blast from nearby signified the destruction of a Phantom dropship at the hands of ECHO Team's modified Pelican. Jermaine jogged out from a side alley.

"There you are. Looks like it's just a mop-up job from here. The Major's pissed."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Don't think she appreciated the ambush."

"What a surprise."

A flash of movement caught their eyes as a teardrop-shaped vessel flashed overhead - a Seraph fighter. Though gunfire pinged off its hull and a missile exploded close by, it continued unabated away from Siófok, heading north. The two Spartans watched as it disappeared over the horizon.

"Shit," Jermaine whipped out a TACPAD. "Looks like that was a recon fighter. Probably went out to check if its buddies had slaughtered the Marine HQ yet."

"And now it's heading back to their ship."

"Looks like it."

ECHO's Pelican loomed overhead, engines roaring as its rear ramp lowered. Layla waved for them to come aboard. The SPARTAN-III was slightly disappointed that she hadn't had the chance to take part in any proper combat during this engagement, the prospect of taking down another enemy ship seemed to have cheered her up. Daniel-240 sat in the pilot's seat, and nodded towards Jermaine and Fillipa in greeting before they took off.

"Spartans!" their COM crackled on. "This is Major Folman. Where are you?"

Daniel raised a hand to cut Filippa off before opening his COM channel. "This is Chief Petty Officer Daniel-240 of ECHO Team. We've received word that the Covenant have a ship located to the north that is deploying troops to this area. We're going to destroy it. If you want payback for your dead, then I suggest you load up as many aircraft as you can and follow us. Over."

There was a long silence. Filippa and Jermaine looked at each other, and even Layla seemed slightly worried. When the reply came, it was short and curt.

"I understand. Set a marker and I'll rendezvous with you as soon as possible. Folman out."

The moment the COM switched off, Daniel swung the Pelican round and rocketed forward in pursuit of the Seraph. While the fighter had a head-start and could likely outmaneuver them in a fight, it still left faint traces that the Spartans could follow as they travelled above the landscape, forests stretching out endlessly beneath them. Bringing up a map on his TACPAD, Jermaine marked the CRS-Class Cruiser and then set a waypoint for the Marine forces to meet them at behind some nearby mountains. While the Covenant were using that valley to hide from basic scans, it also meant that they could probably get the drop on the ship if they were careful.

"Well," Layla leant back in her chair, "I think they're in for a big surprise."

***

It was a miracle, the Spartans thought as the small fleet of Pelicans, Falcons and Hornets sped over the mountainside behind their dropship, that the Covenant hadn't noticed them yet. Major Folman's Marines had finished clearing out the now-abandoned city of Covenant forces, then loaded up as many aircraft as they could and followed ECHO Team's waypoint.

"Spartans, we're in position," Folman's voice crackled over the COM. "Once you move in to board that Cruiser, we'll cover you for as long as it takes for you to destroy it."

"Copy that," Daniel thumbed a nearby switch and their dropship began to slowly drift forward. "Get as close as you can to that ship; once you get outside the range of their plasma turrets, all you'll have to worry about is enemy fighter support."

Finally ready, the Spartan's modified dropship crested the top of a nearby mountain, soaring high above the valley. Below them sat the distinctive shape of a CRS-Class light cruiser. Though smaller and much weaker than the much-feared CCS-Class Battlecruiser, its plasma weaponry could still pack a tremendous punch.

"Wonder how it got past Reach's defences?" Filippa mused as she placed her helmet on.

"Probably didn't have the tonnage to last that long," replied Jermaine, twirling a combat knife between his fingers.

Behind them, Layla-B101 was loudly cracking open a crate of prototype 'plug-ins' meant to work with their MJOLNIR suits. ECHO had been given them by an ONI agent shortly after an operation in the planet's orbit three days ago, but hadn't had the time to properly use them due to constant travel. Mostly reverse-engineered from Covenant technology. There were several of these, each with a different function; overcharging shields, active camouflage, hologram generation and so on. Layla carefully attached the camo plugin to her suite as Jermaine and Filippa exited the cramped cockpit.

"We're moving in. Ready for a combat drop?"

She smiled. "Always."

The SPARTAN-III had adapted quickly to working with the trio. While belonging to the second generation of the SPARTAN-II Project as one if its few successes, the rest of ECHO weren't all that much older than her and their combat doctrines were fairly similar, even if Layla's personality was wildly different from the other Spartans. The Pelican lurched to one side suddenly, and even through the Pelican's armoured hull the whine of plasma fire could be heard. Filippa staggered back towards the cockpit.

"They've spotted us!" Daniel yelled without looking round. "Grab a couple of thruster packs and open the rear hatch."

"Dan-"

"Do it!"

While the Cruiser hadn't moved, its array of plasma turrets and pulse lasers lit up the sky as the UNSC forces descended on it. The first wave of Banshees stood no chance against a vanguard of heavily-armed Pelicans and were blown out of the sky, though reinforcement soon arrived in the form of Seraph fighters. As ECHO's Pelican weaved through a sea of white-hot plasma bolts the rear hatch clanked open. Filippa and the others attached heavy-duty thruster packs to their MJOLNIR suits and waited for an opportunity to jump.

"The ship's damaged," Daniel was calm once more as he spoke over the COM. "They don't have the ship's shields up. I'm going to look for an opening."

True enough, there were signs of battle damage across the Cruiser's underbelly as the Pelican swooped in, narrowly avoiding incineration via pulse laser. It looked like a MAC round had grazed the vessel, tearing a large chunk out of the right side.

"There!" Jermaine pointed towards a gaping hole in the armour plating. "Looks like a way in."

Their dropship swerved violently, the Spartans clinging on as Daniel tried to get them in close enough. A couple of Banshees had broken off from a larger group and were pursuing the Spartans intently. The flaming remnants of a Hornet rocketed past them. Daniel put the Pelican into maximum speed, streaking towards the opening. Any regular pilot wouldn't dare try something so risky. At the very last moment, he swung the vessel round, firing a flurry of missiles at their pursuers.

"Jump!" Daniel yelled.

They did so, leaping out of the Pelican towards the hull breach. The Spartans fell like bricks, activating their thruster packs to slow their swift descent. The jets allowed them to touch down safely in what had once been a corridor just as two blazing banshees slammed into the battleplate overhead.

"Chief, you okay?!" Jermaine was concerned. They couldn't see his Pelican.

"Taken a few hits," his voice still seemed unconcerned. "Plasma fire cooked my left wing so it's hard to turn. Only way to go was up."

Magnifying the zoom on their HUD, the trio caught sight of the distant ship going upwards, still pursued by enemy fighters. As plasma fire raked the other wing, its thrusters suddenly cut out and a figure emerged from what remained of the rear hatch. Daniel's gauntleted fist caught hold of a Banshee's wing, and it was only a matter of tearing open the cockpit and flinging the surprised pilot screaming into the sky before he was back in action. The Spartan's Banshee pulled back, quickly annihilating the others before turning around.

"ECHO, proceed into the enemy ship. I'll be with you shortly."

"Copy that. Nice moves, by the way." Filippa seemed genuinely impressed.

The Spartans soon found themselves facing an airlock, which had evidently been sealed after the hull breach. Layla quickly fished out a small, yet powerful detonation charge and affixed it to the centre panel. Less than thirty seconds later, they were picking their way in through a smoking hole in the thick metal door. With no guards in sight, they quickly advanced until they found themselves at an intersection.

"So, where first?" Layla asked.

Jermaine pointed to the right. "If this ship's layout is anything like the others we've studied, then the bridge should be that way. That said, those guns are ripping those Marines to pieces, so-"

"-so we split up, yeah."

"Any preference?"

Layla was already heading towards the bridge, rifle at the ready. The other Spartans shrugged. Filippa set off down the right side at a steady pace while Jermaine ran after the other Spartan. Bursts of gunfire echoed throughout the corridor as groups of Grunt crewmen encountered a 'Demon', falling in droves. It quickly occurred to Jermaine that the Covenant hadn't even realised that they were on board. Not yet, at least. He caught up to Layla at another intersection, where she was throttling a Jackal to death.

"Where now?!" she demanded.

"Give me a second."

As the alien's neck snapped, he fished out a TACPAD and tapped it a few times. The machine beeped rapidly, mapping out nearby portions of the alien ship and transferring that data to a map in his helmet's HUD. They were only a corridor away. Jermaine moved first, Layla quickly reloading behind him as they edged towards the bridge. On a ship this small he doubted there would be any serious resistance, but it paid to be careful.

"Hold up," he went to tap her on the shoulder, only for her to violently shrug him off. "Got movement ahead."

"I see it. Six hostiles."

"Maybe more."

The door chimed open as they approached. Several Elite warriors stood around the central command chair, barking orders in their hostile language. A few lesser aliens sat at consoles or ran from station for station. No one had noticed the Spartans enter. Jermaine was preparing to draw a combat knife when Layla suddenly whistled loudly, attracting the attention of every single alien in the room.

Ah, shit. Their response was spirited, to say the least.

"I've got these guys!" Layla laughed as she ran forward, taking down several scattering Grunts with her rifle before pumping the rest of her magazine into an approaching Elite. As it doubled over in pain, she drew her sidearm and nonchalantly blew its brains out as without breaking stride. The gold-armoured Shipmaster roared in anger, igniting his energy sword while the other two Elites split off to engage Jermaine. Layla drew her combat knife after expending the rest of her pistol rounds on fleeing Jackals, tossing the blade from hand to hand as they circled each other.

"C'mon, big guy," she taunted him. "You afraid of me, Nishum?"

The Shipmaster seemed to freeze in surprise for a brief moment before lunging forward with a furious roar, slashing downwards. Layla nimbly leapt back, dodging the second, third, and fourth swings with ease while Jermaine finished off the remaining bridge crew. It soon became apparent that she was toying with the Elite was she evaded each and every attack without once striking back. As the last squealing Grunt went down in a hail of bullets from her comrade, Layla pounced, smashing the Elite's shields with a punch to the gut before jamming her knife into the side of its neck and wrenching the energy sword away. As the alien convulsed in pain she drove the two-pronged blade into its chest, forcing the warrior backwards into a wall as it grasped futilely towards her. After a few seconds, it collapsed.

"Well, that's that," she said, placing her boot on the dead alien's head while she extracted her knife. "Now what?"

"We shut down as many defences as we can from here and rig the engines to overload."

"Sounds simple enough."

"This isn't the first time." He activated his COM. "Filippa, Daniel, do you copy? The bridge is clear."

The ship suddenly shook as a distant explosion echoed across the walls. "Good timing," came Filippa's voice. "Just took out their plasma turrets on the port side. We should regroup."

"Agreed," Daniel chimed in. "Managed to land in their hangar. There's a couple of Phantoms that are ripe for the taking."

"Sounds like a plan then." Jermaine tapped an alien console, frowning as he tried to remember the correct sequence to code in. "I give it ten minutes before this thing goes down, tops."

"Let's get a move on then, ECHO."

With the Cruiser now irreparably damaged and its engines slowly overloading, the tides had turned. Checking the Marine transmissions from outside, the surviving members of Major Folman's attack force, including the woman herself, had rallied together and were swatting Covenant fliers out of the sky left and right. Storming down the metal corridor as lights flickered and explosions rocked the ship, Jermaine and Layla met up with Filippa at an intersection and ran together into what remained of the hangar.

"Chief!" Filippa called, seeing Daniel taking cover across the room. A number of surviving Elites were intent on killing him instead of escaping while Grunts and Jackals scrambled into dropships. Daniel had evidently plowed his stolen Banshee through the room upon entering.

"Someone get to a Phantom!" Daniel called, hefting a Needler. "We haven't got long!"

Jermaine nodded and ran towards one, firing with pinpoint accuracy at a knot of screaming Grunts racing for the vessel's gravity lift. Meanwhile, Layla and Filippa moved to support their team leader, working in tandem to deplete the Elite's shields with sustained rifle fire before finishing them off with a single high-caliber shot the the head - standard procedure. Now under attack from two fronts, the Covenant soldiers finally realised how outmatched they were and began to retreat. One Elite was struck multiple times in the back by Daniel's Needler and exploded into bloody chunks halfway across the floor. Suddenly, the last Phantom began to rise.

"Shit," Jermaine cursed as he ran across the hangar floor, plasma fire raking the ground behind him. "Covvies got to it first!"

The Phantom wasted no time in fleeing, drifting through the hangar's failing energy barrier. The moment it cleared the Cruiser, the dropship was pummelled with missile fire, trying in vain to speed off before its armour plating was blown to smithereens, sending it into a spiralling death dive. The four Spartans now stood in an empty, burning hangar, unsure of what to do.

"We'll have to jump," Filippa said calmly.

"Think we'll survive?" Jermaine seemed doubtful.

"With the thruster packs? Probably."

As they approached one of the energy barriers, a large shape drifted up into view, slowly backing into the hangar bay. It was a UNSC Pelican, dented and battered from the furious fighting outside. The rear hatch slid open, revealing a group of tired-looking Marines and Major Janice Folman.

"Thought you might need a lift, Spartans." There was a faint trace of a smile on her face.

Daniel holstered his weapon. "If you've got the space, ma'am."

"Should do." Her tone instantly became more formal. "Let's get out of here."

ECHO Team boarded the dropship, managing to cram themselves into the Pelican's blood tray alongside Folman's Marines. Following the Major into the cockpit, Daniel watched as they sped away from the Cruiser, joined by what remained of their attack force. This was the only Pelican left by the looks of it, with only two Hornets and four Falcons remaining. As they moved out of the valley, the Cruiser exploded, smashing down into the forests below. A cheer went up across the local UNSC COM as they turned to watch it burn.

"I lost a lot of good soldiers today, Spartan," Major Folman turned to Daniel. "All for one shipload of Covenant."

"Yes ma'am," he said flatly.

After a few seconds it became apparent that the Spartan had nothing more to say on the matter. Folman briefly considered asking him more questions; total enemy troop strength, chances of victory and so on, but relented. She was alive and there was one less Covenant ship on Reach. A small victory in a big war. Suddenly, Daniel spoke.

"Your Battalion will probably be reassigned, ma'am. Manassas, probably."

"Is that so?"

"It's likely. That's where my team were originally headed when we arrived over Reach. We've since been... sidetracked. Covenant attacks and such."

"I see. So we may be seeing more of your team in the near future?"

"Probably."

"Good to hear."

Small victories, she repeated to herself. Small victories.

Diversion

0804 Hours, August 22, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Northern Viery Territory, Reach


It had been three days since Lee's platoon had left New Alexandria, and the inactivity was already getting to him. With the near-decimation of Three Hotel during their disastrous battle in the spaceport, Colonel Holland had reassigned them to Camp Kilo, far away from the fighting. Orders had been to wait there and resupply until reinforcements arrived from existing deployments. Naturally, the surviving members of his group weren't happy with sitting around while reports came in of losing battles from around the planet.

Then the ONI agent arrived.

The sight of three trooper-packed Pelicans had raised the Sergeant Major's hopes when they touched down at the camp, bringing the manpower and supplies they sorely needed. As he oversaw the distribution of weapons and equipment among the platoon, Lee was approached by a woman in plain Army fatigues.

"Sergeant Major Lee?"

He nodded, glancing down at the familiar black and white emblem sewn into her uniform. Crap.

"I'm Lieutenant Yoshika Agata from the Office of Naval Intelligence. Did Colonel Holland inform you that I was coming?"

Lee straightened up slightly as he realised he was addressing a superior officer. "No Lieutenant, he just told us we'd be getting reinforcements soon."

"I see." Agata shrugged. "Well, I have been ordered to accompany you on your next mission. Here are your orders from the Colonel."

She handed Lee a datapad, which lit up at his touch. This was an odd way of handing down orders; usually they were linked through a secure COM net and passed down to platoon leaders from there. As he read through the lines of text outlining Three Hotel's next operation, he frowned. They weren't going after Covenant forces, even in the midst of a full-scale planetary invasion. Holland wanted them to go after a group of damn rebels holed up in the mountains. He couldn't help but wonder why his superiors even cared about innies at a time like this. Surely fighting off aliens took priority over eliminating dissidents?. Lee passed it back to the ONI agent without another word.

"We leave in twenty minutes. Get your troopers ready, Sergeant Major."

"Yes ma'am."

He walked off into the encampment and sighed. Nobody was going to like this.

***

Four hours later, two dozen UH-144 Falcons soared over the rural countryside, sweeping over abandoned farms and empty fields in their search for the supposed rebel outposts. As expected, the reactions of some of his troopers were less than positive. Murphy had already suggested throwing Sikowsky overboard twice if he continued his complaining. Lee was fairly close to telling the Corporal to keep quiet, though it would probably be for the best if he let the kid blow off some steam.

"Sergeant Major!" the Falcon pilot called. "Got something coming up on the long-range sensors. Just blips, but it might be the guys we're looking for."

"Copy that," he readied his SAW. "Take us in low over that forest, we'll try to surprise them."

"Going in now."

Lee steadied himself as the helicopters lowered until they were barely meters above the forest canopy. The blips were still out of sight around a nearby rock formation. If he could, the Sergeant Major would've called for satellite footage, but with the battle still raging overhead it would have to wait.

"Get ready, we're coming up on them in three, two, one-"

Oh, no.

As the lead Falcon swerved past a nearby mountain and into the valley, a large number of vehicles came into view. They weren't Human. Large purple-tinted structures dotted the grassy fields below, while hundreds of infantry marched in formation and Banshee fliers hovered overhead. There were a few seconds of absolute silence as both sides paused.

Then all hell broke loose.

"Turn and retreat!" Lee roared over the COM. "That's a goddamn Covenant army!"

He clung to the safety rail as his Falcon span round. Sikowsky and Murphy had already opened fire with the machine guns as a swarm of Banshees screamed after the retreating force. Lee had no intentions of this becoming a repeat of what had happened back at the spaceport.

"Pilot, can you get a message out to command?"

"No Sergeant, something's jamming us!"

Clever bastards. Probably landed here last night, would've had plenty of time to set up those towers like they did at Szurdok Ridge. Either way, they'd need a large UNSC deployment to engage this lot, not a strike force numbering less than a hundred troopers. Beside him, Lieutenant Agata loaded a rifle and leant out to fire on the Banshees.

"That won't do us much good, Lieutenant," he said. "The front of those things are damn near impervious to small arms fire."

"Well, its a good thing I'm not aiming for the front."

As one of the Banshees swooped in alongside them, the Lieutenant took aim and fired a volley of rounds into a tiny gap between the upper and lower halves of the flier. It immediately spiralled out of control and dropped out of sight.

"Structural weakness," she explained as she reloaded the weapon. "Leaves the pilot slightly exposed."

"Right," he muttered. He had to admit, though he'd had his misgivings with having an ONI agent accompany them on this mission, but at least the Lieutenant could shoot straight. To his right, Murphy was spraying rounds left and right towards an incoming group of Banshees, swearing at the top of his lungs.

"Controlled bursts, Private!" he tapped the trooper on the back. "Take them down one at a time!"

Murphy glanced back, straightening his helmet. "Sir, there's too many, we should-"

He lurched forwards as something struck the side of their Falcon, sending it spinning downwards as the others made their descent towards the forest. Over the sounds of plasma fire and screaming he could barely make out the sound of their pilot calling over the COM.

Rotor's gone, I can't control it! We're going down, everyone hang on!"

Then they crashed.

Lee awoke with a gasp. He sat up, one hand going for his sidearm as he pulled himself to his feet. The Falcon was a wreck of burnt, twisted metal, having crashed through the forest canopy at some speed. Murphy lay nearby. A long shard of metal jutted from the side of his head. Lee sighed.

"Sergeant Major!"

To his right, Agata emerged from the foliage with Corporal Sikowsky and several other troopers. He could still hear the distinctive sound of other Falcons coming in to land, with the shrill scream that gave the Banshee fliers their name steadily approaching. He picked up Murphy's rifle and motioned for the others to follow him.

"Sikowsky!" he called. "Get on the short-range COM and tell everyone to regroup on us. I want to see how many of us are left!"

"Yes sir!" the Corporal began hailing the rest of Three Hotel as another Falcon slowly descended nearby, narrowly avoiding the dense forested area around them. He waved for the pilot to cut the rotors as he approached. Private Steinworth clambered out alongside several other troopers.

"Pilot," Lee rapped on the side of the Falcon's cockpit. "We've got to torch the Falcon and leave."

"What?!" came the worried reply. "Sir, if we lose our birds then we're not getting out of here!"

"If we try to fly out then we'll be chased down and killed. We'll lay low and head out on foot when we can."

These were drastic measures, but Lee knew they had to be taken. He glanced towards the Lieutenant, who nodded in approval. While she outranked him, Agata knew he was the one with the experience to lead their troopers out of this situation. As they filed out of the clearing, Sikowky took a C-12 charge out of his pack and planted it on the Falcon. They were half a mile away before they detonated it, and the blast shook the trees around them even then.

"Sergeant," Agata spoke up after some time. "Regarding our mission to eliminate the Insurrectionists, what do you propose we do should we encounter any rebels?"

"They're either dead or gone," he remarked. "With all due respect ma'am, I think Holland has us chasing ghosts."

"You'd rather be fighting the Covenant?"

"I'd rather be helping where it matters, Lieutenant."

"So you don't consider fighting Insurrectionists 'helping', Sergeant Major? Any sympathy for them?"

"None." This was why Lee hated working with ONI agents. They had to second-guess everything you said. "They're terrorists, plain and simple. Anyone stupid enough to keep fighting their own species at a time like this deserves what they get. The Covenant are just the bigger threat right now."

"I see." She remained silent after that, keeping pace with the rest of the platoon as they continued their long march through the forest. Coming in they'd seen how far it spread along the sprawling Highland Mountains, so trekking through it could take days. Time they didn't have. There were fifty-two of them left out of the ninety-eight that set out from Camp Kilo earlier; many more would have probably died had they just attempted to flee. Still, chances were that the Covenant were still after them.

"Incoming!"

Lee ducked onto cover just in time as a Phantom dropship sped past, its gunners spraying the area with plasma fire. More were coming.

"Everyone move, double time!"

As they sprinted uphill through the dense forest, Lee could make out the faintest glimpses of Covenant soldiers far behind them; diminutive Grunts led by fierce, well-armoured Elites. For a moment he thought he could see the massive bulk of a Hunter behind the massed ranks of regular infantry. It wasn't long before the exhausted troopers had to turn and fire on their pursuers, unleashing a hail of rounds into the horde of incoming enemies, followed by a few grenades. Deprived of his machine gun thanks to the crash, Lee made do with his DMR, picking off several Elites with well-placed rounds as their foe continued their relentless advance.

"Sarge!" Sikowsky called from nearby. "More dropships coming in on our left, they're trying to flank us!"

"Take six men and set up a base of fire on that side of the hill, Corporal!"

He saw Sikowsky drop out of sight as he crawled to a new position. While the troopers were well-equipped and had plenty of ammunition, they wouldn't last much longer than an hour at most if Covenant reinforcements kept coming their way. They had sighted an entire army in that valley, and chances were that it was all coming for them.

Nearly half an hour had passed, and while the Covenant had gone to ground at the base of the hill, morale was low around the remains of Three Hotel; twenty-four dead, though Sikowky's squad had taken out a group of Jackals trying to flank them. Lee was using the momentary lull in combat to grab a ration bar when a streak of light from above caught his eye. Above them, part of the cliff face shattered, showering the area below with small rocks and debris. Wraiths.

"Steinworth, how are we on anti-armour?"

"Sixteen rockets, Sarge."

Would that be enough? That might have been a lucky hit, but if those tanks got a bead on them then they could wipe out the entire platoon with a few well-placed plasma mortars. As a few of his troopers readied their SPNKR missile launchers, something roared overhead, unleashing a volley of rockets down on an incoming column of Wraith tanks.

"Is that a Pelican?"

"Looks like it, Private."

Nearby, Lieutenant Agata peered through a set of binoculars as the dropship let loose a second volley down on the incoming Covenant troops. When Lee looked over she passed them to him.

"I don't think that's one of ours."

The Sergeant lifted the binoculars up to get a better look at the far-off dropship. While it initially seemed like any other Pelican, he soon saw that it had been heavily painted and modified. One insignia stood out among the rest: The clenched fist of the United Rebel Front.

"I think we found who we were looking for," he remarked dryly, passing the binocluars back to the Lieutenant. More gunfire lit up the forest below as the Covenant forces were engaged by what he assumed were more rebel fighters. With this second force engaging their foe. Lee got to his feet and activated his COM.

"Okay, this is our chance to fight our way out of this. Everyone follow my lead, and keep moving. Go!"

With that, he ran from cover, ducking between trees as the platoon followed him away from the battle. A few Covenant soldiers loosed plasma rounds towards them, but the troopers kept going along the mountainside. By Lee's reckoning, the innies would be dead within the hour if they kept fighting. He'd fought rebels before, and knew that all they could do was conduct raids, not pitched battles. As they continued at some pace, the Pelican roared overhead and a familiar voice echoed from the dropship's loudspeaker.

"UNSC troopers, please head down the slope and into the clearing to your north. I promise that you will not be harmed. Fail to comply and I will be forced to open fire. You have thirty seconds."

Lee froze. In their current position they were easy prey for the Pelican's missile launchers, so running wasn't an option. Neither is capture. He looked around at the tired faces of his troopers, and sighed.

"Do what they say!" he announced to the platoon. They made their way down into the clearing as ordered, keeping an eye out for any incoming Covenant forces. Several large trucks pulled up nearby, with a few men in faded military fatigues standing guard around them. The Sergeant Major had to resist opening fire the moment they came into view. The Pelican's rear hatch opened as it hovered just above the ground, and a tall man leapt out as Three Hotel approached.

"Sergeant Major. Fancy meeting you again."

"Bohater." It was the man who'd saved the people of Visegrád. It looked like he hadn't been arrested after all, as Lee had predicted. He noticed Lieutenant Agata staring at the large rebel with a look that implied nothing would make her happier than if she shot him right here. Still, they had no other choice. Twenty-eight troopers and an ONI agent against dozens of well-armed rebels. He wondered how many he'd be able to kill before they took him down.

"Look," Bohater glanced in the direction of the Covenant's approach. "I don't like you, and you sure as hell don't like me, but the way I see it is that we're both Humans and they're not. We've got a base with supplies and equipment to hole up in, but those Covvie bastards are sure to find it sooner or later. We need your help."

This genuinely surprised Lee. He had a suspicion that Bohater intended to kill them there and then, not ask for help. Looking round, most of his 'soldiers' looked more like frightened farmers. An alliance, temporary though it might be - could be beneficial for both of them.

"Fine," he said, briskly shaking Bohater's hand. "We'd better get moving then. How far is your base?"

"A couple of hours away. You'll take the trucks. Keep your weapons, too."

"Got it." He didn't have time to ask any more questions. Two flatbed trucks screeched out of the woods, carrying wounded soldiers. One of them called over to their leader.

"Bohater, there's too many! We've got to go."

"Got it. Bernard, get going. The rest of you mount up and get the hell out of here. I'll see you back home!"

With that, he clambered back into his stolen Pelican as it flew off, speeding away before any enemy Banshees could get a lock on it. Lee and his troopers quickly climbed into the back of the civilian trucks, quickly filling them up before they drove off as fast as they could. Nobody said a word. Even Steinworth and Sikowsky had nothing to complain about.

Lee knew nobody was going to like this mission.

Final Protective Fire

0900 Hours, August 22, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: New Alexandria, Reach


Mitchell was walking down the road, when he heard gunfire around the next corner. Slowly approaching the edge of the corner building, he peered around, not really knowing what he'd see. As he looked around, he was greeted by several Army troopers and marines, one of which, apparently the leader, shouted orders in a gruff southern accent. Mitchell breathed a sigh of relief and slumped his shoulders as he walked around the corner, "Thank God, I haven't seen any other people in a few days."

The marine turned around suddenly, reaching for his sidearm, before stopping suddenly and whistling, "Damn, where the hell did you come from?"

"Pelican crash, my platoon and I were evacuating some CEO. Banshees intercepted us and the dropship went down, I haven't seen anyone from my platoon since."

"I saw a dozen or so Helljumpers walkin' around with some PMC fellas a day ago, lead by a guy named Roberts."

Mitchell sighed in relief, knowing that there were still people left. It wasn't until he looked back at the marine that he noticed the frown on his face.

"Where are they now? Are they still nearby or did they head anywhere?"

"Sorry trooper, but they didn't make it. Ambushed by some invisible split-lips. They took 'em out though, if that's any condolence."

Mitchell's heart sank, Roberts, one of his closest friends, was dead, and so was most of what was left of his platoon. In his head he was screaming ever curse and swear he had heard of, but out loud, he only managed a muttered, "Goddammit." He had to find the rest of his platoon and get them out of this damned city before it got any worse. If anyone else was alive, he needed a way to contact them. While he was thinking, the marine spoke up, "Hey, what's your name trooper?"

"Master Sergeant Ash Mitchell, 11th Shock Troops, and you are?"

"Staff Sergeant Marcus Stacker, 7th Battalion, 105th Shock Division."

"So what've you been doing for the past three days?"

"We've been helping with the civilian evacs, and there's a massive group of 'em down at the starport and the big executive tower. There's just one problem, those Corvettes are gonna shoot any transports outta the sky."

"Is there any ordnance around that can at least get those Corvettes to keep their distance from the evac point?"

"The only thing I can think of are the mass drivers that were used to launch commerce into orbit. We might be able to use 'em as MACs, and there's a ton of conventional ordnance that could help."

He thought for a moment, they would be extremely underpowered compared to a normal MAC, or even the groundbased Onagers, but it might just be enough to keep the Corvettes away from the starport and tower. If it didn't, there would be a lot of dead civilians to account for. He wanted to help, but he also needed to regroup with his platoon.

"Sergeant, do you have a long distance radio with you?"

"I do, and we've been calling all day trying to get volunteers to help."

"I need to use it, I think I can get you your help."

Following Stacker to where their long range communications equipment had been set up, he uned the radio to the frequency his platoon had been assigned and began broadcasting.

"To anyone listening, this is Sergeant Ash Mitchell, Charlie Platoon. If any of you are still out there, I have linked up with a group of Army and Marine forces. We're planning on taking control of the mass drivers near the executive tower and starport to assist with civilian evac. Please respond."

He sat there in silence for what seemed like an eternity, hoping that someone would answer, all the while he was thinking of Roberts, wondering just how many Elites there were. Just when he was about to give up, a voice came through.

"This is Sergeant Davis, I read ya Mitchell."

For the first time, Ash truly felt glad to hear Sergeant Davis' accent, mostly because it meant that someone was still alive.

"Davis, is anyone else with you? Anyone at all?"

"Most of the crash survivors are with me. Roberts and those PMC guys ran off to find you though."

He felt a twinge of guilt, knowing that Roberts died looking for him. He took a deep breath before resuming the conversation.

"Corin, Roberts is dead, and so are the others with him. Some Stealth Elites got him."

He heard some very colorful language coming from the other end of the line, and had to hold the reciever away from his ear because of how loud it was. When it ended, Corin sounded much angrier than before.

"Did he at least take the squid heads out before they got 'em?"

"Yeah. Yeah he did. We can't let this distract us though, we need to help these men get the civilians out of here, and that's an order. I'm transmitting our coordinates now."

"Right, see you there Mitchell. We'll get there soon."

Mitchell smiled and walked back over to Stacker and his marines.

"You've got your help coming. The rest of my platoon is in route to this location as we speak. We should be able to take those guns with after that, then we can get the civies out."

Stacker smiled, "Good to hear, trooper. We'll be ready when your boys get here."

***

Even though he maintained his professional attitude, Mitchell was beyond relieved when he saw the remains of his platoon walk into the makeshift marine camp. They had been wandering through this burning city for three days, assisting anyone they came across, and looked worse for wear because of it. He thought for a moment, This is my platoon, these are my men. They've been through Hell these past few days, and I'm about to ask them to go back in. He realized his mind had drifted when the marine Sergeant, Stacker, walked up and began speaking.

"Welcome to Camp Shithole gentlemen, we're happy to have you here with us. I'm Sergeant Stacker, camp counselor, and I'm pretty sure you're familiar with Sergeant Mitchell here."

Mitchell stepped forward and took in the sight of his platoon, noticing for the first time how few were left, only about ten or so. He had been thinking of what to say to them when they got here, but the words suddenly left him.

"Men, Sergeant Stacker has, for the past three days, been attempting to evacuate civilians from the city, but the Covenant are putting up one hell of a fight. They've brought it heavy firepower in the form of a heavy corvette, which is bombing the hell out of any evacuation point or UNSC position."

Sergeant Panossian spoke up, "We've noticed, we were about to be evacuated yesterday when we managed to establish contact with Command, they birds they sent got whacked as soon as they got in range. We decided the only way out was to neutralize that bastard."

Mitchell smiled under his helmet, "Glad we agree then. Sergeant Stacker has a plan, so I'll let him go ahead."

He backed up and allowed the marine to take center stage, "Alright, this isn't going to be easy, but it's what we need to do in order to take out that corvette and give the civvies a chance to get the hell out of dodge."

Davis spoke this time, "Whatever it is, we're ready for it."

Stacker grinned before continuing, "Good to see that you're enthusiastic about it. The UNSC has several supply depots around the city, several of them with heavy weapons. Mortars, rocket pods, artillery pieces, all that jazz."

Lance Corporal Braun interjected, "Are we sure that'll punch the hole we need? I know corvettes aren't shielded, but they've got thick armor."

Stacker's grin quickly faded, "We thought of that, and we have something that could do it, but it's heavily guarded by enemy forces. Down by the shipping district, there are two old mass drivers, but there's about a division of Covenant keeping an eye on it."

The ODST's all exchanged looks until Panossian stepped forward. "Is that all?"

Mitchell smiled under his helmet, That's right, always ready for a fight. He stepped forward, still grinning, "The Sergeant and I have been going over a plan that'll get the least amount of us killed, and we're pretty sure we've got it."

"Let's hear it then."

"Alright, we're going to divide our forces into two groups. Group A will be the main assault group, which contains most of the Marines and vehicles. Group B is us and a few Force Recon guys. We're going to insert on the river via some boats that we're gonna scrounge up. It's not much, but it's all we have."

Davis spoke up. "When're we deploying?"

"It'll have to wait until tomorrow." He checked the mission clock on his helmet's HUD. "0400 hours, earliest."

The assembled troopers nodded contentedly. They'd at least have the chance for some shut-eye in the meantime, as well as the opportunity to re-arm and tend to any wounds. With multiple corvettes now deploying troops to the city, it was doubtful that they'd be able to hold out much longer.

Spearhead

1307 Hours, August 22, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: HIGHCOM Armory Omega, Viery Territory, Reach


"How many?"

"Four cruisers. We're estimating thirty-thousand troops, minimum."

"Do we have any nukes?"

"No sir."

"Then we're in trouble."

From his position in recently-established field base by Armoury Omega, First Lieutenant Redmond Venter looked out over the nearby fields, where thousands of Army and Marine personnel were gathering. The news of another Covenant landing on Reach wouldn't be good for their already bad morale. He dismissed the Corporal bringing him the news and activated a nearby holotable. A map of the local area flashed up, outlining the Armoury and his position. Venter zoomed out further and further until the familiar red dots indicating Covenant forces came into view. If the remaining orbital satellites above Reach were still doing their job, then they were in deep shit. Fifty thousand troops.

"Lieutenant!"

Venter turned to see Senior Master Sergeant Ellison Suarez, his second in command, poking her head through the command room's door. He turned away and switched the holotank off.

"Anything wrong, Sergeant?"

"Got an incoming 'hog from HIGHCOM HQ. You know who it is."

He groaned. That man had travelled to the armoury half a dozen times since the first reports of Covenant landing parties came in. While their local commander, General Markos, would usually deal with him, he'd gone off to New Alexandria three days ago and probably gotten himself killed. That left Venter, a First Lieutenant, in charge of the entire Armoury.

"I'll be right out. Get everyone else ready."

"Got it." Suarez walked off. Though they hadn't been working together long and he was her commanding officer by rank, she probably had more combat experience than most of their team combined, and that was saying something; NAVSPECWAR soldiers were often regarded as the best of the best, barring the Spartans of course. Venter strode out of the command room, holding helmet under his arm as the front gate slid open. A single M12 Warthog rolled through and ground to a halt several feet away. A large man in a grey Navy uniform clambered out and approached Venter, who saluted.

"Vice Admiral Whitcomb, sir. Welcome back."

Danforth Whitcomb was a well-known military leader among the UNSC. Like many others, Venter had studied his impressive battle record against the Covenant. The man himself was an imposing figure with a physique that made him look more like an ODST than a Navy Admiral. He looked around for a few moments, scratching his moustache before speaking.

"Thank you, soldier. Where's General Markos?"

"Gone, sir."

"What do you mean, 'gone'?"

"He took a Pelican and two platoons of Marines to New Alexandria three days ago. Said he had to lead the defence. He left me in charge, sir."

For a moment Venter thought Whitcomb was going to shout at him, but instead he simply shook his head and sighed.

"What's your name?"

"First Lieutenant Redmond Venter, NAVSPECWAR."

Whitcomb nodded. "I'm surprised they're keeping soldiers of your calibre on guard duty, Lieutenant. Still, if you're in charge then I suppose I'll have to let you in on a little secret."

Before Venter could respond, Whitcomb began walking towards the Armoury, waving for him to follow. The man passed through the main door without a glance at the two armed guards, and only stopped momentarily to input a password at the second. HIGHCOM Armoury Omega was one of several weapon caches dotted around Reach, and as far as Venter knew, the only one that hadn't yet been cleared out in face of the Covenant invasion. Rooms filled with rifles and ammo sat unused, while the expansive vehicle bay had remained locked until orders came down directly from HIGHCOM. Eventually they came to what appeared to be a sealed vault.

"Stand back."

As Venter did so, Whitcomb stepped forward and placed his palm on a scanner before allowing another device to scan his eyes. Then he whispered something into a small microphone, and the heavy metal door before them slowly hissed open. A single object sat inside.

"This is our most important weapon, Lieutenant Venter. If you're in charge of the base then I want you to know what you're fighting to defend. It's a project I've been working on for some time."

He wasn't too sure what he was looking at. It appeared to be a bomb of some kind. "What is it, sir?"

"I call it the 'NOVA Bomb'. Nine fusion warheads encased in lithium triteride armour." He turned to face Venter. "Impressive, isn't it?"

Venter nodded. So we do have nukes. Still, he wondered why the Admiral had elected to hide the weapon in here while Covenant forces were landing armies across the planet. His thoughts momentarily drifted back to the massive force less than a hundred kilometres west of their position.

"What's the destructive power of this bomb, Admiral? Could we use it to say, wipe out a Covenant army?"

Whitcomb laughed. "Son, you're thinking too small. One of these things could crack a planet in half."

Ah. Now he understood why it was being kept down here. Perhaps it was a weapon of last resort; a big middle finger to the Covenant if they succeeded in capturing Reach. The sheer destructive power of such a weapon was impressive. He and Whitcomb stepped out of the chamber, allowing the door to seal behind them.

"This is what you're defending, Lieutenant," the Vice Admiral clasped his shoulder. "You understand why we can't let this place fall, right?"

"Yes sir." Venter waited a few seconds before speaking up again. "Have you seen the latest reports of Covenant landings?"

"Not since I left HQ an hour ago, no. Why?"

"Please come with me, sir."

Now it was his turn to lead. With Admiral Whitcomb in tow, Venter left the Armoury and walked into the command room outside, activating the holotank as he entered. Since he'd left it the Covenant ships had settled into position and defences were already being set up. By the look of it, he'd greatly underestimated the amount of troops, too. Make that eighty thousand.

Whitcomb was silent for almost a minute, staring at the massing troops. Eventually, he cleared his throat and turned to Venter.

"How many troops do we have here?"

"About six thousand, and that's just infantry from the Army and Marines. A few few hundred pilots and drivers, too. If you're counting my platoon that's another thirty-three, including myself."

"I see."

Venter could almost see Whitcomb working things out in his head, calculating losses and chances for victory against such a force. They didn't seem good.

"I'm opening the armoury," he said at last. Take what you need, except the NOVA bomb. I'll get in contact with local forces and see if I can give you a hand as well. Your team's leaving too, Lieutenant."

"Sir?"

"I'll be damned if I'm wasting good SPECWAR troops here when there's fighting to be done. Give me an hour and I'll have a company of Marines defending this site. We're stopping the Covenant before they can advance."

Whitcomb's quick decision surprised Venter. He'd expected reinforcements to hold the armoury, but not an order to attack. Still, anything would be better than another day of guard duty. He saluted once more.

"Thank you sir. I'll have my platoon ready to move ASAP."

He turned to leave and smiled. Within minutes they'd opened the doors to the vehicle bay, revealing over a dozen tanks the likes of which he'd only heard of. Word soon spread to the infantry battalions who had set up camp nearby, who quickly acquired them in preparation for the impending attack. Whitcomb himself spent some time on the COM barking orders while the army assembled outside. Venter's platoon quickly assembled in the Armoury Omega's courtyard and were there to greet him as he exited the vehicle bay.

"Sir," Suarez called over. "Heard we're going all-in on this one."

"Yeah, we are." He looked over the platoon; each a trained SPECWAR operative and veteran of many battles against the Covenant. "Everyone, mount up and prepare to move out. We'll show those Covenant bastards that Reach isn't going down without a fight!"

With that, the platoon made their way through the front gates, joining their comrades as they marched to war.

***

When Whitcomb had promised reinforcements, Venter hadn't expected this much.

Sat in the passenger seat of a Warthog, he could make out most of the strike force around them. Scorpion tanks took point, rumbling ahead at full speed over the grassy plains towards the distant Covenant encampment. Two-man Mongoose ATV's zipped around them, the passengers carrying missile launchers that would make short work of most Covenant armour that went out to meet them. High above, a trio of Shortsword bombers screamed overhead, flying straight towards the incoming Covenant forces. They broke off suddenly, and barely a second later the ground below lit up with explosions.

"How many d'you think that took out?" asked Suarez, glancing over from the driver's seat.

Venter raised his binoculars, trying to get a good view on the bombed area. He caught a glimpse of what could have once been several Wraith tanks. "They got a few. Still more to come, though."

The bombing run had certainly gotten their attention. A number of Banshee fliers were already heading towards the massed strike force, volleys of plasma fire scorching the ground below as they swooped in to attack. To their left, a Wolverine AA tank let loose a flurry of missiles, streaking through the air and blasting several Banshees to pieces. The Warthog swerved to avoid a particularly large piece and kept going.

"Here they come!"

Far ahead of them, the distinctive shapes of the Covenant's feared Wraith tanks drifted through the smoke. All around them the Scorpions opened fire with a roar, the first volley of shells impacting as the enemy vehicles opened fire. Huge globules of superheated plasma struck around them, occasionally claiming a vehicle and reducing it to a burning hulk of twisted metal in a second. Venter winced as one hit a Mongoose just ahead of them, incinerating two Marines instantly. Venter's gunner began to fire, a hail of bullets shredding an incoming Ghost.

"Lieutenant!" the gunner called. "We've got more tanks incoming, should we break off?"

While their numbers had been thinned out slightly by the plasma fire, to retreat now would give the Covenant forces time to advance. They couldn't let that happen. Venter hefted a grenade launcher fired on an incoming Revenant to their right. The grenade's detonation flipped the vehicle over and it burst into flames.

"Keep firing, Corporal! We're pressing ahead!"

The gunner kept firing. Venter wondered how many members of his platoon had died already in this assault. They had spread themselves out among the tanks and 'hogs leading the assault, though since they had begun their attack radio communication had been sparse. Reloading his launcher, the Lieutenant remained steady as Suarez swerved round the burnt-out husk of a Wraith and what appeared to be Covenant fortifications came into view. They had wasted no time in digging trenches and setting up guard towers around their camp since they landed. The sight of not one, but four Covenant CCS-Class battlecruisers looming over the valley ahead worried him. His COM crackled to life.

"Lieutenant Venter, this is Admiral Whitcomb. Do you copy?"

He switched on his helmet-mounted communicator. "I'm here, Admiral. Approaching the Covenant encampment now."

"Good. We've got you on satellite now. How bad are things looking ahead?"

He hesitated before answering. They were going at full speed now, barely avoiding a torrent of plasma fire and trying to stay behind the Scorpions as they pushed through enemy defences. "There will he heavy casualties, sir."

"Copy that. I'm diverting some assets to your position now, Lieutenant. It's all I can do at the moment. Good luck."

The COM went silent. They kept going for a few more seconds, their speed and maneuverability keeping them alive for the time being. As they approached the fortifications, a loud roar from overhead caught Venter's attention. He looked up to see the cloudy sky above parting as a massive bulk descended towards the battlefield. For a moment he thought another Covenant ship had arrived, but as it lowered he recognised what it was.

"To all UNSC forces below," a voice spoke over the COM. "This is Captain Brian Jennings of the UNSC Falling Star, on station to assist We'll take care of those Cruisers."

Venter could only stare in awe as the ship - large even for a UNSC vessel - charged and fired its MAC gun with a deafening blast that echoed across the valley. The round struck the nearest Cruser in the hull, gutting the vessel and sending it plummeting into a nearby mountain with an almighty crash. The other three Cruisers immediately began to move, though in their current formation it would take time for them to open fire on the UNSC carrier. Seraph fighters poured from the vessel like locusts, swarming towards the valley and their prey. They were soon met by Longswords and Skyhawk fighters in a battle for aerial superiority.

"Damn," Suarez whistled from the driver's seat. "Could do with some more ships like that."

The Lieutenant nodded as they turned back towards the enemy camp. Vessels like the Falling Star were incredibly rare, though their appearance would often mark a change in fortunes for allied forces. This had certainly raised the morale of the troops on the ground, as a fresh wave of Warthogs darted forward, gunning down enemy infantry as they smashed through the first defensive line. Venter expended his last grenade on a Jackal-filled guard tower before discarding the weapon and going for his BR55 rifle.

"Hunters!"

As he looked up after grabbing his rifle, the fearsome bulk of a pair of Hunters lumbered into view. Protected from most small-arms fire by their massive shields, the creatures opened fire with their assault cannons. A stream of green incendiary gel streaked towards their Warthog, and in spite of Suarez's best efforts it struck their vehicle head on. The sheer force of the blast melted the front of the jeep and sent all three of them flying out. For a moment, everything went black.

Venter sat up with a gasp. He'd landed in a crater, likely caused by one of the Shortsword's bombing runs. Though heavily bruised from the impact, nothing seemed broken. His rifle was gone, leaving him with just his handgun for protection. The battlefield around him seemed eerily quiet as his ears rang, save for the muffled sounds of explosions and gunfire. He sat there for a few moments, letting the ringing fade.

"Sir?!"

The Corporal who'd been operating the gun on Venter's 'hog appeared on the edge of the crater, clasping his rifle and sporting a nasty gash on the side of his head. Venter began to pick himself up. The young man held his arm out to help him out, and spoke as he took it.

"Lieutenant, we've gotta regroup with the others. Just sighted a shitload of Spirits heading our -"

The man was suddenly struck in the back several times, gasping in pain in surprise before he pitched forward, knocking Venter back into the crater. As the Lieutenant tried to heave the corpse off of him, a figure loomed over him, clasping a plasma rifle. Clad in shining blue armour and standing at nearly eight feet tall, the Elite let out what could only have been a laugh at Venter's predicament. As he scrambled for his pistol, the alien raised its rifle.

"No you don't!"

The alien was suddenly knocked sideways as a figure cannoned into it, taking the Elite by surprise and sending it toppling to the floor. The plasma rifle fell to the dirt. Venter grabbed it and leapt to his feet just in time to see Sergeant Suarez grappling with the creature, which continued to struggle even with a knife sprouting from its neck. He fired the weapon twice. reducing the Sangheili's head to a bloody mess. It immediately went limp.

"Thanks for the save," Suarez remarked as she retrieved her knife and wiped it clean of purple blood.

"Hey, I should be thanking you. That bastard had me dead to rights. Got the Corporal, though."

Suarez turned to see the other man's body, shredded to pieces by plasma fire.

"You catch his name?"

"No, you?"

"No. Damn shame. Poor kid."

Venter sighed. It was just another casualty in a war that had already claimed billions. With this many dead it was better not to get too attached. Suarez checked over the corpse for spare ammo and closed his eyes, but that was the best he'd get. They didn't have time to waste with a battle going on around them.

"Got any word from the rest of the platoon?" he asked. "Think my COM's jammed."

"Mine too. I think Anderson and some of the others were heading west to take out the jammers, but that was the last signal I got."

"No sense wasting time here, then." Venter raised his newly-acquired plasma rifle. "Let's move."

The pair clambered out of the crater. What had once been lush green fields was now a bloody battlefield, littered with corpses and the remains of various vehicles. Nearby, a crashed Skyhawk fighter had torn a trail straight through Covenant fortifications, giving them a way through the enemy's hastily-erected wall. Venter went to check on the pilot, who was unsurprisingly, dead. Worse still, it had begun to rain.

"See that," Suarez pointed towards a structure to the west. "Looks like a Grunt house. Want to hit it?"

'Grunt House' was a term used to describe the chambers where the methane-breathing Grunts went to refill their breather packs and move around without heavy apparatus. They were also highly flammable and in Venter's personal experience, made a lovely explosion. Destroying them would also certainly impede an enemy invasion, as without places to recharge the Covenant's most numerous infantry wouldn't last long on a world like this.

"Yeah, good idea. Don't want to give them too much time to set up."

After nearly ten minutes of slow advance, ducking between burnt-out structures and checking for enemy forces in the pouring rain, a salvo of plasma from above caught their eye. With poor visibility conditions they hadn't been able to check on the Falling Star's status, though Venter hadn't heard the distinctive sound of a MAC gun firing since it took out the first Cruiser. He and Suarez span round as the sound of an engine approached them. A large, four-treaded tank rolled towards them, surrounded by a group of tired-looking Marines and Army troopers. One of them waved the pair over as it ground to a halt.

"I'm Gunnery Sergeant Baker of the 17th. Glad to see more survivors out here."

"First Lieutenant Redmond Venter, NAVSPECWAR. This is Senior Master Sergeant Ellison Suarez of the same. Where's your commanding officer, Sergeant?"

The man saluted Venter before speaking again. "No idea, sir. Those jammers have made the COM a mess, and with this rain it's hard to make anything out. We did get a transmission from Major Spencer not long ago, but I haven't heard anything from her since."

Venter nodded. "Until then, I guess we'll just have to do what we can down here. You see that Grunt House?"

He pointed towards the purple-tinted structure on the horizon. Baker nodded. "You taking it out?"

"Yes we are. Perhaps your tank here can give us a hand."

Baker grinned. "I think so. Hop on, Lieutenant."

He and Suarez quickly climbed onto the side of the tank, which began to slowly roll forwards. Looking over the two 120mm cannons and the mounted machine gun, Venter realised that this wasn't just your average Scorpion tank.

"Hey Sergeant," he tapped Suarez on the shoulder. "When was the last time you saw a Grizzly?"

"It's been a while. Harvest, probably. These things ain't cheap."

Venter nodded. Harvest? He knew Suarez was older than him, but he'd been a kid during the Battle of Harvest. He wondered, not for the first time, why he was the officer and she wasn't, considering her impressive battle record. Still, Grizzly tanks were a rarity on the battlefield these days, and a welcome one at that. The moment they were in range, he and the others climbed off the tank and stood by as it fired on the Grunt House. The high-velocity cannon tore right through the structure, setting off a massive reaction that sent it sky-high. For a moment Venter thought he could hear screaming, but that was quickly snuffed out by the time the second shell hit.

"Hah, look at that fucker go!" the Gunnery Sergeant whooped. "Let's find some more."

Nobody disagreed. With visibility still low across the battlefield and comms down, their group of barely a dozen soldiers would just keep going on until either they destroyed the entire enemy encampment or they were dead. As the tank trundled further into the corpse-strewn valley, an almighty explosion echoed overhead.

"What the hell was that?!" a trooper exclaimed. Venter remained silent, trying to get a good view through the downpour.

"Lieutenant," Suarez whispered to him. "That was a plasma strike."

Realisation quickly dawned on him. The Falling Star may have been a powerful vessel, but taking on three battlecruisers at once was a feat few UNSC ships could manage. A huge hulk of burning metal came into view high above them, roaring as explosions blossomed through the ship. The entire group watched in horror as the Falling Star, true to its namesake, crashed straight into a battlecruiser and onto the Covenant encampment below. Missiles meant for ship-to-ship combat had poured out as it descended, turning the land below into a blazing inferno. Venter felt the shockwave from the vessel's impact.

The rain stopped.

Dripping wet and clasping a stolen plasma rifle, Venter and the others could finally look out over the battlefield. They had been lucky. The eastern side of the valley was a mess of broken ship parts and twisted scraps of metal where another battlecruiser had crashed into it, killing untold numbers of infantry. The Covenant's landing zone, their target, was no more. The impact subsequent explosion of the Falling Star had incinerated the area, and the final enemy ship's crash had dealt with any survivors there. Baker walked up to Venter, his voice solemn.

"Sir, do you have any orders?"

Orders. It had been simpler a minute ago when they had no idea what was going on and all they had to do was kill the enemy. Now though...

"We've got to press forward. Clear out pockets of enemy resistance and wait for extraction."

The words sounded hollow, like he was reading from a manual. The Sergeant nodded and waved for the Grizzly to advance further into the valley. Venter had no doubts that there were at least a few hundred Covenant soldiers remaining, even after the repeated bombings and the loss of four battlecruisers to a single Human ship. As they advanced, it became clear that the survivors were attempting to flee. Several Phantom dropships soared overhead, ignoring the Human forces below as they descended to rescue their comrades below. As one lifted off, it was hit with a volley of missiles and sent spiralling to the ground, where it exploded.

"Didn't think there were any Vultures left," Suarez remarked as the heavy gunship above them opened fire on a group of fleeing Grunts. "I suppose they dragged a few out just for us."

"Probably."

On a nearby hillside, a large structure blossomed with explosions and toppled over. Immediately the COM channels were flooded with dozens of voices as the final jammer went down. Venter switched to his platoon's private channel and knelt by the remains of a Warthog before speaking.

"Echo Platoon, this is First Lieutenant Venter. Does anyone copy?"

He waited a few seconds before repeating the message. Eventually another voice crackled through.

"Lieutenant? We've been trying to contact you for nearly half an hour now!" It was Anderson, one of their fellow SPECWAR troopers. "There's only four of us left up here. Got pinned by Jackal snipers for a while until a Falcon took them down. Have you seen anyone else?"

"Negative. I think we're all that's left. Suarez and I are with a Grizzly tank down in the valley. Hold your position while I call for evac. over."

"Copy that, sir. Good to see you're still in once piece. Anderson out."

Venter closed the COM channel and opened a new one. "This is Lieutenant Venter to Armoury Omega. Admiral, are you there?"

There was a brief delay before a familiar drawl filtered through the channel. "Whitcomb here. Lieutenant, what's the situation down there? Between the weather and satellite interference we've been cut off."

"The Covenant landing zone has been destroyed, sir. All four cruisers, too. We're dealing with the remainder now."

"Well done, Lieutenant. Each day keep those alien sons of bitches off Reach is another victory for the UNSC." Whitcomb paused for a moment. "What of our losses?"

Looking around at the absolute devastation that had been brought about in less than two hours, Venter couldn't even begin to estimate the cost. "Substantial."

"I see. Once you're finished up there return to Armoury Omega with your platoon and we can discuss what to do next. Whitcomb out."

Venter didn't have enough men left for a platoon. If Anderson's team were the only survivors then that brought them down to six. He tossed aside the plasma rifle and picked up a discarded MA5B that had been dropped beneath the Warthog. The ammo counter was still full, meaning the owner hadn't had the chance to fire it. After joining Suarez and the other soldiers by the Grizzly, they began the process of picking through the battlefield. Enemy soldiers were to be shot on sight, wounded or not, while any UNSC personnel were to be airlifted out if possible. Through the smoke and haze of the field he could just about make out a group of Pelican dropships coming in for casevac.

"They're gonna need more dropships," he said. Suarez nodded, looking out over the corpse-strewn field. He doubted that they had enough body bags aboard for a single trip. A few Warthogs rolled past, laden with injured soldiers and salvaged weaponry. The Vulture prowled above the battlefield like its namesake animal, searching for surviving aliens to hunt down.

"That was only four ships," Suarez spoke up. "Heard that twice that amount are trying to land in New Alexandria."

"Well, we'll just have to hope they fight them off there."

A burst of plasma fire from the north snapped them back to attention. They might have won a victory today, but the invasion was far from over. Venter and Suarez kept moving, tired but willing to keep up the fight.

Arrival

Cycle 236, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Location: Viery Territory, Reach, Human Colony World

From their position on the cliffside, Felo 'Ranakee's team watched the Human settlement burn.

"It was too easy," Sur complained, cleaning some of the dark blood from his crimson armour with a piece of cloth. "The Humans send poorly-armed whelps to fight while the rest flee."

There was a general murmur of assent among the assembled Sangheili. During the raid they had lost a single brother; gunned down from behind by a group of Humans hidden within one of their dwellings. They had torched the place with plasma grenades and stood guard outside. None escaped the flames. While their armies rampaged across the surface of this Human colony - Reach, they called it - the Special Operations division led their own campaign of destruction. Supply depots, military outposts and nearly a dozen small towns had fallen before their group so far.

"Brothers," Felo 'Ranak spoke up. The group went silent, turning to listen to their commander. "Let us commemorate the life of Tuar 'Ilamee, slain before his time."

"For Tuar!" the assembled Sangheili chanted, some raising weapons, others raising cups. Even a few of the nearby Unggoy joined in unwarranted, though Felo did not mind enough to discipline them. Instead, he turned his attention towards the silent Sangheili sitting across from their camp.

"You do not join us, Major."

"No, Commander."

"Why is that? Are we not all brothers here?"

Thel 'Lodamee stood up and walked towards Felo's group. A few of his warriors eyed him cautiously.

"I meant no offence, Commander. I did not know your fallen brother, though he was surely a respected warrior."

Felo nodded. The Major had made his point. Their group had encountered him as they assaulted the Human town, accompanied by a force of formidable T'vaoans and Kig-Yar. Together they crushed all resistance in what soon became a bloody slaughter. He had not heard of anyone besides his SpecOps group moving in this area, but did not question the arrival of reinforcements for their group. Beside him, Sur spoke up.

"I witnessed your skill with a blade today, Major 'Lodamee. A capable warrior such as yourself should sit with us, even if you are not part of our unit."

For Sur of all people to compliment a fellow warrior's swordsmanship was a rare honour. Felo silently wondered if he had truly meant it as praise, or if his younger brother was mocking Thel for bothering to use his blade in the slaughter of what he may have seen as unworthy foes. Nonetheless, the Major took up Sur's offer and joined the others.

"Commander," a voice buzzed through Felo's earpiece.

"What is it, Rol?" he spoke softly, raising two fingers to his helmet.

"Four friendly dropships on approach."

"Identification?"

"It's Field Master 'Vadamee, Commander. You may wish to greet him."

He sighed and got to his feet. The Field Master's approach was an unexpected one; Felo thought that 'Vadamee was busy committing his troops to the far south of their location while they destroyed Human settlements and outposts in the region. He gestured for Rol and Major 'Lodamee to accompany him as he strode across their campsite.

"Is there a problem, Commander?" the Major asked.

"Field Master 'Vadamee is on his way."

The others followed Felo as the Phantom dropships came into view over the nearby hills. The soldiers stationed around their encampment looked up as they descended, activating gravity lifts to lower troops to the floor. A contingent of six sword-wielding Sangheili gathered round the base of one as a warrior clad in golden armour descended, closely followed by an unfamiliar figure in an ornate maroon gear. Felo and his companions knelt as they approached.

"Rise, Commander," Stel 'Vadamee spoke in a slightly reassuring tone. "You have done excellent work out here."

"You honour me, Field Master," Felo replied as he rose to meet Stel's gaze.

"I did not just come here to deliver congratulations, Commander. I also bring grave tidings: The Triumphant Faith has been destroyed."

Felo nodded solemnly. Even with the massive fleet they brought with them to this planet, the Humans were fighting hard to defend it. Casualties were expected. He would pay his respects to Shipmaster Marakee and the battlecruiser's crew later.

"Also," Stel continued. "We lost the Forlorn Hope, Beloved Faith and Perfect Salutation in the same battle. The Legion I was to lead against the Humans has been all but wiped out by the Humans."

"I am sorry to hear that, Field Master. What would you have us do?"

His superior evidently did not want to dwell on the subject either. Stel waved for his companion to approach. The other Sangheili held out a small, unfamiliar device to Felo, which he took.

"I am Cotoal 'Turlikee, a Zealot of the Ministry of Fervent Intercession. I was dispatched to assist the N'Marz Legion in their efforts to conquer this planet. I'm afraid that with the decimation of your Legion in the recent battle, the task I have planned falls to you."

Felo tapped the device. A holographic recording lit up above it, evidently captured from a helmet recorder. It displayed what appeared to be a Human city, with Covenant infantry advancing through the streets in pursuit of the vermin that infested this planet. Unggoy marched in formation, closely followed by Sangheili officers as several Kig-Yar darted ahead. As they rounded a corner, the group came under fire from a group of Human soldiers from an elevated position. One of the Unggoy loosed a fuel rod blast towards the balcony, sending two of them plummeting to the floor.

"Now, watch what happens next," the Zealot muttered.

As plasma fire filled the air, the infantry were suddenly struck from several sides; Unggoy leapt for cover or were cut down while the Sangheili darted back, shields flaring. A few Kig-Yar had the time to raise their shields as well-placed rounds dropped their comrades. The viewer, however, seemed less lucky. Taking several shots to the chest, his shields dissipated long enough for a sniper round to pierce his armour. Though the Sangheili slumped backwards, his helmet camera remained active long enough to witness several figures approach the depleted Lance, expertly taking down the surviving troops before one engaged the Sangheili officer in single combat. Felo couldn't help but watch in horrified fascination as the armoured Human dodged a wild swing and broke the warrior's arm before finishing him off with a pistol shot to the head. The footage then froze as the figure came into view.

"There!" 'Turlikee hissed, jabbing a finger towards the hologram. "Do you know what that is?"

"A Demon."

"Yes, a Demon." Felo could hear the venom in his voice. "These creatures have been sighted defending Human cities across the planet, Commander. They must be stopped."

Realisation began to dawn on Felo. Behind him, he was sure that Sur was brimming with happiness at the thought of fighting opponents like this. He folded his arms, and looked to Stel.

"My troops are yours to command. Set us upon these Demons, and we will not fail. This, I promise you."

Stel nodded. His Zealot companion switched off the holorecorder and took it back from Felo before speaking. "There is a Human city where they were last sighted. Go there and begin your hunt."

Felo saluted and turned to Sur. "Inform our brothers. I want everyone ready within the hour."

"Of course." Sur ran off towards the camp.

The Field Master then addressed Thel, who had remained silent so far. "Major, you do not bear the armour of your fellows. What is your purpose here?"

"Destroying Human settlements, Field Master. We encountered the Commander's forces today as we razed the village below. If it is permitted, I would like to accompany him in his mission against the Demons."

Stel seemed to consider it for a moment. "No, Major. I have need of your forces elsewhere. One of our Legions further north is having difficulty in chasing down a Human force in the mountains. I need a capable field leader like you assisting in the pursuit."

For a moment, Thel 'Lodamee seemed to be on the verge of defying his orders. If Stel noticed it, he did not react. "By your command, Field Master."

With orders settled, Field Master 'Vadamee glanced around the makeshift camp. "This will make for a good landing site." he turned to one of his bodyguards. "Contact the fleet. I want a Legion here by the end of this planet's next cycle. Four ships are not a huge loss by any means. The invasion continues regardless."

Redoubt

1713 Hours, August 22, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Highland Mountains Titanium Mine, Viery Territory, Reach


Lee jolted into consciousness. He must have fallen asleep at some point on their lengthy journey into the mountains, sitting in the back of the civilian truck. It had become clear after half an hour or so that the Covenant had broken off their pursuit and were not tracking the rebels too far from their encampment. There were twenty-eight of them left, twenty-nine counting the the ONI agent. Lieutenant Agata hadn't said a word since the rebels had picked them up back in the forest.

"Sarge," Corporal Sikowsky whispered from the next seat. "Good to see you awake. I think we're nearly there."

"Shouldn't have let me sleep, Sikowksy. Where's 'there', anyway?"

"The rebel base, I'm guessing. We passed through a guard post five minutes ago. Sorry for not waking you earlier Sergeant, but you looked like you needed the rest."

Lee didn't reply. Their truck convoy had been joined by a few civilian vehicles on the way, and was currently trundling down a narrow mountain path. Cliff faces loomed overhead, casting shadows across the rocky valley. Eventually they turned a corner into a wide open area at the base of the Highland Mountains. A wide entrance stretched out like a gaping mouth into the mountainside, blockaded with large shipping crates and instacrete walls. Two watchtowers sat outside, with a number of armed combatants standing by as they approached. The trucks ground to a halt and their driver exited, waving to the sentries.

"Bernard!" a tall man in a tan jumpsuit approached, lowering his rifle. "Is this everyone?"

"Only those we could save, Ulan. Is Bohater back yet?"

"He arrive an hour ago. Heard you saved a bunch of oonskies out there."

Bernard chuckled, glancing back towards the Army Troopers in his trucks. "Something like that. Any longer and the Covvies would have finished them off."

"I would've left them."

"Bohater's orders, my friend. We're gonna need help in the battle to come."

Ulan nodded, before waving back to his men on the walls. The outer gate clattered open. "Head on through. I'll catch up to you later."

"Got it."

From the sounds of their conversation, the decision to save Lee and his men hadn't been liked by everyone here. Still, he hoped that their mutual hatred of the Covenant would keep them from killing each other for now. Bernard clambered back into the driver's seat and the convoy moved forward, passing through the outer gates and into the vast cavern where the rebels had made their home. The vehicles parked one by one by one of the walls, and the Army Troopers were told to stay put while they waited for Bohater. Eventually he arrived, accompanied by a contingent of armed guards.

"Sergeant Major!" he called, stepping forward and indicating for Three Hotel to exit the trucks. "I hope the ride up here wasn't too bad, mountain roads and all."

"It was fine," he responded curtly, unwilling to mention that he'd been asleep for most of it.

"So, this is our home. What do you think?"

Lee glanced around the cavern. Most of it was almost certainly man-made; probably an old forgotten titanium mine from the early days of Reach's colonisation. It was certainly impressive that a group of Insurrectionists had been able to construct a settlement here at all, especially with the number of highly secure military bases that dotted these mountains. They might have gone on undetected by the UNSC for years. The Covenant, however, were a very different story.

"It looks defensible," he conceded, "How many fighters do you have here?"

Bohater met his gaze and crossed his arms. The man was certainly charismatic, and a good leader from what Lee had seen, but the venerable Army trooper had stared down worse from him. He broke. "Just over four hundred, with a few hundred non-combatants deeper in the caverns."

"Right. How many of them are properly trained? I'm talking about ex-military, not farmers and gun enthusiasts."

It took a moment for the rebel leader to do the calculations. "Around fifty, give or take."

I knew it. There was only one reason why a bunch of Innies would save UNSC troops in Lee's mind, and that was because they needed help. Even in their heavily depleted state the Army Troopers' training and equipment would certainly give them an advantage in the battle to come.

"So, you think that the Covenant are coming here?"

"I know they are. This morning my sentries took a Covenant scouting party that wandered into the valley. Couple of hours later another group shows up. After we killed them, your platoon pinged on our radar, heading right for their encampment. They were gearing up to assault this base when you arrived."

"How long do we have?"

"A few hours, tops. By the time my Pelican arrived a few banshees had already flown by. They probably tracked me back here, too. We haven't got long."

The Sergeant Major nodded. Whatever Bohater had done against the UNSC in the past, it could wait. Their current goal was to simply survive the Covenant onslaught. He turned to face his comrades.

"Wait here. Whatever you do, don't switch to the long-range COM. Chances are we're already being jammed or monitored. Short-range only. Check your weapons and gear, too. We're making a stand here today."

Bohater motioned for Lee to follow as the remnants of Three Hotel responded with affirmatives. The two walked for some time, exiting the cavern and entering what was almost certainly the mine. The muted roar of a waterfall could be heard in the distance. While Lee got a few nasty glares from passing fighters, none commented on his appearance there. If anything, some looked glad that they had reinforcements, even if it was from their hated enemy. Eventually they turned into a side tunnel, which lead to a wide cavern lined with tables and chairs. A large holotank dominated the room, with a flickering image of a Covenant cruiser slowly rotating above it.

"This is our command room, for lack of a better word."

"I'm surprised you've got enough power."

"Most of it came from local hydroelectric plants. The locals would siphon off just enough towards us that it wouldn't be noticed. We've got a few reactors down here as well, but most of that goes towards lighting."

A number of people were already waiting in the meeting room as Bohater and Lee approached the table. He recognised the truck driver, Bernard, and Ulan the sentry. Many of the men and women here had the look of hardened fighters about them; they were probably Bohater's inner circle of trained soldiers. The rebel leader took a seat at the main meeting table, and gestured for the Sergeant Major to sit down as well. He did so, placing his SAW down gently as a few eyed it with suspicion.

"Where's Clarke?" Bohater asked as the assembled rebels took their seats.

"Fetching the prisoners," said Ulan. "Thought they might be useful up here."

"They're not prisoners, Ulan. If they're Human, then they're an ally."

The other man did not respond. Bohater turned slightly as a brown-haired man entered, escorting two people in military uniforms at gunpoint. The first was a man in distinctive UNSC Marine attire, while the other was a woman; The silver bar of a Lieutenant stood out on her grey Navy uniform. Their escort, presumably Clarke, marched them towards the table before stopping.

"Lower your weapon," Bohater said with a frown. "I doubt our guests would try and escape."

Clarke did so. The two prisoners looked at each other for a moment, but remained silent. They seemed mostly unhurt, though the Marine had walked in with a noticeable limp. Bohater turned to speak to them.

"My apologies for your conditions over the last few days, but things have been busy. Covenant invasion and all that."

"How long have they been here?" Lee asked. The prisoners certainly seemed surprised at his appearance.

"Three days. Ulan's patrol found them after an escape pod crashed in some farmlands to the west. Since then they haven't said a word."

"Have you been torturing them?"

"No, but I can understand why they'd be unwilling to work with us. I hoped that your presence here would encourage them, Sergeant Major."

Lee nodded, and stood up. He hoped that they wouldn't see him as a defector of some kind, and cleared his throat before addressing them.

"I'm Sergeant Major Lee, Three Hotel, UNSC Army SPECWARCOM. Look, I know the procedures for being captured in enemy territory, and that's exactly what this place is. That said, we've got a Covenant army bearing down on us and need whatever help we can get. You mind identifying so we can get on with working out how to stay alive here?"

For a moment, he thought the prisoners were going to remain silent. Then the Marine sighed and gave a sharp salute.

"Sergeant Grigore Vasilescu, Charlie Company of the 214th. Good to see a friendly face, sir."

Lee was tempted to make the usual NCO's remark about working for a living, but thought better of it considering the officer standing right in front of him.

"Lieutenant Kathrin Grunwald, formerly of the UNSC Resurgance. What's an Army unit doing here?"

"It's a long story, ma'am. Right now we're meeting up to discuss the defence of this base."

Bohater cleared his throat from behind him. "If you don't mind, Sergeant Major, I'd like to discuss our defensive strategy. We've got a fairly good munitions supply, and want your unit alongside my men on the walls when the attack begins. They're going to use their numbers to storm the outer defences and massacre everyone in the caves."

"How far back can we go?" Lee had a feeling that he'd barely seen a glimpse of the labyrinthine tunnels that riddled these mountains. "Is escape a possibility?"

"Yes. There are still some tunnels that we haven't explored, but we believe that these mines had a secondary entrance on the other side of the mountains. I'm hoping that we can evacuate the civilians towards there within the hour while we hold off the Covenant."

It was a surprisingly noble goal for someone the UNSC considered a dangerous terrorist. Bohater seemed genuinely sincere about this. The Sergeant Major nodded. While their odds of survival against the Covenant onslaught seemed rather unlikely, it was all they could do to survive right now. If not, then there were worse ways to die, he supposed.

"Right then," Lee stood up, taking hold of his SAW. "Let's get started."

***

For a force of farmers and armed civilians, Bohater's troops certainly knew how to organise a quick defence. Those unable to fight had been already sent off through the unexplored titanium mines towards the supposed exit across the mountains. The hastily-built walls that lined the entrance to the cavern base had been reinforced with instacrete, with barbed wire and LOTUS anti-tank mines spread out across the now-abandoned mountain road. Only a few scouts remained outside, keeping a lookout for Covenant forces.

"Sergeant Major," a voice crackled through a nearby radio. "Just spotted a column of enemy infantry heading up the mountain. Phantoms are already deploying more troops in the surrounding valleys."

Lee sighed. "Copy that. Pull back to the base before they outflank you. Over and out."

From his position atop the rebel base's outer wall, Lee had a good view of the area directly in front of the base. Pieces of metal had been welded into place to give them some cover, with small slots to fire back from if the enemy tried to advance directly into the valley. Sikowsky and several of his troopers were nearby, checking their weapons in grim silence while Bohater's men delivered ammunition machine gun positions that dotted the cavern. Judging by how old some of the equipment looked, the rebels had been stockpiling weapons right under the UNSC's nose for decades.

"How long d'you think we'll last?" Sikowsky asked as he stood up, loading his DMR. The Corporal looked tired, though there was a determined gleam in his eyes. "Because I don't think we can beat an army, sarge."

He was right. The front gate had been sealed with instacrete less than an hour ago, and Bohater's man Ulan had been working with some of Lee's troopers to set up demolition charges at strategic points within the titanium mine to cover their escape.

"We'll hold out as long as we can, Corporal. It shouldn't take too long for the civvies to get through. Then we'll fall back and detonate the base."

"Easy as that, huh? What's to say that the innies won't shoot us in the back as soon as they're clear?"

The Sergeant Major looked round at the scattered men and women across the wall, clutching outdated rifles and awaiting the Covenant onslaught. Most of them hadn't been conscripted; they had chosen to stand here and fight when they could've fled into the mines with their families. Bohater had saved them from certain death before, though it was Lee's soldiers and their combat expertise that would be a real help tonight. Lee checked his watch: 1843 hours. Clouds were starting to gather in the darkening sky, though he wasn't sure if that was due to the weather or Covenant ships interfering.

Then the rain started.

"Shit," he grumbled, grabbing his helmet from nearby and crouching behind the ramparts. In the distance, the fading light glinted off shining suits of powered armour and hovering vehicles as they made their way into the valley. Thunder boomed overhead as shouts went up from along the wall and the Human defenders took up their positions. At this range they wouldn't do much against their far-off foe, though even Lee had to resist the urge to open fire as a horde of Covenant infantry assembled unopposed across the valley. After a few seconds of silence, Bohater's voice burst through the COM.

"FIRE!"

From positions across the mountainside, missiles streaked out towards the massed Covenant infantry, sending dirt and body parts up in tremendous explosions and reducing two tanks to burning wrecks. The response was a hail of plasma fire that lit up the darkened valley, hitting the rebels' hidden positions above and impacting the wall Lee's forces were stationed on. One fighter was struck in the chest with a globule of plasma, and fell shrieking from the instacrete wall. The rest ducked down into cover.

"Bohater!" Lee yelled into his communicator. "They're advancing, what's our air support like?"

"One Pelican," came the quick response. "They're blasting the entire mountainside to hit my missile teams. Won't be enough to collapse the mines, but I'd advise falling back to the second line if they reach you."

"Got it. Lee out."

The Sergeant Major peeked through one of the holes in the ramparts to see dozens of Jackals moving towards them in a phalanx, energy shields raised. A few grenades routed their initial charge and scattered the others, though the larger, tougher Skirmishers darted ahead through the gunfire to scale the walls. One managed to scramble up nearby, only to be put down with a burst of fire from Sikowsky. Lee's SAW buzzed as it cut down a swathe of Grunts moving up on one side, though by the time he dropped to one knee to reload dozens more had taken their place. The area outside the cave was a hazy mist of black smoke and scattered bodies, courtesy of their LOTUS mines. The Covenant kept coming.

***

Across the valley, Major Thel 'Lodamee stood with his hands clasped behind his back, watching their assault slowly progress and ignoring the pouring rain around him. The mountainside was littered with the smoking ruins of Human mortar pits and machine gun nests. Many had died as they approached the walls, though they were easily-replaced. The Battlecruiser Demon's Field had descended to this planet with thousands of veteran soldiers, all eager to slaughter the Human vermin that populated this miserable world.

"Major?"

He turned to see the gold-armoured figure of General Yarin 'Otolee approaching, flanked by two bodyguards. Judging by the stains on his ornate combat harness, he had recently finished interrogating a Human prisoner. Thel bowed low as the General stood beside him, looking triumphantly towards the bloody battlefield ahead.

"It won't be long now," he spoke in a booming voice. "After some 'persuasion', our prisoner informed me that their numbers are few in comparison to ours, and those not fighting have fled into the tunnels."

"Strange to think how far this cave spreads."

"It was a mine of some kind, apparently. I doubt they will escape though. I have already dispatched a group to track them down and slaughter everyone."

"Do tell, General," 'Lodamee turned, genuinely interested.

"Our Yanme'e compatriots are swift and fearless. Already a sizeable number of them have been deployed, searching for ways into the mountain hole the Humans have set up in. Once they have destroyed those fleeing, they will attack from the rear. That is when our stongest warriors shall strike, crushing the Humans in one swift blow."

A chorus of cheers rose from the assembled Sangheili around them. General 'Otolee was a renowned strategist within the Fleet of Particular Justice, and had won many victories against the Humans with his tactical genius. A loud explosion from the direction of the cavern entrance got their attention; 'Lodamee turned to see Kig-Yar and Unggoy emerging from the cavern burning like candles as a mighty fire roared inside. Even for a hardened warrior of many years, the screams disturbed him somewhat.

"Scum," the General spat, folding his arms. "Send in our armoured division. Tell them to ram their walls if they have to, just destroy it. Our warriors shall cross the flames in a bridge of their own vehicles if it gets them through the Human defences."

As one of 'Otolee's aides ran off to transmit the orders, another approached and spoke briefly with him. The burly Sangheili sighed, and motioned for Thel to approach.

"Major, I have a task for you."

"Of course, General. What is it?"

"It would appear that the Officer in charge of leading the frontal assault has perished. Since Field Master 'Vadamee sent you to join me himself, I'd imagine that you are more than capable of being in the vanguard of our next assault."

Thel nodded. He had grown tired of standing around the General's command tent, listening to boasts of victory and slaughter. He thirsted for battle, and if he couldn't engage the Demons elsewhere on this planet, then he would satisfy himself by killing every living Human he came across. As he strode forward, a number of his fellow Sangheili stood up to follow him. With a number of Wraiths and Revenants already streaking across the blasted valley towards the cave, his sword would taste blood soon enough.

***

Jonathan Ulan knew he was probably going to die tonight. He didn't want to die, but death was just an eventuality for one who chose to live the life of a rebel fighting the UNSC in the midst of this bloody war. When the Covenant arrived, he'd been stationed on the far side of the main wall, manning a machine gun post. As a fresh surge of enemy infantry had threatened to overwhelm the defenders, he'd dropped half a dozen barrels of Napalm on the little bastards.

"Did we get 'em?" asked one of his fighters, crouching to reload an MA2B rifle. The screaming had died down, giving the defenders a brief respite to reload and carry away wounded before the Covenant made another assault. Ulan finished loading more ammunition into the machine gun turret.

"Hah! Those were just the small fries. They're probably just regrouping before they send in the big guns."

"Oh shit," his companion muttered, trying to peer through the smoke. "Look, we're gonna get to fall back soon, right? My family's back in those tunnels and if we don't-"

The man's sentence was cut off as a massive ball of energy impacted the lower wall several feet away, knocking both him and Ulan down. As the smoke cleared more than a dozen Revenants soared across the rain-soaked, corpse-strewn valley and into the cave, unleashing a volley of plasma that blasted entire sections of the wall apart. Rather than sit in the still-burning cave mouth and continue their barrage, however, the enemy vehicles continued, smashing into the instacrete wall while under heavy fire. While the drivers were soon gunned down by the remaining defenders, a bestial roar soon made their foe's true plan clear.

"Elites!"

Using the row of crashed Revenants and Ghosts as cover, nearly two dozen alien warriors charged the defence, leaping over burnt-out vehicles and charred corpses with swords in hand. Ulan opened fire immediately, his machine gun toppling several foes before more clambered up onto his section of wall. Grunting with effort, he wrenched the massive weapon from its tripod and began to fire on the approaching enemies, ripping several of the blue-armoured warriors to shreds as they approached.

"Come on then!" he roared, laughing as enemy after enemy fell. His comrades fell in beside him, setting up a field of fire that tore the aliens apart. Across the wall, he spotted the Army troopers beginning to fall back; their leader moved with incredible speed to slash an Elite across the throat with his combat knife before grabbing his weapon and mowing down two more before leaping off the wall to join his fellows in the retreat.

"Ulan!" Lee called as he ran. "We're moving back to the next line, come on!"

Yeah, I hear ya, you oonskie bastard. Having exhausted his machine gun's ammunition, Ulan drew his pistol and shot another in alien the head as its shields broke under rifle fire. The other Humans on the wall were falling back too; it was that or die. Taking one last look back towards the advancing foes, he caught a glimpse of a number of massive, hulking figures in the distance. Hunters. Ignoring the ladder, Ulan leapt from the wall mere moments before a plasma strike from a far-off Wraith blasted the instacrete apart.

Rolling as he hit the cave floor, Ulan barely had time to turn as a volley of plasma fire scorched the ground around him. A burst of fire dropped one foe, though as he turned to face another his gun clacked and stopped. Shit, jammed. As one Elite ran at him, sword raised, Ulan drew his pistol, depleting its shield long enough for a nearby ally to take the creature down. The outer wall was clearly breached; further defence would be a hopeless endeavour.

"Sir!" one of their fighters called from nearby. "Bohater wants you and Bernard to deliver some explosives to the north tower."

"Did he say why?"

"No sir, but we've got to get out-"

Her sentence was cut off as a well aimed plasma bolt struck her in the chest. Ulan swore under his breath and grabbed his fallen comrade's weapon, slowly retreating towards their secondary wall and letting out a steady stream of gunfire. When the weapon was emptied he tossed it aside, only to see a red-armoured Elite rushing towards him, sword blazing. He unsheathed his own combat knife - a second too slow - and locked eyes with the warrior as it leapt through the air.

"Oh fuck."

Lee watched Ulan's headless corpse drop to the floor. There was nothing he could have done. He'd been forced to abandon his SAW after ammo ran dry, and had grabbed a DMR from a wounded trooper. The second line of defence had been dug in deeper than the first, and at least had protection from those Wraiths outside. With the lights flickering from time to time, visibility was low as the cavern lit up with tracer rounds and flashes of plasma.

"Sergeant Major!"

Reloading, he turned to see a tall man running towards him with a squad of infantry. A heavy bag was slung under each of his arms.

"Where's Ulan?" he asked, peering round at the remaining defenders on this stretch of wall.

"He didn't make it."

"I see." he sighed heavily. "Do any of your men know how to use explosives?"

"Yeah. Sikowsky!"

The Corporal looked up from his position and made his way towards them, keeping low to avoid enemy fire. Bernard tossed one of the bags to him, which he caught.

"What is it?"

"Explosives. A mix, mostly. We're going to collapse part of the mountainside on them."

Sikowksy peered into the bag, and nodded before looking towards Lee. The Sergeant Major motioned for him to follow Bernard, and returned to his post on the walls as the pair ran off. A number of Elites had dashed into cover near the remnants of the outer wall while Grunts and Jackals advanced, deploying energy shields to give their reinforcements cover as they poured through the entrance. The remnants of Three Hotel had really been a boon to the largely untrained rebel defenders, though casualties were starting to take their toll and it looked as if they would be pushed back further. His COM crackled to life as he ducked behind the wall.

"Sergeant Major, this is Lieutenant Agata. Do you copy?"

"I hear you, Lieutenant."

"Covenant fliers just took out our last squad on the mountainside. We've got reports of Drones getting past our defences as well. How are you holding out?"

"We've been pushed back to the second defensive line, but things don't look good. I'll hold here as long as I can. Have you heard anything from Bohater?"

"Negative. He went off with Clarke and Lieutenant Grunwald to get munitions not long ago."

"Copy that." Lee ducked as a plasma grenade sizzled overhead. "I'll keep you posted, Lee out."

Switching his COM off, the Sergeant Major popped above the wall for a second and picked off a group of Jackals before crouching down and moving along a few feet. Further along the wall a group of rebel fighters had set up a heavy-duty machine gun and were mowing down enemy troops as they poured into the caves. Even with the sheer amount firepower hitting them, the Covenant troops seemed undeterred; Grunts crawled over piles of their own dead to use as cover and loosed dozens of plasma bolts on the defenders. With an almighty crash, the remnants of the outer wall burst apart in a hail of rubble and smoke, and a number of huge armoured aliens lumbered in out of the pouring rain.

"Oh shit, Hunters!"

There were six of them in total, advancing together with their near-impenetrable shields raised. A number of the lesser Covenant creatures formed up behind them, using the massive beasts as cover as they advanced towards the secondary wall. Lee used the last of his rifle ammo taking down an Elite before tossing the weapon aside; it wouldn't have done him any good against the Hunters' armour anyway. Shit, we've got to fall back. He couldn't afford to panic in a situation like this, but there was absolutely nothing they could do, having expended the majority of their explosives and heavy weapons against the first wave of Covenant forces. The sound of marching boots from behind made Lee turn, his eyes widening at the sight before him.

"You might want to get back," Sergeant Grigore Vasilescu spoke from within what looked like a battered EVA suit. "Because we're gonna burn these fuckers out."

Behind the Sergeant stood half a dozen others, clad in heavy gear and hefting large NA4 flamethrowers. Lee stood aside to allow them past. From their position atop the walls, they let loose a massive torrent of scorching fire on the enemies below. Methane tanks ignited on dead bodies and sent up a roaring explosion that incinerated an entire line of Covenant troops. Vasilescu's team then utilised grenade launchers mounted atop their weapons to mop up any survivors, reducing a large section of the cave to a shrieking inferno of dying aliens. Those that remained fell back out of range, loosing a few futile shots at the Human defenders.

"I think we got 'em!" Vasilescu yelled as a cheer went up along the walls. Once again, Lee was impressed at the sheer amount of weaponry these rebels had stockpiled. The Marine made his way over to the Sergeant Major, limping slightly on his bad leg in the brief respite his squad had brought them.

"Bohater sent us. Heard you needed help over here."

"Yeah, we did." Lee looked out at the still-burning Hunters, whose worm-like insides had been fried in seconds by the firestorm the squad had unleashed.

"Do you think it'll hold?" he asked.

"If they got past the Napalm barrels, then they'll get past this."

"That's a little pessimistic, don't you think?"

"I'm a realist, Sergeant. How much fuel does your team have?"

Vasilescu checked a gauge on his flamethrower. "Still got about two-thirds of a tank left."

"Good. We'll need it. Spread your men out along the wall, just in case. I think-"

Lee paused as a familiar buzzing sound drifted into his ears. He paused for a moment before glancing out to see something emerging through the haze beyond the wall. He immediately stooped and grabbed an assault rifle from one of the fallen before opening fire.

"Drones!" he shouted, snapping the others to attention as a horde of insect-like aliens swarmed into the cave. While many dropped to bullets or fire, a number of them managed to go straight past the wall, heading for the inner caverns. One leapt straight for Lee, clawing at his uniform before the Army trooper smashed it into the ground with the butt of his rifle. As he knelt to grab more ammunition, a bright ball of energy flashed overhead and struck the back of one of Vasilescu's men Seconds later, his fuel tank ignited in a tremendous explosion that blew several others off the wall entirely. Lee turned to see a red-armoured Elite uncloak by the end of the wall, energy sword in hand.

"Contact left!"

Vasilescu moved to join him as the alien leapt forward. Lee ducked under the first two swings and smacked the alien back with his gun, though the third sliced his rifle apart. His comrade edged around cautiously, wary of firing his weapon without accidentally setting Lee aflame. The Elite moved with surprising agility, slamming his fist into Lee's chest and sending him flying backwards before lunging at Vasilescu. The Marine yelled in pain as the energy sword cut through his left shoulder, prompting him to unleash a great blast of flame. The Elite nimbly darted aside, activating a plasma grenade and slapping it onto his fuel tank before leaping away. The wall exploded.

***

Lee wasn't sure if it was the fall or the explosion that made him black out. When he awoke he was lying on a stretcher in a dimly-lit side cavern. Gunfire echoed all around him as a group of soldiers ran past. He sat up, wincing slightly from a sharp pain in his ribs. That Elite's punch would've damn near killed him had he not been wearing armour, and even now he felt like he'd broken something. As Lee got to his feet, a woman entered the room, clad in a grey naval uniform.

"Sergeant Major! You're awake."

"Lieutenant," he saluted tiredly. It was Grunwald, one of the prisoners being held by Bohater's forces. "What happened?"

"You were knocked out when the secondary wall was hit. One of your men dragged you back here."

He nodded, wondering how many were left of Three Hotel now. "Where's Bohater?"

"Still leading the defence. We're abandoning this base and heading deeper into the mines."

"What about his Pelican?"

"Gone. One of his men - Clarke - used it to draw off Banshees and ended up crashing it into the enemy encampment. He'd packed the thing with explosives. Anyway, we must've killed someone important because they fell into disarray for a while after that."

Lee grabbed a MA2B rifle from a nearby table and loaded it. "Suicide attack?"

"Probably."

He sighed. "Wouldn't expect much else from a bunch of Innies. Where's the rest of my platoon?"

"The survivors are still holding the Covenant off. We collapsed most of the mountainside and some of the outer caves while your were out. It stopped them for a while, but there's something big out there breaking through. Might be a Scarab."

"Right. We're leaving, then. Bohater's men will give us the time we need."

"Sergeant Major, we're going together. As soon as Bohater sounds the retreat we'll fall back into the tunnels and collapse everything behind us."

"With all due respect, Lieutenant, Bohater is a wanted terrorist with no real authority. Most of my men are dead, and if we can escape and catch up with the civilians, we will."

For a moment he expected Grunwald to agree with him. Instead, she stared him down and folded her arms. "Sergeant Major, these people are Human, regardless of their status as Insurrectionists. I'm ordering you to stand and fight until the retreat order is sounded."

It was strange. Just a few hours ago he was fine with fighting the Covenant alongside this motley army of farmers and armed civilians, even if they were led by a man like Bohater. Hell, he amost respected him for the way he'd organised this defence. Now though, he felt different. Perhaps it was fear that wanted him to take his men and leave. Perhaps it was just common sense; if they remained here then they would almost certainly be slaughtered by their alien foes. He'd been fighting long enough to know what a suicidal defence looked like, yet some part of him did feel obligated to stay, even if it meant his own death. He sighed once more.

"Yes ma'am. Don't know what I was thinking."

"Good." Grunwald grabbed a rifle of her own and led Lee back out to where the remnants of Three Hotel and Bohater's rebels were making their stand against the Covenant. Sikowsky and Steinworth were still alive and manning a gun turret, as was Lieutenant Agata, who seemed no worse for wear since he'd last seen her. An explosion sounded in the distance, and Bohater himself came sprinting out of a side tunnel.

"This is it, everyone!" he roared, getting everyone's attention. "Just blew up the armoury in their faces. We've got five minutes to get into the mines before I blow the generators, let's move!"

Everyone followed him without question. They abandoned their posts and firing points and ran for their lives into the tunnels. Lee kept pace with the others, panting slightly as they passed what had been living quarters and storage buildings, eventually crossing into a large cavern. Several power generators sat on one side, humming slightly. Several blinking lights shone across them, indicating the charges Bohater's men had planted. Flashes of energy from the right announced the arrival of Covenant troops, who had presumably dug in through another tunnel.

"Spread out!" Bohater yelled. "Cover our flanks, but keep moving!"

There were less than fifty remaining of the several hundred that stood to defend the base earlier. As they neared the entrance to the tunnels, gunning down far-off aliens all the way, a large group of Drones emerged with plasma weapons blazing. Lee and the others kept going, laying down enough firepower to blast them out of the air in seconds. Suddenly, the ground shook ahead as a charge detonated further down the line, sending rocks cascading down and blocking their path into the deeper tunnels.

"Oh fuck!" Steinworth shouted from nearby. "We're screwed now!"

"Shut the hell up and keep shooting!" Lee replied as he turned to face the incoming Covenant soldiers. Sikowksy and a few others had run towards the rubble, and were attempting to crawl through a small crevice into the tunnels.

"Sarge, there's still room! Let's get the hell out of here!"

With allies falling left and right, Steinworth was the first to turn and run for his life. Lee held his ground alongside Bohater, Agata and Grunwald, though they kept moving back towards their exit point. By the time they reached the passage everyone else was either dead or gone. Grunwald moved through first, with Lee moving up behind her. Before he could move through, however, a bolt of plasma struck Agata in the knee. She gasped in pain for a moment as she dropped, taking out the one who wounded her with a burst of gunfire. Bohater stood with his back to them, taking down foe after foe with startling accuracy. He looked back for a moment.

"Lee, get her through! I'll hold them off!"

As he moved to help the Lieutenant, Agata drew her sidearm and aimed it towards Bohater. With barely a moment's hesitation, she shot him in the back of the head. He pitched forward and lay still. Lee froze as comprehension dawned on him. That was her mission. Holland wanted her to kill Bohater. She was the sole reason why they were going after rebels in the middle of a Covenant invasion. after shooting down some Grunts, Lee began to back off into the crevice.

"What the hell are you doing?!" she screamed, rolling over to reload her pistol. "Help me!"

Lee looked towards Bohater's body. He might have been an Insurrectionist scumbag, but he didn't deserve that. As for Agata?He imagined that ONI wouldn't mind much if she died accomplishing her mission.

"Bohater's got the detonators. Use them."

He crawled away before she could respond. It wasn't long before he was reunited with the other survivors in the tunnels, lit only by their flashlights. Marcin Bernard approached him immediately, a worried look on his face.

"Where's Bohater?"

"He didn't make it."

There was a long pause. Eventually Bernard simply sighed and turned away. "Let's go."

There were just over two dozen people left. Of that, seven of them were members of Three Hotel. They made their way through the mining tunnels at some pace, and after couple of minutes a dull thud could be heard from the tunnel behind them; the cave's generators blowing up, no doubt.

"Do you think the civilians made it?" Grunwald asked.

"Doubtful," Lee muttered. "Where d'you think those Drones came from?"

"Shit." Just ahead of them, Bernard shook his head. "If they're dead, then what the fuck was all that for?"

Nobody responded. The group continued their sullen march through the dark tunnel beneath the Highland Mountains.

***

The rain had stopped.

Outside the charred remnants of the Human base, Thel 'Lodamee sat atop a rock and watched the troops march past. The Humans had lost, though a few managed to escape into the mountains. While they had been all but wiped out and their home destroyed, the casualties they inflicted had been substantial. The smell from the caves where the Humans had burned hundreds of his comrades was substantial, but he endured it all the same. Had it not been for Thel's quick actions, then they might not have breached the secondary wall so quickly.

"Major 'Lodamee?"

A fellow Sangheili approached him; a blue-armoured Minor.

"Yes?"

"Your presence is requested. Field Master 'Vadamee has contacted us."

"I see." Thel clambered to his feet. "I'll be along shortly."

He wondered if the Field Master intended to praise or admonish him for his actions tonight. Perhaps he was simply looking for a report from the highest-ranking Sangheili left in this Legion. For all of General Yarin 'Otolee's exploits, he and the majority of his commanders had been killed in a suicidal attack by a Human dropship packed with explosives. Such an act was unexpected and had momentarily ground their attack to a halt until some well-meaning Sangheili had gotten the troops moving again. In sending Thel to the frontlines, General 'Otolee had unwittingly saved his life. He chuckled at the thought as he strode towards the command tent.

"'Lodamee," the famiiar voice of Stel 'Vadamee greeted him as he entered. He bowed before a hologram of the Field Master, which stood imposingly over the gathered Sangheili here.

"Field Master. To what do I owe this honour?"

"General 'Otolee is dead, Major. As are his closest subordinates. Once again, it seems that you are a survivor."

"I was leading the assault at the time. His death was...unfortunate."

Stel didn't seem to have the same sentiment. "A General leads his troops from the front, not from a command tent. He paid the price. In any case, Major, your presence is required at my camp. I recently received news that the Fleet of Particular Justice intends to assist in our invasion, and I want this planet's defences destroyed by then."

"I understand, Field Master. I'll head out now."

Stel 'Vadamee nodded and his hologram winked out. Thel wondered why he was needed at the camp if the Field Master wanted he and his comrades hunting down Humans across this planet. Still, it was not his place to question orders, even if they were strange. The Major strode out of the tent and towards a waiting Phantom, barely glimpsing at the absolute carnage and devastation that both their Legion and the Humans had brought to this place. Still, this was a victory in spite of their considerable losses. It wouldn't be long before this planet fell, and was burned like all the others.

Bloody Dawn

0429 Hours, August 23, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location:New Alexandria Docks, Reach


"Master Sergeant, we're within visual range."

"Copy that. All boats, cut engines and hold your position. Keep low until I give the order."

Mitchell nodded towards Private Yin Maxwell, who switched off the power for their attack boat and grabbed his rifle. The man was a younger ODST; Reach had been his first actual drop. He hoped that the kid wouldn't have to see the planet glassed, but the way the battle was going meant that it was a very real possibility. Sat around him were Braun, Angelo, and Kidrov, one of Mitchell's three immediate subordinates.

"Got eyes on a Covvie patrol," Braun remarked, looking down the sights of his M392. "Three Turkeys in a watchtower, and a few Grunts skulking around below."

"Any Split-Lips?"

"Nein."

"How many?"

"None, Sarge."

Checking his long-range COM, Mitchell found that it was still working, despite their proximity to the Corvette above. Having secured a proper landing zone, the Covenant had been fortifying this area all day as a staging point for their siege of New Alexandria. With news of more Covenant ships incoming from orbit, it was imperative that they took this one out while they had the opportunity. Mitchell took out a small, torch-shaped device from his belt and pointed it towards the eastern shore before clicking it several times. A bright green light winked on and off in quick succession. After a few seconds, a blue light flashed back in the distance.

"That's the signal," he muttered. "Prepare to engage."

From the east, a number of flares lit up the sky as rockets screamed through the air towards the Covenant outpost. The distant crackle of Warthog fire could be heard across the water, followed by the shrill whine of plasma bolts. Several Banshees rose from behind ruined buildings and sped off towards the battle. The distraction's working, at least. Stacker's troops were playing their part well. Now it was time for Charlie Platoon to return the favour.

"All boats, move up and engage at your discretion. I want to take the beach before the Covvies realise we're here!"

The engine hummed to life once more and the motorboat sped across the bay and into a narrower river. Kidrov clambered into the mounted machine gun and lay down a stream of fire that cut a guard tower to pieces. The other boats - five in total - moved alongside them, some firing, some heading straight for the landing zone. Mitchell clung on for dear life as he barked orders over the COM.

"Davis, get your team along the left flank, I don't want Jackals hitting us from the side! Robson, up the right. Everyone else, punch straight through the middle and towards that Corvette's landing zone!"

Maxwell turned the boat as they hit the shallows, preventing their boat from being beached. Angelo and Braun leapt out first, splashing through water and onto the beach itself. Mitchell and Maxwell followed suit, with Kidrov covering them on the machine gun. The other troopers and Marines had spread themselves out, taking up defensible positions and establishing a clear beachhead. For a moment, Mitchell thought they had cleared the area out without a hitch, only to sight an all-too-familiar shape drift round a nearby corner and onto the beach.

"Wraith!" he yelled as a plasma mortar lit up the sky and soared towards him. Unable to get on dry land quick enough, the trooper dove back into the river just as it struck their boat. Most of the vehicle was vaporised instantly, taking Kidrov with it. He felt the water boiling around him as a wave of heat washed over the surrounding area. He surfaced moments later and dragged himself to shore. Luckily, his sealed bodysuit and helmet saved him from taking in any water where it mattered, and he joined Sergeant Pannosian and Maxwell behind a large rock.

"We got anything heavy for that Wraith?"

Pannosian glanced back to his boat, which had also been reduced to a burnt-out, sinking ruin. "Not any more."

"Shit," Mitchell glanced up, only to duck back down as several plasma bolts flew towards him. The Wraith was finishing off their boats, one mortar at the time. The platoon's combined small arms fire hadn't done much more than dent it in a few places. "We might have to fall back around the beach, give Davis' team time to head for the landing site."

"With all due respect, that'll get us all killed!" Angelo shouted, reloading his weapon after a magazine's worth of useless fire. "The damn thing'll just roll through and crush us."

He was right, but Mitchell didn't see much of an option. A voice burst through his COM.

"Sarge, this is Robson. Can you draw the Wraith's fire towards you for a few seconds?"

Judging by the white-hot ball of energy that streaked above their heads, the enemy tank had chosen to ignore the last couple of boats. Mitchell motioned for the others to all open fire at once, peppering the heavy vehicle with gunfire that plinked off the heavy armour. Activating his helmet's low-light VISR mode, Mitchell sighted the green outline of an ODST - Robson - edging his way across a rocky outcrop above the Wraith. As it fired another blast that narrowly missed a couple of troopers, he dropped down, firing two shots that instantly killed the Grunt manning the turret before stamping heavily on the tank's entrance hatch. Before the driver could shake Robson off, he emptied his entire magazine downwards, penetrating the cockpit and shredding the Elite piloting it.

"He's down!" the Staff Sergeant called, dragging the bullet-ridden corpse out and tossing it onto the bloody sand. "Wraith's still operational though. Permission to hit 'em in the flank, Sergeant?"

"Granted." Mitchell stood up and waved the captured Wraith off as it reactivated and slowly turned before moving off towards the distant sounds of gunfire. They had lost several of their number in the brief engagement, though casualties weren't as bad as they could've been had that Wraith not been taken down when it was. With Davis and his men already forging ahead towards the enemy landing zone, they would have to move quickly before the Covenant could regroup and bring their full strength down on the depleted UNSC forces.

"This is Davis," the Staff Sergeant spoke quickly over the COM. "We've pushed up to the main landing zone but are under heavy fire. Got caught by a group of Split-lips coming down the gravity lift."

"Copy that, we're on our way!"

The troopers and Marines moved swiftly through the rocky hillside, wary that they were now directly beneath the hovering Corvette. The sounds of battle from their distraction group was somewhat muted, though the occasional explosion or plasma bolt could still be heard echoing across the rocky walls. With New Alexandria's defences already being worn away, it had been far too easy for the unshielded Covenant vessel to simply park up and start dispensing troops into the besieged city from its relatively secure position near the city's outer docks. As the wide-open landing zone came into view, Mitchell sighted Davis and three others pinned down behind a stack of crates. He dropped to one knee and raised his rifle, giving orders to their group.

"Angelo, Maxwell, go right and ready 'nades. Everyone else, fire on my go."

Concealed in the pre-dawn darkness by their black armour, the platoon had plenty of time to spread out and take aim. A large Covenant infantry force had begun to mass on the other side of the ship's gravity lift, and were certainly preparing to flank Davis' men. Mitchell nodded towards the pair of troopers he'd sent ahead, and they swiftly tossed grenades towards the main group of Sangheili. The moment they detonated, the rest of Charlie Platoon let loose a barrage of gunfire that ripped through depleted shields and alien armour like paper. Nearly two dozen enemy soldiers went down after less than ten seconds of sustained fire.

"Davis, you're clear!" Mitchell called. After briefly finishing off a few dying aliens, they regrouped by the gravity lift.

"So, we doing this?" Davis asked.

"Orders were to take it down, and we sure as hell ain't gonna do it from the outside."

"There are probably hundreds in there. Thousands."

"Not like you to be afraid of a few Covvies, Davis. What's up?"

The Staff Sergeant looked around. Though Charlie Platoon had taken casualties in the initial assault, including one of its team leaders, they still stood at twenty-one with none injured. Of that, eight were ODST's; hardened veterans all.

"You've gotta admit, it looks like a one-way ticket, even if we do find a way to wreck that thing from the inside."

"Yeah, well I'm not seeing any better alternative, trooper. Let's just-"

Mitchell paused as the dormant gravity lift flared up and two figures floated down. Big ones. Aw, fuck.

"Hunters!"

The entire platoon spread out in a semi-circle, weapons flaring even before the hulking beasts touched the ground. Scary and deadly though they were, the Covenant's walking tanks had a glaring weakspot in the back of their near-impenetrable armour that they had all been trained to shoot for. All they had to to is get behind the beasts, which was simple enough task provided you had them distracted with the right amount of gunfire.

Then, two more dropped down.

While they had merely been backing away at first, now Mitchell and Davis broke into a full-on sprint as the second pair of lumbering aliens touched down. The Master Sergeant turned to fire a few bursts from his assault rifle, only to be sent sprawling as Davis tackled him to the floor. A searing beam of green energy swept just a few inches above them; the heat could be felt even through Mitchell's layers of armour. Leaving his spent weapon on the ground, Mitchell scrambled to his feet and lurched back up the hill and into cover. Most of the platoon had scattered, though any attempts to outflank the cadre of Hunters was met with failure; one Marine was crushed, screaming, between two massive shields as he tried to run past two of them.

"We've got to fall back!" yelled Angelo from Mitchell's right. "We're fucked otherwise!"

While in most situations the mission took priority, he had to agree with the Sergeant's assessment. They had been reduced from twenty-one to fourteen in less than half a minute, and as an emerald bolt nearly took Maxwell's head off as he ducked for cover, Mitchell gave the order over the COM.

"I'm calling code Omega three. Charlie Platoon, fall back towards the beach and provide covering fire. We'll exfil via the boats and cover the diversion team's escape. Davis-"

Suddenly, an unfamiliar voice cut him off. "Rescind that order!"

It was female, and not someone he recognised. The transmission was devoid of static, so it had to be coming from somewhere close. Looking left and right, Mitchell spotted two shapes hovering just under the Corvette as the sound of rotor blades drifted down. The voice spoke once more.

"Charlie Platoon, get your heads down. Now!"

Mitchell and the others hit the floor. A second later, the ground around the Hunters burst upwards as high-explosive grenades detonated all around them, blasting through gaps in armour and severing the wormlike creatures inside. One attempted to raise its shield against the volley, only to be cut in two from behind by heavy machine gun fire. As the last one collapsed in a mess of luminous blood and worms, two Falcons descended to the ground. The platoon's survivors could only stare as four armoured figures piled out, surveying the area.

"Master Sergeant Mitchell?" the female voice spoke from behind an opaque visor as a Spartan approached. Clad in light blue armour, she towered over him. The golden leaf of a naval Lieutenant Commander flashed up by her IFF on Mitchell's HUD, and he saluted.

"Thanks for the save, ma'am."

"The mission was the Commander's idea," the Spartan indicated one of her comrades. "I was told that you've got knowledge of the ship layout?"

He had no idea how she knew this. As team leader, he'd been given a datachip containing the basic layout of a Covenant SDV-class heavy corvette, compiled from years of previous battles and attempted boarding actions. Though most of the data had been uploaded and shared through the ODST's VISR system database (The Marines had merely been informed to rely on the troopers for this mission), he still possessed a physical copy. Fishing it out from a waterproof container in his still-sodden belt pouch, he handed it to the Spartan, who snatched it and slotted it into her helmet before turning away to rejoin her team.

"Good manners," Sergeant Panossian muttered over TEAMCOM. After a few seconds of conferring, another Spartan - the Commander - approached them.


"Thanks for securing the beachhead, trooper, but we'll handle things from here."

"Sir?"

"Noble Team is more than equipped to take down a Covenant ship without support. I can guarantee the safety of my team, but not yours."

Mitchell wasn't sure what to say. To most soldiers, a Spartan's order was tantamount to a command from God. Some of his own men seemed relieved already. However, some part of him felt obligated to remain behind; to finish what they had started. The Spartan seemed to be awaiting his response. He weighed up his options, and eventually replied.

"I understand sir, but I can't pull out and leave our secondary group to die out there while that Corvette's still sending out Phantoms. Even if the main grav lift isn't available, they're still throwing troops at my men."

There was a long silence. Both men's expressions were concealed behind opaque visors, but Mitchell could tell that the Commander was milling it over.

"Fine. I'll send Emile to assist you in getting the rest of your men to a safe location. The rest of Noble Team will handle the ship. Clear?"

"Crystal, sir."

Carter nodded and walked towards the gravity lift. He momentarily turned to a dark-armoured Spartan, who seemed less than pleased with his orders if his body language was any indication. Nonetheless, he turned and stalked towards the group, hefting a shotgun. Mitchell hadn't seen him from the front, so as the towering supersoldier drew close the sight of a skull scratched into the face of his visor chilled him to the bone. He imagined it had the same effect on the Spartan's enemies.

"Let's get this over with," said Emile briefly as he walked straight past Mitchell and towards the sounds of gunfire. Charlie Platoon fell in line behind him, readying their weapons and preparing themselves for yet another firefight.

The troopers struggled to keep up with the Spartan's swift pace as he blasted through two checkpoints and over a dozen Grunts on his way to the beach. When they finally emerged from behind the rocks a bloody scene awaited them. The bridge connecting this island to New Alexandria's eastern side was littered with corpses both Human and alien, while the still-burning wreckage of various vehicles lit up the area. Mitchell wasn't sure if Covenant troops came equipped with night vision technology, but the frequency of plasma bolts and tracer rounds being traded from either shore made it clear that the fighting hadn't let up. Motioning for the others to get down, he opened his short-range COM.

"Robson, this is Mitchell. What's your status, over?"

He got nothing but static in response. There were several destroyed Wraiths in the area, though he had no idea if Robson's was among them. If there were still Covenant forces fighting their distraction group, then it meant that his attack was either short-lived or ineffective. Just ahead of them, Emile crept towards a sentry tower where several Jackals sat, beam rifles firing periodically across the bridge. In one swift leap, he ascended the gravity lift and smashed into two of them, crushing one and flinging the other shrieking to its death. The third squawked loudly, only to be decapitated by the Spartan's large, curved blade. He jumped back down from the tower and picked up his shotgun from where he'd left it in the sand before turning back to Mitchell's team.

"If you want to kill some Covvies," he turned to them for just a moment. "Now's your chance."

Already preoccupied with the Human forces firing at them from across the river, the Covenant troops holding the bridge had no chance when they were suddenly hit from behind. Mitchell and Davis concentrated their fire and took down an Elite officer as he barked orders, while Emile sprinted forward and brought down several others in close quarters, laughing as he did so. white-hot plasma streaked by as a trio of Banshees screeched towards the group. Two Marines were cut down and the others dived into cover immediately. Nearby, Maxwell grabbed a plasma pistol from a fallen Grunt and held down the trigger, holding it aloft as the distinctive while of the aircraft's engines grew closer. As dark shapes moved overhead, he let loose a ball of green energy, which struck one and sent it careening into the other. Both banshees spiralled off to the right and hit the rocks before exploding in a bright flash.

"Holy shit!" the young ODST exclaimed, tossing the overheated weapon aside. "Did you see that?!"

"Yeah," Angelo replied. "Now shut the fuck up and keep shooting."

"Only a few left now," chimed in Davis.

The third banshee had slowed down as the other two fell from the sky, and was turning round for another attack run. As the last of the Covenant infantry fell to Charlie Platoon, it dived forward, letting loose a sizzling globule of green energy that incinerated the rocks behind them as they ran for cover. Before it could turn, Emile leapt forward, using the gravity lift of a nearby guard tower to give him just enough lift to grab the craft's wing and swing himself on top. He then tore open the cockpit and pulled the surprised pilot out, kicking him away and taking over the controls before the Banshee began to dip. Mitchell watched the Elite smack into the ground with a loud crack, and put a couple of shits into its skull for good measure.

"Sergeant," Emile spoke over the COM. "That looks like the last of 'em. You still need me?"

A flare shot up from across the bridge, momentarily illuminating the corpse-strewn area. The sands were dyed red with alien blood. There wasn't a single alien left standing on the beach. All that remained was to take out that ship.

"Negative. Thanks for the assist, Spartan."

"It's what I do."

Suddenly, the Spartan commander's voice broke through the COM. "Trooper, this is Carter. Do you copy?"

"Yes sir. How's the corvette?"

"It's about to go down. I want you to get your men away from this island and back into the city ASAP."

Mitchell glanced up towards the ship that loomed over them, and began to ran. His men quickly followed suit, with Emile's Banshee ascending up and out of sight. Of the attack force of over ninety men and women they'd used to draw the Covenant's attention away, barely two dozen remained. Most were already loading up into their remaining vehicles by the time Mitchell's men arrived. Several civilian trucks sat among them, one containing a familiar figure.

"Robson!" Mitchell called, jogging towards the Staff Sergeant. His armour was drenched and heavily cracked from direct plasma bolts, and most of his left leg was wrapped in bandages. He gave a weak salute.

"I did what I could," the trooper waved one arm vaguely in the direction of the beach. "Plowed through a group of them and kept firing until they brought out the big guns and nearly blew me to pieces. Had to drive straight into the river to get away."

That explained where his Wraith was. While ODST armour was indeed heavy and any trooper unlucky enough to hit water would sink like a stone, it was also heavily sealed and carried an air supply of around fifteen minutes; more than long enough for Robson to escape his vehicle and walk to shore. Still, he'd evidently been injured. A medic emerged from the driver's cabin and approached them, only to be cut off by Mitchell.

"Get in the truck. We're leaving."

"But Sergeant-"

"Now."

Above the island, the corvette shook violently as explosions blossomed across its surface. Huge chunks of armour blasted off and smashed into the water around it. With his VISR's night vision activated, Mitchell could make out two Falcons exiting the hangar bay, machine guns blaring as they soared away. The assembled troops hurriedly mounted up aboard whatever vehicle they could find and drove off along the long road around New Alexandria's docks. Eventually, the corvette's repulsor engines gave out, and it lurched downwards with an almighty crash, signalling the end of Mitchell's mission. Crammed in with several others in the back of a truck, he breathed a sigh of relief.

"I'm glad that's over."

"Tell me about it," Maxwell took off his helmet, wiping sweat from his forehead. "Good thing those Spartans showed up."

Angelo snorted. "Yeah, nice of them to swoop in halfway through the op and take credit."

"Hey, if they wanna take on the ship full of Covvies, then I've got no problem with 'em."

"Worship the freaks, why don't ya..."

"Both of you, shut up," said Robson, who seemed half-awake. He'd been given a number of painkillers for his plasma burns. "Consider that an order."

Both Maxwell and Angelo looked towards Mitchell. "You heard what he said."

The rest of the trip was fairly quiet as their truck trundled back into the lower city and towards UNSC-held portions of New Alexandria. While the animosity held by some ODST's towards the Spartans due to rumours of incidents from years ago was common among units he'd served in, Mitchell didn't really care for it. Had his men boarded that vessel, then there was a very good chance that they would have taken heavy casualties or even been wiped out. The Spartans did them a favour, if anything. He opened a private channel on his COM and accessed a far-off frequency.

"Noble Team, this is Master Sergeant Ash Mitchell. Just wanted to thank you for the assist back there, Spartans. If you hadn't shown up, anything could've happened."

There was a long silence. For a moment he thought his message hadn't gone through at all, but then the Lieutenant Commander's spoke back.

"You're welcome."

The COM went dead after that. Not that he minded. The sun had already begun to rise over the besieged city of New Alexandria. Their convoy was far too low for the Covenant's air patrols to reach, so he was fairly certain that their ride back to HQ would be a peaceful one. His mind drifted to news of other enemy ships heading towards the city. More would be here soon, carrying thousands of troops to assault the still-incomplete evacuation efforts. He and Charlie Platoon had taken losses in the recent battle, but they'd keep on fighting on Reach for as long as they were able. It was all they could do.

Burning

1308 Hours, August 23, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Manassas, Alföld, Ütközet Province, Reach


"This is Fifth Battalion declaring code Bloody Arrow, repeat, Bloody Arrow!"

The office building being used as a temporary observation post shook as another plasma mortar hit the outer walls. The staccato of rifle bursts and shrill whine of plasma fire intermingled as clouds of acrid smoke billowed past. Uniformed soldiers tramped past a line of black body bags by the piled-up cubicles as harsh alien voices echoed up the stairwell.

This was the fourth day of the city's siege.

"Lieutenant, get the injured back through the hospital!"

"Yes ma'am!"

Major Janice Folman ducked down, reloading her sidearm - an M6H Magnum - as white-hot plasma struck the ceiling above her. On the sixth floor, she and her Marines were making their last stand against the ever-advancing Covenant army. Word had arrived that New Alexandria, another of Reach's cities, was dangerously close to falling as well. As the window ledge by her head began to crumble under sustained enemy fire, she crawled on her stomach across the corpse-strewn room, looking for another vantage point.

"Major," her earpiece buzzed as her Lieutenant's voice crackled through. "Ground route's a no-go into the hospital. Should we try the roof?"

"Negative," she hissed, adjusting her combat helmet as rubble sprinkled her from above. "Not with those Phantoms circling. Use the Pelican."

"But-"

"We've not got a choice, do it!"

The COM cut off as Folman dragged herself into the adjacent room, which offered at least some protection from enemy marksmen. Two of her Marines were crouched by a long-range radio, looking grim; she'd told them to order any reinforcements to abandon them to their fate. Bloody Arrow was a code that meant local UNSC forces were on the verge of total defeat, without hope of rescue. Originally devised in the days of the Insurrection where defeat held the chance of being taken prisoner, it was now used all too often by soldiers preparing to die fighting against the Covenant.

"Let's go," she waved for the pair to follow her, stooping only to pick up a MA5B rifle someone had left propped against a nearby wall.

"We're bugging out?" one young Marine asked.

"Yep."

"'bout time," the other muttered.

A series of explosions from downstairs indicated the detonation of their Antlion anti-personnel mines, which had been wired along the first three flights of stairs with the intent of cutting off access to Covenant infantry. Let's hope the hinge-heads can't climb. Their only exit route now was a dangerous one. Switching on her COM device, Folman addressed every single Marine in the local area.

"This is Major Folman to whatever's left of the Fifth. We're evacuating towards the hospital via the downed Pelican on the ninth floor. As of now you have five mikes to get yourselves across before we blow it, over and out."

Three hours ago, the Marines' last Pelican had been shot down by Phantoms as it attempted to provide covering fire. Going into a spin, the dropship had smashed itself between the office building they were in and the hospital next door, creating a rudimentary - if almost certainly unstable - bridge between the two. She'd sent a few runners across to gather supplies without issue, so it was a useful method of getting out if things went from bad to worse. Which it had.

"Let's go, double time!" she yelled, jogging upstairs with her subordinates in tow. Folman was just as exhausted as the others, but couldn't afford to let it show.

There was a shout from above. "Contacts coming down!"

Suddenly, a shrieking, wounded Grunt plummeted past them as a firefight erupted on the upper floors. The Covenant had begun landing troops on the roof. Moving in groups of three or four, her Marines filed upstairs. Most immediately moved off towards the downed Pelican upon reaching the ninth floor, though some remained to assist in repelling the invaders. Folman prepared to assist them herself when a glowing ball of energy dropped down, sticking to the nearby handrail.

"Oh fuck, get back!"

She turned and dived away as the plasma grenade detonated in a bright flash. Those close to it were immediately killed by the blast or horribly burnt. Folman's body armour had taken the worst of the heat and bore scorch marks, though she was uninjured. As she picked herself up off the floor, she caught sight of one Marine half-slumped against a nearby wall, staring in shock at the cauterised stump of his left arm. As he opened his mouth to scream, plasma bolts ripped through his body from behind and sent the man sprawling to the ground. The survivors began to run.

"Move, move!"

"Rearguard, Marines!" Folman yelled, turning and dropping into a crouch. "Set up a killzone!"

Several others followed suit as the telltale barks of Covenant Elites drifted closer. The Major knew full well that if they just ran, then the warlike aliens would gleefully pursue them, gunning the Humans down from afar as if they were hunting for sport. This would make them fall back and reconsider a blind chase through the building. She raised her weapon just as the first one rounded the corner at the end of a corridor.

"Fire!"

The Elite's shields could usually withstand half a magazine of rifle fire before dissipating. Eight simultaneous bursts of fire from MA5 and BR55 rifles tore it down instantly and ripped the alien to shreds. One Marine tossed a Fragmentation grenade in for good measure, giving them time to retreat further. Checking her ammo counter, Folman noticed that a number of notches had been carved into the weapon's side. A kill tally? Fallen buddies? Her mind wandered for a split second before returning to the task at hand. Down one final corridor lay the crashed Pelican and their momentary salvation.

"C'mon Marines, almost there!"

Her heart pounded wildly in her chest as she broke into a sprint, boots noisily clomping against the tiled floor. Across the other side several Marines were already preparing demolition charges to dislodge the dropship and destroy their bridge. By the time it was only a few metres away, plasma bolts had begun to whizz past her. One Marine dropped with a scream as he was struck in the back, but Folman kept running. She cleared the smashed-in windows and was halfway across the Pelican in a single bound before diving for safety on the other side.

"Major, you made it!"

Folman's Lieutenant helped her to her feet as the other survivors ran across. With a secure position they were able to lay down a steady stream of gunfire that drove their alien attackers back into cover. Still catching her breath, she staggered across into the next room, where at least two dozen others were resting among row after row of chairs. She sat down for a moment and closed her eyes, waving her Lieutenant away for a moment. There was a loud crash as the explosives outside detonated, sending the Pelican plummeting down towards the street.

"I say we've got ten minutes," she said to no one in particular, "Tops."

The Major stood up and gratefully took a water bottle offered by one of her men to soothe her hoarse throat; just about every word out of her mouth today had been a shout. Feeling slightly refreshed, she shook away any creeping sluggishness and straightened up before her troops. About forty members of the Fifth Battalion were left alive, not counting any who might have escaped or been diverted to another part of Manassas earlier that day; not enough to fight off the Covenant force hunting them, but enough to slip by enemy patrols through the city's lower levels. Her current plan was to lead them towards the sewer system and follow the schematics she'd downloaded on her TACPAD until they reached a drainage tunnel several miles away. Moving through a river of human waste wasn't appealing, but better than being slaughtered.

"Ma'am," a nearby Sergeant burst into the room as she opened her mouth. "Got a transmission on the long-range from friendly forces."

"What?"

"They said they were on their way to back us up, Major."

"What about the Bloody Arrow code?"

"I told 'em, but they said they were coming anyway," the man was trying to suppress a grin of relief.

Shaking her head, Folman was about to loudly wonder what kind of reckless, protocol-defying madmen would try and pull the half-dead remnants of a Marine Battalion out of the fire in a situation like this when it hit her. Taking a deep breath, she strode out of the waiting room towards their long-range radio. Her face looked as if it was set in stone.

"This is Major Janice Folman of the Fifth Battalion, Twelfth Marines, to incoming UNSC forces. We initiated code Bloody Arrow some time ago: Manassas is lost. You've got no reason to come here."

A familiar voice replied almost instantly. "Major, it's good to hear your voice. This is Sierra Two-Four-Zero of ECHO Team. We're leading in the counter-attack."

***

The smoke rising from Manassas was visible before they'd sighted the city itself. Within a new modified Pelican dropship to replace the one lost near Siófok, the four Spartans of ECHO Team readied themselves for the battle to come. Their arrival had been delayed yet again due to an emergency deployment to the far north, and despite assurances that the UNSC forces within the city could hold out it was clear that they should have been sent to Manassas immediately.

"Picking up Covenant signatures," Jermaine-164 spoke up from the co-pilot's seat. "We've got at least a dozen tanks and twice as many fliers, and that's just by Folman's position."

Chief Petty Officer Daniel-240, the team leader, nodded and pulled gently at the dropship's controls. They gained altitude, flying just beneath the clouds on their approach to Manassas. In normal circumstances they would have obeyed a Bloody Arrow code and turned back immediately, HIGHCOM had no intentions of losing two cities in one day and was diverting some heavy firepower their way; ECHO was just the tip of the spear in this assault.

"Any heavier ships?" Daniel asked.

"We've got three CCS-Class Battlecruisers holding position just outside the city, side-by-side."

"What's their air cover like?"

"We'd go down in seconds. Guess they learned their lesson from the other day."

"Right. Prep weapons, we're about to dive."

It was another dangerous move. Suicidal, even. That said, Daniel had proven multiple times that his piloting skills far outmatched anything any Human or alien could do, even in a dropship. The Covenant were used to Pelicans moving in at a medium speed and strafing around their targets to engage, something easily-countered by multiple Banshees. The Spartans were going to move at full throttle and rain down missiles on whatever was in their way before speeding off. Jermaine passed over full control to Daniel and heaved himself out of the pilot's chair, edging through the door into the dropship's blood tray where two other Spartans sat.

"We're diving," he announced, reaching for a nearby thruster pack.

Filippa-193 and Layla-B101 unbuckled themselves from their chairs and stood up, grabbing pieces of equipment as their vessel lurched forward. Filippa and Jermaine holstered a grenade launcher each, expecting heavy combat once they hit the ground. The magnetised soles of their MJOLNIR suits kept them secured even as they plummeted downwards at a frightening angle. They then filed out towards the rear hatch. Layla thumbed the switch and it clanked open, howling wind blowing past them.

"Attacking now," Daniel spoke via TEAMCOM. "ECHO, jump on my mark."

The trio readied themselves at the edge as the murky country landscape disappeared beneath them to make way for the slate-grey towers of Manassas.

"Mark!"

The words had barely escaped Daniel's lips and the Spartans were already hurtling through the air. Jermaine and Filippa activated their thruster packs immediately to slow their descent, while Layla angled herself away from the target rooftop and towards a nearby plaza.

"Going to try and get the drop on them from street level," she finally spoke up. "I'll leave some alive for you."

The SPARTAN-II's didn't bother questioning her. If a fellow Spartan had a plan it was usually a beneficial one, so they simply focused on landing as softly as possible. The powerful thrusters built into their backs battled fierce resistance as the Spartans neared terminal velocity; their armour would likely have allowed them to survive such a sharp descent, albeit with injuries none wanted to risk. Two pairs of heavy boots impacted the roof with simultaneous crunches, cracking the concrete. Layla touched down nearby seconds later.

"Filippa," Jermaine immediately ducked down and edged towards the edge of their rooftop. Two Banshees rocketed overhead, but did not seem to notice them. "Have you got the Major's location?"

"Their last transmission came from the Manassas City Hospital, about half a click to the south."

He glanced to his right, sighting a tall building in the distance. The distant sounds of Human and Covenant weaponry firing echoed across the deserted rooftops. While there were still likely pockets of Human resistance and even civilian evacuees scattered across the city, the Major was the highest-ranking UNSC officer left in Manassas and could be used to rally whoever was left while ECHO covered the evacuation.

"Guess we've got a bit of a walk. Chief, did you catch a glimpse of the spaceport?"

A tiny speck in the sky indicated Daniel's Pelican, circling around the city at an alarming speed with several enemy fliers in pursuit. His first volley of missiles had blown a Phantom out of the air and incinerated an infantry column marching through the nearby streets.

"There's not much left," their team leader replied. "Looks like the Covvies hit the main evac centres hard before landing troops. Not much hope for any major civilian pickups from the air now."

Jermaine nodded. As horrible as it was, the Spartans couldn't afford to waste time finding and personally rescuing any survivors when there were military personnel that needed their help. He too a few steps back and leapt off the rooftop, his thruster pack flaring as it carried him across the street onto another building. Filippa joined him shortly after and the two broke into a sprint, dashing along towards the distant firefight as quickly as they dared.

***

Layla enjoyed working alone.

She'd liked the team environment since her sudden reassignment to ECHO, but for the ex-Headhunter there was nothing like being able to move freely across the battlefield in search of prey. A gaggle of Grunts had ambled out of a nearby building just as she'd turned the corner and barely had time to shriek in terror before high-caliber Magnum rounds blew them away. They had likely been hunting down Human survivors.

Probably looking for people to eat, her upper lip curled in disgust. Not that I haven't eaten Grunt before, though.

Despite wearing half a ton of heavy armour, Layla's footsteps were almost silent as she stalked through alleyways and crept through the shadows of deserted streets. Most of Manassas' civilians had been evacuated before the Covenant arrived, though the thousands remaining when their foe arrived were caught sorely unprepared for the ferocity of the alien's attack. She paused as she passed by a side alley and glanced to her right. It was filled with Human corpses. Men, women, and children had been massacred and dragged into this corner to rot by the invaders as they completed their conquest of the city. Though not unused to sights like this, Layla felt anger and bile rising in her throat.

"Layla," Jermaine's voice startled her through the COM. "We're across the street from the hospital. What's your ETA, over?"

"Two minutes, max," she replied, tearing here eyes away from the grisly scene and sprinting off down the street.

While Major Folman's Marines had staved off their demise by moving into the bigger, more easily-defended Hospital, the Covenant had them more or less surrounded as they attempted to fight their way out. Layla had rightly assumed that they were trying to make for a nearby sewage plant and use the city's waste tunnels to escape into a far-off dump. However, their foes had cut them off much quicker than expected. In the distance Layla could make out the distinctive shape of a Wraith tank hovering a few inches above the ground. Every five seconds or so, its mortar fired a massive globule of plasma towards the building, slowly burning through the outer walls and almost certainly killing any defenders it landed near immediately. Layla activated TEAMCOM as she broke into a sprint.

"Jermaine, I'm moving in to assault those tanks. See if you can keep that infantry off me while I take them out."

"Copy that. We're engaging now."

From ahead, the familiar sound of an XM510 grenade launcher joined the chorus of anti-infantry weapons as Filippa and Jermaine unleashed hell on the enemy from behind. One of the Wraiths slowly began to turn towards their position, prompting Layla to unleash a final burst of speed that put her behind the heavily-armoured tank. Leaping onto the Wraith's back, she unpinned a frag grenade and punched it into the vehicle's lightly-armoured exhaust port. She leapt back and rolled away just as it detonated, prompting a series of explosions that tore both the tank and its driver apart.

"That's one down!" she called.

Another Wraith had gotten itself stuck as it tried to turn in the cramped street outside the hospital, slowly shunting itself back and forth in an attempt to get free. As it attempted to fire on the two Spartans, the tank's plasma mortar clipped the building above and sent a shower of concrete and masonry down that crushed the vehicle as an entire wall came down. Layla let loose a snort of mirth as she leapt atop the remaining Wrath. The gunner gave a yelp of surprise as she shoved her handgun under its chin and pulled the trigger before ripping open the cockpit. The driver scrambled for a plasma pistol as the Spartan unloaded the rest of her magazine into its head, pulling the bloodied corpse out and tossing it aside as she clambered in.

"Jermaine, Filippa, I'm clearing the street now," Layla announced as the tank swivelled towards a group of shocked-looking enemy infantry.

Filippa dropped down to the street behind her. "Have fun," she shouted.

"Will do."

Now giving her comrades plenty of cover as they ran for the hospital entrance, she set about vaporising what remained of the enemy infantry outside. Small bolts of plasma impacted the tank's armour without much effect, and she laughed aloud as one Elite tried running straight for the Wraith, only for her to activate the boost and crush the alien to death. Plasma fire raked the ground from above as a trio of banshees swooped down, only to be blown out of the sky by a volley of missiles. ECHO's Pelican roared overhead.

"I'd say we've bought ourselves about ten minutes," Daniel's voice echoed from the dropship speakers. "Let's make them count."

***

The hospital's atrium was a mess of alien and Human corpses. numerous Grunts lay scattered across the floor, with the odd plasma-burnt Marine body here and there. The Covenant had definitely stormed the building as quickly as possible, seeking to flush out Folman's Marines before they either fled or fortified their position. Jermaine led the way, stepping lightly over a dead Elite with Filippa in tow. Both Spartans were primed to fight and wary that a foe could be around any corner. Having expended their grenade launcher ammo taking out most of the hostile force outside, they had switched to their basic MA5C rifles.

"Major?" Jermaine spoke over an open UNSC channel. "This is ECHO Team, we're in the hospital and moving up, over."

There was no reply. Gunfire still echoed from above. The Spartans raced upstairs, where it was clear that the fighting had intensified. On the fifth floor a number of Marines lay dead around a group of black-armoured Elites, the floor slick with purple and red blood from the vicious melee. Most of the seventh flight of stairs was missing, prompting a hefty leap from the two Spartans to cross the gap. As they did so, a reply filtered through their COM.

"This is Major Folman." She sounded exhausted; a far cry from the commanding voice that had contacted them not even half an hour prior. "We're on the tenth floor, Spartans. Things aren't going well."

"Copy that, we're on our way."

The Spartans exchanged looks as they continued their ascent. Though their faces were obscured behind opaque gold visors, each could tell that the other was worried. The last few floors were similarly corpse-strewn, with most of the tenth blown to smithereens by explosives. A banshee had crashed through a nearby wall and sat quietly burning nearby under a pile of rubble.

"Major?" Jermaine tried calling, first over the COM and then through his helmet's speakers.

"That's not right," Filippa mused, tapping the side of her helmet.

"What's wrong?"

"COM just went dead. Local and long range."

"How's TEAMCOM?"

"That's stable."

As the pair moved through into the side corridors it became clear that the Marines had intended to make their final stand here. They were forced to move a pile of Grunt bodies to get into one darkened hallway, where some brave soul had been manning a machine gun until a bolt of plasma had struck his face. The next room was an ugly ensemble of chairs and tables piled up to create a makeshift barricade. A single Marine poked her head over and gasped in surprise at their sudden appearance.

"Holy shit!" she exclaimed, lowering a fully-loaded rifle. "Quickly, come through!"

The Marine shifted an overturned metal slab and they passed into what looked like the Marine command room. Nine Marines - Five men, four women - were sat behind a final barricade, grimly holding onto their weapons. They all looked horribly shellshocked.

"Where's the Major?" Filippa asked.

All heads turned towards the door to a balcony, which clanked open. Janice Folman limped in, using an empty rifle as a crutch. Her lower abdomen was a mess of bloodstained bandages and hastily-applied biofoam, and several fingers on her right hand had been burnt away. Her face was grimy with sweat and dirt, and her uniform stained with purple Elite blood.

"Present," she gave them a weak wave, and staggered forward. Filippa caught her as she collapsed.

"She's in a bad way," she spoke privately to Jermaine over TEAMCOM. "We'd better go."

He nodded. "Marines, saddle up. We're getting the hell out of here."

The survivors did as asked, grabbing bags and weapons. It would take time to exit the building and regroup with Layla, and even after that they would have to find a spot for Daniel to land their Pelican. It struck Jermaine as odd that the Covenant hadn't made a counter-attack yet. He raised two fingers to his ear.

"Layla, what's your status down there?"

"Street's secure. Saw a couple of Phantoms fly straight past a minute ago; looks like the Covvies are retreating."

They never retreat. He had a bad feeling about this.

"Layla, I want you to have Daniel pick you up ASAP. We're exfiltrating the area right now."

There was a faint, unusual crackle when she responded. "You'd better hurry up too, there's something messing with my comms. I can see something-"

Layla was abruptly cut off as a shockwave passed over them, shattering whatever windows hadn't already been broken in the heavy fighting. Thick clouds of smoke billowed up all around them. Jermaine ran out onto the balcony and looked up, clenching his fists. The three CCS-Class Battlecruisers that had been holding their position outside Manassas were moving in to glass the city. The nearest one was barely a dozen blocks away; they'd be dead if they tried to escape on foot.

"The roof!" he yelled, waving for the others to follow.

Filippa moved behind him, carrying the semi-conscious Folman in her arms while the Marines brought up the rear, crying out in fear and desperation. They knew as well as he did that they'd be dead in minutes if backup didn't arrive. Thankfully, the roof hatch had not been touched, and a swift kick from Jermaine sent it flying off its hinges. Their little group wandered out onto the roof, the Marines bent double against the scorching winds as the Spartan struck up a flare from his pack. It shone like a beacon as the skies around them darkened, Jermaine waving it to and fro for over a minute.

"Chief, where the hell are you?!" he roared, sounding rather worried.

As his arms began to falter, a set of bright lights appeared nearby and the familiar bulk of a Pelican drifted over the slowly-crumbling rooftop. The rear hatch was already open, with Layla-B101 clinging to a safety harness.

"Get your asses on board, hurry!"

They wasted no time in doing so, piling into the blood tray within moments. Layla slammed the button and the hatch slid shut behind them. Red emergency lights flickered on as they sped away as quickly as the engines allowed. While a CCS-Class Battlecruiser could quite easily blow them out of the sky, it seemed to be focusing all of its power on glassing Manassas for the time being. Once he made sure that everyone was secured in their seats, Jermaine knelt beside Filippa to check on Folman. The Major was very pale.

"She's lost a lot of blood," Filippa glanced up. "Biofoam's the only thing holding her together."

Folman's eyes fluttered open. She tried to sit up, only to wince and clutch her side before noticing the two supersoldiers crouched beside her.

"Don't try and move, Major," Jermaine said softly, reaching into a nearby crate for a medical kit.

Folman ignored him and tried to stand up, only to slump back down again. Her legs just wouldn't move.

"Is this all that's left?" she spoke in a hoarse whisper. "Just us?"

"Yes ma'am."

"I see. At least some of us made it."

Jermaine clacked opened the medkit. Given to them in case of serious injuries, it held advanced materials not present in standard-issue first aid boxes designed for field surgery and the sterilisation of wounds. Keeping his hands steady, he was fishing out some fresh bandages when Filippa tapped his shoulder.

"Jermaine."

He looked over. Folman was still leaning against a chair, staring blankly forward. The light had disappeared from her eyes. There was a small jolt of turbulence as Daniel maneuvered them through some rough sky and her head slumped forward. Filippa leant down and closed her eyes while her comrade silently closed up the kit. None of the other Marines or Layla said a word. After a few seconds, Jermaine sighed, stood up, and walked off into the Pelican's cockpit.

"Major's dead," he said as Daniel looked round.

"Oh."

"Whatever happened to that backup HIGHCOM was sending."

"Should be hitting any minute now."

Jermaine clambered into the co-pilot's seat and pulled up his TACPAD. On it, a holographic image of Manassas - or whatever was left of it - flickered up. Due to the immense amount of energy needed for a Covenant vessel to continue glassing a planet, these ships usually diverted power away from their shields. That gave them the opening they needed. Flying high above, a large formation of Shortsword bombers locked on-target and let loose their payloads, hammering the Battlecruisers with bomb after bomb that hammered the already-weak shields until they dissipated just enough for the second attack run. This time, they dropped Shiva-class nuclear weapons.

"There they go," Daniel said, sounding bored.

As each vessel was struck, a tremendous explosion blossomed forth, completely vaporising anything in the vicinity and sending any remains hurtling to the scorched earth below. One Shiva nuke could level most of a city; three meant absolute annihilation. HIGHCOM had decided to destroy Manassas rather than let it fall into enemy hands.

"We finally get to Manassas, and we're there for all of twenty minutes," Jermaine removed his helmet. "Think we could've helped more if we'd gotten here right away?"

"How many did we get out?"

"Nine Marines. Civvies are either dead or gone at this point."

"Better than nothing, then. We're alive, aren't we?"

The other Spartan did not reply. The Covenant were swarming the planet now, with reports springing up from multiple settlements and military across Reach of enemy involvement. It was all they could do to keep putting down enemy forces wherever they appeared; trying to stem the unending tide of genocidal alien hatred that was the Covenant. Jermaine didn't voice his opinion but he knew this much: They were losing.

Part Three: Defeat

Convoy

1132 Hours, August 29, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Near Pálháza, Viery Territory, Eposz


"There it is! We're nearly there."

"That's Pálháza? It's a damn ruin!"

"It's also the only damn place left for evac around here Private, unless you want to walk to Aszod."

First Lieutenant Venter frowned as the young man sat back down. The Covenant had been tearing the city apart for over two weeks now, and by some miracle it hadn't been conquered or glassed by their alien foe. It really did look like a ruin, but he wasn't going to say anything aloud to dampen the spirits of his comrades or the civilians travelling with them. Standing atop the huge bulk of an M313 Elephant, Venter had a good view of the surrounding countryside as they neared what had been one of Reach's busiest cities. His ear buzzed as his COM activated.

"Venter," Ellison Suarez spoke, sounding slightly woried. "Just picked up something on the long-range. Enemy fliers, probably."

"Got it." He turned and raised a pair of binoculars. Sure enough, a number of tiny specs had appeared on the horizon and were heading their way fast. The city was close, but there was no way they'd reach it before those banshees caught up with them. He clambered onto the Elephant's forward AA gun and switched his COM channel to contact their entire group.

"This is Lieutenant Venter. We've got fliers coming our way, people. Everyone arm up and prepare."

At once, their convoy moved into formation. The civilian transports remained in the centre, while an array of UNSC vehicles lined up on either side with troops scrambling to get into position. Within seconds they had created an effective shield around their protectees as they sped along the road towards Pálháza, with Venter's Elephant in front at full speed.

"Here they come!" Suarez' voice crackled through the COM. As plasma fire streaked towards them, Venter's machine gun span up and let loose a torrent of fire on the incoming Banshees. The first few were cut to pieces by the armour piercing rounds as more swerved and dodged to avoid similar fates. A ball of green energy struck one of the outer vehicles, incinerating those aboard and turning it into a burning mess within seconds.

Shit, Venter stooped for a moment while the weapon cooled off. Across the Elephant a group of weary Marines were putting a steady stream of fire into the incoming fliers; more had descended from the clouds like a swarm of insects not long after the initial assault. Their group lost four more vehicles, including one civilian transport, as they continued down the highway. Pálháza was close. His heavy vehicle tore down the highway, smashing abandoned cars out of the way. A few plasma bolts whizzed by Venter's head, forcing him to duck as nearly a dozen missiles streaked overhead. Across the ruined buildings that dotted what remained of the city rockets and AA guns roared into action, blowing several banshees out of the sky and pushing the rest back.

"We're through!" he called over the COM as they passed out of the exposed highway and into the ruined city streets. While it was clear that there had been heavy fighting here, the presence of UNSC forces within Pálháza put him somewhat at ease. The Elephant slowed down to traverse the main street, trundling along towards a hastily-constructed barricade manned by a group of tired-looking Marines. Several of them approached Venter's Elephant as it drew close.

"Identify yourself!" called a Sergeant, hefting an assault rifle. Venter leant over to reply.

"I'm First Lieutenant Venter of SPECWARCOM. We're taking a group of civilians to an evac site. Is it near here?"

The Marine lowered his weapon. "Yeah, it's not far. Just take the next exit ramp and carry on to Áder Plaza. That's where the evac ships are coming in."

"What about the city spaceport?"

"Covvies bombed it to hell just over a week ago, along with most of the city. It's a miracle we've managed to hold out over here as long as we could."

He nodded. With cities across Reach either being glassed or falling to the Covenant armies, Venter was surprised to find a settlement as defended as this one; most UNSC troops had either left Reach or were deployed to defend larger evacuation sites. "We'll be heading out then. Thanks for the help, Sergeant."

"Good luck sir."

Venter waved his driver forward, and sat back as their convoy moved off the city highway and into the side streets. Though cramped, the Elephant was able to maneuver its way around any major blockages and crushed any abandoned cars with ease. Judging by reports from the others, they had taken a few casualties in their run towards Pálháza, but nothing major. If anything, the civilian's hopes were raised now that they had a chance to escape this hellhole. Even with the reassuring broadcasts and transmissions of UNSC victories in multiple areas, nobody had any doubts that Reach had fallen to the Covenant.

"Venter." His COM buzzed and he activated it.

"Yes Sergeant?"

"About this evac zone..."

"It's just a plaza. Should be enough for larger ships, though."

"I was going to ask about how we're getting off this planet."

Oh. With their constant redeployments, Venter had never really considered what would happen to them once the civilians left. With the fleet in tatters and barely holding on to Reach, there was the very distinct possibility that the remaining military wouldn't have the chance to follow. He'd heard rumours that HIGHCOM had a secret stash of ships and supplies near CASTLE or SWORD base, but both locations were too far-off to reach easily, especially since Venter's group had been without any air support for three days now.

"I don't know. Perhaps they'll let us on the next transport."

"You think so?"

"No, but it's nice to be optimistic."

"I guess we'll just have to wait and see. If it comes down to it, this ain't my first glassing."

The COM switched off. Venter sat in silence atop the Elephant as it finally rounded the corner into what he assumed was Áder Plaza. Most of the adjacent streets had been sealed off with makeshift barricades, and a large number of tents indicated a refugee camp of sorts in one corner. They were shown to another corner of the plaza by a group of Marines; the Elephant was moved to block off another road due to its size and armour while the civilians were taken to the camp. Venter and the rest of his platoon joined a large group of Marines in what he assumed was a command tent of sorts. Alongside the motley assortment of Army Troopers, Marines and Colonial Militia members stood several large figures, clad entirely in metal armour; faces hidden behind opaque visors. One turned to face Venter and his men as they entered the tent.

"Welcome to Pálháza, Lieutenant."

Spartans.

Emergence

1206 Hours, August 29, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Highland Mountains, Viery Territory, Reach


"Sir, I can see light up ahead!"

"Good! Everyone move up, double time!"

It had been a week since their battle with the Covenant Army. Since then, Lee and the survivors had spent their time trudging through the pitch blackness of the Titanium mine that burrowed deep beneath the Highland Mountains. Their way lit only by a few flashlights and the occasional flare, some were close to giving up hope as food supplies dwindled and there seemed to be no end to the darkness. Just ahead of the main group Sikowsky and Steinworth were smashing apart a wooden barricade with their rifles.

"We’re through!"

There was an almighty crash as the planks finally gave way and fell to pieces. Bright sunlight flooded the tunnel, causing groans and making the survivors cover their gloom-accustomed eyes. Lee waited for the majority of their tired, battered group to exit before following them out himself. Marcin Bernard, the only remaining rebel leader from Bohater’s army, had taken it among himself to lead the remnants of their force, though he had been fairly cooperative with Three Hotel over the last few days.

"Sarge!" Steinworth called as he walked out into the sunlight. "Any idea where the hell we are?"

"No clue, Private."

Looking round, this place had evidently been deserted for some time. A number of prefabricated buildings sat around the mine entrance, surrounded by a chainlink fence. A satellite dish sat atop the largest building, which overlooked a long winding road leading through the Highland Mountains.

"Spread out!" Lee ordered. "Keep an eye out for any supplies or transport you can find. Go!"

The six other members of Three Hotel complied immediately, as did a number of the militia. He wondered how many of them had truly believed in the rebel cause and how many were just farmers and frightened villagers who had taken up arms to survive this invasion. In any case, they would have to move out soon. A lot could have happened in an entire week of fighting; if the UNSC were being pushed back before their mission began, then the situation may well have worsened by now. Lee trudged towards the large building, Corporal Sikowksy at his side.

"You think we’re all that’s left?" the younger man asked.

"What’s that supposed to mean?"

"I checked as we left the mines. No local traffic over the COM or any channels I’ve got access to. What if we’re the only forces left on Reach?"

"Nonsense. Comms are always bad in the mountains. I’m going to see if I can use the transmitter here to contact local forces. See if you can find anything useful, Corporal."

"Got it." Sikowsky saluted and ran off.

Lee sighed as he pushed the door open. The room beyond it was littered with office desks and scattered chairs. One of the windows had been smashed, and there was a dark stain in one corner that he couldn't quite identify. Something about it was strange, to say the least. Placing his weapon down on a table, the Sergeant Major knelt down and activated a nearby computer. To his pleasant surprise it purred to life and lit up, indicating that the facility still had some degree of power.

Right. contact command, get the hell out, go back to the fight.

After a few seconds the monitor flashed up. There were only two icons remaining, which struck him as a little odd. One was the standard communicator built into most outposts like this one, while the other appeared to be a set of files. While contacting his superiors was the priority, Lee couldn't help but take a glance at the file set. Opening it up, it appeared to be a personal log of sorts chronicling the efforts of a mining operation here just over a year beforehand. Odd. Thought they’d given up on mining here. While most were brief entries about daily business, the last few piqued the trooper’s interest.


March 2nd, 2551
Whoever’s running this operation is an idiot. The foreman told them just as I have that they’re digging in the wrong direction if they actually want anything valuable. But no, the bosses want us digging down. I don’t know what they’re expecting to find down there but it’s clear that nobody upstairs has so much as looked at the recent surveys. They’re not even making an attempt to re-establish contact with the other entrance across the mountains. I’d been getting some strange readings from there. Maybe some farmers or isolationist nuts are living there? Who knows. At least SinoViet’s paying us well for this job or I’d be on the first transport back to Mars.


March 19th, 2551
They’ve struck gold. Figuratively, of course, but whatever the miners hit down there is a massive find. It’s a little too big to extract just yet, so they've moved onto using hand tools for now until the heavy lifting gear arrives. From what I heard it’s not natural. Could it be Covenant? Alien, even? Whatever it is it’s causing a big stir around the site. The foreman had to go to New Alexandria himself to inform the company. Could've just used the comm system but I guess they told him not to. Wonder why. Still, it’s an exciting day. Wish Jenkins would shut the hell up with his ranting about how it was put there for a reason; damn Triad followers always think it’s because of their spirit animal or internal life or whatever the hell it is they believe in. Might have to start putting passwords on these. Would rather not be fired because Jenkins catches me dissing his bogus religion.


March 23rd, 2551
Someone arrived at the site today. Foreman looked over his papers and he seems to check out. Seems that the alien….whatever it is down there has the higher-ups excited if they’re sending suits down here to check on it. When they finally brought it up I could tell that it wasn’t Covenant. After washing it off it looked metallic, though nobody has a clue what it’s built from. The man said that nobody was allowed to touch it and it’s locked up right now. Wonder if e’s actually from SinoViet. Could be from a rival company or even the Government. Wouldn't be surprised if the sent a spook to spy on us. I'm no innie but I know they've been covering a lot of this shit up. The guy caught me staring earlier and shot me a nasty look. Asshole. Can’t quite remember his first name, if he gave one.
Think he said his name was Kahn.


March 27th, 2551
We’re fucked. I’m going to encrypt these files to survive a complete data wipe. If they cleanse the system then these logs will survive. People have to know what’s going on up here. A bunch of soldiers arrived in choppers not long ago. No markings, just black armour. Foreman ran out to complain and Kahn shot him in the head. I was right about him, I fucking knew he was a spook. Everyone else is outside now, I think they've forgotten about me. I can see out the window though; they’re lifting that alien thing onto a dropship. A bunch of the soldiers are taking the miners off now. Going to wait and see. They shot them. I can hear the gunfire from here, and the screaming. This is our own fucking government doing this, the fucking UNSC! Aren't we supposed to be fighting aliens, not each other? I can see them taking the bodies away now. They brought enough bags with them. Fuck, they planned this. They’re gonna kill us so we can’t talk about whatever we found. Shit, Kahn’s heading this way now. Need to hide. Gonna log off now, save this shit. PEOPLE HAVE TO KNOW. We didn’t do anything wrong fuck fuck fuck


The log entries ended there. Lee looked back at the darkly-stained corner and sighed heavily. At least that explained why this place had been abandoned so quickly. Still, there was nothing he could do about it. Lee switched on the comm system and attempted to raise several of the normal UNSC frequencies. Nothing. Some of the lesser-known COM channels that would give a civilian serious jail time were tried too. Where is everyone?. Either the UNSC had switched all their frequencies in the last week or there was simply no one left to answer. In desperation, he tried contacting someone over a personal COM channel. The screen lit up as Lee was connected and a man’s voice filtered through the dusty speakers.

"Who is this? Identify youself!"

"Colonel Holland," Lee smiled. “This is Sergeant Major Lee of Three Hotel, do you read me?”

There was a long pause. "I copy, Three Hotel Actual. I'm not gonna lie, Sergeant, we thought you were dead. What happened out there?"

"It’s a long story Colonel. We've been underground for the past week and need pickup as soon as possible. Can you send assistance?"

"You’re asking for a lot right now, Three Hotel Actual. Send your coordinates and I’ll see what I can do."

“Got it.” Lee transmitted their current location over the COM. After a fre seconds Holland finally responded. He seemed surprisingly happy.

"I've got your position, Sergeant Major. You’re surprisingly close to my current location. Though I can’t dispatch any transports right now, you could make it here via the roads, though it’ll be a long hike." He sighed. "I'm sorry, but it’s the best I can do."

“I understand sir. Thank you."

"Sergeant Major, what’s the current status of your platoon?"

"We’re down to seven, including myself. We’re with a large group of armed civilians numbering twenty-six, and one naval officer."

"Define ‘armed civilians’, Sergeant."

"Mostly local militia and civilians armed to fight the Covenant, sir.” That wasn’t the entire truth, but what Holland didn’t know wouldn't hurt him. Lee doubted that his superior would react well if he told him that they were travelling with a group of Insurrectionists.

"What’s the status of Agent Agata?"

"I'm afraid she didn't make it, Colonel." You left her to die.

"I see. Did she accomplish her mission?"

"Yes sir." She shot Bohater in the back of the head.

"Good. I expect I’ll be seeing you soon, Sergeant Major. Holland out."

The COM link turned off. Lee stood up and took up his rifle as the sound of shouting drifted in from outside. Sighing, he marched out of the building to see Bernard and Steinworth roaring at each other, with far too many raised weapons for his liking.

"I don’t give a damn what you think, you’ll follow the orders you’re given!"

"Fuck you, ya goddamn oonskie! These are my people and they’ll follow me, not you!"

“Your people?! You’re a fucking terrorist!”

Three gunshots rang out in the air as Bernard began to reach for his holster. Lieutenant Kathrin Grunwald stepped between the two, pushing them apart with a smoking handgun in one hand.

"Enough!” she roared, making the pair flinch. “The Covenant could come down on us at any moment and you morons are fighting. Back off, now." She glanced towards Steinworth. "That’s an order."

They did as they were told. As Lee approached, one of the nearby garage doors shuddered open and a large truck reversed into the yard. Sikowksy poked his head out.

"Need a lift? There’s another one in the garage."

Lee nodded. "Steinworth, go get it."

As the sullen trooper walked off to fetch the second truck, he turned to Grunwald.

"Thanks for that, ma’am."

"Not a problem. Did you manage to contact command?"

"Yeah, and I've got a destination for us."

"Oh?" Bernard approached them, arms crossed. “Where’s that? You’re not just gonna dump us in some prison camp, are you?"

"No. Get your people on board, Bernard. We’re going to CASTLE base."

Less Than Fond Farewells

1232 Hours, August 29, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Pálháza, Viery Territory, Eposz

The ten days that had followed the retreat from Reimer Spaceport were fraught with danger. Pálháza had quickly become overrun with Covenant forces, all except the main arterial road that linked it with the last of the Viery continent. Not much was left of the regiment that had once proudly tried to defend the city; only one a half battalion was still holding the final line of defence. Remarkably, civilians were still coming from deep within the city to them. The position had become a final resting point before being sent on to Ader Plaza; the only evacuation point that remained open – on the radio it seemed like there weren’t many left elsewhere. Pálháza was now a two-mile front, a front that was closing quickly. The pocket of resistance was crumbling, but they still had had no order to retreat.

Bren rested her head against a wall, behind sandbags at the front. A machine gun tucked snugly underneath Raul’s helmeted head beside her. Raquel and Kevin were briefing the new Special Operators that had arrived, Venter and Suarez.

“We’ve lost haven’t we?” Bren asked, not really expecting an answer.

“Yeah,” came Raul’s solemn reply. “Nowhere but Earth from here.”

Bren ran her armoured hand over short hair, a stark difference from the tightly shaven dome she had not one month ago.

“You think we’ll be leaving soon?” Raul asked, without turning his head.

“I have no idea.”

“There’s not much left here. Pelicans coming down aren’t anywhere near as frequent.” He pondered for a moment. “I can’t believe there are that many people left in Pálháza.”

As if scripted, a shout of “Truck incoming!” boomed from behind them. Raul and Bren barely acknowledged the chugging motor as a gap in the line was made for them to get in.

“Apparently so,” Bren finally said dryly.

The midday sun was at its zenith. Small beads of sweat began populating the forehead of the tired, female Spartan. She had not expected it to have been so quiet for so long. The past days had been relentless bombardment by the Covenant. Perhaps they were licking their wounds. It must have surprised them how resiliently the skeleton regiment was defending, it was a constant surprise to her. Today though, filled her with an overbearing sense of dread. There was a distinct feeling of finality in her gut that she was unable to shake. Everywhere she looked, she saw the tired, sunken eyes of the soldiers around her. Their movements were laboured, the feet dragged along the ground. Every piece of equipment seemed to have double its weight to them. Yes, the more she thought the more she accepted that she and her team would either escape Reach, of become nothing but glass on a barren world.

“Bren?” Her com piece buzzed.

“Go ahead, Raquel.”

“Kevin and I are returning to you with Suarez and Venter.”

“Understood.”

Raquel turned to the two new members of their makeshift defence team. “Bren and Raul are at the front.” Raquel explained. “That position has seen some of the heaviest fighting. It’s why we’re being posted there; not enough soldiers to spare.”

“Understood,” Venter responded.

“What are we like for ammunition?” Suarez inquired. “Where we came from things were especially dire.”

“We’re just below especially dire,” Raquel replied laconically.

“Most troubling,” Suarez mused.

“It is.”

The part of the highway they walked along was swamped by tents, erected by civilians and soldiers alike. Temporary shelters gave relief to wounded soldiers and a sense of a home to those escaping civilians whose property had long been destroyed by the ever encroaching Covenant.

Another “vehicle incoming,” was heard over the loud speaker.

“People are still getting out?” Venter asked. “That’s madness.”

“Hard to believe, but yeah. Get about three of four new arr –.” Raquel’s sentence was cut off by a large boom, followed by even larger shrieks.

“Jesus,” Kevin whispered.

A distinct whine perforated the air, and was soon followed by an equally familiar arcing blue orb of plasma.

“Cover!” A soldier shouted. All four of them dove behind an overturned car, as the plasma landed a few feet away from the Spartans and their companions. The splash caused Raquel’s shields to flicker slightly. They stayed in cover for a few moments, expecting another salvo.

“Is that it?” Venter asked.

“I… I think so,” Raquel replied.

Their suspicions were confirmed after an “all clear” was boomed across the base.

“First time that’s happened?” Suarez enquired.

“Yes, ma’am, it is,” Kevin confirmed. “They’ve been silent for a while.”

A small spiral of smoke curled into the air above them, it was dark, a fire was still raging somewhere. The four special forces operatives continued their journey towards the frontline, small shrieks could be heard from the hastily erected medical tents. Raquel heard one medic mention something about “being out of biofoam.” She shook her head softly, to those looking her helmeted head looked like it was barely moving. A battle rifle hung loosely around her shoulder.

“Bren,” Raquel began, “mic check.”

There was no response; white noise crackled in her ear.

“Shit,” Raquel whispered and bolted off to her friend’s position. The smoke began to cloud her visor and it struggled to filter it away.

“Oh Jesus… Oh no,” Raquel whimpered. Bren and Raul’s position had been the target of the Covenant’s bomb. Bren lay unconscious, blood trickling from her left eye. Raul’s eyes stared blankly and straight into Raquel’s. His visor was cracked, dark, congealed blood covered his nose and upper mouth, his teeth were shattered and his skin was puckered with glass. Raquel’s eyes slowly moved up: Raul’s abdomen was severed completely, and the wound cauterised. She fell to her knees; her legs unable to support the armoured body.

“Raquel?” Kevin asked as he finally caught up with Raquel. She didn’t turn around and could hear his gun rattled off the ground as saw the scene before him. The shock didn’t last long, as Kevin hastily went to Bren’s unconscious body and placed his gauntleted hand at her throat.

“She’s alive,” he said as he turned to Raquel, “pass me the syringe in my bag.”

Raquel didn’t move for a moment, “Raquel!” He snapped. She finally emerged from her stupor and rummaged through the bag before passing to Kevin what he needed. A siren wailed just as Kevin took it. The whining of plasmas mortars resumed as Venter and Suarez took up defensive positions. The staccato fire of small arms fire erupted around them, as the beleaguered regiment took their positions and began to hold. Kevin placed the syringe into the slot in Bren’s armoured and pressed down; the clear liquid rapidly left and entered the Spartan’s bloodstream. Within a moment, Bren was roused into consciousness.

“Welcome back, ma’am,” Kevin said as a fuel rod rocket landed immediately in front of them.

“R-Raul?” She asked.

Kevin shook his head, and gently pushed her down as she tried to get up, “Give yourself a moment.”

Bren took a few deep breaths, and tried to clear the fog from her head.

“Suarez and Venter here?” She asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Venter responded.

“Go defend the last pelicans,” she ordered. “There’s not much time left here.”

The two nodded and left. Bren picked up her weapon and gingerly pushed herself to her feet.

“Bren,” Raquel said, “what are our orders?”

Bren surveyed the area: about forty-five metres ahead of them lay a forward outpost in a hydrogen station, now devoid of the explosive liquid. She saw the flash of the machine gun and began heading over. Behind her, screams punctured the air not filled by the sound of battle. Soldiers desperately tried to hurry civilians towards the last evacuation centres.

“Kevin, Raquel, set up out here. I’m going to speak to the commander.” Bren ordered, and ducked inside. A ragged looking Lieutenant Colonel and his dead-eyed support staff frantically looked over maps and made calls in their radio. Bren had to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention.

“Christ,” he gasped. “What is it, Spartan?”

“Where’s Ishido?”

“Dead,” was the solemn monosyllabic response. Bren took a deep breath to compose herself.

“Where do you need us?” She asked.

He looked down at the map, studying it.

“Sir?” A female officer said.

“What is it?”

“An update from Delta Company, they’re holding, but down to 30% combat effectiveness. Bravo Company is retreating. Down to 15% combat effectiveness.”

“Jesus,” he whispered. “That’s our right flank.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve sent Venter and Suarez to help defend the aid-station and civilians, sir.”

“That should buy us more time.” The officer said as he chewed his lip.

“Sir, another report coming in, from Alpha this time.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“Charlie Company has been wiped out. The left flank has completely crumbled, Alpha and Echo are pulling back to Checkpoint Juliet and Covenant forces are beginning to swarm the areas inside the outer walls.”

“There goes air support,” Bren whispered.

The commanding officer looked broken. “Sp-Spartan, t-take your team and help Alpha and Echo. Buy us as much time as you can, we’ve got to protect the civilians.”

“Negative, sir,” Bren replied. “That wouldn’t be a good idea. If we bring those companies back here, we can consolidate with the garrison here and do more good.”

“I’m not sure, Spa-“ he began but Bren cut him off.

“Sir, we’re completely outflanked. We’ve lost, all right?” Bren felt as if a gravity hammer had smashed her in the chest as the words left her mouth. She meant it. She knew she meant it, but it hadn’t made it less hard to hear. “If we fall back, we’re surrounded utterly and there is no room between us and the civilians. This way, at least, we have separation. Call it, sir.”

He nodded grimly and with a shaking hand lifted the radio phone. “Alpha One, this is Indigo Actual, over.”

“Alpha One, go ahead Indigo Actual, over.”

“Alpha One, you and Echo are to retreat to my position and hold. We’ve gotta give the evacuation more time, out.”

“Yessir,” the commanding officer of Alpha Company said as he clicked the radio.

“Okay,” the makeshift regiment said as he turned back to Bren. “There you have it. Get ready.”

She nodded and headed back outside to the rest of her team. The fighting had stopped, both of them were looking over their weapons.

“So here’s the plan. We’re pulling everything back from our left flank to hold here; buy some time for the civvies to get out. We’ve also got no fuckin’ air support.”

“Christ,” Raquel replied.

“I know,” Bren inhaled deeply and exhaled sharply. “Look. If I’m being honest, this is it. I can’t see this going any other way but south. So Kevin, I need you to go help those aid station workers. There are next to no doctors left and no one there has as much experience as you.”


Kevin’s stoic exterior broke only slightly through an uncomfortable shift in his position. Bren knew what it mean. In the end he only muttered, “I understand.”

Bren grabbed his shoulder, “Good luck, Spartan. I’ll see you on the other side.”

Kevin nodded as he got up and behind heading behind the lines.

“All right, Bren,” Raquel chirped up. “What’s the plan?”

Bren turned and pointed to the roof of the station. Raquel silently got up and began lumbering up. It taken long until both she and Bren were above ground, surveying the lines ahead of them. As Raquel began to set up their sniper, Bren took mental notes of the battelines. Alpha and Echo had arrived and their numbers seemed to be significantly smaller than first thought. They, coupled with the garrison already present, brought the number of soldiers to just under six hundred. A small, stupidly brave, group of soldiers had taken up a forward position within an apartment complex just over two hundred metres away from the rest. The tired soldiers began hastily setting up gun positions in the overturned cars and cracked walls that ran across the street. Sounds of the advancing Covenant rumbled in their ears.

Gunfire began bellowing from the apartment building, but were quickly silenced by a wailing arcing orb of blue plasma.

“Shit,” Bren whispered.

The lances emerged in standard formation, Grunts and Jackels in front. The diminutive aliens snarled as they fired their plasma pistols. They were quickly cut down by the machine gun positions.

Raquel looked through the scope of her sniper, “Bren, the Elites are holding back.”

Before Bren could answer, several banshees swooped down from behind them, firing several plasma rockets at the beleaguered UNSC positions. Three exploded atop the station’s roof, sending the Spartans tumbling down, crushing several of the command staff below.

Raquel rolled over and starting moving to her feet, “Bren,” she said, “We have to go.”

Bren laughed bitterly, “That’s going to be a problem.”

Raquel finally looked over at her comrade and was horrified but what she saw. Bren’s left leg had been completely severed below the knee and her right foot had been blown off.

“Drag me outside,” she said.

Raquel gripped Bren’s by the collar and did so, eventually putting her in front of wall, with a clear line of sight of the battlefield. Raquel hastily grabbed and dead soldier’s assault rifle and gave Bren it.

“Good luck, Bren,” Raquel said through soft sobs.

Bren only nodded in reply as Raquel ran off to join the front. She found the last surviving officer, the CO of Alpha Company.

“Sitrep, sir!” She bellowed through the staccato sounds of ballistic rounds and the distinctive whine of plasma fire.

“We’re fucked!” He replied.

“We’ve gotta hold,” she told him sternly.

“I know.”

Raquel sighed, she knew what she had to do to buy more time. She fired two controlled bursts into two different elites, dropping them before charging off into the fray of battle. The Elites still hadn’t joined the battle. Without their disciplinarian nature, the Grunts and Jackals advancing quickly broke ranks and began retreat. Raquel dropped to her knee and began firing controlled bursts into the retreating Covenant – they dropped quickly. She got up off her knee and slowing moved forward, taking precisely aimed shots at the enemies behind cover.

Her concentration was broken as a cacophony of roars erupted ahead of her. Four Elites, energy swords raised began charging at her. Raquel aimed down the sights of her weapon and pulled back the trigger, only to be greeted by the feared noise of click click click. Raquel didn’t have time to reload, she planted her right foot behind her and raised her rifle in a defensive posture. The closest elite, a minor in charred blue armour, swung recklessly allowed for Raquel to dodge easily and plant a savage kick on his knees. He howled in agony. A second elite, a major armoured in gleaming crimson took a more calculated swipe at Raquel, forcing her to put her rifle in the way. The energy sword cut through the weapon with ease, staggering her.

“Shit,” she cursed before taking out her knife.

The reckless elite had recovered and launched another vicious charge at Raquel. She quickly dodged to the side and grabbed the wrist on the Elite’s sword hand. Reckless turned and screamed in her face, Raquel responded by head butting him and then drove her knife into his wrist, causing him to screech in agony. The energy sword fell to the ground and Raquel hastily picked it up and ignited it. She’d used the weapon once before, but even she knew she couldn’t possibly go toe-to-toe with three well trained elites.

Crimson and his two subordinates began circling her, walking slowly and twitching their mandibles in agitation. An elite who hadn’t attacked before lunged for her, Raquel was quickly able to block with her sword but was forced to jump back when the fourth elite, this one was missing three of his mandibles, took an opportunistic stab at her.

The elite major yelled at Lunge and One-Jaw. Obviously he had wanted to co-ordinate an attack. Raquel took advantage of the lull and made an aggressive cut at One-Jaw; her blade sliced from the top of his neck down, singed flesh perfumed the air. One-Jaw fell to the ground silently. Crimson jabbed at Raquel, she shifted to the right and brought down her sword, however Lunge parried with his sword, protecting Crimson. Lunge threw all his strength into his sword-arm as his thrusted upwards, forcing the sword from the beleaguered Spartan’s hand, forcing her to take several steps backward.

Raquel felt something grip her left leg; as she looked down she was greeted by Reckless. He pulled his arm, causing Raquel’s left to be lifted violently off the ground. She landed on the ground with a thud, her shields flaring. Crimson and Lunge cackled and moved towards her. Lunge brutally kicked Raquel onto her back, and then immediately brought his foot down upon her armoured chest. Raquel was winded, and could only watch as Crimson impaled his sword in her chest. A soft gasp escaped her lips as she was swallowed by darkness.

Bren could only watch helplessly as her oldest comrade was killed. She keyed her com to Kevin. “It’s just you now,” she said. She focused her eyes upon Raquel’s motionless corpse as she herself was finally killed, engulfed in a barrage of anonymous plasma.

Kevin had barely had time to acknowledge his commanding officer’s final words. He, Venter and Suarez were holding a slowly collapsing line: the entrance to the final evacuation zone. Plasma whizzed past Kevin’s head as he fired his rifle into the oncoming monolith of Covenant.

“How we doing?” Venter screamed into the com, barely dodging a needler round.

“Got our final ship ready, sir!” A soldier replied.

“Every one,” Venter began, “fall back!”

Kevin and Venter advanced outside of the door in order to provide covering fire. The Covenant continued their inexorable march forward, eventually forcing the duo back inside. They retreated to a squad of soldiers taking cover behind a bench. Suarez was there organising them.

“Sir,” she began without meeting his gaze. “We’re going to hold here.”

“Ellison, no – you can’t be serious?”

She nodded grimly. “’fraid so, sir.”

The head of the soldier to their right exploded as a carbine round sped past.

“Get out of here!” Suarez bellowed as she moved herself out of cover and began firing on the enemy.

Kevin stood up and grabbed Venter’s shoulder and slightly dragged him to his feet.

“Thank you,” Venter said softly as he turned and ran towards the extraction. The makeshift extraction zone was a cacophony of noise: the staccato of ballistic rifles; the whine of plasma; indistinct voices of fleeing and fighting soldier alike; the bone-chilling growls of Brutes. Venter began motioning for the wounded soldiers to hurry as he, Kevin and three other surviving soldiers not plucked to be in Suarez’s holding action were all the wounded had for protection.

Venter's gaze was fixated on the battle raging thirty feet in front of him. One by one, the soldier’s bravely defending the transport began to fall. He could vaguely see Suarez throw two grenades. A needler round caught her in the neck and exploded before she had touched the ground. Robbed of their stalwart the soldier’s defending quickly lost what little morale they had left and tried to flee; all were cut down in a hail of spikes immediately as they left cover.

“Spartan,” Venter barked, “finish getting the wounded on board – we’re leaving!”

“We’ve got too many wounded, sir!” Kevin said.

“Leave everyone who can’t walk.”

Kevin swallowed hard inside his suit and nodded. Venter turned his attention to the other soldiers, and motioned with them to move up with him to take a defensive position. All four cautiously fired from cover, this close to evac none of them wanted to die. Behind them, Kevin worked furiously to get the pelican started but he was completely out of his depth. Eventually the engines fired up. Venter and the soldiers began a staggered retreat; he made sure he was the furthest forward. He took an extra moment to fire at a brave Brute that had separated himself from his pack. Venter gunned him down, but before he could take a step onto the pelican he took a spiker round in the gut.

“Fuck!” He hissed.

Kevin rushed forward and dragged him up the loading ramp.

“G-get me to the pilot’s chair!” He said through gritted teeth. Kevin obliged, and picked him up with his augmented strength. The soldiers had begun to get jittery. Kevin gently placed Venter in the pilot seat. At once Venter began to work the controls and lifted the pelican into the air, guiding it away from the incoming ground fire. He keyed for the ramp to close and he could hear, much to his pleasure, a collective sigh from those in the back.

“Got to get that out,” Kevin said.

“Yeah.”

Venter gritted his teeth as Kevin pulled the round out, he audibly groaned as the biofoam was applied. The stinging made his eyes water.

Kevin leaned on the console next to the pilot. “What’s the plan?” He asked.

Venter pointed to the flashing red light on the dash. “Those are folks who need our help. We’re gonna help them.”

Kevin nodded and straightened up. “I’m sorry,” he said as he headed into the passenger bay.

“Yeah,” Venter whispered as he looked straight ahead into the orange hue of Reach’s burning sky.

Courage

1640 Hours, August 29, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Camp Hathcock, Highland Mountains, Reach

Helljumper Helljumper where you been?
Feet first into hell and back again!
When I die please bury me deep!
Place an MA5 down by my feet!
Don't cry for me don't shed no tear!
Just pack my box with PT gear!
Helljumper helljumper were you been!
And I will drop and drop again!

The old Helljumper cadence echoed across the inner walls of Camp Hathcock as a line of trainees in Army fatigues marched past, led by a black-armoured ODST. Staff Sergeant Robson had eagerly taken to getting the rag-tag group into shape since their arrival three days ago. While most of Reach's civilian population had gone straight for the first evacuation ships once it became clear that the Covenant had the upper hand, some had attempted to join the military straight away. Those that weren't turned away had been shipped off to one of the planet's various training centres, only to be shepherded from base to base as most instructors were either dead or fighting and the Covenant's advance made it difficult to properly train one hundred and eighty-nine men and women.

So at last, they had come here. Camp Hathcock. Initially built as a retreat for important VIP's and one of the planet's lesser-known military installations, necessity had turned it into a rally point for all UNSC forces for hundreds miles around. At this point, it was either this place or CASTLE base for those who couldn't reach one of the few far-off shipyards left on Reach.

"How long d'you think they'll last?"

"In a firefight? Couple of minutes, probably."

In an abandoned office overlooking most of Hathcock's exterior, Privates Maxwell and Calzaghe sat with their helmets off, watching the long line of trainees struggle to keep up with Robson. Lance Corporal Braun jogged at the rear of the column in full armour, taking every opportunity to yell at anyone who fell behind and waving a stun rod around threateningly.

"I mean, what's the point?" Maxwell sighed. "Chances are they'll be dead the moment any actual Covvies arrive."

"Sarge's orders."

"Which one?"

"Who d'you think?"

When the remnants of Charlie Platoon arrived at Camp Hathcock four days ago, it had been more or less abandoned. Anyone of importance had either left Reach or had gone to a more secure location, leaving eight Orbital Drop Shock Troopers more or less in charge of things. The trainees had been unceremoniously dumped at the base by several Albatross dropships a day later, and aside from basic uniforms and equipment they'd been given less than a week of training.

Maxwell shook his head. "They're just civvies in costume," he spat.

"At least Robson's making sure they don't shoot each other."

"Good for him."

The door behind them hissed open, prompting the two troopers to stand and salute.

"Staff!" they said in unison.

Staff Sergeant Corin Davis nodded, and glanced out towards the trainees Maxwell and Calzaghe had been watching.

"Better hope they're ready, troopers. You better be, too."

"Any word from command?" Calzaghe asked.

Davis turned and waved for them to follow him. "Come and see."

The operations room Charlie Platoon had turned into their headquarters was one of few areas in Camp Hathcock that still had power. Upon their arrival, Mitchell had ensured that the base's data cores were purged of any information that could not fall into Covenant hands and shut down any non-essential areas. With several backup generators on-site, Camp Hathcock could sustain itself for some time now that many of Reach's power plants had been destroyed. However, as they were stuck here until further notice, the decision had been made to preserve as much as they could to bring the defence systems online if need be.

"Sarge!" Davis called. Across he room, Ash Mitchell looked up from the holotank he was studying. A map of Camp Hathcock sat there, with power lines, autoturrets and AA emplacements highlighted in purple.

"Good, you're here. We've got a situation, troopers. Grigor?"

Sat at a nearby desk, Sergeant Panossian tapped a datapad and the holographic image reformed into a map of the nearby Highland Mountains. The continent-spanning range stretched out for thousands of kilometres, with Hathcock nestled in the far west. Enhancing the zoom, the map focused on the immediate area, and the shapes slowly moving north towards them.

"Covenant attack force," Mitchell said grimly. "Couple of thousand, with an SDV-class Corvette for air support."

"You certain they're heading this way?" Maxwell asked.

"There's nothing else worth attacking in this area, and I guess they deemed the base too valuable to bomb from orbit."

Davis snorted. "Lucky us."

"At least we've still got a satellite feed. If this thing hadn't picked up the Covvies then we wouldn't have detected anything until they entered the nearby valley."

"Or someone looked out a window and saw a Corvette bearing down on us," remarked Calzaghe.

Mitchell nodded to Panossian, who changed the hologram back to focus on Camp Hathcock itself. A number of icons popped up, each representing some kind of defensive position, chokepoint, or automated turret. Lines scrolled over the image, separating the base into three distinct areas.

"We're setting up three phase lines to defend he base: Alpha, Beta and Gamma. We'll most likely be fighting a retreat towards the inner levels of the base, but I want to make those Covvies pay for every inch of ground."

"Eight of us and a bunch of half-trained civvies." Davis frowned. "We've not got much, Mitchell."

"I've sent four emergency hails today alone, Sergeant. Not sure what else I can do."

"I suppose it's too late to abandon the base and head for the hills?" said Maxwell. Nobody was sure if the trooper was being serious or not.

Mitchell stood with both hands clasped over the holotank, staring at the enemy force being projected in real-time as the first few scouting vehicles climbed the long path that led into the Highland Mountains.

"Contact Robson and tell him to get everyone in here. I'm gonna tell them what we're up against."

"Sarge, with respect," Panossian stood up. "How the hell are they gonna take the news? They're not soldiers."

"As far as I'm concerned, any man or woman with a gun on my side is a soldier right now. We'll let them know what's coming and let them know that in all likelihood, we're all going to die today. If that doesn't motivate them to fight then I don't know what will."

***

Things went slightly better than Mitchell had expected. After informing the sweaty, worn-out militia members of their predicament once they'd finished Robson's gruelling hike, a grim silence set over them as they pondered their situation. He'd been sure to explain that the only way out that didn't involve going through a Covenant army would involve a slow trek on foot through the Highland Mountains. Camp Hathcock had been deliberately built in a fairly isolated part of Reach for a reason, after all.

"So we're all dead then," one man said, raising his hand to speak. "That's what you're telling us."

"I never said that, Mitchell replied calmly, clasping both hands behind his back. "I said that it's likely, yes, but not a certainty."

Another one spoke up. "But there are thousands of them out there! What are we supposed to do?"

"When you went for recruiting stations instead of evac ships, recruits, you made a choice. You chose to defend Reach and give your lives if necessary so that others could live. We've got a good supply of weapons and equipment, and the base goes down for hundreds of metres underground. If necessary, we can outlast the Covenant down there."

Though many seemed to buy into the Master Sergeant's speech, Mitchell knew full well that their chances of survival down there were very slim. Even if they did make pursuit impossible, there was a very good chance that their foe would simply have the base glassed from orbit if a frontal attack failed. They still had nearly an hour to prepare, though.

"Sergeant Robson!" he called. "Let the recruits eat and shower, then take them to the armoury. Full kit, too; I don't want anything wasted."

The Staff Sergeant nodded and began barking orders for them to follow him. The tired, aching men and women scattered around the entrance hall groaned as they got up, but the promise of a meal and shower was enough to make them quickly leave. Once they were gone, Mitchell turned to Sergeant Angelo.

"Vince, take Braun and Maxwell and start setting up those LOTUS mines along the outer perimeter. You've got twenty minutes."

"Got it," he muttered and ran off, the other ODST's in tow. They wouldn't have the luxury of a last meal. He'd considered asking some of the militia members to set things up, but the last thing he needed was someone accidentally blowing themselves up with an improperly-set anti-tank mine.

"The rest of you, with me. We're gonna get the base defences online."

Due to the power conservation measures they'd put in place upon their arrival, Mitchell, Davis and Maxwell had to trek to each of Camp Hathcock's perimeter stations and manually activate each device. The outer walls were lined with deployable turrets, armed with either KG MK34 flame mortars or Anaconda missiles. They had been installed decades ago to deal with potential security breaches from Insurrectionist attackers, but would make short work of most Covenant infantry and light vehicles.

"Sarge," Davis spoke over the COM. "Got the main gate's defences up, is it okay if I double back and activate the M8's?"

As Mitchell opened his mouth to answer, an all-too-familiar whining sound echoed across the valley. "Get to it, double time!"

After inputting a series of commands, Mitchell stood back as the final turret unfolded, stretching out over Camp Hathcock's instacrete outer walls. Phase Line Alpha would involve holding the Covenant from here to the inner walls, which were made from Titanium-A - the same metal that comprised starship armour - and over a metre thick. Aside from a thin space between two buildings just wide enough for him and the others to slip through, the ground across the main road and most other wide areas leading into the base had been laced with AT mines.

Angelo waved him over as he and the others backed into the inner courtyard. "Banshees on the horizon!"

Mitchell merely nodded and rushed through, letting the thick doors slam shut behind him. The militia had begun to file out of the armoury, now clad in heavy body armour and sporting a wide array of weaponry. He winced as one dropped a SAW on his foot accidentally.

"Okay people, get into position!" Mitchell yelled. "Keep your heads down and let the turrets do their work for now. Don't fire until we give the order!"

From the front gates came the steady buzz of gunfire as the turrets activated, their systems instantly identifying the approaching Covenant as hostile forces. Armour-piercing rounds smashed through ranks of incoming Grunts and overwhelmed the energy shields carried by Jackals, while Skirmishers ran forward in a vain attempt to leap over the walls. From his position in the inner guard tower, Mitchell watched one traverse the high wall in a single bound, only to land directly on a landmine. Body parts and broken concrete rained down around, leaving a small, smoking crater.

"How's the ammo looking?" he asked Calzaghe, who was kneeling by a portable computer.

"Main guns'll last nearly an hour at the rate they're going. Longer if I divert ammo from the ones we're not using."

"Enemy casualties?"

"See for yourself."

The trooper tilted his screen so Mitchell could see and brought up the feed from one of the gatehouse turrets. Through the smoky haze of gunfire he could see a mass of corpses, cut to shreds before they could even approach the gate. Beyond that, however, a number of energy shields had been set up to give the attackers some time to advance. Behind the usual Grunt, Jackal and Skirmisher bodies lay the charred remains of an apelike alien in heavy armour - A Brute. Mitchell sighed; they were always a hassle to fight. At least those flame mortars were making the hairy bastards keep their distance for now. If we're hitting 'em this hard, then a counter-attack might be-

An explosion cut off his line of thought as the outer gate was vaporised in a flash. Mitchell glanced up to see the teardrop shapes of Seraph fighters streaking over the base. Their plasma charges reduced most of the turrets to smoking wrecks, giving enemy infantry room to advance. The M8 'Wolf Spider' Turrets atop the main building opened fire simultaneously, and managed to blast through the shields of one fighter as it turned, sending it spiralling down into the nearby forest.

"Mitchell!" Robson called over the COM. "First Phase Line's done for, permission to head down and engage?"

"Granted. Give 'em hell."

"Will do."

He watched as the Staff Sergeant clambered down, a group of Militia at his back. While their hastily-deployed minefield would keep the Covenant at bay for some time, they'd have a harder time picking their way through with Robson's men hitting them as well. Mitchell just hoped that those Seraphs wouldn't risk another run.

"Let's move!" Robson roared, grabbing a Battle Rifle from a nearby table as the inner gate jerked open. He'd taken the best shots he could find in the hastily-assembled militia and placed them along the walls to provide cover fire while he and his team lay down suppressing fire at anything coming through what remained of the outer gatehouse. Two men carried portable M247 machine guns, while the remainder of his squad had picked up SAW's and Army-issue MA37 assault rifles from Camp Hathcock's armoury.

"Shit, this is heavy," panted one recruit, an overweight man named Russo.

"Shut it," he barked, sidling through the opening in the gate. "Get those guns set up."

The squad hurriedly followed his commands, eager not to piss off the trooper. Barely thirty metres ahead of them down the main driveway, enemy infantry were picking their way through the still-burning wreckage of the outer gate. Robson dropped to one knee and let loose two bursts of fire at some Grunts who were attempting to clamber over a pile of rubble. One pitched forward with a spray of blood, while another burst into flames as its methane tank erupted, sending several others squealing for cover. He smirked.

"Nice shot, sir," Russo nodded towards him enthusiastically.

"I'm not a 'sir', recruit. I work for a living."

"Huh?"

"Just keep your eyes on the gate."

Checking his ammo counter, the trooper moved away from their position and around to the right, checking the gap between two buildings. Much to his surprise, he came face-to-face with the reptilian features of a muscular Jackal, leading several of its kin towards him.

"Fuck!" he yelled, backing away and attempting to raise his gun. The first Jackal grabbed the barrel of his rifle and forced it down as its energy pistol began to overcharge. Releasing the weapon, Robson kicked the alien back and ducked as a scorching ball of plasma flashed past his head. Before it could raise its energy shield he drew his pistol and fired repeatedly, scoring hits along the upper body that dropped his foe immediately. The others hissed and drew back, shields raised as he expended the rest of his magazine. Two militia members ran over and lay down a steady stream of fire that kept the aliens at bay long enough for the ODST to retrieve his rifle.

"Get back!" he pushed one of them out of the way as he tossed a frag grenade forward. Confined by the narrow space between the two structures, the Jackals tripped over one another in an attempt to retreat and were blown to pieces.

"Shit, that was close," one woman remarked as she reloaded.

"Yeah, bastards would've had us if we'd been a minute slower," muttered the other.

"Cover this point, there'll be more," Robson said flatly.

As he stooped to retrieve the energy shield of the Jackal he'd shot, the trooper noticed it wasn't quite dead. He'd not seen many of this type of Jackal - usually they were skinny things with bulbous eyes or the more avian-looking Skirmishers - and looked over it for a few seconds as it slowly choked to death on its own blood. After a few seconds, he drew his combat knife and slit its throat. Waste of bullets.

"Russo, how're we looking?" Robson asked as he approached the gunner's post. Both recruits were firing in short busts towards the outer gate.

"They're coming through slowly, Si- Sergeant. Little ones, mostly."

"Keep up the fire, then, and conserve ammo."

"Will do."

Taking three other members of his team, the trooper then checked the left-hand buildings in case more Jackals were sneaking up on them. Thankfully, each space between was devoid of aliens. He stationed his recruits there anyway before kneeling and activating TEAMCOM.

"Mitchell, this is Robson. We're holding out down here. What's your situation?"

"The M8's just took down a few more Banshees," replied Charlie Platoon's leader. "Those Seraphs haven't come back yet, but we've sighted Phantoms dropping in reinforcements further back."

"Infantry or armour?"

"Probably both. We'll hold Phase Line Beta for as long as we can; I've sent another hail out to friendly forces, just in case."

"Copy that, Robson out."

He sighed as the COM shut off. The possibility of help at this point seemed next to none. While he'd follow his orders to the letter, some part of him couldn't shake the feeling that Charlie Platoon and the militia had been abandoned at Hathcock rather than assigned; expendable troopers meant to go down with the base they'd been sent to destroy. Still, now wasn't the time to worry about such things, especially with the enemy bearing down on them. As he approached the gunners, there was another explosion from the ruined gatehouse as the last of the rubble fell apart and a Covenant vehicle smashed through. It made it a few feet down the path before tripping one of their LOTUS mines and was blown to pieces, scattering burning parts everywhere. Robson threw himself to the ground, grabbing Russo and the other gunner, who hadn't moved. A hunk of burning metal whizzed past and embedded itself in the concrete behind them.

"Choppers," the trooper scowled as he clambered to his feet. "Apes are gonna try and smash through the barricade, no matter how many they lose."

With that, he grabbed a grenade and two extra magazines from their ammo pile, aiming down the sights of his BR55HB as two more of the motorcycle-like vehicles shot forward. Their mines would hardly last forever, and even without them the infantry creeping into the base from the broken outer walls would almost certainly find a way around. One Chopper went the way of the first as its rider realised too late that it was driving into a minefield. The second, going too fast to stop as its comrade exploded, activated the vehicle's boost and went straight for them, grinding wheels spinning as it tore past the landmines at high speed. Robson ran to the left and fired thrice, aiming for the Brute driver's neck. While his shots found their mark and armour-piercing rounds sent the beast flying out of the cockpit to a firey death, the damaged vehicle kept going and rocketed past, striking one of the gunners head-on. Robson's armour was splattered with blood as the man disappeared in a bloody mist and Russo screamed in shock. The Chopper came to a halt, wedged into the gatehouse with chunks of the gunner covering the front. The trooper leant forward into the pilot's seat and deactivated the vehicle.

"You alive, Russo?" he shouted, silencing his terrified screams.

"Y-yeah, Sergeant."

"Good." Robson kept his voice level and tried not to look at the mess to his right. "Minefield's almost depleted. I want you to lay down-"

His COM suddenly crackled to life. "Robson, pull back, now!" Mitchell yelled.

The trooper looked forward and understood. Flying towards the base were at least sixty enemy banshees, each forming a protective line around half a dozen Phantom dropships. Through the hazy smoke in the distance he could just about make out a Covenant Corvette slowly making its way into the valley. One well-aimed plasma salvo and they'd be wiped out.

"Everyone, fall back behind the wall!" he called, bringing back the militia members he'd sent to guard their flanks. They ducked under the ruined Chopper and through the gate. Robson was the last to go through.

"Robson, we're falling back into the base," Mitchell shouted down from the gatehouse as he turned back to the wall.

"What about Beta?"

"Fuck Beta, we can't hold the walls. Regroup at the next phase line!"

Robson shrugged, and yelled for his men to get back inside Camp Hathcock's main building. He saw Angelo and Davis heading towards him as well, followed by their own militia groups; they'd clearly taken some casualties from long-range fighting with enemy infantry. The Staff Sergeant was just about to enter the building himself when three Banshees rocketed overhead, spraying plasma fire. There was a green flash and the gatehouse's control room exploded, showering glass everywhere as several bodies were blasted out onto the ground.

"Shit," Mitchell moaned from nearby as he got to his feet, armour slightly smoking. "Calzaghe?!"

He didn't have to closely examine the Private to see that he was dead; that plasma blast had torn him in half. Leaving the burnt corpses where they had fallen, Mitchell and the other survivors ran inside. Aside from Calzaghe, the other troopers seemed little worse for wear. They'd lost about a dozen militia members though, and the others seemed terrified. Once everyone had made it inside, Lance Corporal Braun jogged upstairs to the security room and activated the building's lockdown protocol. Thick metal shutters came clattering down across the windows, and all the outer doors were suddenly reinforced by metres of steel. Camp Hathcock had been built to survive everything up to a nuclear strike in the days of the Insurrection, though it was clear that such defences wouldn't hold out for very long against a prolonged Covenant attack.

"Robson, Davis!" Mitchell called, sounding tired. "Clear out the armoury and assemble fireteams to cover any possible points of entry. Sergeant Angelo, take Maxwell and Braun and set up rope lines in each elevator shaft in case we lose power and move each elevator car to the lowest levels. That's where we'll end up, if need be."

The troopers got to work without so much as a reply, either barking orders or running for equipment lockers. Mitchell walked towards the briefing room he'd set up as his temporary HQ, trying to ignore the stinging feeling of blistered skin as a result of surviving that bombing run. He opened up a nearby first aid kit and injected a minor painkiller before bringing up screens of their exterior cameras. The remaining M8 turrets on the building's roof had been destroyed, though the ground was now littered with Banshee remains and at least two Phantoms. The others had landed, and a worrying amount of Brutes now ambled around outside, carrying bladed weaponry and looking for any weak points. Their leader was a massive grey-haired specimen in dark armour, carrying a hammer twice Mitchell's size. Pushing his subordinates out of the way and glancing towards a nearby security camera with a sadistic grin, the Chieftain smashed his hammer against the outer door, denting the metal slightly.

They didn't have long.

Mitchell sighed, placing his helmet on a nearby table. Even with their numbers and position, he and his men would almost certainly die within the next hour or so - if they were lucky. He for one had no intention of being captured by the Covenant. Glancing towards a nearby console, it seemed that no one had heard their calls for help yet. For all he knew, they were the only UNSC troops left on the planet. Nonetheless, he walked over and activated the long-distance COM one last time.

"This is Master Sergeant Ash Mitchell of the 11th Shock Troops Battalion, calling from Camp Hathcock. We are under heavy Covenant attack and request immediate assistance, repeat, we request immediate assistance from any local UNSC forces. Please respond."

There wasn't much point in waiting for a response. In the main entrance, the militia had formed a ramshackle barricade of desks and chairs to block the main doors. Another dull thump from outside signalled that the Brute Chieftain was still trying to force his way in. Staff Sergeants Robson and Davis were hauling in more heavy M247 machine guns from the armoury to place on the upstairs balcony, while Braun prised an elevator door open. While their main point of entry would be the front doors, Mitchell was certain that the Covenant would attempt to cut in through the roof and upper offices.

"Sarge, the door!" Maxwell called, shouldering his rifle.

Looking over, Mitchell watched as a few chairs tumbled away from the barricade as the great steel door to Camp Hathcock's main building began to buckle inwards. He soon realised that it was not the Chieftain attacking now, but one or more Hunters letting loose with their assault cannons.

"Everyone, get into position! The moment that door's breached I want you to fire through with everything you've got!"

Leaving the militia under the command of Sergeant Angelo, who had emerged from a nearby elevator shaft, Mitchell jogged upstairs as an explosion from the building's left side sounded. Davis was crouched nearby, sealing off a side corridor with some fast-drying instacrete.

"They're getting in through a side office," he said casually. "Think a Banshee hit it before we initiated the lockdown and the shutters couldn't close properly. Buggers'll get right in."

Mitchell stood there for a moment, clutching his weapon in silence. Davis continued spraying instacrete, seemingly unaffected by the fact that in all likelihood, they'd be wiped out within an hour. As he watched the Gunnery Sergeant, the trooper's mind felt blank, as though the weight of everything happening had hit him all at once. He'd seen men and women go like this from time to time, albeit after particularly dangerous missions. The constant unceasing war had that effect on people. There was an almighty crash as the front door finally gave way and a streak of emerald-green light seared its way into the atrium, setting tables and chairs ablaze.

"They're in!" Robson called from nearby as he dived behind one of the turrets.

He could hear Angelo's hoarse yell of "FIRE!" from downstairs as he took a deep breath, moving slowly as if in a dream until he reached the top of the staircase. Mitchell closed his eyes for five seconds, and when he opened them up again he felt right as rain and sharp as a knife.

"Hold the line!"

Moving quickly as adrenaline coursed through his veins, Mitchell shot downstairs and let loose a few bursts of gunfire towards a group of advancing Grunts, dodging a Needler shard and tossing a grenade forward. The explosion barely affected an advancing Hunter, which rumbled menacingly as its shield deflected all gunfire.

"Everyone, get back!"

"Corporal!?" He turned to see a burly ODST hefting a wicked-looking weapon, emblazoned with grinning shark teeth.

"Burn."

Mitchell and the militia reeled back as Lance Corporal Braun let loose with his flamethrower, sending a burst of yellow flame towards the Hunters. While for a moment it seemed like their near-impervious shields would brush off the inferno, one of the creatures staggered and fell, its worm-like innnards blackened and scorched. The second attempted to raise its assault cannon, only to meet a similar fate as Braun leapt forward with a snarl and cooked it alive in its own armour. A cry of triumph sounded as the militia stood up and began firing once more at a crowd of covering Grunts, most of whom had been keeping clear of the Hunters. A shout went up from Robson above them.

"Brutes, left side!"

While they had been preoccupied by the frontal assault, the Chieftain had evidently been searching for alternate methods of entry and had smashed his own way in through a weakened section of wall. At least a dozen shaggy, snarling aliens dashed from a side corridor, tearing through a knot of militia members in a flash. Though they did not possess energy shielding, their thick hide and plates of body armour made them difficult to take down.

"Aim for the head and neck, recruits!" yelled Mitchell to the militia in full Drill Sergeant mode. "Head and neck!"

"Buggers!" Sergeant Pannosian yelled from the top floor, where he and Davis stood shoulder-to-shoulder with rifles blaring. "Somebody get an MG on those bastards!"

With the front door now a nigh-impassable inferno, Braun turned and spent his remaining fuel setting Brutes ablaze. Several thrashed, screaming as they died, while others ripped out burning tufts of flesh and flew into berserk rages, attempting to kill as many Humans as possible. Spiker fire impaled several soldiers, and for every Brute they took down the defenders seemed to lose several of their own. Mitchell, Braun, Angelo and Maxwell stood fast amid the tide of aliens, firing with expert timing and efficiency as men and women died around them.

"Last mag!" Angelo said in a strained voice.

"I'm running low too."

"Grab what you can from the dead and keep firing, troopers, we can do this!"

"They're climbin' in over their own dead - Fuck!"

Panossian was cut off suddenly as two enemy Drones swooped down, lifting the trooper up from behind suddenly out of cover. While the trooper managed to draw his combat knife and stab one in the head, several others unleashed a torrent of plasma fire towards him. His body jerked as white-hot globules burned through him, the bloodied weapon dropping from his hands as the remaining Drone let him go.

"No!" Robson snarled, grabbing an assault rifle in one hand and a Magnum in the other as he mowed down a line of the bug-like aliens. The one that had grabbed Panossian attempted to fly off, only to have its wings perforated by the trooper's handgun rounds. It fell limply to the ground and tried to crawl away before he finished it off with a round to the head.

That's another man down. Mitchell internally crossed off another comrade's name. Only six of us left.

The fierce battle downstairs was slowly turning into a slaughter, the room filled with the howls of dead and dying soldiers on both sides. Braun and Mitchell were already using stolen Spikers after running out of ammo, and Angelo had dived behind cover to scavenge from their dead as his rifle clacked empty too.

"Still no response about backup?" asked Maxwell over the COM, sounding slightly nervous. "None at all?"

"Nope."

"Crap. Which means-"

"If it looks like we're gonna get overrun we'll head down the elevator shaft and hole up there."

"Then what?"

Mitchell sighed. "Cole Protocol comes first. You know that."

There was a long period of silence, punctuated only by gunfire and the occasional grunt of exertion. Eventually Davis spoke up.

"We can do it remotely, right?"

"Yeah, if we're close enough."

"So it might not come to that."

Mitchell smirked. "It might not."

Of course it will. There was a roar from the side corridor that heralded the arrival of more Brutes, making him shiver involuntarily before stooping to grab a handful of plasma grenades. Instead of the usual foot soldiers came a group of older, larger, and better-armoured Brutes, carrying great spiked grenade launchers nicknamed 'Brute Shots' by UNSC personnel. A single hit could blow a man apart, so the troopers spread out and motioned for the surviving militia to do the same. The group of former civilians had gone from nearly two hundred to well under sixty if the Master Sergeant's calculations were correct. Most had taken up positions upstairs to fight against Drones and now - as Davis had reported - Jackal raiders creeping into the facility.

"Chieftain, watch it!" Braun warned them as the same grey-furred Brute from before came bellowing down the corridor at the head of a fresh infantry column, hammer held aloft.

"I've got this," Mitchell replied, unholstering his handgun. He fired a single shot towards the Chieftain's uncovered face. To his surprise, the alien ignored the round entirely and laughed as an energy shield flickered around him. While he quickly picked up his Spiker again, he was forced to dive away as a swipe from the Chieftain's hammer smashed through a column behind him. Backing away on his hands and knees, Mitchell expended the rest of his magazine on the Brute as it advanced, clearly enjoying the pursuit. Unable to stand up in time, he tossed his empty gun and prepared to roll away as his foe began to raise his hammer.

"Sarge, run!"

Braun launched himself at the Chieftain with a flying kick that staggered the gargantuan warrior long enough for Mitchell to scramble to his feet and run towards Maxwell's position. The Lance Corporal drew his combat knife and leapt once more at the alien, attempting to cut its throat. As he made the desperate lunge, the Brute's free hand swiped the trooper away with little effort, sending Braun backwards into an overturned crate. As he wheezed for breath and attempted to move, the Chieftain swung his hammer in a downwards arc, still glaring at Mitchell. There was a crunch, and Braun's body lay still. While most of his comrades watched in horror, Angelo let loose a howl of grief.

"You mother fuckin' ape bastard!"

As the fight continued to rage across the battle-scarred atrium of Camp Hathcock, Angelo, Mitchell and Maxwell all concentrated their gunfire on the Chieftain. His shield had been given a precious few moments to recharge as he had killed Braun, and even now was surprisingly strong as he took great strides forward, swinging his Gravity Hammer and utterly destroying anyone in his way.

"Shit, we're in trouble!"

"I know that, Maxwell! Circle the bastard and watch your back for his friends!"

It wasn't easy to get close to the Brute Chieftain. While they had battled others before, they often fought with reckless abandon and went down under concentrated gunfire. This one was smart and quick; striking at the trooper opening fire nearest to him while keeping the others just outside his reach. Risking a couple of seconds while the beast swiped at Maxwell, Mitchell looked around the room and saw that the end was near. Corpses, both Human and alien, littered the ground; the marble tiles were slick with blood and the few remaining militia members were slowly being picked off by a seemingly endless number of Grunts marching in from both directions. His eyes darted towards the open elevator shaft and for a moment fleeing crossed his mind.

"Gotcha!" Maxwell laughed from nearby. He'd ducked under a hammer swing and managed to unleash a torrent of submachinegun fire at close range that dropped the Brute's shields. Seizing the opportunity and not wanting to take the same risks Braun had, Maxwell dived beneath its legs and slammed his knife through a gap the Chieftain's side armour. The alien let loose a howl of pain and anger as it tried to crush the Private to death, ignoring glancing blows from Mitchell and Angelo. The bladed side of its hammer found purchase as it slashed Maxwell's leg. He fell screaming in a spray of blood.

"Maxwell!" Mitchell ran forward without thinking and having reloaded his Magnum, fired everything he had into the alien. Now bereft of its shield, the Chieftain was hit by multiple armour-piercing rounds as it launched one last attack towards the ODST, smashing his chestplate with a mighty blow as Mitchell's last shot pierced its brain.

That's it for me. I'm done.

He'd hit the wall hard and slid down to the ground trailing blood. Struggling to open his eyes, Master Sergeant Ash Mitchell was dimly aware that he'd broken more or less all of his ribs and could no longer shift his lower body at all. Blood flowed freely through gashes in his armour. He saw Maxwell using the Chieftain's hammer as a crutch as he hobbled towards the elevators, shouting at Angelo as the Sergeant tried to pull him upstairs where Davis, Robson, and a few battered survivors of the militia group were making their last stand.

They'll go down fighting. He cracked a bloody smile. Good for them.

As he began to close his eyes, an unfamiliar voice burst through his COM, loud and clear.

"Master Sergeant Mitchell? This is First Lieutenant Redmond Venter of SPECWARCOM. We're on our way to your position via Pelican but can only remain for one drop, repeat, one drop. We'll provide momentary air cover, so meet us on the roof of the facility for pickup. Can you do that, over?"

With colossal effort, he managed to activate his own COM and spoke as clearly as he was able.

"This is Mitchell. I-I won't be able to make it to the drop, but my men will. I'm transferring you to our TEAMCOM channel, so please relay your message to -" He coughed up some blood, but continued. "-to them, over."

Mitchell made sure that their rescuers could contact Charlie Platoon's personal channel, his fingers numb as they fumbled with his helmet's COM system. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a wounded Maxwell clambering into the elevator shaft's rope while the others covered him. The kid's fine with dying a hero. Good for him. With numb, shaking fingers, he removed his helmet, tossed it aside, and closed his eyes.

***

"This is First Lieutenant Venter of SPECWARCOM to the ODST's of the 11th Shock Platoon, do you copy?"

On the landing above, Robson, Angelo and Davis had witnessed their mortally-wounded Sergeant tossing away his helmet before a voice spoke into their personal COM. Robson answered.

"Copy that Lieutenant, this is Staff Sergeant Robson of Charlie Platoon."

"I'll tell you what I told Mitchell," Venter replied, sounding slightly out of breath. "We're coming in for pickup, ETA two minutes, and will provide enough air cover for a single landing - thirty seconds max - to pick you boys up. Can your reach the roof in time?"

"Yes sir."

"Good, I'll see you there. Venter out."

It seemed like their luck had changed; Mitchell's distress signal had finally been picked up. Resisting the urge to dash downstairs into the Covenant-infested atrium to recover his friend's body, Robson called for the survivors to follow him, charging with renewed vigour through the plasma-scorched and bullet-marked halls of Camp Hathcock towards an emergency stairwell leading to the facility's roof. Though the building had been placed on lockdown by Mitchell, their foe had most likely gotten in through there, giving them a way out.

"Wait, what about Maxwell!?" Sergeant Angelo panted as their ragtag group - fourteen in all - clambered up the polished stone steps.

"I heard 'em," came the Private's voice over the COM. It was barely above a whisper. "I'm fine with this, don't worry. Something'd probably fuck up if we tried detonating things remotely anyway."

"Shit," Robson muttered. "Sorry we can't get you out. You were a good Helljumper, rookie."

Maxwell laughed. "I ain't dead yet, Staff. Just tell me when you're clear. I'll see you boys in hell."

His COM went dead. The group made the rest of the climb in silence, eventually emerging into the still-bright light of the early evening. The immense bulk of a Covenant Corvette drifted overhead, clearly visible even through the billowing smoke and thick clouds. The roof was entirely flat, giving them no cover should a group of Phantoms or Banshees turn their attention towards the Human survivors. Seconds after they emerged, half a dozen blurs shot past, going in low over the area just outside the main facility. A moment later, the ground lit up as explosions blossomed across the surrounding area, vaporising most of the outlying land and taking hundreds of Covenant troops with them in a fiery blast. Even the Corvette veered away, possibly afraid of another attack. Davis pulled off his helmet with a sigh, looking down at the devastation as though it were the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

"Over there!"

One of the militia survivors was pointing to the west, where a small dot had appeared on the horizon and was steadily growing bigger. Using his helmet's zoom feature, Robson soon saw that it was a single Pelican, moving at considerable speed. It had clearly seen some action already. It slowed down slightly as it approached, circling the area once before hovering over the roof and opening its rear hatch. The troopers walked towards it and froze as they saw the immensely tall, tan-armoured figure standing in the blood tray. It was a Spartan.

"Well, shit," Davis muttered.

"Get on!" the supersoldier barked, stepping aside so everyone could climb aboard. The moment the last man was on, he slammed a button and the hatch clanked shut. They sat in darkness for a few seconds before the red emergency lighting flickered on, securing themselves into seats as the dropship shot upwards.

"Where are we going?" Angelo asked, finally removing his helmet.

"Off-planet," the Spartan said. He had not bothered to sit down, and instead was clutching a handrail by the entrance to the cockpit. "Reach is done. We're picking up whoever we can find and getting the hell out of here."

"You're going AWOL?" Robson pulled off his helmet as well.

"No. We had orders to cover civilian evacuations and then to evacuate ourselves. Once we retreated, the Lieutenant suggested we look for survivors at any remaining outposts."

This seemed to satisfy most of the Pelican's occupants. Most of the militia members looked rather shellshocked, and one had been silently sobbing for the last few minutes. Angelo had merely scowled and fallen silent at the Spartan's words. Taking out a TACPAD, Robson brought up a map of the surrounding area, focusing on Camp Hathcock. After a few seconds, a green blip representing the outpost winked out.

"There goes Maxwell," Davis said, his face impassive.

"Your men fought bravely," intoned the Spartan, sounding genuinely sincere. "You did well to hold out for as long as you did."

There was a long silence. Eventually, Robson replied.

"Thanks for the save, uh-"

"Kevin-B077. We had to save somebody, trooper."

"Right. Thanks then, Kevin."

The pilot - Venter - spoke up through the dropship's intercom. "Okay folks, we're in orbit. It's a mess up here, but I've managed to contact the UNSC Absolution. It's a Marathon-class that got its weapons fried by Covvies a couple of days ago, so it's been taking on civilians."

"Will they take us back to Earth?" Kevin asked.

"Yeah, but it'll be a roundabout trip. Cole Protocol and all."

"And your injuries?" The merest hint of emotion had entered the Spartan's voice.

"I'll be fine long enough to get us there. Everyone just sit tight and we'll be on board in ten. I'm sure they'll roll out the red carpet for you, Spartan."

Kevin did not answer, though he finally took a seat. The three surviving ODST's of Charlie Platoon sat in sullen silence, helmets at their feet. Their thoughts lay not with the soon-to-be-glassed planet behind them, but with the sheer number of comrades they'd lost defending it. Living to fight another day was just as much a curse as it was a reward for the Helljumpers.

Departure

0453 Hours, August 30, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Highland Mountains, Viery Territory, Reach


As the first rays of sunlight crept over the nearby mountains, a single Pelican dropped just below the clouds, soaring high above Reach's battle-scarred surface. With a number of major battles raging across what remained of Reach's cities and evacuation zones, their journey had been relatively quiet, with the odd red blip on the radar of a passing Covenant patrol. The cockpit door slid open, and a large figure stepped inside.

"Sorry to bother you, Doctor. Just wanted to check how close we are to CASTLE base."

"Nearly there, Spartan. Any problems?"

"No ma'am. Just dropped outside of contact range with the rest of my team, though."

"I'm sure they'l be fine. I chose NOBLE Team for a reason."

Jun-A266 nodded and clambered into the co-pilot's seat, placing his helmet down nearby. You chose one of us, that's for sure. It had been just a few short hours since their departure from the ruins of SWORD Base in the north, and since then Jun had done little more than sit in the back of their dropship and check his COM system at regular intervals for signs of the other Spartans. He'd known Carter and Emile long enough to know that they'd go to any lengths to get the job done, and Six could handle pretty much anything the Covenant threw at them. They'll be fine, he reassured himself. Need to focus on the mission at hand.

Said mission was sixty years old sitting in the pilot's chair in front of him, steering their dropship past mountaintops and going a little faster than he was comfortable with. There wasn't much he could do aside from check for Covenant activity. Nothing yet.

"Didn't realise there was an evac site at CASTLE base," he said sullenly.

"There isn't, at least not as far as I'm aware. By now the base is likely to be almost completely deserted."

"In that case, Doctor, do you mind explaining why we're heading there?"

"For my research, Spartan. Do you think that we're just going to leave everything behind for the Covenant to find? Safer to destroy what we can't take with us. I'm sure that there will be some security detail still there, though."

How reassuring. Jun didn't bother taking the conversation any further. Eventually their Pelican dropped further, moving towards Menachite Mountain, home to CASTLE Base and many of ONI's dirty little secrets. As they drew close, a male voice crackled over the COM.

"Unidentified dropship, this is restricted airspace. Please identify yourself immediately or you will be shot down."

Jun's pilot sighed, and spoke sternly into a headset. "This is Charlie Hotel. I radioed ahead to notify you of my arrival."

There was a brief pause. "Copy that, Charlie Hotel. You're cleared to land."

She smiled and switched the COM off before maneuvering the Pelican down towards one of several landing pads built into the side of the mountain. A group of armed fgures approached as their dropship touched down.

"Care to meet our guests?" the Doctor asked. Jun grabbed his helmet and placed it on before striding towards the Pelican's main compartment. After picking up his rifle, he thumbed the switch on the rear door and grinned as it shuddered open, revealing four black-armoured soldiers. He took one step down onto the pad and they backed away immediately.

"Holy shit!" one exclaimed, lowering his weapon in awe. The others looked around nervously as Jun's companion stepped out behind him, unsure of what to do. She looked at them expectantly for a moment before sighing.

"Who's in charge here?"

"That would be me."

The guards parted as a tall, muscular man in a black uniform strode forward. Jun glanced at him and couldn't make out any rank or insignia, though his posture and general look suggested that he worked for ONI. The two stared at one another for a moment before speaking.

"I am-"

"Doctor Catherine Elizabeth Halsey," the silver-haired man cut her off. "I'm surprised you made it out of SWORD, Doctor. We were considering putting you on the casualty list for real before those Spartans showed up."

"Well as you can see, sir, I'm not quite dead yet." She glanced past him at a large gateway built into the mountainside. "I need access to this base."

"Doctor, this is an evacuation. We're getting everyone out."

"What about our research? The AI's?"

"I've been assigned to handle WHITE GLOVE, ma'am."

Halsey looked him up and down. "They put one man in charge of the entire operation? Who are you?"

"Kahn. David Kahn. I'm with the BRUTUS division."

At this comment, Halsey's eyes narrowed and she frowned for a moment before replying, her voice barely above a low murmur. "Of course you are...it's so like ONI to do something like this."

"Ma'am?"

She sighed. "What would you have me do then, Agent Kahn? I presume there are ships stationed here for the evacuation?"

"Yes." He pointed towards a small compound at the base of the mountainside. A few small shuttles sat by a group of buildings. A steady stream of personnel were filing into them. "I'd recommend that you get down there while we've still got room, because I don't know how much longer our ships in orbit can hold-"

High above them, there was a loud rumbling noise as the clouds slowly parted before an immense shape. Halsey, Jun and Kahn stared up for a few moments before the realisation hit them. It was a Covenant battlecruiser, and a big one at that. The sky brightened for a brief moment as it unleashed a torrent of plasma fire that raked the mountainside below them and sent the shuttle dock up in a blinding flash of energy.

"Move!" Kahn roared, prompting Halsey and her Spartan protector to sprint towards the main entrance before it could fire a second salvo. While the others ran, he leapt behind a layer of sandbags and quickly stuffed a communicator into his ear before activating it.

"FLEETCOM Sector One, this is CASTLE Base. We've got a CCS-Class right on us and the evacuation is not complete! Need immediate fire on our position, danger close if you have to!"

While the channel he was used was usually reserved for high level communications between the local UNSC fleet, Kahn felt that they might forgive such an outburst, considering what was at stake here. Eventually, a familiar voice filtered back through the channel.

"CASTLE Base, this is Admiral Roland Freemont. Apologies for letting that one slip past us. We're diverting ships to intercept now. Freemont out."

This is gonna be loud.

Kahn ran back towards the protected entrance to CASTLE base as the mountain shook from another plasma impact, followed by a number of fleeing soldiers. Halsey and her Spartan had entered a side office, whereupon the Doctor had begun typing manically into a nearby computer. Much to her surprise, a red cross appeared on the screen and locked her out. She turned slowly to face Kahn as he entered.

"Agent Kahn, do you mind explaining why I'm locked out of I system I've had access to for decades?"

Before he could answer, there was a flash of blue light above a nearby holotank. The light flickered like a flame for a brief moment before reforming into the shape of a young woman, clad in medieval armour with her hands clasped behind her back.

"I locked you out, Doctor Halsey," she said in a calm voice.

"Why?"

"CASTLE Base is currently on lockdown. As the current base AI, it is my duty to prevent any and all forms of access, regardless of history with the system."

Kahn sighed. "Juno, it's all rght. Let her in, but restrict access to the lower levels. She's not staying."

"Got it," the AI replied. "Everything okay out there?"

"You mean aside from the Covenant ship trying to incinerate us? Yeah, fine."

"That's good to hear. "Juno turned to face Halsey. "You should have access again, Doctor. Sorry about that."

"Thank you." Halsey typed for a few seconds before abruptly stopping. "Where is Kalmiya?"

"All other base AI's are restricted to their current positions for now, as per the lockdown protocol. And before you ask, no, I can't bring her up here. Sorry Doctor."

"That's fine. At least I know she's safe."

"As safe as you can be in a mountain that's under heavy plasma bombardment..." Juno muttered, earning a scowl from Kahn. The ONI agent watched Halsey type for a few moments before speaking.

"I've called for reinforcements. They'll deal with that battlecruiser."

"When?"

He shrugged. "When they get here, I imagine. Admiral Freemont himself said they were on their way, and I don't think-"

Khan turned, placing two fingers to his ear as his communicator crackled. After a few tense seconds, he turned and nodded to Halsey and Jun before walking back towards the entrance.

"This is the UNSC Sheffield to CASTLE Base. We're making our attack run now, backed up by the Enola Gay, Crimson Aurora and Courageous. Hold out down there, we'll give you the time you need."

Kahn didn't answer. From his vantage point outside the base's entrance, he watched as a group of four UNSC warships streaked across the sky, letting loose a barrage of missile fire and MAC rounds on the stationary target. The battlecruiser was able to fire off a burst of energy, which sent one Frigate into a spiralling death dive before crashing into the planet's surface in a tremendous explosion. The combined fire of several ships soon proved too much for the Covenant vessel as its shields wavered and dropped, allowing a well-placed MAC round to gut it. A cheer went up from the assembled soldiers as the battlecruiser veered off to the left and crashed into a nearby mountain.

"Well I'll be damned," a familiar voice drifted towards Kahn. He turned to see Colonel Urban Holland walking through the main gate of CASTLE Base, flanked by several of his recently-arrived Army troopers and a female Naval officer. Kahn didn't bother saluting, and walked towards Holland and his men.

"Colonel, I thought you'd left half an hour ago in the last wave of shuttles."

"I sent the remainder of my staff out on that run, Agent Kahn. Unlike some of our officers, I'm going to make sure the rest of the men and women defending this base get out alive before I depart."

Kahn knew he was referring to Colonel James Ackerson, who had quickly left the planet aboard a private shuttle the moment the evacuation order came down. "Sir, with all due respect, I'd advise that you remain within the base until evac arrives."

The older man looked around at the absolute devastation the battlecruiser had wrought across the landscape, and nodded. "Fine. I'll leave you with some of my best. This is Sergeant Major Lee of Three Hotel, one of my best. I'll leave you two to sort things out here."

Holland stepped aside to allow a grey-haired man in well-used armour to step forward. Kahn couldn't help but feel like they'd met before. The Sergeant Major saluted, locking eyes with him in a look that suggested he was thinking something similar. The rest of his group were joined by another lot, wielding an odd assortment of weapons and armour. Since they didn't look like spooks, he had to guess that they were civilians that had somehow ended up here.

"Agent Kahn," Lee spoke, nodding towards a nearby barricade. "Mind if I have a word? We need to discuss defence."

He nodded, and followed the venerable Army trooper while the rest of his platoon moved to help shift more sandbags to block the main road. With the destruction of the nearby base and most of the shuttleport, any new evac ships would have to land directly outside CASTLE base to extract what remained of the personnel there. As for Kahn, ONI had generously provided him with the means of escaping once he initiated Operation: WHITE GLOVE and destroyed CASTLE before the Covenant could get their hands on it, Halsey's research be damned.

"Well then," the Sergeant Major spoke briskly after turning to face him. "I take it you're aware of this base's layout?"

"Of course. I've been stationed here for well over a week."

"Then you'll know that we can't hold out against a prolonged Covenant ground assault."

Kahn was well ware of this. "Then what would you advise we do, Sergeant Major?"

"If the ships don't arrive, then we go down into the base. If the Covenant don't destroy the mountain outright then they'll try and take it from us. We draw them into a killing zone and use the location to our advantage. We outlast them."

"We create our own little Thermopylae, then? Shame we've only got one Spartan."

Lee glanced around for a moment as if checking for listeners. Then, he leant in and spoke in a low voice to Kahn.

"You and I both know that's not quite true."

Kahn and Lee stood for a few moments in silence, staring each other down. Kahn may have been in his fair share of battle over the years, and had been one of the most highly-regarded operatives in a group of ONI's most lethal assassins, but he broke first under Lee's piercing glare. The other man had been fighting on the frontlines of this war since it had begun, and had fought in the war before that, back when Kahn went by a different name. He wondered if Lee recognised him from sight, or if he simply knew an old ORION when he saw one. Kahn had never liked the 'Spartan' moniker attached to the project years later. Either way, he shrugged.

"Doesn't really matter what we are. What matters is that we survive."

"Agreed. We've got just over fifty trained soldiers defending this base, including me and you. I say we hold this ground, leave some space for the evac ships to land."

"Good idea. The only other way into CASTLE is on the other side of the mountain. Since we've shaken up the beehive round here, I doubt they'll arrive there for a few hours yet."

Kahn checked the time: 5:23am. If the latest readouts about Covenant movements were correct, then they'd have thousands of Covenant troops on their position within three hours, give or take. Even with the remainder of Reach's Orbital Defence Platforms firing non-stop against the newly-arrived Covenant fleet, many ships had already broken through and were hunting down what remained of the Human resistance across the planet. CASTLE Base was one of few sites still held by he UNSC.

"Sarge!" one of Lee's men called over. "We've got movement on the road!"

Kahn and Lee darted forwards, peering out of cover down onto the winding mountain path that led up to CASTLE base. A column of Covenant infantry marched in formation, with half a dozen Wraith tanks taking up the rear. In the forests far below he could make out the distinctive sight of Spirit Dropships offloading troops while others lowered a number of structures to the ground; the beginnings of a Covenant encampment.

"Shit. Let's set up a line of fire on that main road, now!"

While Lee's men and the remaining security forces rushed to man their makeshift barricades, Kahn sprinted back through the open doors of CASTLE base. Colonel Holland was talking hurriedly into a communicator, while in the side office Halsey was inputting commands into a console at an incredible speed. Turning into a corridor, he continued until he came to a locked door.

"Juno!"

The AI materialised on a nearby holotank.

"Door. Now."

She nodded, and it slid open immediately. Lockdown or no, ONI had placed Kahn in charge of CASTLE base once the brass had evacuated, giving him full access to its facilities. The room was lined with boxes of ammunition and lockers filled with black body armour. Opening one, he quickly changed out of his uniform and into a protective bodysuit, covered with thick armour that would protect him from at least a few glancing plasma strikes. Once he was suited up, Kahn strapped a BR55 rifle to his back and heaved a heavy crate of ammunition onto his shoulder with little effort before leaving.

"Juno, keep this area open," he said, glancing towards her holotank. "I'll send a few men back for the rest."

"Will do. Are you all right, Agent Kahn?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," he lied. "How long do you think the base will last?"

"Do you want my optimistic or pessimistic opinion?"

"Just the truth, thanks."

Juno simulated a sigh. "Judging by the widespread Covenant forces in the local area and more landing sites being established further away, I'd give us a couple of hours, maximum."

"Thought so. What about base defences?"

"Looks like they're separate from CASTLE's main systems for some reason. Halsey's working on getting them online."

"Perhaps someone didn't want an AI going crazy and taking over all the AA guns."

"And yet I have control of your oxygen supplies. Don't you have aliens to shoot?"

Kahn turned and continued back towards the outer defences, where gunfire had already broken out. A few well-placed rockets had taken out a few Ghosts and blocked the path momentarily, forcing Covenant troops to slowly make their way up the hill under heavy fire. He set the ammo box down by a pile of sandbags, where a group of ONI's black-suited soldiers had set up a machine gun turret. On the precipice overlooking the road, two of the militia members Lee's group had brought along were tossing grenades onto the incoming aliens, blowing entire formations of Jackals to pieces as they continued their slow advance. Suddenly, Kahn's COM crackled online.

"Agent Kahn, this is Doctor Halsey."

"How did you get this frequency?" he asked, bemused.

"Oh, don't act like ONI's encryptions are that good. I've managed to divert as much of power towards CASTLE's defence turrets as I can. Once they're online, I'll connect them to the main systems so Juno can make use of them."

"You can do that?"

"Probably, but it'll take time. How long can you give me?"

A huge globule of sizzling blue energy streaked overhead and struck the mountainside, sending a hail of stones down around him. Kahn deftly stepped aside as a particularly large chunk of rock slammed into the earth next to him. With no sign of the evac ship, they'd just have to hold out here.

"I'll give you as long as you need."

***

Lee sprinted across open ground, ducking slightly as plasma fire streaked overhead. This is it. Nowhere to run now. Kahn and the others were holding down the main road, funnelling the Covenant into a killzone where they could easily pick them off. The Army trooper ducked behind a secondary barricade to catch his breath for a moment before running the rest of the way towards the vehicle bay doors. With CASTLE locked down and all evacuees leaving the planet, the base's armament of military vehicles was still plentiful. Glancing back towards his men holding the line, he quickly thumbed the passcode into a console and stood back as the steel doors juddered open.

Jackpot.

As rows of lights flickered on, Lee strode across the bay, passing over a dozen Warthogs and a small army of Mongoose ATV's before stopping in front of a green-painted behemoth of a tank. It was an M850 Grizzly, and a brand new one at that. He wondered briefly why it hadn't been sent to the frontlines like many others. As Lee clambered onto the tank's chassis, the sound of heavy footsteps turned him round as a familiar voice spoke.

"Sergeant Major?"

"Warrant Officer. It's good to see you again."

The armoured form of a Spartan stood before Lee. The man towered over him, with a DMR in hand and a large caliber sniper rifle attached to the back of his suit. While many UNSC servicemen found it nearly impossible to tell two Spartans apart, he'd had the pleasure of meeting this one several times before.

"Doctor Halsey sent me to lend a hand." He glanced around the empty room. "Looks like you need one."

"Not sniping, Spartan? You were a lifesaver back on Tribute a few months ago."

"Can't get a good angle on the road without catching some plasma fire. Gonna see if I can find a vantage point for when they get through our first line, though."

"Fair enough. I'm going to get this Grizzly outside to cover the main approach. You could grab a 'hog or something for AA fire."

"Good idea." Jun turned to look at the row of jeeps as Halsey's voice filtered through the intercom.

"You may wish to take the third one from the left, Spartan. It's outfitted with Argent V missiles." There was a brief pause. "...and it's not like Chief Mendez is coming back for it, anyway."

Jun chuckled as he leapt into the drivers seat and started the ignition. The warthog purred to life. Those missiles would prove invaluable, considering the lack of Wolverine AA tanks on-site.

"Chief Mendez?" Lee asked.

"Long story."

The pair drove out onto the main courtyard as a Phantom came streaking to the ground, digging a deep score along the concrete. A cheer rose up at the sight of the vehicles emerging through the main gate. Lee began to climb out as a group of troopers ran to take over. Jun mounted the back of his jeep just as two Spirits dropped from the clouds, already raining down plasma fire. A single volley of the deadly missiles was enough to gut one and sent it careening into the other. Both came spiralling down into the flame-strewn valley.

"Lee!" Kahn roared from a nearby guard post. "Just sighted Jackals scaling the cliffs to the east. Sent a couple of your boys that way!"

"Got it!"

Stopping only to fire a quick burst of rifle fire towards the road, Lee, three ONI troopers and Lieutenant Grunwald headed back towards the landing pads. As they got further away from the cacophony of noise that was the main road, the venerable trooper could make out the familiar staccato of gunfire coming from further along the mountainside. Sprinting forwards, He rounded a corner to see Steinworth and Sikowsky standing back to back against a number of screeching Jackals. Out of ammunition, the two troopers had resorted to rifle butts and combat knives as they stood over the corpses of several other troopers. The Jackals, backed by their larger Skirmisher cousins, circled them, squawking in delight.

"Get down!"

The two hit the deck as Lee and his comrades sprayed the area with gunfire, shredding most of the birdlike aliens and sending a few scurrying for cover. Sikowsky dived forward and grabbed a plasma pistol while Steinworth ducked behind an energy shield. A skirmisher leapt from some bushes straight at Lee, only to be met with a swift boot to the face that sent it screeching off a cliff.

"You okay, troopers?" Lee asked.

They nodded, obviously embarrassed at being caught in such a situation. If those birds hadn't decided to have a little fun... He thought better of berating them at a time like this.

"Looks like the last of them," Grunwald remarked.

"Steinworth, grab some more of those shields, we'll need them. Sikowksy, head to the armoury and grab an MG, I want this area covered, clear?"

"Yes sir!" the pair bellowed in unison. Lee nodded for one of the black-armoured troopers to accompany Sikowsky while the others assisted them in retrieving energy shields from the fallen Jackals. They would certainly come in handy for those manning the main barricade. They quickly made their way back to the courtyard and began passing them out amongst the surviving troops. In their haste, Lee thought he could see the rebel fighter Bernard fighting beside Kahn against the incoming Covenant.

"Attention everyone, the AA guns are online!" Halsey's jubilant voice echoed through the loudspeakers. She sounded very pleased with herself, though Lee imagined that anyone who could link two previously separate systems and provide the necessary power while in one of mankind's most secure military installations during a Covenant attack had a right to be at least a little pleased. From all around them in the rocky mountainside, turrets rose, breaking through grass-covered seals and unfolding before bringing their full might down upon the advancing Covenant.

"Look at 'em run!" Bernard whooped over the roar of the guns. "That's right you fucks, we're keeping this base!"

Kahn shook his head quietly as he made his way back into the base during the momentary lull in enemy fire. Inside the main office, Catherine Halsey and Urban Holland sat at opposite computers while Juno watched them, a slightly bemused look on her face.

"Problems?" Kahn muttered to the AI as he entered.

"She's not one for help," Juno whispered back. "Didn't let me anywhere near the system until she'd linked them."

Kahn shrugged, and cleared his throat. "Sir?"

Colonel Holland turned in his seat, dragging himself away from a screen of tactical readouts. His expression was grim, but determined.

"How are things outside?"

"Better than expected. Minimal casualties."

"I wish I could say the same for the fleet. We're getting torn to shreds up there."

"What about our evac craft?"

"The UNSC Bright New Day is about the only ship that isn't engaged right now. We managed to get a garbled transmission from the Frigate a few minutes ago, so I think help is on its way."

"Good. Doctor Halsey, do you think the shuttle would be able to land with our current AA support."

"Yes," she said without turning. "I'd like to think so, though we should be prepared for the worst, Agent Kahn."

He nodded. "We'll have to see when the time comes."

As Kahn turned to leave, he nearly walked headfirst into a balding man in a white labcoat. As the man tried to brush past him, the agent put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks.

"Doctor Roe," he spoke in a low voice. "I was told that you'd left six hours ago."

The main straightened up slightly, backing away from Kahn. "My apologies for the deception, but I had to secure my research. Even with this lockdown in effect, your AI can't seem to bar two wooden doors and a flight of stairs."

Juno flushed red for a moment. "CC-394382, I hope you know the punishment for interfering with lockdown protocols?"

Roe shook his head dismissively. "Look, I'll clear whatever nonsense it is up with CINCONI later. Now that I've saved my work, I've managed to find a way to escape this planet."

Halsey finally turned in her chair, her eyes narrowed. "Do tell, Calvin."

"There's a Prowler dock built into the nearby mountainside, accessible through the maintenance tunnels. The ship was evidently placed there as an escape route should this base be comprimised." He shot a dark look at Kahn. "-or should we lose all other forms of transport to enemy fire."

Holland, Halsey and Roe looked at each other for a few moments. Kahn stood impassively until the Colonel stood up.

"Agent Kahn, were you aware of this transport?"

"Yes sir."

"Was there any reason why you did not inform us of its existence?"

"I saw no need to, sir. Once the evacuation was complete, I was to initiate the WHITE GLOVE protocol and escape. Last man out."

There was a very long silence in the office. Roe crossed his arms, looking smug, while Holland simply nodded and returned to his seat. Oddly, Halsey said nothing, and simply shrugged before returning to work. The sound of plasma fire from outside snapped Kahn from his momentary reverie. Resisting the urge to snap Roe's scrawny neck, he marched outside to see the dawn sky growing dark as the clouds broiled once more. A Covenant Corvette roared overhead before coming in low across the nearby mountains and setting down in a far-off valley.

"Shit," he muttered. Reinforcements. Kahn's COM beeped several times and a panicked voice filtered through.

"CASTLE Base, this is Bravo Nine-Six, coming in hot! We'll try to land if we can for evac, but we've got Seraphs on our six!"

Kahn drew his Battle Rifle as a shape came hurtling across the sky, streaking black smoke. Several teardrop-shaped fighters tailed it, loosing plasma bolts as the shuttlecraft tried to evade. He could only watch as the ship turned violently as it descended, aiming for the landing platforms. It's going too fast. As CASTLE base's AA guns swivelled and let loose a torrent of fire at the Seraphs, the damaged craft's rockets flared in a vain attempt to slow as it hurtled towards the nearest pad.

"Everyone, move!" Kahn yelled, running for cover as his comrades turned to flee. He didn't see what happened next, but the resulting explosion lifted him off his feet and slammed him against a nearby wall. His armour and helmet took the brunt of it, though he could certainly feel bruises as he picked himself up.

"Kahn!" called Lee, emerging from a guard post with a number of other survivors. He raised his rifle to indicate his survival before running to see to the wounded.

"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit..."

"Medic!"

Kahn was prepared for the worst when he turned to see one of Lee's men lying on the floor, his comrade next to him. Private First Class Steinworth had a nasty chunk of shrapnel embedded in his right shoulder, which had smashed through several bones if the grisly injury was any indication. He knelt by him as Corporal Sikowky propped his friend up. Bereft of any proper medical supplies, Kahn unhooked a can of biofoam and pressed the nozzle towards the Army trooper's wound. The man gritted his teeth and grunted through the pain, blinking back tears as the icy-cold foam sealed around his injury. It would numb the wound and keep him on his feet for a while, but he'd need medical attention within a couple of hours.

"You okay?" he muttered.

"Y-yeah," Steinworth muttered, breathing heavily. "Just give me a minute."

The landing pads, including Halsey's Pelican, had been completely destroyed in the crash. one of the Seraphs had also been taken down, though the rest had broken off and presumably gone back to orbit. As Kahn stood up to survey the situation, a familiar sound drifted into hearing. Across the courtyard, Lieutenant Grunwald picked herself up and motioned to Kahn.

"You hear that?" she asked.

"Yeah, Banshees."

Peering out over the horizon, Kahn sighted their incoming foe. Unlike the usual groups of three or four that usually accompanied Covenant ground forces, this group of Banshees numbered at least fifty, screaming towards CASTLE base like locusts even as their AA guns started up. While many were ripped to shreds before they had a chance to open fire, he quickly saw the purpose of this suicidal attack as a formation of Phantom dropships sped over the treeline, using the Banshees as cover before quickly ascending to the level of CASTLE's entrance and letting loose with their plasma cannons.

"Everyone, get back to the base, now!"

"You heard the man!" Lee roared. "Move!"

While several of the Phantoms were blasted to pieces by the combined fire of a dozen AA turrets, their proximity allowed them to destroy a number; one even sped straight into a group of guns, sending them all up in a ball of fire. Kahn dropped to one knee and gunned down a group of Grunts as they descended from the dropship's gravity lift. While he reloaded, the massive bulk of two Hunters dropped down with a loud thud. Protected from small arms fire with their massive shields, the lumbering behemoths slowly advanced on the retreating soldiers. Momentarily preoccupied with a second group of Grunts, Kahn could only watch as a blast of green energy streaked across the courtyard and struck Steinworth in the back. The wounded trooper was vaporised, and Sikowksy, who had been helping him move, dropped to the floor, howling in pain.

"Think you could get past me?" a cocky voice spoke over the COM

By the ruined landing pads, a stream of missiles launched from the charred Warthog, striking the Hunters' vulnerable backs and toppling the pair in a mess of wormlike creatures and blackened armour. Jun-A266 leapt from the remains of the vehicle, drawing his rifle and cutting a bloody swathe through the enemy infantry before he reached Kahn on the base's threshold.

"You okay?" he asked.

"Just a little tap on the head, nothing major."

Kahn wondered if being almost blown up and momentarily crushed under an upturned warthog would count as 'nothing major', but chances were that the Spartan had seen worse than that. Casting aside his DMR, Jun drew his sniper rifle and quickly scored a quartet of headshots on an incoming band of Elites, chuckling to himself as he did so. Grunwald and Bernard slid into cover beside them, firing short bursts of fire at the incoming aliens.

Ducking back into the inner base as the survivors formed a defensive line around their final barricades, Kahn found Colonel Holland and Doctor Roe carrying the unconscious and badly-wounded Sikowsky.

"He's lost an arm, but he might just make it," Holland explained, indicating the cauterised stump. "Kahn, we're heading for that Prowler. It's our only option."

The ONI agent nodded. "You'd better hurry up then, sir. We don't have much time."

As they moved off, Kahn assessed their situation. They had gone from over fifty soldiers not even an hour ago to just over a dozen men and a Spartan keeping them away from CASTLE's front door. That would have to close up as well, just to keep their foe out a little longer. Glancing to the side, he saw Lee and two others on the far right slowly being hemmed in by a group of Elites. He tossed a grenade that blew one apart before turning to run back into the mountain base.

"Get inside, we're sealing the outer door!"

The survivors barely hesitated, immediately scrambling back into the relative safety of CASTLE base as the great steel doors slowly slid shut. A few Covenant tried sprinting forward, but were swiftly cut down in a hail of gunfire from the defenders. With CASTLE's outer gate finally sealed, Kahn could give the order everyone had been waiting for.

"We're leaving. Everyone, get to the ship."

This statement was met with a mix of happiness and confusion from the remaining survivors, though they eventually made their way off down the corridor, guided by Juno. As the last of them filed out, leaving only him and Jun, Kahn strode into the office where Halsey was still typing furiously.

"It's time to go, Doctor."

Halsey sighed and stood up, switching her console off. Jun stood just outside, waiting to escort her. "Agent Kahn," she said softly. "I don't suppose I could access a secondary console down the hall? I merely need to ensure that I disconnect all systems to prevent Covenant access."

"I can take care of that," he lied.

"You wouldn't even know where to begin."

He sighed, and turned to the Spartan. "Get to the Prowler and keep everyone calm. I'll be along with Halsey in just a minute."

Jun nodded silently and turned to walk off. Kahn waited for Halsey to finish packing her things before tapping the nearby holotank. Juno's blue avatar flashed up, arms clasped behind her back.

"Everyone in?"

"I left a few subroutines to guide them. Don't worry, they won't leave without you."

"You're coming too, Juno."

The AI crossed her arms. "With all due respect, without me this base's defences would fail in minutes. I won't jeopardise you and the others by disconnecting."

"Juno, in accordance with Operation WHITE GLOVE, you will be deleted or destroyed if you remain here. You're coming with us."

"I'm prepared for the worst, Agent Kahn. Save yourself."

"Fat chance," he muttered. "Override code: Saber. Transfer yourself to a memory chip immediately for extraction."

The AI winced as if in pain, but eventually nodded. Her avatar winked out in a flash of blue flame, and a small chip was ejected from the holotank. Kahn removed a small case from his belt pouch and gently placed the memory chip inside before turning to address Halsey. She wasn't there. Crap.

He raced down the corridor at full sprint, charging towards a group of elevators just as one opened up for Halsey. She turned and froze as he drew his pistol, training it on Halsey's head.

"Don't move!"

Halsey's face remained impassive as she looked him up and down. "Do you intend to shoot me, Agent Kahn?"

"Step away from that elevator."

"Why?"

"Because it's my job to make sure everyone gets out of here, Doctor. WHITE GLOVE must be enacted."

"So you'd kill me rather than let me stay? Seems rather pointless, don't you think?"

"Doctor, please-"

"Agent Kahn, you and I both know we haven't got time. I'll take care of WHITE GLOVE. If anybody has to remain behind, it should be me. When the time comes I'll do what's necessary to keep this base out of Covenant hands."

They stood in silence for a few seconds. Eventually Kahn lowered his handgun, and Halsey stepped backwards into the elevator.

"Good luck," she said as the doors clanked shut.

That was one problem out of the way, at least. He flicked on his COM. "Lee? Sergeant Major, is the Prowler ready?"

There was nothing but static for a few seconds. Eventually, a deep, guttural voice spoke through Lee's channel.

"Humans."

Come to think of it, Kahn hadn't seen Lee since their retreat into CASTLE base itself. In their rush to escape, he simply hadn't checked to see if the Sergeant Major was still alive. As he moved to switch off the channel, Lee's voice filtered through.

"Agent Kahn, I'm in trouble."

Just from hearing his voice, Kahn could tell that Lee was injured or worse. "Sergeant Major? Where are you?"

"Bastards grabbed me a few minutes ago. Goddamn cloaked split-lips. Looks like they think I'm useful, otherwise I'm dead."

"Shit..."

A hostage situation was the last thing Kahn needed today. Bringing up the view of an exterior camera on a nearby terminal, he saw a badly beaten and bloodied Lee standing before the gates, surrounded by a horde of Covenant infantry.

"Can you see me?"

"Yeah."

"They want me to get you to open the door."

"Why the hell do they think I'd do that?"

"Human compassion or some such bullshit, I suppose. Kahn, don't do it."

"I won't."

"I'm not gonna make it through this."

"I know."

Lee sighed heavily on the other end. He sounded tired. "I'm sending you my exact coordinates right now. You know what to do."

Kahn glanced down as they flashed up on his datapad. Looking back and forth from the coordinates to the captured trooper outside, he made his mind up in moments.

"It'll be quick."

"I hope so."

Kahn cut the COM off, and immediately opened up a second channel. "FLEETCOM, this is CASTLE Base, requesting an immediate bombing run on these coordinates, over. This is priority one, we've got a risk of Cole Protocol breach otherwise. Over."

The response was immediate. "CASTLE base, this strike would hit the entire western entrance. Shall we proceed, over?"

"I know what it'll do, FLEETCOM. Burn the whole area if you have to. CASTLE Base out."

He didn't wait for the reply. The kind of airstrike he'd just called for would most likely destroy this level of CASTLE, but leave the rest unscathed. He began walking down the corridor at a steady pace, but quickly burst into a sprint after a few seconds. Rounding several corners, he eventually emerged at the side corridor that lead to one of CASTLE's best-kept secrets: The UNSC Heavens Asunder. Though very small, the Prowler was fast and quiet; just what he needed to escape from Reach. Jun was standing guard at the ramp when he arrived, panting.

"Where's Doctor Halsey?!" he yelled, taking a step forward.

"She's staying behind, Spartan."

"I'm going after her."

"Look, that whole level is gonna be dust in a few minutes' time and she's likely down in one of the deepest wings this place has. Hasley's taking care of WHITE GLOVE, Spartan. Stand down."

He had a feeling that Jun was glaring at him from behind that opaque visor, but eventually the supersoldier relented and clambered up the boarding ramp into the Prowler with an annoyed grunt. There was just enough room for the dozen or so survivors to fit inside. Lieutenant Grunwald was going through pre-flight checks in the co-pilot's seat, while Marcin Bernard sat in the corner, clutching his rifle. Colonel Holland and Doctor Roe seemed to be tending to the unconscious Sikowsky, while several surviving ONI troopers sat in a circle, helmets in hand.

"This is it, people! We're getting the hell out of here!"

Kahn jumped into the pilot's chair and was surprised to see how far Grunwald had gotten with the unfamiliar systems. After a few minutes, everything was ready and all he had to do was open their access point so the Prowler could take to the skies. He sat back in his chair, closed his eyes, and waited.

"Why aren't we taking off?" Grunwald asked.

"Hold on..." he muttered.

***

Standing outside the great steel doors of CASTLE base's west entrance, Lee smirked as his captors looked around impatiently. He'd been quietly speaking into his communicator since Kahn had switched off his COM to give the impression that he was still negotiating with the agent. After several minutes with no apparent success, a large black-armoured Elite strode over, snarling at Lee as he snatched the device from his hands.

"You test my patience, worm! Open the gate, or your companion's death will not be quick."

The alien stared at the communicator for a few seconds before realisation hit him: it was turned off. Tossing the device aside, he punched Lee in the gut, badly denting his armour and making him double over in pain. The Sergeant Major coughed up blood as he collapsed, wheezing for air. Despite this, he began to laugh as the Elite towered over him, igniting his blood-red energy sword.

"You will not be laughing when I carve your flesh, Human. Your screams will be the last thing your allies ever hear."

Lee managed to slowly clamber to his feet, one hand clutching his injured chest. Breathing heavily through the intense pain, he stared his captor in the eyes and spat on the ground in front of him.

"You dumb bastards. What made you think I had plans to survive this?"

"Such arrogance." The Elite moved forward, grabbing Lee by the throat and lifting him into the air. "What purpose does your meaningless defiance serve, then?"

"I'm just buying a little more time."

Both Lee and the Elite looked towards the distant mountaintops as a formation of craft soared towards them. He began to laugh once more as the alien roared in anger and terror.

***

The entire complex shook as an entire wing of Shortswords bombarded the area, blasting large chunks of Menachite Mountain apart and reducing the already-burning valley nearby into a smoking ruin. The moment it seemed like the initial blast had passed over them, Kahn opened up the access point, raising their ship up into the light of day. With all local Covenant forces either dead or scattered by the bombardment, they had ample time to fire up the ship's thrusters as it slowly lifted up, shooting forward and into the skies. As they gained altitude and began to leave Reach's atmosphere, the entire crew was silent. It was not until they were in orbit that Kahn relaxed slightly.

"UNSC Bright New Day, this is CASTLE...what's left of us. We're in orbit now, what's your position?"

They waited nearly half a minute before there was a reply. "We've got you on our sensors, CASTLE. Thought you wouldn't make it out when we lost that last shuttle."

"Some of us survived. We've got slipspace-capable transport and will be making the jump outsystem ourselves. Thanks for waiting, Bright New Day."

"Copy that. Good luck with your journey home, CASTLE. Day out."

With that, Kahn took one last look at Reach as they sped away from the planet. Already the Covenant had begun their glassing process, and the Epsilon Eridani Defence Fleet was in tatters. He'd be glad to see the back of it, as would the crew. Taking the memory chip from his pocket, he slotted it into the ship's computer. A familiar blue AI flashed up onscreen.

"Agent Kahn," she spoke, looking over every single survivor crammed into the Prowler. "Is this everyone?"

He nodded. "Could do with a little help on the Slipspace drive."

"Of course, Agent Kahn. Any particular destination."

"Well the Cole Protocol's still in effect, so anywhere but here would be nice."

She smiled. "I can arrange that."

With that, the Heavens Asunder winked out of existence, leaving the burning world behind it.

Endgame

0644 Hours, August 30, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Orbital Defense Generator Facility A-331, Highland Mountains, Reach


Six of us against an entire Covenant army? Shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Within the bombed-out remnants of the generator complex, Beta-Red team moved quickly, sealing up the broken outer walls with sandbags or hastily-applied instacrete. With the departure of six of their number to two separate locations, they were responsible for making sure that this facility remained online to power the remaining Orbital Defence Platforms in Reach's orbit. If they fell, then the Covenant's invasion would be absolutely unstoppable.

"Chief, just got a ping on the long-range radar. Covenant infantry coming our way from the east."

"Copy that, Russell. Keep me posted."

Chief Petty Officer Anne-003 stood in the centre courtyard of the facility, heaving crates of ammunition into the back of a transport Warthog. Since Delta-Red had taken two of the vehicles and the surviving members of Charlie Company, Beta had to rely on their single remaining 'hog in case they needed a quick escape. Currently the other Spartans were spread out; Russell-041 was keeping an eye on the eastern road, while Doug-103, Lee-148 and Colin-142 attempted to repair some of the damage inflicted from the botched Longsword strike that had hit the facility and nearly wiped out everyone guarding it. Rick-077 emerged from one of the buildings, hefting a large metal box filled with explosives.

"This is the last of it, Chief," he said, sounding oddly out of breath. "Good thing they kept the armoury so well-stocked here."

Anne nodded. These facilities were often well-stocked with supplies due to their massive importance to the ODP's above, and had been a prime target for Insurrectionist groups years ago. Now though, their caches had been pillaged to help fight a much deadlier foe.

"You okay, Rick?" she asked.

"I've had worse, Anne."

She hoped that he wasn't dismissing his injuries too much; the only reason he hadn't been sent off with Delta Team was that their injuries needed more immediate attention. Still, none of the Spartans had survived their fall to Reach entirely unscathed. Of the current members of Beta Red, Anne and Doug were probably in the best shape; she had crashed straight into a particularly deep lake, and Doug was a tough bastard, even among the Spartans. Rick handed her the box of explosives and swiped two fingers across his visor before going to rejoin his comrades along the walls. Russell's voice filtered through once more over TEAMCOM.

"Just sighted the enemy infantry. Two main columns at the moment, but if I'm reading this correctly then we've got some serious armour moving up to support them."

"Got it," Anne replied, placing the box down by the Warthog. "Fall back to the facility and regroup with the rest of us."

"Will do. Russell out."

The COM clicked off. Anne ran across the main courtyard towards the instacrete bunker the Spartans had set up as their temporary command post. Currently it was empty, save for the corpses of four Spartans. Her gaze lingered on her fallen comrades. Killed by a fall. Malcolm and the others deserved better. She and the others had already been forced to take spare parts from their MJOLNIR suits to fix their own, and with a Covenant army incoming Anne knew that they would have to likely make further use of them if everything went to hell.

"Doug, Colin," she called over TEAMCOM. The pair of them flashed green acknowledgement lights in response. "Get over here, will you? I need your help with something."

"What's that, Chief?" Doug asked.

"We're gonna build a funeral pyre."

***

From his position in the densely-forested area to the east of the ODG site, Russell-041 lay and watched the line of Covenant ships slowly approaching their position. They hadn't had much contact with Fred-104, Kelly-087 and Joshua-029 since they had taken off towards that Covenant landing zone, and if the worst had happened then Beta-Red would have another army of aliens on them within the hour. His COM buzzed and he activated it.

"Russell," Lee-148's voice filtered through. "We're setting up LOTUS mines around the main entrance. How long till you're back here?"

The Spartan glanced back towards the far-off Covenant forces for a moment before responding. "I'll be there in three mikes. Left a little surprise of my own out here."

"Copy that. I'll mark the mines for you."

As the COM switched off, a number of markers appeared on his helmet's HUD, spread out across what had once been a parking lot outside the facility. While his comrades were shoring up the site's defences, he had gone out and wired the nearby forest with trip-mines and explosives, right in the path of the incoming Covenant army. The problem was that they probably didn't even know what they were up against, and would probably be cautious in approaching an enemy base. To solve that, Russell had a plan to get them nice and riled up; the sight of a Demon would probably make enemy troops charge right through the woods after their quarry and right into his trap.

Not exactly a risk-free plan, using myself as bait, but the payoff will be worth it.

He got up from his concealed position, wincing slightly as a jolt of pain coursed through him. He'd probably cracked a few bones on impact earlier, though half a dozen trees and his armour had softened the blow a little on the way down. Moving swiftly, the Spartan crept past the densely-forested area towards the sound of marching boots. The ground began to slope upwards here as the road passed through some hills. Russell dropped to the ground as two banshees screeched overhead and crawled up to the crest of the hill, peering just over the road. After nearly a minute of waiting, his motion sensor filled with red dots as the infantry column stomped by. Alien voices drifted by as the first line walked past, totally oblivious to his presence. Taking a deep breath, he pulled the pins from two frag grenades and tossed them into the road. After a brief squeal from a few Grunts the explosion blew at least a dozen foes to pieces, giving Russell a time to shoulder his assault rifle and stand over the shocked infantry.

"Hey, bastards!" He yelled, gunning down a group of injured Grunts. "Come and get it!"

As scores of alien warriors turned to look up at the power-armoured soldier standing above them, Russell turned and ran. Immediately a shout went up from several Sangheili officers, urging their cohort onwards as they gave chase to the Spartan. He sprinted as fast as he could, trees blurring past as he focused all his energy on getting back to his team as soon as possible. A few plasma bolts whizzed past, but Russell was too quick for his pursuers. Even at his considerable speed his augmented vision could spot the tiniest signs of where he'd laid tripwires and anti-personnel mines across the road leading up to the ODG facility, and easily leapt over several before emerging from the treeline and making a run towards the now-fortified base. Atop one of the nearby buildings, a Spartan came into view carrying a heavy missile pod.

"Russell!" Rick-077 shouted. "How many?!"

"A thousand," he replied, taking the long way around to avoid the array of LOTUS mines before leaping up onto the hastily-rebuilt ramparts. "More or less."

In the woods behind him, a number of explosions rang out as the Covenant troops behind him triggered his array of traps, setting the area ablaze as trees toppled and the sound of shrieking aliens filled the morning air. Russell stood with his comrade on the wall and watched as the first wave of enemy infantry was reduced to a few wounded stragglers in just a few seconds while the rest attempted to evade the quickly-spreading flame.

"A little less than a thousand now," Rick remarked.

"Those were just the scouts. I'd wager that they've got their heavy-hitters at the back. Wraiths, Hunters and the like."

"Let them come. It'll be fun."

Russell didn't respond. Four dead Spartans and a Covenant Legion heading their way wasn't his idea of 'fun', but he knew Rick; his fellow Spartan was likely as pissed off as he was about the situation, and eager to take it out on the horde of aliens currently trying to pick their way through the burning forest. Lee-148 clambered up onto the roof next to them, hefting two SPNKR missile launchers.

"Picked up some Banshees on the long-range."

"Alpha-Red?"

"Negative. There's a lot of 'em heading our way."

He tossed one of the launchers to Russell just as the familiar whine of enemy fliers drifted into his hearing. The Spartans spread out atop the roof, weapons at the ready as seven Banshees rocketed over the burning woodlands towards them. Lee and Russell both fired twice, taking down four with their first volley as the others fired bolts of sizzling green energy that missed them entirely. As one turned to fire on the three Spartans, Rick sprinted forward and leapt from the roof, landing on the aircraft's wing. With little effort he tore open the cockpit as the craft rocketed upwards and flung the shrieking pilot out to the ground below. With the Banshee under his control Rick veered off and blasted the other two out of the sky before circling round the ODG facility.

"Rick!" Lee called over the COM. "Got a number on that Covvie army?"

The Banshee soared over the woods for a few seconds, pausing momentarily as the Spartan took a rough estimate of what they'd be going up against.

"Russ, I think you were a bit off," came the quick reply. "Ten thousand strong, at least."

The entire team could hear him. The COM was silent for a few moments before Anne spoke up in a steely tone.

"Colin, get charges set up across each reactor complex. We're gonna make them fight for this."

Covenant infantry began to emerge from the treeline; Grunts loosed plasma bolts towards them in a blind charge while groups of Jackals advanced slowly with their shields raised. A few Elites lingered around the back, wary of the obvious killzone Red Team had set up. The LOTUS mines triggered one by one, blowing dozens of aliens to pieces. Russell glanced to one side as Anne-003 and Doug-103 joined the fight from the roof of another reactor complex. Though their numbers were limited, the Spartan's superior position and marksmanship gave them a huge advantage, and with Rick providing air support they soon turned the area in front of the facility into a bloody graveyard of corpses.

"They're stalling," Doug laughed. "Think they'll break if we take out a few more split-lips?"

"Worth a try!"

Lee's sniper rifle cracked twice, and a gold-armoured Elite collapsed nearby as he tried to rally his troops. Almost immediately a number of Grunts panicked and ran, bumping into one another and trying their best to avoid the rapidly-spreading flames. Rick's Banshee raked the ground with plasma fire and cut down dozens of the fleeing aliens. As the Banshee moved upwards, a flurry of green energy bolts shot upwards from the forest. Though Rick rolled the flier past the first volley, it was soon joined by several others and the craft was struck a number of times. One of the wings blew off entirely as it circled back around, sending the Banshee into a sharp dive back towards the ODG facility. Anne and the others could only watch in horror as it attempted to pull up, only to smash through the treeline before digging a deep furrow through the dirt as it crashed.

"Rick!" she called over the COM. The Spartan's vital signs were just about there on her readout. Before Anne and Doug could move to check on him, several Ghosts darted from the trees and began circling the facility. Nearby, Colin-142 emerged from one of the reactor buildings and sprinted across, firing a missile launcher twice at full speed and reducing two of the vehicles to burnt-out hunks of metal and scorched armour plating.

"I've got him!" Colin called, throwing the spent weapon aside.

"Chief, get down!"

Anne looked back just in time to see at least a dozen globules of burning plasma bearing down on them, and leapt off the roof just as they impacted. Her shields took the brunt of the explosion, though it sent her and Doug sprawling to the ground. Wraiths. While the first wave of plasma bombardment had blown their defenses wide open, the second was blasting the burning forest apart and clearing a path for another massed force of Covenant infantry to move up.

"Shit," Lee-148 muttered. "Chief, I don't think-"

"Hold the line!" she snapped, jumping to her feet. They still had a few weapons left over from the stockpile here, though nothing with the range to take out those enemy tanks. She grabbed her fallen weapon and quickly reloaded before joining Doug by the broken wall. Their instacrete barricade had held out longer than expected, though a constant barrage of plasma fire had weakened it slightly. The pair picked off a number of Grunts as they emerged from the forest's smoking ruin before it became clear that their foe meant to circle round the facility and surround the Spartans. Two yellow blips on the motion tracker caught her eye and she turned to see Colin heaving Rick across the courtyard.

"How is he?" she asked. Colin shook his head and fished out a first aid kit from a nearby rucksack.

Beta-Red was stretched thin at this point. With two members out of combat, the remaining four spread out as the Covenant launched yet another wave at their facility. The Wraiths had stopped firing for some reason; perhaps word of a group of Demons had spread and the Elites in charge all wanted a chance to kill their ultimate foe, but it was a blessing on the group nonetheless. A sword-wielding alien had nearly beheaded Anne after leaping over the broken walls, only to be sent flying with a single punch from Doug, who then crushed its skull beneath his boot with an uncharacteristic sneer of contempt. Now devoid of any worries or issues that had plagued them before, the Spartans had settled down and focused only on combat. Superhuman reflexes and unparalleled marksmanship saw dozens of dead Covenant before any Spartan so much as took a hit to their shields, and soon the corpses were piled high around what remained of Orbital Defence Generator Facility A-331. Only a groan over the COM broke the Spartans out of their reverie.

"Shit," Rick mumbled. "Thought that was me done for back there."

The Spartan got to his feet shakily, coughing slightly as he groped instinctively for the handgun he usually kept at his side. Colin had managed to patch SPARTAN-077 up as best he could with a basic combat kit, and after a few seconds of momentary disorientation he was standing beside Anne and Doug as they blasted back a phalanx of Jackals with stolen plasma weaponry.

"How long was I out?" he asked over TEAMCOM, sounding slightly groggy in spite of his quick movements.

"Only ten minutes or so. You okay?"

"Yeah, just a little knock."

"Actually," Colin interjected. "You do realise that you'd been running around with a punctured lung?"

"Huh. Wondered why I was a little short of breath. B-foam saw to that though, right?"

"Yeah."

"Thanks. "

Within the closed-off world within their private communication channels and opaque visors, each Spartan seemed as calm and implacable as ever. Even as they grappled with Elites and used wounded aliens as shields while others circled like vultures they spoke with an easy candour while their bodies handled the fighting itself. Still, they had been slowly falling back into the facility, weighed down by dozens of minor injuries and momentary ammo shortages soon fixed by killing the nearest foe and resupplying. Three reactor complexes had already been fought through and abandoned. Banshee fliers had blown one to pieces while demolition charges had denied the Covenant access to the others. Complex seven was the only remaining building on one side of the facility, while complexes one through four were already under attack.

"Shit!" Doug dived into cover beside Anne and Russell, who were trading fire with a particularly determined group of Jackals that had managed to sneak into the facility through what remained of the western gate. "We're losing this."

"I know."

"How long d'you think we can last before we get the hell out of here?"

"As long as it takes, Doug. The Pillar of Autumn will send for us once John's team gets back, I'm sure."

"If it's not dust by now."

"Just keep firing."

"Will do," he said, and nailed a Jackal sniper in the face with his needle rifle.

Suddenly, the ground shook as a tremendous explosion sounded off in the distance. Looking across the nearby hills, the morning sky had turned black as a mushroom cloud rose up, signalling the success of Alpha-Red's mission. With the loss of a nearby Covenant cruiser, Beta-Red's spirits rose as the Covenant troops looked around in shock. Anne used this momentary stall to dash out of cover and take out the remaining Jackals as Russell and Doug gained ground beside her. The familiar whine of Covenant dropships drifted overhead, focing the trio to scatter as two Spirits bore down on them, plasma turrets blasting the concrete apart as troops began to disembark in the midst of the facility.

"Where the hell did they come from?!" Russell yelled as he dashed into one of the remaining generator complexes to allow his shields to recharge.

"No idea," Anne panted, having been forced to turn mid-sprint and run back into cover. "Surprised they didn't turn up sooner, actually."

Two massive Hunters dropped down amidst the usual swarm of Grunts as the Spirits took off once more. While the diminutive aliens were swiftly cut down by the Spartans, the pair simply raised their shields, harmlessly deflecting fire from both Human and Covenant weaponry as they began their slow advance towards the remaining complexes. High above them, the clouds broiled and parted as a large oblong shape slowly descended towards them. Two more ships dropped into sight miles away on either side of the first.

This is it. We've lost.

The Hunters levelled their cannons and let loose a stream of green energy towards her. She leapt forwards, dodging the first blast and falling back between two of the reactor buildings. If Fred, Kelly and Joshua could make it back to them then there was a chance that the Spartans could still fight their way out of this mess. In the moment she had to reload her weapon while Doug and Lee provided cover, she accessed the local UNSC COM system and was immediately hit by a flurry of barked orders and calls for retreat from at least a dozen different people. Though all of it, she heard Fred-104's familiar voice. "Delta Team: Fall back! Fall back now!"

That meant that the route to CASTLE base was either cut off or the facility itself was compromised. The arrival of three new Covenant ships had tipped an already unsteady balance heavily in their foe's favour. Unsure of how long the connection would remain stable, Anne spoke out quickly to Red Team's leader.

"Reactor complex seven has been compromised. We're falling back. Might be able to save number three."

Anne wasn't sure if he'd heard her or not; the COM was now so filled with shouting voices that she could barely make out who was speaking. She turned to Colin, who was drawing the Hunters away with bursts of pointless assault rifle fire. "Set off those charges now!"

Seconds after that, the COM went silent entirely. Chances were that anything more than short-range transmissions wouldn't work now; they'd probably taken out one of the few remaining communication satellites and cut off the remaining UNSC forces in this sector entirely. Colin flipped open one of his detonators and pushed the button, blowing another reactor complex to pieces and sending burning wreckage flying everywhere. A particularly large chunk of metal flew across the courtyard and by some incredible stroke of luck, cut one of the Hunters in half entirely. As the mass of worms that made up its true form wiggled frantically and tried to reconnect, Rick lobbed a grenade towards it and incinerated the creatures instantly. The surviving Hunter paused for a few seconds as its ally died, before turning and immediately rushing towards the other Spartans in what could only be interpreted as a fit of blind rage.

"Get inside!" Doug barked as he ducked into one of the buildings. "Chief, I hate to say it but we've got to get out of here, now!"

He was right. The first Hunter's death had bought them a precious few seconds of time as the remaining infantry fled from the second, though it wouldn't be long before they regrouped for yet another assault. Anne dashed ahead into complex as the creature smashed into the wall behind her. Inside, Lee and Rick were reloading their weapons, the latter clutching his side.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah," came the laboured response. "Biofoam should hold long enough for us to get out of here, anyway."

The wall behind Anne dented inwards slightly as the Hunter, too large to fit through the door, began to smash through the building's walls. The nearby reactor hummed loudly, having to deliver more power than usual with the loss of the others. In the adjacent building where the others were taking cover, the bodies of their fallen comrades lay side by side, connected by a thin group of wires attached to tiny panels in the back of their MJOLNIR armour. She'd hoped that they wouldn't have to use their failsafe option, but with an entire army closing in on them it didn't look like they'd have much of a choice.

"Chief!" Lee called as he placed a det-charge on a nearby wall. "This place is ready to blow, let's regoup and fall back."

"Agreed. Rick, move into complex two with the others, I'll be right-"

With an almighty crash, the wall next to her finally gave way and a massive hulk of tendrils and metal forced its way in. Her superhuman reflexes allowed Anne to dodge the surprisingly fast shield blow that would've decapitated her, though the Hunter's weapon glanced off her suit and sent her flying back into a wall. Rick immediately leapt between them and opened fire, prompting the alien to raise its near-impenetrable shield. Lee slowly crept up behind it, grenade in hand, and plunged his fist into the creature's exposed back. It span round as the Spartan leapt back, charging its cannon. The grenade detonated, splattering orange blood and worms across the room as its cannon fired a bolt of energy towards Lee. It caught him in the side of his torso, blasting straight through his shields and sending him flying to the ground.

"Lee!" Rick called as Anne got to her feet, coughing. "Shit, cover me!"

Dodging a streaks of plasma fire from the infantry outside, he sprinted across the room and grabbed his fallen friend, lifting Lee up and half-dragging him back towards Anne. Colin-142 entered the room behind her and lay down a steady stream of fire, giving them enough time to fall back into the adjacent reactor complex, where Doug and Russell were holding the line. The former took one glance at Lee's state and swore under his breath.

"Put him down there," Anne said quickly before throwing her last grenade towards an advancing group of Jackals.

"What happened?" Russell asked without turning.

"Hunter winged him."

"How's he looking?"

Rick sighed. The Hunter's final attack had torn right through Lee's armour and gouged a gaping wound in his side. Several of his ribs were exposed amid the cauterised flesh and dark blood. SPARTAN-148 lifted off his helmet with trembling fingers, and spat up a mouthful of blood. He looked pale.

"B-foam?"

"We're out, Rick," Colin said sadly.

"Crap."

Anne, Doug, and Russell kept on firing as they attempted to tend to Lee's grievous wound. The shot had missed his heart by inches, though it had clearly done irreparable damage elsewhere. The injured Spartan heaved himself into a sitting position, backing up against a nearby wall with his blood-splattered helmet in one hand.

"How's it look?"

Colin and Rick didn't have to remove their helmets to convey the looks on their faces. After a moment of silence, Lee simply sighed and held out his hand.

"Detonator?"

"What?"

"Colin, give me the detonator. The rest of you get the hell out of here while I take care of the charges."

Though he didn't have his helmet on, everyone in Beta-Red could hear him. Tactically and pragmatically, it was a sound plan. He wouldn't impede their progress with his injury, and with both the reactors and MJOLNIR suits rigged to blow Lee could take a sizeable number of Covenant troops out with him. Even so, none of the Spartans could bear to leave one of their own behind. All their years together, through training and decades of war, had made them as close as family. They were leaving a brother to die here and they knew it.

"Beta-Red," Anne said, her voice emotionless and level. "We're pulling back, now."

Nobody protested. Colin handed Lee the last of his detonators and a fully-loaded handgun as he and the other Spartans moved one-by-one out of the reactor complex's back door. The moment they had cleared the facility's broken-down walls, they began to run. Looking back for a few moments, the Spartans saw several Phantoms offloading troops within the ODG facility while Wraith tanks drifted up the main road. Then, the last four reactor buildings exploded in a brilliant flare that turned the surrounding area into little more than blackened rubble and scorched corpses. One of the dropships was gutted by the explosion, and smashed into one of the Wraiths in a fiery blast. Anne switched on her COM.

"This is Beta-Red Actual. Orbital Defence Facility A-331 is lost. Over."

She didn't expect anyone to answer. It was likely that their team were the only UNSC forces in the area still alive, and with CASTLE base apparently inaccessible and no means of transport, they would simply have to keep moving until they found backup - or were wiped out. The team moved quickly along the road, well aware that the Covenant were hot on their heels. The Spartans spread out slightly, darting into the treeline as several Banshees streaked overhead. After nearly twenty minutes of moving in silence, they regrouped in a ravine deep within the forests. There was something vaguely familiar about it; perhaps they had a training exercise here when they were young? Nonetheless, their situation wasn't good. In terms of weaponry, they had a few stolen Covenant plasma and needle rifles, two M6D handguns, and four frag grenades. Hardly enough to hold off an army. As they rested for a brief moment, a number of red dots flashed up on their motion trackers, moving towards them swiftly.

"Contact!" Rick yelled, dashing behind a tree as a beam of energy shot past him. The other Spartans moved to engage their foe, though the enemy had the high ground and numbers on their side. In addition to at least a dozen Jackal snipers, two Revenants drifted towards the top of the ravine and began firing on them. Their group was pushed further downhill, taking a few glancing shield hits here and there and taking down any alien unwise enough to emerge from cover as they moved. Eventually, the hill bottomed out and to Anne's dismay, they were backing straight towards a cliff.

"Crap, hold the line!"

"I don't think we've got a choice here!

"Great!" Doug laughed, surprisingly. "We either kill everything coming at us, or go for another freefall."

"Can it," Anne muttered, gunning down an advancing Skirmisher. "We'll get through this."

Little by little, Beta-Red was pushed back towards the cliff's edge. The drop was several hundred feet at least, and though there was a thin river below they couldn't be sure of their survival. They were soon down to their sidearms as the Covenant troops, hungry for blood, closed in on them through the trees. Suddenly, the COM flared to life and a familiar voice spoke up.

"Beta-Red Actual, looks like you need a hand!"

Atop the hill, both Revenants were consumed as missiles streaked towards them, followed by bursts of precise gunfire that felled the remaining snipers. Tall figures appeared above them and opened fire on the Covenant infantry, who soon found themselves trapped in a deadly crossfire. Jackals and Grunts shrieked in fear as they tried to run for their lives while the surviving Elites attempted to rush Anne's team. In less than a minute, the entire attacking force had been wiped out. The five Spartans moved warily out of cover as three figures in battered MJOLNIR armour approached them.

"Nice to see you again, Chief." Virgil-057 spoke up. Alongside him were Samantha-015 and Bailey-132. The latter's left arm hung limply at his side and had evidently seen a lot of biofoam usage. They were among the wounded Spartans dispatched by Fred-104 to CASTLE base earlier as part of Delta-Red Team.

"I thought you were heading to CASTLE base? Where's Will, Issac and Vinh?"

"We got separated. Huge Covvie force managed to split us up. They went for the base and we fell back?"

"What about the Marines with you?" Russell asked.

"KIA. There were too many of them."

"I see." Anne turned to Bailey. "What happened to your arm?"

"Split-lip with a Focus rifle got me. Managed to patch it u with b-foam but it feels like it's gonna fall off."

She nodded. Though it was disheartening to know that there was little chance of them breaking through to CASTLE base, the arrival of three more Spartans, wounded though they were, gave them a better fighting chance. Sam threw down a large rucksack before them, containing several rifles and a number of ammunition boxes.

"Managed to salvage something when we lost our hogs," she explained. "Just spent our last missiles, though."

"Thanks," Anne replied as she fished out a fresh Battle Rifle. "We'd better get moving."

"Agreed. We'll fold into Beta-Red."

"Got it." Anne quickly moved Virgil, Sam and Bailey out of Delta-Red's roster and into her team before marking Lee-148 down as MIA. The others likely saw that, but made no queries as to what happened to their comrade.

The Spartans distributed the remaining weapons and ammo among themselves before moving back towards the main road. Glancing towards her comrades, she noticed Sam moving with a noticeable limp, while Rick was deliberately lagging behind at the rear of their formation. Surprisingly, they encountered no Covenant for some time as they travelled, occasionally checking for signals over the long-range COM. Eventually, a panicked voice crackled to life as they reached a crossroads.

"Mayday, mayday, this is Yankee-Four-Two of the Third Mechanised to any local UNSC forces, please respond!"

Along the forested road to the south, a convoy of six vehicles trundled along. Checking their transponders from afar, Anne verified that they were the source of the transmission and waved for her Spartans to spread out across the crossroads, just in case. Then, she activated her COM.

"Yankee-Four-Two, this is Beta-Romeo Actual. Do you copy?"

"Yeah, I hear you," came the quick reply. "Can't say I recognise your callsign though, ma'am. What's your position."

"We're currently at the crossroads about a klick north of your position. We'll hold here in cover until you arrive, over."

"Copy that, Beta-Romeo. We'll be there soon. Over and out."

With that, the Spartans hunkered down in the dense vegetation around the roadside and waited. Crouched to Anne's right, Doug-103 chortled as the sound of the convoy drew closer.

"What is it?"

"Oh, nothing," the large Spartan replied. "I just can't wait to see the looks on their faces when they see who we are."

Anne smiled at that. Eventually the lead vehicle, a plasma-scorched warthog, slowly halted in the middle of the crossroads. A man in Marine gear exited the vehicle, cigar in mouth. He glanced around warily for Anne's unit for a few moments before activating a handheld communicator.

"Uh, Beta-Romeo, we're at the crossroads. Where are you, over?"

Anne flashed a green acknowledgement light to her team, and all eight members of Beta-Red emerged from the undergrowth. The cigar dropped from his mouth as he stared in awe at the green-armoured supersoldiers, and the other troops in the convoy began talking excitedly.

"Holy shit!" he exclaimed. "You're Spartans!"

"Yes we are," Anne replied. "Mind giving us a lift?"

***

It wasn't long before news of Beta-Red's appearance had spread like wildfire among what remained of the local UNSC forces. As it turned out, a number of units had been stationed across the Highland Mountains with no methods of actually leaving the planet. As such, these scattered groups had simply resolved to hold out against the Covenant as long as they possibly could. The COM had been ablaze with cheers and hopeful voices upon Anne-003's identification as Beta-Red Actual.

"Nearly there, Spartan," the truck driver spoke up. He hadn't said a great deal since their meeting at the crossroads nearly an hour ago, but she could tell he was in high spirits. "It'll be good to finally take the fight to those Covenant bastards."

"Indeed."

Their convoy consisted of three civilian trucks repurposed for military use, two warthogs with low ammunition, and one rarely-seen Wolverine anti-air vehicle. Hardly a fearsome sight compared to the massed Covenant forces they were heading for, but simple transportation was a blessing at a time like this. Having briefly spoken with the others over TEAMCOM, Anne had assessed Beta-Red's combat capabilities. She, Doug, and Russell were in the best condition, while Colin and Virgil could still fight in good condition in spite of their injuries. Sam's leg wound had slowed her down somewhat, and despite his attempts to downplay it, Rick had certainly been hit harder than they had first assumed. Bailey could barely move one of his arms, which definitely weakened his combat capabilities. Still, they hadn't said a word of this to their fellow troops. As Spartans, they had to ensure that morale stayed high, especially considering the battle to come.

"Chief?" Sam spoke over the COM.

"Yeah?"

"What's the situation like at our destination?"

"Bad. Reports just came in that they lost another ODG Complex. Four-Twelve."

"Doubt the MAC's above are gonna stay up much longer, then."

"Probably not. Once we've regrouped with Gamma One we'll assess the situation."

"Copy that."

They continued their journey in silence for several minutes more. Reports were coming in less frequently from other units, though it appeared that Gamma Five, another Marine unit, had been reduced to just over a dozen men and were also falling back, pursued by two entire Covenant divisions. Anne dispelled any thoughts regarding their chances of survival against a force that size. Her Spartans would just have to fight and win. There wasn't any other choice. Approaching an intersection in the mountain road, the convoy turned left and moved towards what looked like an old communications outpost. A few tired-looking Marines manned the walls, and the metal gates slid open upon their approach.

"Looks like this is our stop," muttered her driver as he fumbled in his pockets for another cigar. "Best of luck out there, Spartans."

"And to you. Thanks for the ride."

"Don't mention it."

Anne clambered out of the truck just as the rest of Beta-Red dismounted their vehicles. Many of the assembled Marines stopped and stared at the supersoldiers as they gathered before the front of the outpost. Even in their wounded, battered state, the sight of a group of fully-armoured SPARTAN-II's must have seemed like a miracle to the men and women here. The outpost's doors slid open and a man strode forward, waving towards the Spartans.

"Beta-Red Actual? First Lieutenant Jake Chapman. It's good to have you here."

"What's the situation here?" Anne asked.

"Not the best, I'm afraid." He motioned for the Spartans to follow him back into the building. "We're down to barely twenty Marines, myself included. We've got what's left of Gamma Five heading this way, but fourteen others is hardly gonna make a difference."

"What's your plan then, Lieutenant?"

"Until your team showed up we were just hoping to regroup and bug out, Spartan. Covenant's got two divisions with armour support heading right for us though, so I don't know if we'd make it far."

There was a brief pause. Chapman looked at Anne hopefully, not knowing what else to say. Eventually, she spoke up.

"My team can hold them off. For a while, at least."

"Are you sure? I know you're Spartans, but still-"

"Do you have any weapons stored here?" she cut him off. "Explosives would also be useful, as my team's running low at the moment."

Chapman smiled. "Munitions is one thing we do have. Back when Winter Contingency was declared they sent a ton of supplies out here to use as a fallback point in case the Covvies landed here. We've got more guns than troops, truth be told, and some heavy equipment.

"Show me."

The Lieutenant led them into the outpost's garage, which had been filled to the brim with large crates containing various military equipment. While some had been opened, presumably by this base's current garrison, quite a few were untouched. Anne paused as they passed one container.

"Autoturrets?"

"Yeah," the Lieutenant sighed. "Would've unpacked them, but whoever sent this stuff here never bothered to leave a Cyclops loader to move it. Believe me, we've tried shifting those crates with manpower alone, and we can't fit a 'hog in here to use a tow winch."

Anne activated TEAMCOM. "Doug, Colin?"

The two Spartans stepped forward and with little effort, lifted up one of the heavy metal crates, much to Chapman's amazement.

"Give us a little time, Lieutenant. We'll get this place ready for them."

***

It wasn't much, but in a little under twenty minutes Beta-Red Team had turned the area just outside the outpost into a killzone. LOTUS anti-tank mines were scattered across open ground, while a number of potent C-12 charges had been placed among the trees as a last resort. The automated turrets each had a decent ammo supply and power to last for at least twelve hours without recharging, and had been divided into three groups. Most of Chapman's men were in the process of packing up non-essential equipment while the Spartans stood guard atop the walls.

"Beta-Red Actual," the Lieutenant spoke over the COM. "One of our recon groups just engaged an enemy scouting party."

"Any survivors?"

"Doubt it. Get your team ready, we're gonna have company very soon."

"Copy that."

Anne-003 exited the main building and moved towards the outpost walls, where Russell-041 and Sam-015 were loading ammunition into one of the autoturrets.

"Chief," Russell nodded towards her. "This is the last one. Almost done."

From their elevated position the three had a good view of the forests that stretched through the Highland Mountains. In the distance, Anne could just about make out Menachite Mountain, home of CASTLE base. She hoped that a few of her comrades had made it there safely, at least; enough Spartans had died today already. They still hadn't heard anything from Alpha, Gamma, or the rest of Delta-Red since Fred's brief transmission back at the ODG facility. Smoke rose from the treeline ahead, followed by the distant whine of plasma fire.

"Here they come," Samantha muttered.

In the courtyard, Chapman's men had finished loading up their trucks, leaving behind two Warthogs for Beta-Red to use. Anne glanced back at the haggard-looking group of Marines and activated her COM.

"Gamma-One Actual, my team is in position. Get your people ready to move as soon as I give the signal, over."

"With respect, Red - we might not be Spartans, but this is our home." Chapman sounded tired, but resolute. "My men will die here if I ask them to."

"I don't doubt that, Gamma-One Actual. Let's hope we won't need them to. Defensive perimeter online."

Anne tapped her datapad a few times, and across the area their turrets flickered to life. Heavy-duty machine guns unfolded as the automated sentries activated their motion sensors in search of Covenant troops. Though both the Spartans and Marines had IFF tags that would prevent them from being targeted, they stayed well back.

"This is nuts," the Lieutenant muttered over the COM. "What in the hell are those autoturrets supposed to do against what they're bringin', over?"

"Divide their attention."

Across the forest, Beta-Red's autoturrets began to fire as enemy scouts picked their way through the trees. In the valley before them, LOTUS mines blew entire squads apart and sent corpses flying into the sky. Anne watched with some satisfaction as she watched the unmistakable bulk of a Hunter get ripped to shreds. Though the screams of dying aliens filled the air, the main force was yet to come. Her long-range motion sensors flashed a warning as a number of red dots blinked up, heading straight towards them.

"Visual! Thirty-two Wraiths moving with two-hundred sixty infantry at 200 meters, closing on our lines due west at six kilometers per hour. Beta-Red, hold position until I trigger primaries, then close on their front line as fast as you can."

Moving out of the base with Samantha and Russell in tow, Anne moved swiftly through the undergrowth. Yellow dots flashed up on her radar as they drew closer to the rest of the team. Her comrades spread out as they pressed on, passing piles of charred alien corpses and wrecked vehicles. The forest ahead was ablaze with plasma blasts and tracer rounds, and in spite of the Covenant's massive advantage in numbers the presence of eight Spartans had been enough to halt their advance in its tracks.

"Chief!"

Anne looked over to see Bailey-132 emptying his rifle into a nearby Elite one-handed; his near-unresponsive arm hung limply at his side. The Spartan used the dead alien as a shield from several incoming Jackals while Colin and Virgil provided covering fire.

"How are things going?" she called, ducking behind a fallen tree for a moment while Bailey reloaded.

"Doug's hijacked a Wraith and tore up an entire infantry column. Last I saw of him he was heading west, mowing down everything that got in his way."

"Where's Rick?"

"Headed towards a Shadow the autoturrets gutted. Think the plasma cannon still works."

"Got it." She glanced down. "How's the arm?"

"Can't feel it. Can still swing it around though; smashed a Split-lip's face in. Might need a new one when this is all over."

At least he was making light of things. All of them were wounded in one way or another, and even Spartans couldn't fight forever without rest. She switched COM channels and made four beeps, signalling for the Marines to move out. The moment they received word that the Lieutenant and his men were safely on their way, she'd have Beta-Red fall back to a safe location and attempt to hail some kind of evac. Anne leapt over the tree and joined Russell in taking down a panicked group of Grunts. Tossing aside her spent rifle, she grabbed two plasma rifles from nearby raked the area to her left with bolts. Several Jackals dropped dead. Her personal COM suddenly beeped.

"Chief!" Doug's voice filtered through the static. "Just got a sighting on the next valley. It's not good."

"What are we looking at?"

"Twenty thousand. Minimum. The few thousand we're dealing with now are just the tip of the spear."

"Copy that. What's your condition?"

"Wraith's pretty beat up. Mortar went offline after a Banshee hit, but I've still got my plasma cannons and the armour plating's not fully breached yet. Give me a few minutes and I'll-"

Doug abruptly stopped. For a few seconds, only static filled the channel. "Chief, we've got to pull back. Now."

She didn't need to ask why. Over the nearby mountains, three familiar shapes broke through cloud cover. These were the same Cruisers that had driven them from the ODG facility. Pinpricks of light emerged from the ships as huge globules of plasma seared towards them, blasting huge chunks of dirt into the air.

"I'll see if I can get back to you," Doug said. "There's a lot of-"

The COM went dead. Before Anne could check her comrade's status over TEAMBIO, a blast knocked her off her feet, overloading her energy shields and sending the Spartan backwards through a tree. Had she been standing a few feet forward she would've been vaporised, shields or not. Russell dashed over, firing off a plasma pistol before helping Anne to her feet.

"Chief!" his voice sounded oddly muffled. "C'mon, we're falling back."

Leaning on him for support, she tried to ignore the burning sensation across one side of her body. Her green armour plating was heavily blackened, while portions of her bodysuit had been scorched through by the blast. Still, she wasn't suffering from any penetrative injuries as far as she could tell. Taking out her sidearm, she managed to kill an incoming Sangheili before dropping the empty weapon. Eventually, she shook off Russell for support and crouched down behind a crashed Covenant troop transport - a Shadow. Rick sat in the gunner's seat, firing at anything even remotely alien that headed their way.

"You okay!?" he called down.

"Yeah, yeah, just give me a minute."

Colin-142 backed into view, reloading a stolen Carbine. The Shadow had been marked as a potential fallback position, most likely by Rick. The slightly elevated position gave them a good view of the surrounding area, even if most of it was either on fire or covered with alien corpses. There was a brief moment of silence as they at and stared at the devastation around them before Colin spoke.

"Sam's dead."

Anne immediately brought up TEAMBIO. SPARTAN-015's lifesigns had gone dark. Then again, she was getting erratic readings from the entire team. Russell, who was grabbing weaponry from enemy corpses while they had time, was supposedly missing both of his legs. She sighed and shut off the system.

"You sure?" she asked.

Colin nodded. "When those Cruisers opened fire on the valley, we were trying to fall back here. Damn leg slowed her down and she took a direct hit. There was nothing left."

At least it was quick. "Anyone seen Virgil or Bailey?"

Everyone said no. In her mind, she'd already written off Doug as a casualty. She couldn't bear bringing him up before the group, but SPARTAN-103 was sitting in front of a hostile army when those Cruisers touched down. Either way, he was too far out to reach by this point.

"So what's the plan?" Rick asked, pausing for a moment to blast an errant Grunt. "If we stay here we're dead."

"Yeah, and if we run they'll just hunt us down," Russell muttered. "I say we call for evac."


"From who?!" Rick laughed. "There's probably no one left up there to hear us, Russ. Better to see how long we can lead those bastards on a chase."

"Enough!" Anne snapped, getting to her feet. The dizziness had more or less subsided. "I'm calling for evac."

"Your funeral," Rick muttered.

She placed two fingers to the side of her helmet and activated her long-range COM. "To any UNSC forces in the area, this is Beta-Red Actual. We're on foot and need immediate evac, please respond."

They waited in silence for a few seconds, listening to the static.

"See!" Rick spoke up. "Didn't I say that-"

Suddenly, a voice broke through the static. "Beta Red? Thank God, you're still alive. This is Pelican Iron Fist, en route to your location now. Get your team together ASAP, because we don't have much time."

"Good to hear you, Iron Fist. What's the situation?"

"We've got a Destroyer coming in to MAC those Covvie ships out of the sky, but your team's still in the splash zone. It'll be here in less than two minutes, Beta-Red, so shoot a flare and I'll be there in thirty, over."

The Spartans looked at each other. "Shit," Colin muttered.

"Would they risk hitting us?"

"Three Covvie ships and that many troops against us? They might."

"Anybody got a flare?"

Russell handed Anne a stolen plasma pistol. "It's not the best substitute but it'll do."

"Thanks." She opened up her COM channel again. "Iron Fist, this is Beta-Red Actual. We're firing plasma blasts straight up. See if you can track that and my signal, over."

"Copy that, Spartan. I'll be there soon. Over and out."

As Anne fired blast after blast into the sky, the Spartans came under attack once more. Infantry tramped towards them in waves, flinging grenades and trading plasma fire with the small group. Rick's cannon cut down dozens of enemy Grunts, though where one fell it seemed that three more were ready to replace it. Two yellow dots pinged towards them from another direction: Virgil-057 and Bailey-132. The two looked much worse for wear as the latter now limped along, burdened by both his lame arm and several leg injuries.

"Phantom, three o'clock!"

The group turned its attention towards the enemy dropship as it streaked overhead, raking the ground with plasma fire. Half a dozen Sangheili exited the vehicle, clad in white armour and antigravity packs. The Phantom's main gun struck their Shadow at least half a dozen times, blasting through and toppling the already-damaged transport as Rick attempted to clamber out of the turret. The Spartan fell with it, and barely had time to turn before the burnt-out wreck crashed onto him.

"Rick!"

SPARTAN-077 let out a hacking cough, spitting out blood in his helmet. Russell leapt over the Shadow's remains while Anne grappled with one of the Elites, sidestepping a sword thrust and jamming her knife into its neck. She took the alien's blade and impaled another through the back as it crept towards Virgil. Bailey headbutted one Elite while gunning another down with a stolen plasma rifle, though multiple impacts had clearly breached his armour.

"Chief, we've got a problem," Russell said, calm as ever. She glanced over to see him kneeling by the ruined vehicle.

"Rick?"

"He's barely hanging in there."

"Get him out and pull back, now!"

Anne used this brief respite to survey their surroundings. Amid the burnt trees and countless alien corpses, more Covenant troops were coming; an endless tide of bright armour and flashing energy weapons. If a single dropship couldn't save them, then this would be their last stand. She gripped her carbine tightly, and took down several far-off Jackals before moving to join Russell. Firing one-handed, she dragged her comrade's comatose form out from under the Shadow as Russell lifted the wreck. His shields were barely functioning, and the armour had been badly impacted. Adding to that his previous injuries and the limited treatment they had provided via biofoam, it wasn't likely that he'd live without proper surgery. As they pulled him into cover, shields sparking from near-misses, a voice crackled over TEAMCOM.

"Clear the way folks, I'm coming in!"

Russell and Anne glanced towards each other, bemused. "Is that-"

To their right, a heavily-scarred, burning hunk of tank-shaped metal crashed through the treeline and plowed right into Covenant lines. The Wraith's propulsion drive flared brightly as it turned sharply, crushing infantry underneath and scattering others. Its plasma turret raked the ground around the other Spartans, taking down four of the Elite Rangers and saving Bailey's life as one moved to decapitate him. Finally, it burst forward once more as the engines failed and swerved into a tree. The driver's hatch burst open, and a large, MJOLNIR-clad figure leapt out.

"Doug!" Colin cried, reloading his weapon as he ground a dying alien into the dirt.

"Sorry I'm late," he replied nonchalantly. "I brought some supplies."

The huge Spartan tossed a pack before his comrades. Inside were two Covenant Concussion Rifles, and a bulky Fuel Rod Gun. Anne, Virgil and Russell took the weapons gladly, and turned back to continue their fight. Over the cacophony of battle, Anne thought she could just about make out the sound of a Pelican's engines. Sure enough, the pilot she'd spoken to earlier let out a call.

"Beta-Red, we're above the forest but need your exact location. We're cutting this close, Spartans!"

Ducking behind a fallen tree, she pointed the Fuel Rod Gun straight up and pulled the trigger. Green bolts flared into the smoky sky, one after the other. This was their last chance. "Iron Fist, you see that?" she asked.

"Got it, Beta-Red Actual. We're coming in now. You'll have ten seconds between touchdown and takeoff. Good luck."

The Pelican roared over the treetops, firing a volley of missiles that blew a circling Phantom out of the sky. Anne tossed the heavy weapon aside and ran towards it as it slowly descended, slightly up the hill. Her comrades followed suit; Russell carried Rick and Doug supported the near-unconscious Bailey while Virgil and Colin lay down a steady stream of plasma fire. Aware that their prey was escaping, the gathered Covenant troops surged forward in a frightening display of ferocity. Anne made sure that their wounded were loaded into the open troop bay first as the surviving members of Beta-Red piled in. Then, she leapt aboard and slumped into a nearby seat as the rear hatch closed. Red emergency lights flicked on.

"That everyone?" the pilot's spoke over the COM.

"Affirmative."

"Got it. Buckle up, 'cause this is gonna be close."

The Pelican accelerated to maximum speed, streaking through the sky and rising upwards as a few errant plasma bolts fizzled out behind them. After fighting on the ground for hours, the Spartan's lives were in the hands of their pilot. Anne hoped they wouldn't have to attempt another orbital drop should they come under enemy fire. The dropship shuddered as it continued its ascent, and veered sharply to the left as something large rocketed past.

"That was the Majestic!" called the Pilot. "Another half-minute and we'd have all been toast."

She didn't reply, and merely sat in silence with the other Spartans. Bailey was buckled into his seat and had passed out; Virgil had administered a number of painkillers and sedatives, while biofoam held his wounds together. Anne wondered if his arm could be salvaged, or if they'd have to amputate it. Doug nudged her, and pointed towards Virgil's body. Checking TEAMBIO, she felt a hollow blow as SPARTAN-077's lifesigns had flatlined. If they could reach a sufficiently-equipped medical facility, then there was a chance of reviving him. Rick's body would have to be put into cryo immediately, though. She flipped on her COM.

"Pilot, what's our destination?"

"The UNSC Andromeda. It's a Prowler. Orders came down from the top - or whatever's left of it - to deliver you Spartans there."

"Okay. Get a word out that we'll need a medical team on standby the moment we arrive for our wounded."

"Got it, we'll get there soon."

Anne removed her helmet, placing it on the floor between her boots. Most of the other Spartans did the same now that they were away from any immediate danger. It was doubtful that the Covenant fleet attacking Reach would divert attention towards a single Pelican while the Epsilon Eridani fleet fought a losing battle in orbit, anyway. Reach was gone. There was no denying that. The planet where the Spartans had grown up together so long ago; the planet they'd fought so hard to defend, was just another victim of the Covenant's relentless advance into the Inner Colonies.

Still, she thought, looking round at the tired faces of her comrades. We survived. That's got to count for something. Her thoughts drifted to the others, still possibly trapped on Reach's surface: Fred, Kelly, Joshua, Will, Isaac, Vinh, Li, Grace, and Anton. The thought of losing nine more Spartans in a single battle was terrifying. With any luck, they'd all make it out. John's team too. With any luck they'd find their own way to escape, re-arm, and regroup, killing as many Covenant bastards as they could along the way. The assembled Spartans placed their helmets back on as the Pelican juddered, slowly descending into the Prowler's hangar bay. Their brief moment of respite and reflection was over.

As for Beta-Red, there would be other battles to fight.

Work of the Gods

Cycle 252, Seventh Age of Reclamation

Location: N'marz Legion Encampment, near Estzergom

“Your warriors have fought well this campaign,” Stel ‘Vadamee told Felo. The field master stood before Felo and several other special operations officers assembled within the command tent. A large map projected behind ‘Vadamee, displaying the anticipated fortifications of yet another human city. Yet another target. “You have conducted yourselves with glory and honor befitting divine warriors of the N’Marz legion."

Glory and honor. On the eve of the invasion such praise from a commander of ‘Vadamee’s status would have swelled Felo with pride. Now he barely registered the praise beneath his malaise of fatigue. Another target. Another battle. The engagements were beginning to mesh together into one endless blur of violence and death. He wondered how many more of his warriors needed to die before they could leave this ruined world.

“Your praise honors me, Field Master,” Felo said respectfully. “Along with all the warriors under my command.”

‘Vadamee nodded. “I have gathered you here to offer yet another opportunity for glory.” He indicated the projection behind him. “We are preparing to assault this settlement, a city they call Estzergom. I want your warriors to be in the vanguard of our forces.”

Felo nodded, careful not to let his weariness show. It would not do for either the field master or his warriors to think him weak. “What is the importance of the settlement?” he asked, scanning the defense schematics.

“The humans are using it to regroup their forces,” ‘Vadamee explained. “Survivors from battalions we have already defeated have retreated here. If they reform, they could pose a threat to other operations in the region. Some of their defense emplacements have already fired on our forces. Furthermore, they seem to be trying to use the city’s port as a staging point for some kind of evacuation. The fleet is already stretched thin across this sector trying to deal with what is left of the enemy fleet. They do not need the added distraction of escaping ships to deal with.”

Felo nodded again. Another slaughter, then. His body ached from the strain of the previous battles. When was the last time he had gotten a real rest? “What do you need of us, Field Master?”

“The legion is massing to assault the city,” ‘Vadamee explained, bringing up a projection of the Covenant’s forces. “I have several corvettes on hand to support the attack and waves of Banshees will be used to break their defenses once he have secured a foothold. But I need their long-ranged defenses destroyed before we can launch the brunt of our assault. I do not want to lose more ships to their ground batteries.”

Felo nodded. “Then we will secure your air space, Fleet Master.”

“The humans have a sizeable force massed in the city, but their morale will be weak,” ‘Vadamee said. “They know their defense is futile. Strike a firm opening blow and they will crumble before us like a wall of sand.”

He paused. “There is one thing you should be aware of. According to reports from other sectors, there is a team of their Demons active within the city. Once they realize what you are trying to do, they will undoubtedly try to stop you.”

Felo reached down and touched the energy sword at his hip. “As you say, Field Master. They know the battle is lost. Even the Demons’ wills will break at that knowledge.”

‘Vadamee nodded. “There are some who say that Demons know no fear. From what we have seen so far during this campaign, perhaps there is some truth to that.”

Felo’s eyes narrowed. “If the Demons do not know fear, then we will teach it to them.”


Daniel rested his armored frame against the side of the Pelican's troop bay and closed his eyes, fighting to dispel the tension that had mounted inside him during the flight down from orbit. He'd made the mistake of listening to some of the combat reports flooding in from across the planet and now the knowledge of all the grievous losses the UNSC had sustained wracked him with anxiety. He had known the battle was going badly, but he could have done without knowing exactly how badly. He had never known this feeling of helplessness before. The Covenant invasion force was so massive. It was as if the UNSC was fighting to stop an ocean with just a handful of barricades. Had Echo's battle in orbit done a thing to say the course of the battle?

Standing at the edge of the Pelican's open bay, Jermaine peered out of the dropship at the city below. "I thought the Covenant hadn't hit Estzergom yet," he commented, gesturing into the air.

"They haven't," Filippa replied. "Just a few air strikes, and the air defenses made sure they didn't do much damage."

"Well, from up here it looks like they already rolled on through. This place looks dead."

"The Army's been evacuating civilians for the past three days," Daniel said, the team's shared helmet channel letting his voice be heard over the wind and the dull moan of the Pelican's engines. "Intel reports that a Covenant army is massing to take the city. We're here to help make sure the Army holds them off until the evacuation is complete."

"Really? A babysitting job?" Jermaine turned back to the bay's interior. "That's what they brought us down here for?"

"Those are our orders," Filippa said coolly. She paused for a moment, unable to dismiss her teammate's disbelief entirely. "But if they're evacuating the entire city, they must have realized Estzergom would be a target days ago."

"Is there anything special about this place?" Jermaine demanded. "A strategic foothold? Some kind of weapons research?"

"Not that I know of," Daniel admitted wearily. He saw the conclusion Jermaine was driving towards but did not want to arrive there.

"So if this city has no strategic value and it's already being evacuated, why are the Covenant even bothering to attack it?"

The other three Spartans turned to where Layla sat in the far end of the troop bay. The newcomer had barely said a word since the orbital mission; Daniel was beginning to wonder if this strange new Spartan was suffering from some kind of PTSD. Layla returned his stare with the expressionless gaze of her own helmet. Daniel realized that for the first time he could remember he was actually struggling to read a fellow Spartan's body language. She really is a different breed from us.

"That's... not for us to worry about," he admitted, turning away. "Just stay focused on the task at hand."

"Maybe we'll get more information from the garrison commander," Filippa suggested. "They'll have a better picture of what's going on the ground here."

"I'm getting a good picture right now," Jermaine said as the Pelican banked down towards a landing platform already swarming with military activity. "It's not a pretty one."

Looking out at the platform, Daniel could see what his teammate was talking about. Army troopers, Marines, and Navy personnel milled about securing supply crates and setting up sandbag defenses. A few officers oversaw organized work details, but most of the soldiers on the platform looked lost, as if looking for some way, any way, to keep busy. I guess they don't really know what they're doing here either. Plenty of the men and women here had already seen action; Daniel noticed several with bandaged wounds and plasma-scored battle gear. One Marine sergeant was missing an arm, though the bandaged stump wasn't inhibiting his ability to bark out orders to the squad helping him set up a machine-gun position.

The Pelican touched down and Daniel lurched to his feet. Regardless of his own worries and anxieties, he needed to lead his team. They needed him focused and alert—especially Layla. "All right," he said, waving Echo forward as he stepped onto the platform. "Let's get moving."

Activity on the platform ceased as the Spartans stepped off the Pelican. All heads turned and more than a few jaws dropped at the sight of the armored supersoldiers. Daniel was no stranger to the awe: Spartans attracted attention wherever they went, especially when they arrived in the face of an impending enemy attack. But the stares leveled at Echo now had a dullness to them. No one cheered or called out; a few soldiers even shook their heads and looked away.

They know, Daniel realized. They all know Reach is finished. He ignored the icy feeling in his gut and pressed on towards the far end of the platform, the crowd parting to give Echo plenty of space. A yell from the one-armed sergeant shook the platform out of its stupor and the soldiers returned to their duties.

A sudden rumble shook the platform and the Spartans turned to see a pair of civilian freighters rise up from the city below. The freighters soared overhead, engines flaring as they ascended into the atmosphere. The evacuation efforts were still underway. Daniel wondered how many soldiers it was taking to keep order in the spaceport. Any civilians still waiting their turn to flee after three days must be beyond terrified.

The platform doors slid open as Echo approached and a dark-skinned man wearing an Army uniform stepped out to greet them. He looked thin and bony even in his combat gear, his face a study in weary anxiety. Daniel's HUD identified him as one Major Yoenis Corbyn. The officer fidgeted with the cuff of his sleeve as he looked over the Spartan arrivals.

"Echo team?" Major Corbyn asked, looking nervously at each Spartan in turn. "Ah, which one of you is in charge?"

Daniel stepped forward. "Sir," he said. "SPARTAN-240, Echo Team, reporting."

"Right, right." Corbyn hesitated a moment longer, then motioned for the Spartans to follow him inside.

The halls inside the command building were bustling with the same disordered activity Daniel had seen on the landing platform. They strode past makeshift aid stations, troop staging areas, and barricaded defensive positions. Soldiers from all branches ran up and down the corridors. Daniel could see the dull fear etched into the faces of everyone he passed. He was suddenly glad for the confidence he felt in his team, even Layla. He could trust his fellow Spartans not to let the dire circumstances impact their performance. They'd have his back, regardless of the situation.

Corbyn must have noticed the Spartan's observations. "This is technically an Army operation, but Estzergom is filled with components from all sorts of divisions. Since it wasn't near any major strategic hubs, HIGHCOM designated it a fallback point for multiple theaters."

He paused as they passed an aid station filled with wounded soldiers. "I guess no one expected so many theaters would be needing to use it. A lot of units withdrew here thinking they'd be evacuated, but right now every resource we can spare is being thrown into the civilian evacuation."

"You mean they aren't doing anything to evacuate the military personnel?" Filippa asked sharply. "What's the plan for everyone here once the civilians are away?"

She paused before adding a quick, "Sir."

The major just shook his head. If he took issue with Filippa's tone, he didn't show it. "I wish I knew, Spartan."

"Sir, we were ordered to report to General Ires for further briefing once we arrived in the city," Daniel interjected. "Where can we find him?"

"General Ires...?" Corbyn looked back at the Spartans, the lines in his face deepening. "Then you weren't told. Ires... General Ires is dead."

"Dead? A Covenant attack?"

Corbyn hesitated, then turned away. "No. He, ah, shot himself. Less than twelve hours ago. Colonel Jordan has assumed command of the city defenses in his place."

"I see." Daniel was not blind to the UNSC's shortcomings, but for a commanding officer to commit suicide in the face of the enemy... He fought off another wave of helplessness. "So we'll be taking our orders from the colonel then."

"Yes, yes. I suppose you will." There was something strange in Corbyn's posture as the man beckoned for Echo to keep after him. All of the major's movements seemed forced, as if it were an effort just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Were all the soldiers here like this? Danile was starting to wonder just how many other officers were on the verge of suicide.

They passed through another barricade. Corbyn flashed his ID at the soldiers guarding an elevator and waved Echo team inside. The Spartans' armored frames filled the lift car, barely leaving enough room for Corbyn to squeeze in alongside them. The lift groaned as it ascended, clearly not designed to carry four Spartans at once.

Jermaine pinged the team's private com channel. "What the hell is going on here? The general killed himself? They're not trying to evacuate the military? Why did they even send us down here in the first place?"

"The command network's a mess," Filippa said. "I'm starting to think there's no tactical coordination going on at all."

"Reach is finished," Layla interjected. The rest of Echo instinctively turned to look at the newcomer, surprised. "Everyone knows it. They're all just deciding how they want to die."

Corbyn must have noticed the head movements and put two and two together. "I wish I could give you a clearer picture of the situation, Spartans. But right now we're doing all we can just to play things by ear."

Daniel did his best to push aside the rising tide of doubts and put on a solid front for the major. "Don't worry, sir. Whatever the Colonel needs us to do, we'll get it done."

"Well that's the thing..." The elevator doors opened, cutting Corbyn off. Echo team filed out into a large office that might have once belonged to a CEO or high-placed government official before the Army had taken over. The office was a mess; half of its lights were darkened and tables and chairs lay overturned in the corners. A lone figure occupied a desk at the far end of the room, chair turned away from the elevator and facing a window overlooking the rest of the city.

"Colonel Jordan," Corbyn called out. "Ma'am. Spartan Team Echo has arrived."

The chair turned to face the arrivals. In it sat a woman in the uniform of an Army colonel. Her hair and clothes were disheveled, her eyes bleary from lack of sleep. She barely acknowledge Echo Team's salute, only touching the tips of her fingers to her forehead in response. Daniel pretended not to see the bottles lying at the base of Jordan's chair. So this really is the end of the world.

"Echo Team." Colonel Jordan steepled her fingers. "About time you showed up."

"Ma'am." Daniel straightened his posture. It felt strange to be addressing an officer like this. He was used to fighting a losing war, but usually the commanders at least maintained their composure. He found himself wondering if this would be the rest of the war: struggling to maintain his own bearing even as his superiors abandoneed theirs.

"We don't have much time, so I'll get right to it." Colonel Jordan tapped a set of blueprints on the desk before her. "As you can see, the evacuation efforts are underway. The civilian transports are looking to get as many people out as they can, but from the looks of things the Covenant will attack before that's finished. When they do..."

The colonel shrugged. "When they do, this city will fall. Things as they are, this city won't even hold up twenty-four hours against a concentrated assault."

"Yes, ma'am." Daniel hesitated. "So, will the military be evacuating as well?"

Colonel Jordan snorted. "My orders are to hold this city to the last trooper. Any transports that might have been taking military troops out of here have been diverted to the civilian efforts."

"So, we're to dig in and fight to the end?"

"Fight to the end?" A smile crept up the colonel's face. "I guess you could say that. One of the special forces units that pulled back here had a cache of nukes with them. Once the Covies have flooded the city, I'll detonate them. If we're all going to die, we're taking our share of them with us."

Beside Daniel, the rest of Echo team stiffened. He wondered if he had heard the colonel correctly. "Ma'am? Detonate them?"

"Nukes are a rare commodity here, in case you hadn't heard." Colonel Jordan leaned back in her chair. "Might as well get some use out of them. I've already got a team setting them up in my command bunker. Shouldn't be too long now. In the meantime, I want you Spartans at the forefront of our defenses. Make those Covie bastards bleed for ever meter they advance in this city."

Behind Echo Team, Major Corbyn's communicator pinged urgently.

"Is she out of her mind?" Jermaine demanded over the team's com channel. "This can't be happening."

"Stay focused," Filippa replied. "No matter what, we're still Spartans."

"Does she really expect us to just sit around and wait for her to detonate a bomb out from under us...!"

"Lock it up," Daniel said, voice calm. But there was a lump in his throat, his skin crawling beneath his armor as his own nerves betrayed him. He had stared death in the face before. It was what Spartans did. But to stand here and be told, quite calmly, that death was inevitable...

"Ma'am!" Corbyn called out, before Jordan could continue with Echo's briefing. "Emergency transmission from Bravo Company! It's the Covenant, ma'am! They're attacking the perimeter stations!"

Colonel Jordan sighed, her face betraying no sense of urgency or panic. If Daniel was not mistaken, there was a smile playing across her lips. "They got here sooner than expected. Advance teams trying to take out our air defenses, most likely. Well, I was getting tired of waiting."

She stood up from the chair. "Echo Team, get over to the perimeter. Keep those air defenses online at all costs. Major, make sure they get transportation to Bravo's position, then report back to me at the command bunker. I'll make sure the nukes are primed for detonation."

Major Corbyn gulped, his face drained of what little color it had left. "Yes ma'am." He turned back towards the elevator, running a hand over the back of his neck. "Spartans, if you'd just follow me then?"

Echo Team saluted Colonel Jordan and turned after Corbyn. Daniel flexed his fingers, trying to steady his own nerves, and opened a private channel to Jermaine. "Steady over there. I need to be able to rely on you."

"Don't worry about me," Jermaine shot back tersely. "I'll do my job. This is insane, but I'll do my job."

Daniel gave his teammate an almost imperceptible nod, then spared one last glance back at the office behind him. Colonel Jordan remained seated, her chair turned back to look out the window. The woman's posture was loose and relaxed, as if an enormous burden had been lifted off of her shoulders.


The human crumpled, his armor useless before Felo's blade. The special operations warrior stepped over the corpse and glanced about the security room. Several of his warriors spread out through the chamber, checking the bodies of the human security team for any survivors. Felo could hear the sounds of fighting echoing in through the hole his team had blasted in the room's door. The assault was commencing in earnest now.

"Plant your charges," he ordered, striding back towards the door's smoking remains. "Then regroup outside. I will deal with any defenders that still remain."

Sur waited for him out in the corridor, on the lookout for any human stragglers. He nodded to his brother and waved his carbine in the direction of the distant fighting. "The humans are numerous, as always. But there is less spirit in these ones. The battle is... less satisfying."

"They know they have lost," Felo replied, checking the charge in his plasma rifle as he walked towards the sounds of battle. "These ones have been sent here to die. Worse still, they know it."

"A warrior can fight bravely even in a losing battle if he wishes to bring glory to the gods," Sur observed, following behind Felo. "But then again, humans have no gods, or so they say. They are petty, material creatures, with no regard for higher matters. It makes them weak."

"Perhaps," Felo said, stepping over yet more human corpses. His warriors had slipped into the city on stealth Phantoms, dropping in onto the roof of this complex and catching its defenders by surprise. Field Master 'Vadamee had warned him that time was of the essence. Once the humans caught wind of this advance attack, they would throw everything they had into the perimeter defenses. If a hole was not opened for the N'marz Legion's main force to attack through, Felo's warriors and the other advance teams would be swiftly overwhelmed. "But do not underestimate them, even in this moment of triumph. It has been a good campaign. I would hate to see it sullied by the death of a brother."

They reached a larger chamber. Human corpses were strewn about in all directions, slumped over control panels and defensive emplacements. Rol 'Ranakee stood in the center of the room, directing more warriors as they affixed explosive charges to the walls. He turned to face his brothers as they approached.

"I just received word from our Phantom, commander," he told Felo. "The legion is on the move and will be here shortly. Once this command station is destroyed, we are to join the main forces as they breach the city."

Felo nodded. "Then we have no time to spare. Once the charges are placed, we will retreat back to the Phantom. Order the pilot to stand by on the roof, then finish up here."

He turned back to Sur. "Gather our warriors. We are withdrawing."

Sur had just turned away to carry out the order when a distant explosion rocked the building. Felo grabbed his brother's shoulder before he could be thrown to the ground and glanced around wildly, rifle at the ready. "What was that?" he bellowed. "I gave no order to detonate the charges!"

Sur dashed off down the corridor to investigate the room they had left behind. The other warriors unslung their weapons as Rol barked into his communicator, demanding to know what was going on outside. He waited a moment, then glanced back at Felo. "I've lost contact with our pilot."

Felo cursed, a dozen disaster scenarios playing out in his head. The key to any forward operation was momentum. If his team lost their momentum now, at the doorstep of a city teaming with humans, they would be overrun and slaughtered. No matter how superior their forces were, they could not withstand thousands of human soldiers. Not on their own.

"Alert the nearest team that we need support," he ordered. "Make sure the remaining charges get placed. Any warrior not setting charges, follow me to the roof!"

He hurried towards another ruined door, this one leading up to the rooftop. Several warriors hurried past him, kicking human bodies aside as they rushed into the stairwell. Felo turned his back to the stairs, waving at Sur and the other warriors hurrying towards him from down the far corridor.

Behind him, a loud crack reverberated through the stairwell and a warrior howled in pain. More cracks sounded as the stairs erupted in a cacophony of violence. Felo turned in time to see another of his warriors fall, purple blood spraying against the dark metal wall. He and another warrior grabbed the injured Sangheili, dragging him out of the stairwell as the rest of the warriors fired plasma rifles up at their attackers. In the dim light, amidst the bursts of plasma fire, Felo glimpsed a human silhouette crouched at the top of the stairs. This human was larger than the ones slaughtered defending this complex. There was no face on this human's head, just a helmet emblazoned with an expressionless visor.

A Demon.

"Fall back!" Felo ordered as Rol took charge of the injured warrior. "Fall back to the other entrance!" He did not know how many of the Demons they were facing, but this was no time to take a stand defending a complex they were already trying to blow up. Right now all that mattered was getting his team out to the roof where a Phantom could pick them up.

Sur and his warriors hurried back down the corridor while Felo and another Sangheili hurled plasma grenades into the stairwell. They raced back after the others as the grenades blasted the stairs apart. As he ran, Felo realized that he felt no desire to turn and test his mettle against one of the elite human warriors. There was no burning thirst for honor or personal glory; all he wanted to do was see this mission to the end and then leave this planet--alive.

It truly has been a long campaign, he thought, reaching the end of the corridor and the second set of stairs. Human bullets slammed against the wall beside him, but he didn't so much as turn to see if the Demons were racing after him. He just continued running up the stairs after his warriors, over the bodies of the humans killed during their infiltration, up out of the dark complex and into the light of day.

The roof was a scene of chaos. Sur, Rol, and the other warriors crouched in the midst of the still-smoking wreckage of their Phantom, firing wildly at two more Demons standing at the far end of the roof. A human dropship hovered over the complex, firing down at Sangheili team.

Felo ducked through a storm of machine gun fire and crouched beside Rol. "Did you contact the other teams?" he demanded, hearts pounding in his chest. Beside him, a warrior cried out and fell, shot through the neck.

"They will be hear soon!" Rol replied, shouting to be heard over the fighting. "We just need to hold out a little longer!"

Felo fired his plasma rifle over at the Demons. He was surprised to realize just how sharply he did not want to die, and even more surprised that he felt no shame over such a desire. He had not come this far just to die here, killed because he'd had the misfortune of leading his team into a building guarded by Demons. He needed to end this battle, and quickly.

"Warriors!" he bellowed, activating his energy sword and gesturing at the Demons. "Charge!" They needed to move fast, overwhelm these two Demons before more could join them.

Rol leaped to his feet. "Follow me--!" He stiffened, shields flaring and then failing as a hail of bullets struck him from behind. Felo's brother staggered, grasping at a bit of ruined Phantom to steady himself. Then a burst of gunfire from the looming dropship raked across his neck and decapitated him.

Felo spun to seek a lone Demon emerging from the stairs his team had come up. There was no time to mourn Rol's death. He raised his energy sword. "Press the attack!" he ordered Sur and the others. "I will hold this one."

The Demon fired an assault rifle as Felo charged. The special operations commander angled his sword to catch the bullets before they could strike his shields. The impact from the rounds hammered into his arm and he strained to keep hold of the sword. Then he was on top of the Demon, swinging his blade in to cut at the human's head.

The Demon ducked under the blow, swinging its rifle at Felo's midsection. Felo grunted, his shields flaring, but instead of backing off he swept one leg in to knock the human's legs out from under it. The armored human crashed to the ground and rolled, barely dodging Felo's sword as it plunged into the roof where its head had been a moment before. The Demon was on its feet again in a blur of movement, dropping its rifle and drawing a pistol as it backed away.

Felo fired his plasma rifle. The human rolled to the side again, firing wildly. Pistol rounds rocked off Felo's shields as the Demon fired at his head and neck, aiming to finish the fight with a well-placed bullet. The commander snarled and leaped after the Demon, sword slashing down at its armored midsection. But this time the human did not try to dodge the blow. Instead it met him head on, punching his chest with one hand while reaching up to grab his sword arm with the other and twist.

Pain lanced through Felo's arm and his hand spasmed reflexively. The sword fell out of his grip and in one fluid motion the human caught it and slashed back up. Felo cried out and brought his plasma rifle up to block the blow. It was the only thing that saved him from being cut in half. The blade cut through the rifle, slashing through Felo's shields and armor and leaving a deep cut up his torso.

He could hear fighting in the distance. His warriors were on this roof somewhere, still fighting the other Demons. Felo knew he needed to go help them, but right now all he could focus on was the pain from his wound and the form of the Demon standing in front of him, about to kill him with his own sword. Everything else faded away. It seemed to Felo as if he had shrunk and the Demon had grown to tower over him. Was this fear? Was this what it felt like to die?

Even the pain was slipping away. Felo flexed his hands and activated the energy daggers built into both of his gauntlets. Amidst the numbness seeping through his body, it occurred to him that in the grand scheme of things, his death here would be utterly pointless. Just another dead Sangheili in a war that had already claimed millions of his brothers. Another corpse paving the Covenant's road to inevitable victory. But to this Demon here, his death meant far more. An enemy vanquished even in the shadow of yet another crippling defeat. A show of defiance in the face of the Covenant's unstoppable might.

The Demon lunged with the sword but Felo twisted aside and dodged the blow. He lashed out with both his daggers, slicing at the Demon's arms. The Demon blocked the cuts with the sword, but it was clumsy and unused to wielding such a blade. The pain in Felo's chest was returning but he pushed through it, raining stabs and punches at the Demon and driving it back one step after another. All he needed was one good blow, one cut at the neck or arms and he would finish this creature off.

The Demon staggered beneath the assault and fell to one knee. Felo rushed in to attack only to realize the feint too late; the Demon leaped in and, not bothering to attack with the sword, slammed its free hand in to punch Felo right on his wounded chest.

Felo flew backwards, vision whitening from the pain. When his eyes cleared he found himself on his back, staring up at the sky. Streaks of plasma fire slashed across the cloudy sky overhead. In his agonized state, Felo couldn't help but find the scene beautiful.

The rooftop trembled beneath him. Was that the approach of the Demon, coming to finish him off? Felo's hands balled into fists and he tried to pull himself upright. He wasn't ready to die. Not here, not like this...!

He felt something grab him from behind. He snarled and struggled, trying to stab at whoever had hold of him. More hands seized him and he was dragged backwards, fighting all the way.

"Brother!" a voice yelled in his ear. "Calm down! You need to calm down!"

Felo steadied himself and discovered that he was lying in the troop bay of a Phantom surrounded by Sur and his other warriors. The Phantom jerked and lifted up and away from the complex. Felo caught one last glimpse of a rooftop strewn with rubble and the corpses of his warriors. The Demon stood at the edge of the roof, still holding his energy sword as its faceless helmet watched the departing Phantom. Then the doors to the troop bay closed, sealing Felo in with the other warriors.

Felo looked up at Sur. "The other Demons," he said, coughing with the effort it took to speak. "Did you..."

Sur shook his head. "No. They held us off. We would have all been killed if this dropship had not arrived. Rol is..."

"I know," Felo muttered. "I saw."

"He will be avenged. The rest of the legion has arrived and the assault is underway. Before this day ends, every human in this miserable city will be put to the sword. We have orders to regroup with the other assault teams and join in the attack."

"Good." Felo nodded. He had survived that battle, somehow, when so many of his brothers had not. He would not rest now. "See to my wounds. I will lead you into battle myself."

He reached for a device on his belt: the trigger for the charges his team had left back in the complex. He felt a pang of regret that they would not be able to retrieve the bodies of Rol and the rest of their dead. Those corpses would be swallowed up in the flames, along with the humans they had killed and--hopefully--the Demons as well. It bothered Felo that he took no satisfaction from such revenge. Perhaps he was losing his touch. But even so, it was a mission accomplished nonetheless.

He flipped open the trigger and began inputting the detonation code as the Phantom raced through the embattled city.


Daniel watched the Phantom race away, pausing to enjoy a rare burst of satisfaction. It was rare enough to see the Covenant cut and run like this. Of course, that usually meant they had something nasty in store, and judging from all the human bodies Daniel had seen as he chased the Covenant team through the defense complex this little skirmish was hardly a win.

Grimacing behind his visor, he dropped the sword he had snatched from the Elite commander and turned back to Jermaine and Layla at the other end of the roof. The two Spartans stepped over the bodies of the Elites that had tried to rush them, reloading their weapons. "You two okay?" Daniel asked.

"Yeah, we're good." Jermaine replied. "Thought we were cooked when the hinge-heads charged like that, but nothing you can't stop with a bit of concentrated firepower." He raised a grateful hand in acknowledgement to the Falcon that had brought them to the facility in the first place. The pilot had rained covering fire down on the Covenant team throughout the skirmish, breaking only to evade the Phantom that had arrived to rescue the Elites.

Beside Jermaine, Layla remained as quiet as ever, wordlessly sliding a new magazine into her submachine gun. She saw Daniel's visor turned towards her and, after a moment's pause, gave him a small wave.

Daniel turned away from his team members and looked out at Estzergom. This skirmish was hardly a victory. As usual, Spartans couldn't be everywhere at once. Bravo Company had been slaughtered. The Covenant had hit the perimeter with a wave of coordinated attacks, catching the defenders completely off-guard. The Army had expected at least another day to prepare before the attack began. Now the sky was full of plasma fire as Covenant dropships flitted in between buildings, slipping through an air-defense network cut to pieces by the unexpected attack. Stupid to think they would wait for us to dig in more. Stupid, stupid.

Not for the first time since leaving Colonel Jordan's office, Daniel realized what a ridiculous farce this entire defense was. Hold the Covenant off long enough for a handful of civilian transports to slip away, then die anyway in a storm of nuclear fire. The Covenant war machine would continue to march on no matter how many of its soldiers died here. The fact that the aliens were even bothering with a ground assault here was a farce in and of itself.

Useless, useless.

Something clattered on the roof behind him. Filippa darted up out of the stairs, hands waving. "The Covenant rigged this place to blow! Get clear, get clear!"

Echo Team didn't hesitate or ask for clarification. All four Spartans raced for the edge of the roof. Daniel was just a few meters from the edge when something grabbed his leg and sent him sprawling. One Elite, its arm blown clean off, had waited among the corpses of its comrades and then seized Daniel's foot as he passed. Daniel gritted his teeth and kicked at the alien's face, trying to break free. The warrior howled in pain but did not relent.

Jermaine appeared above them both. He leaped past Daniel and slammed a fist into the Elite's head. The warrior released Daniel and instead grabbed Jermaine instead, struggling to drag the Spartan down with it.

Daniel scrambled to his feet. "I've got this," Jermaine barked, slamming the Elite down into the roof. The warrior flopped like a ragdoll as Jermaine pulverized it. "Go on, I'm right behind you!"

Daniel turned away as the Elite went limp and released Jermaine. He had just leaped after Filippa and Layla when something roared behind him. A wave of energy struck him in the back and sent him plummeting into the street below. His shields flared, his ears rang, and everything went white.

He found himself lying on his back, head still ringing from the impact. Propping himself up on his elbows, he found himself staring at the burning ruin of the complex he had stood on top of not a moment before. Filippa and Layla emerged in front of him and helped him to his feet.

"Jermaine!" Daniel snapped, shaking himself free. "Did he get off?"

Layla turned and looked at the wreckage. Filippa shook her head. "He was still behind you."

Something shifted amidst the burning wreckage. A bit of blasted-out wall trembled, then fell away. Jermaine, bleeding from wounds across his armor, staggered out of the flames, shaking his head.

"Sneaky piece of shit," he grunted, shaking out his arm. "Lying around like that, nearly getting me killed. If there were anything left of him I'd--"

Daniel never learned what Jermaine would have done with the warrior's corpse. A lance of purple light punched through the wounded Spartan's chest. Jermaine staggered, shaking his head as if shrugging off a body blow. Then the purple beam appeared again, skewering him clean in the center of his visor. Jermaine's legs folded out from under him and he fell backwards into the flames.

"Sniper!" Filippa dropped to one knee, battle rifle scanning for the shooter.

"There!" Layla yelled, pointing up at one of the nearby buildings. She raised her submachine gun and fired bursts up in the direction she had indicated. Filippa swiveled with mechanical precision and opened fire.

Daniel stared at the space where Jermaine had stood not a moment before. In his HUD his teammate's vitals had flatlined. Something told him he should go over to the wreckage, drag his friend's body out of the fire. But what was the point? Jermaine was not the first friend he had lost. He would just be one of the last. In a few hours, they would all be dead, along with the pitiful remnants of Reach's defenders. His whole life, every battle he'd fought and won, every life he had ended, what would it matter once he was gone?

"Daniel!" Filippa howled. "Snap out of it!"

He spun, head rushing back to the battle at hand. He unclipped the pistol at his side and saw several Phantoms disgorging troops at the far end of the street.

"There's too many," he snapped. "We'll fall back and signal the Falcon for pickup."

He waved at a nearby convenience store on the opposite side of the street. "Filippa, get on top of there and get on overwatch. Layla, with me. Cover her!"

Filippa darted back towards the store Daniel had indicated. He stood behind Layla, picking off Grunts and Jackals with his M6 while she blazed away with her SMG. The Covenat troops howled in rage and fired wildly at the Spartans, but most of their shots went wide. A few moments later bursts of battle rifle fire began to cut down the aliens from afar; Filippa was in position. Daniel and Layla turned and sprinted away as their teammates' shots whizzed through the air above their heads.

When they reached the top of the store, Daniel waved at the Falcon that still circled overhead. "We need pickup!" he yelled into the comm. "Now!"

The Falcon dipped obligingly and descended toward their position as Echo's three remaining Spartans fired down at the oncoming Covenant. A moment later the Falcon's door gunner began pouring machine gun fire down at the enemy. Daniel turned and dragged himself aboard the dropship, reaching down to help Layla and Filippa up after him. The Falcon lifted up and away, leaving the Covenant and the ruins of the defense complex behind.

Daniel leaned against his seat in the Falcon's troop bay, staring aimlessly out at Estzergom. The door gunners on either side continued to fire bursts of gunfire down at Covenant targets. There was no shortage of targets. Covenant dropships were everywhere, disgorging troops anywhere human soldiers dared to make a stand. Banshees streaked through the skies, raining plasma down on defensive positions, UNSC dropships, and any evacuation transports that dared try and break through the embattled skies.

Staring out at the carnage below, Daniel was crushed by a crippling sense of inevitability. This was it, the Covenant's final assault. Estzergom would fall. Reach would fall. In a few years, there might not be any worlds left. Useless, useless.

The pilot's voice crackled over Echo's comm channel. "Incoming transmission from command! Patching it through now!"

Daniel tilted his head unenthusiastically and listened as Major Corbyn's voice sounded in his ear. "Echo--Covenant troops--closing in--defend--center--costs!"

"The command bunker," Filippa said after a moment. "They need us to defend the nukes."

"So they do," Daniel said. His hand was shaking. He gripped it tight against his armored knee, then banged against the back of the pilot's cabin. "Get us to the command bunker!" he ordered.

"Sir!" The Falcon banked and raced over a sea of burning streets and embattled positions. The Covenant was everywhere, swarming over the city like hornets. The Spartans gripped their seats and held on as the gunship jerked and weaved through the maelstrom. Filippa leaned out to look at the battle below. Layla sat still in her seat, staring down at her lap.

A sudden burst of plasma fire erupted up from below the Falcon. One of the door gunners screamed and went limp in her seat, a hole the size of Daniel's helmet burned through her chest. The surviving door gunner swore and fired wildly as a trio of Banshees blasted past. The Falcon jerked and twisted as more plasma bolts streaked past. The air around them was filling with more Covenant fighters.

Daniel pounded on the wall again. "You've got us close enough!" he yelled to the pilot. "Drop us off and get out of here!"

"Yes sir," the man said gratefully. The Falcon dipped and dropped from the sky. Daniel's stomach lurched as the gunshipp raced for the ground, pulling up just in time as the pilot evaded yet another stream of plasma. Echo Team piled out onto the streets, firing up at the Banshees still diving to strafe the Falcon. Daniel's feet had barely touched the ground before the Falcon lifted off again, rising up and back into the sky. It lingered for a moment, then raced away and vanished behind a tower, the Banshees still in pursuit.

"We're three blocks out from the command bunker," Daniel said, pulling up a map of Estzergom's streets. "Come on!"

Echo Team raced down the street, ducking from building to building as the battle raged around them. Wraith mortars flashed overhead, demolishing buildings and shaking the ground with their impacts. A pair of Warthogs screamed past, pursued by a squadron of Ghosts. A Pelican careened overhead, its engines aflame, desperately trying to find space to land.

This is the end. Daniel had read about last stands before, studied a few of them as part of his classwork during training. The books and histories always painted a picture of heroism, of determined soldiers digging in and fighting to the end with every fibre of strength in their bodies. The books were nothing like this, with broken units desperately fleeing before the enemy, doing anything they could to live on for just a few minutes longer.

Screams filled the air. Across the street, a handful of Army troopers huddled behind sandbags, firing at the Covenant warriors steadily advancing on their position. In the store behind the troopers huddled over a dozen civilians, apparently cut off from the evacuation zone. One of the troopers fired a rocket into the Covenant formation, blasting Grunts and Jackals to pieces and letting her comrades pick the survivors off. The assault halted, but only for a moment. Three Phantoms emerged over the tops of the nearest buildings, troop bays bristling with warriors ready to avenge their comrades.

"We're nearly at the bunker!" Filippa yelled. "We can't stop now!"

Daniel nodded in agreement, then realized that she wasn't talking to him. Layla was no longer with them. The smaller Spartan had broken off and planted herself between the besieged store and the oncoming Phantoms, SMG in hand.

What the hell is she doing? Daniel triggered the team com channel. "Layla! Get back here Spartan, that's an order!"

Layla didn't budge. Behind her the troopers were regrouping, spirits bolstered by the appearence of a Spartan. The cries of the civilians had quieted, and even the warriors aboard the Phantoms hesitated.

"Layla!" Daniel snarled. "SPARTAN-B101, get over here now!"

"No." Her voice over the com channel was hard.

"This is an order!"

She snorted. "Orders. What the hell do orders matter anymore? I'm gonna die. We're all gonna die. At least I get to choose where it happens."

It was the most Daniel had ever heard Layla speak and it left him at a loss for words. He'd never seen a Spartan refuse orders before. Certainly not this brazenly. Layla remained standing between the Covenant and the store, SMG in one hand and a grenade in the other.

A challenging roar broke the silence. An Elite leaped down from the nearest Phantom, sword raised. More Elites dropped after him, followed by their Grunt flunkies. The sword-wielding Elite hit the ground, but Layla was no longer there. She had darted under the falling warriors and now stood behind them, SMG raised. The Covenant troops spun to face her, only then noticing the grenade she had dropped at their feet.

The explosion sent the Grunts flying in all directions. The Elites were thrown to the ground, shields flaring. Layla strode forward, shooting each in the head as they tried to get up.

More Covenant were emerging from the Phantoms now. The Army troops opened fire again, fighting with a renewed vigor. Layla darted amidst the aliens who survived the fall, her SMG blazing as she killed one warrior after another. Another rocket streaked up from storefront, blasting off the lead Phantom's dorsal gun and sending it reeling back up into the sky.

Filippa stood anxiously at Daniel's shoulder. "We need to move. Now."

Daniel watched the battle raging in front of him, still digesting Layla's words. Yes, they were all going to die. He was tired, so tired. It all suddenly seemed like quite a lot of effort to keep on fighting like this. Useless, useless.

Layla ducked under another Elite's slashing sword and emptied her SMG into the warrior's gut. Plasma fire rained down from another Phantom, cutting down several of the remaining troopers. The civilians cried out in terror as plasma bolts struck the roof of their shelter.

If I'm going to die anyway... Daniel's grip tightened around his pistol. "We'll get to that bunker. Soon."

He looked at Filippa and jerked his head toward Layla. "Cover me."

He didn't give her time to respond. Instead he raced across the street toward the store front. The two remaining Phantoms were dropping down lower, the Grunts manning the plasma turrets in the troop bays trying to get a better shot at the Spartan slaughtering their comrades.

"Layla!" Daniel yelled. He unclipped a grenade from his belt and tossed it towards her. She reached up without a word and caught it. Then she was off running again, leaping up and scrambling aboard one of the Phantoms. Daniel shot the surprised Grunt off of its turret as she darted past. A moment later Layla dropped out the other side of the alien dropship's troop bay. An explosion rocked the Phantom's interior and its gravity engines flickered and failed, the ruined dropship crashing down into the street.

"Next!" Layla yelled as plasma fire from the last Phantom rained down around her. Daniel unclipped his final grenade and tossed it to her. Again, she leaped up into the Phantom's troop bay before it could lift away. Again, Daniel shot the Grunt off of its turret. But this time a maroon-armored Elite appeared in front of Layla. Snarling with rage it grabbed Layla's neck and dragged her with it into the troop bay.

"Layla!" Daniel yelled over the com. "Layla!"

There was no answer. The Phantom stopped firing at the store and instead began to lift off into the sky, climbing higher and higher until it became just another tiny speck in the war-torn sky.

"Answer me, Spartan!" Daniel yelled. Again, nothing but silence over the com.

A body fell from the sky and struck the ground with a wet crunch. It was the maroon-armored Elite. A knife was embedded in its throat.

In Daniel's HUD, Layla's vital signs vanished, replaced by a stark message: SIGNAL LOST. He searched the sky, but the Phantom had already disappeared.

Filippa jogged up to him then, rifle at the ready. Only two of the Army troopers were still alive, resting exaustedly amongst the bodies of their friends. A few of the civilians had begun to creep out of the store and into the street, glancing about at the burning city around them like frightened animals.

"Layla," Filippa asked. "Is she...?"

"I don't know," Daniel muttered wearily. "I didn't see it happen."

Filippa nodded. "We need to continue the mission. The command bunker..."

One of the surviving troopers, a corporal, looked up at the Spartans. Blood leaked from a bandage over the man's eye and down his chin. "Uh, sir, we can't raise anyone on the coms. What are we supposed to do?"

Daniel looked from the trooper to the civilians and then back to Filippa. "We'll get to the bunker," he told her. "Soon."

Turning back to the corporal, he motioned at the civilians. "Get these people organized and then follow us," he ordered with as much conviction as he could muster. "We'll get you to safety."


Felo crouched in the Phantom's troop bay, surrounded by Sur and the rest of his surviving warriors. The pain in his chest had lessened considerably; he had treated and sutured his own wound, the only honorable way for a warrior to deal with an injury. He had redonned his armor, though the ugly slash in his chest piece remained. He would have to get that repaired once this battle was over.

I will also need a new sword. The fact that it had been stolen and used to injure him galled Felo to his core. He regreted not being able to retrieve it almost as much as his inability to bring Rol's body back with him.

Sur stood off to one side, having taken up Rol's old duties as the team's communications officer. The battle network was overflowing with reports of overwhelming victory throughout the city. The human forces were collapsing in nearly every sector, with some enemy units abandoning their positions and fleeing before they could even be fired upon.

Not for the first time, Felo couldn't help but wonder why they had even bothered with this assault. Surely they would have been better served in simply burning this miserable city to ashes with a cruiser's ventral beam once the remaining human space forces were annihilated. But Field Master 'Vadamee wanted his glorious victory, and so he would get his glorious victory.

Felo thought of Rol lying headless on the roof of the human complex and of all the other warriors--nearly half of his team--dead at the hands of the Demons. They had gone this entire campaign with minimal losses only to lose so many comrades here, slaughtering beaten wretches. Such a waste, he thought bitterly, though he was careful to keep the anger off of his face. It would not do for his warriors to see their commander's irritation, especially not after taking such losses.

At the battle network station, Sur stiffened. He caught his brother's eye and motioned him over. Felo straightened and crossed over to him.

"An alert from headquarters," Sur said, his voice low. "One of our translators picked up an encrypted human comm burst. They are planning to use bombs to blow up the city as soon as they have drawn enough of us into the blast range."

A jolt coursed through Felo's body, but he mimicked his brother and hid his reaction. Suddenly the humans' low morale made much more sense. "Are they giving orders to retreat?" he asked quietly.

Sur's mandibles twisted into a grimace. "No. The Field Master does not want to lose face by calling off a successful attack. They have pinpointed the bomb's location and are directing all available teams to assault and disarm it."

Then this was it. For the briefest of moments Felo felt a stab of bitterness at the whole situation. To think that he and thousands of other warriors might die here, for the sake of the pride of a few field masters... but it was not his place to question such things. His task had been given to him. All that remained was to carry it out.

"Send out an open broadcast to every unit in the area," he ordered. "Have them follow us in to the location headquarters gives. We will make sure that bomb does not detonate."

He straightened to his full height, ignoring the pain from his wounds. "I will lead the attack."

Sur frowned, looking pointedly at his brother's gashed armor. But Felo shook aside such doubts. His hearts pounded, blood racing. Yes, he was afraid. But this was a battle. A true challenge. "I will lead the attack," he repeated. "And perhaps we will get our revenge for Rol."

Noticing Sur's puzzled look, he smiled. "This is the humans' final trick. Their final move. For something that important, they will surely have our Demon friends guarding the bomb."


The battle had already come and gone.

Daniel and Filippa led the band of civilians up the steps leading to the entrance of the command bunker. The bodies of humans and Covenant alike were strewn up and down the steps amidst blasted-out sandbags and machine-gun positions. Chunks of stairs had been torn up and shredded by explosions, while ruined Wraiths and other attack vehicles lay immobile in the street below. Only a handful of troopers were left, hastily rebuilding a fighting position at the top of the stairs.

Some of the civilians cried out at the carnage, but most took in the scene of the battle with an air of numb acceptance. They had already resigned themselves to their fate. What did more signs of battle mean in the long run?

Daniel glanced back at Filippa. The two Spartans had worn themselves ragged since they had lost Layla, slowing their pace to a crawl in order to protect the civilians and gunning down any Covenant who got in their way. They had received one last, desperate transmission from Corbyn demanding to know where they were. After that, silence.

"There's an evacuation center a few blocks from here," Daniel told Filippa. "If we can just get them over there..."

She shook her head, an emphatic gesture for a Spartan. "No time. The Covenant could attack again any minute. We need to get inside and help them dig in."

As if to punctuate her words, the whine of Phantom engines floated towards them through the smoky air. The civilians shrunk away in fear, but Daniel motioned them forward. "Quick, get up the stairs! You'll be safe inside!"

They rushed forwards, but it was already too late. One Phantom after another appeared over the tops of the nearby buildings. The troopers at the top of the stairs cried out and opened fire, but were swiftly silenced by volleys from the dropships' plasma cannons. Only the Spartans and their small band of refugees remained, trapped in the middle of the stairs, as the Phantoms closed in.

Daniel glanced at Filippa, then readied his weapon as she did likewise. The first Phantom drew closer, its troop bay yawning open like the maw of some undersea monstrosity.


Every moment was an eternity for Felo, crouching in the Phantom alongside the other warriors. Every moment wasted inside the dropship was another chance for the humans to detonate their bomb and annihilate everything within the city.

"Approaching the human bunker now!" The dropship pilot yelled. "Warriors, stand ready!"

There was no time to wait for reinforcements. Felo would simply lead the charge and pray to the gods that more warriors arrived to help them take the bunker. No matter what the odds, they had to reach that bomb.

The Phantom's bay doors opened, revealing the carnage that previous assaults had already wreaked on the human position. Felo saw ruined defenses, corpses everywhere... and there, in the middle of a large flight of stairs, huddled a small group of humans. Most were unarmed, not even warriors, but there, at their head...

Felo smiled. The Demons were here, just as he had predicted. His moment of triumph had come.

"Come!" he bellowed at Sur and the other warriors standing behind him. "Take this fortress and finish this battle!"

Without a moment's hesitation he leaped down from the Phantom and onto the stairs. The Demons filled his vision, their weapons at the ready. Now we shall see how well you creatures fare.


Daniel was not accustomed to seeing Covenant warriors more than once. Usually they were too dead to show up again. But he recognized the first Elite to leap down drom the Phantom. It was hard not to; after all, he'd cut that jagged gash in the warrior's armor himself.

Every instinct in the Spartan's body screamed at him to open fire. But now, standing between a crowd of civilians and a horde of murderous warriors, Daniel hesitated. Most of the other Covenant pouring out of the dropships barely paid the trapped humans any heed. Instead they raced up the stairs, swarming over the shattered defenses and charging the bunker entrance.

It's already as good as taken, he thought with a wave of resignation. Is there even any point in trying to reach it now?

The Elite in front of him hesitated, clearly confused by the Spartans lack of a reaction. It looked at Daniel and Filippa, then at the civilians, then up after its fellow warriors. Its plasma rifle wavered, as if it were trying to decide between them and its true objective.

And Daniel himself had a decision to make. His orders were to defend the bunker, to make sure that bomb detonated. It was a useless plan, useless like the entire defense of the city. A futile gesture, but one he had been determined to see through to the end. But now he stood here, the only thing that might save the people behind him. He looked into the Elite's burning eyes and saw a passion that he himself could not share. But perhaps...

And against years of training and combat experience, against every sane notion in his body, Daniel lowered his weapon. Beside him Filippa blanched, but she herself had followed his lead in not opening fire. The Elite let out a small huff, looking stunned.

Daniel jerked his head up towards the bunker. "Go on," he said aloud. "Get going."

The Elite hesitated, rifle still raised. And then, as if compelled by Daniel's curt dismissal, it turned and hurried away, joining its fellow warriors as they charged the bunker.

Behind Daniel, Filippa gasped in amazement. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded. "What are you doing?"

Daniel shook his head, turning away from one lost battle and towards one that might be winnable. "I don't even know any more," he muttered. "Come on, let's get these people to the evac zone while these bastards are distracted."

The whole universe had gone insane, but perhaps it was finally going insane in his favor.


They reached the evacuation shelter without incident. No further transmissions came through on any of the communications channels. Estzergom was as good as taken. Daniel was surprised to find one last evacuation shuttle waiting for them in the hangar, its pilot holding out until the very last second to get any stragglers out of the city. A ragged squad of Army troopers guarded the hangar, sealing the doors behind the Spartans and refugees as soon as they entered.

"Get these people on board," Daniel ordered, leaning wearily against the wall. "Filippa, get into that cockpit and make sure the pilot takes off as soon as we're all inside." A crew crazy enough to wait around this long might just need a Spartan's encouragement to take off.

She shook her head. "I can't believe you. I can't believe any of this."

"Neither can I."

"You--we disobeyed orders. We were ordered to make sure that bomb went off."

"What are they gonna do, court martial me?" He found himself thinking of Layla. "I decided a dozen human lives were more important than a few thousand dead Covies. Isn't that why we're fighting this war in the first place?"

She shook her head again. "You're crazy. As soon as we get out of here, I'm making sure you get your head looked at."

He smiled behind his helmet. "Think I've been needing that for a while now."

She hurried off, still shaking her head. Daniel turned toward the Army troopers still guarding the doors. "Get ready to board, soldiers. We're getting out of here."

The troopers nodded, backing away from the barricaded entrance. Daniel was just turning to follow them when the first explosion burst against the door, buckling it and causing the locking seals to smoke and melt.


The troopers guarding the Estzergom command bunker had been ordered to guard it and the nuclear bombs within at all costs. So when Felo 'Ranakee and over fifty Sangheili warriors blasted through the doors, they did just that.

They fought.

And died.

When the smoke cleared, Felo stood in a room carpeted by human corpses. The bombs stood in the center of the room, surrounded by the bodies of those who had died trying to make sure they went off. A team of warriors well-versed in human technology raced for them, hurrying to disarm the device strapped to them.

One human female wearing the tattered uniform of an officer lay slumped against a control console, a hole shot through her chest. She looked up as Sur approached and wearily tapped a finger to her neck. Sur obligingly decapitated her.

Felo stood amongst the dead, still reeling from his encounter with the Demon outside. To think that he had been so close to the enemy, only for the armored human to simply lower his weapon and order him away. "Go on, get going." The human words still echoed in Felo's ears, a roaring dismissal that drowned out all sounds of battle. Had he really obeyed a human? Had he gone mad?

Beside the bombs, one of the warriors turned away with a triumphant roar. "We are victorious! The human device is disabled!"

One of the other warriors looked far less exuberant. "If I read this device correctly, we had only moments to spare before they detonated," he announced. "If we had been delayed only a little..."

Felo blinked. Delayed only a little. If that human had challenged him, had tried to fight, then they would not have made it in time. The bombs would have detonated, and he and everyone else in this city would be dead.

Do I really owe my life to the charity of a human? The thought galled him. How could he ever stand such a humiliation? His pride as a warrior could not withstand it.

As if the gods were answering his unspoken prayer, another warrior burst into the bunker. "Demons!" he announced. "We have them cornered in one of their hangars! The last remnants of these scum are trying to escape!"

Felo did not even wait to gather his warriors. He turned on his heel and raced out of the bunker.


The Covenant breached the hangar's outer door quickly. Only the interior doors remained, and those would fall quickly as well. Through a security feed, Daniel saw a firing line of fuel rod cannon toting Grunts preparing on the other side. The moment the door was breached they would blast the evacuation transport apart in a single volley.

Daniel opened Echo's com channel to Filippa, still inside the shuttle's cockpit. "I'll signal you as soon as I'm on board. When I do that, you make them take off."

"Got it. I'll be down to help with the wounded once we're away."

"See you inside."

He hoped she would forgive him that lie. He checked the ammunition in his assault rifle. There was a small passage that would take him past the interior doors and let him flank the Covenant troops before they could get through into the hangar. He felt no panic or even fear. Even when this tiny ray of hope had presented itself, he had never really entertained the notion that he himself would survive. Getting Filippa and the others out was enough.

Getting them out... yes, this is how it should be. My life... this is how it shoould be.

He waved at the last remaining Army troopers. "Get on board."

One of them hesitated. "What about you, sir?"

He stepped forward, away from the man. "I said, get on board. And don't tell anyone about me. I'll be fine."

Every battle he had fought and won and survived, every enemy life he'd ever taken, all those years of hardship and suffering... perhaps they had all amounted to this. He had been to countless worlds, travelled further than most humans ever dreamed. And now he was setting off for another unknown world.

He clicked his com signal. Behind him the evacuation transport roared to life, the top of the hangar sliding open. Filippa had done her job well. Daniel smiled and readied his assault rifle. Then he set off down the darkened corridor towards the end of his journey.


The hangar had already fallen by the time Felo arrived. A crowd of Unggoy and Kig-Yar crowded around the entrance, but for some reason they hesitated to go in.

"A Demon," one young Sangheili at the edge of the crowd told Felo with an almost apologetic air. "It has killed everyone who entered. Even after the last shuttle left, it remained. No one who has gone inside has returned."

With a growl of irritation, Felo grabbed the warrior's energy sword and pushed past him. Ignoring the cry of protest, he shoved his way through the crowd and rushed through the open doorway.

In the dim light of the hangar entrance, he saw dozens of corpses lying around him. They were all Covenant. Advancing with more caution than before, he observed an armored figure sitting down amidst the bodies. A Demon, covered with wounds, its armor blown away by what appeared to be a Needler burst. It had taken off its helmet, revealing a pale, almost emaciated face. The ugly creature twisted its strange, slashing mouth into what passed for a smile among humans as Felo approached.

"You again," the Demon murmured faintly.

Felo stood over his enemy, realizing that once again he had been cheated out of his revenge. His grip tightened around the hilt of the energy sword.

"You could have delayed us," he said finally, speaking in the common human language. "You could have stopped us from disabling your bomb."

"I could have." The human spoke weakly and Felo knew it was dying. "But I didn't."

"Why not? Thousands, no, tens of thousands of my fellow warriors dead. Our entire legion wiped out. Why not?" Felo's words burned with a sudden intensity that welled up inside him.

"Can't say for sure," the Demon said. "It's all really ridiculous, isn't it? You think about that sometime. It's ridiculous, but it's why you'll never win, not really. No matter how many of us you kill or how many worlds you burn, we'll still win in the end."

The Demon coughed again, shaking its head before glancing back up at Felo. It raised a hand weakly, indicating the sword in his hand. "Got a new one?"

"Yes." This was such a strange creature. "I don't suppose you kept mine?"

The Demon shook its head, still smiling. "Sorry. Can't say I did."

It sighed, leanig its head back against the wall. "Go on then. Do your duty. The work of the gods and all that."

Once again, here he was obeying orders from a human. The insanity of it all whirled within Felo's mind as he activated the blade and raised it above his head. It's all really ridiculous, isn't it?

Felo brought the blade down in one swift gesture. It really was quite ridiculous.

One last light in Estzergom winked out. The city was taken. The battle for Reach was finished.

Epilogue

In Memoriam

0934 Hours, September 5th, 2552 (UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: HIGHCOM Facility Bravo-6, Australia, Earth


News of Reach's fall had spread like wildfire. There was no way it couldn't. The moment the first few battered ships packed full of refugees had entered the Sol System, everyone with half a brain realised that mankind's greatest colony world hadn't been able to stand up to the relentless Covenant war machine. Official news of the planet's glassing had arrived just day before from a Naval Prowler, which had broken the Cole Protocol to return as quickly as possible. Now, it was time to plan mankind's survival.

"Oh, and I've distributed your files to the relevant sources, Admiral."

"Thank you, Captain Osman. That will be all."

The office door slid shut as the female officer exited. Margaret Parangosky sat back at her desk, sighing as her hands clasped together. The situation was looking bleaker every day, and as far as she was concerned most high-ranking officials were running in circles, trying to keep the public from panicking that Earth was as good as gone.

"Penny for your thoughts?" a deep male voice intoned from a nearby holotank.

The Admiral straightened up slightly. "Black-Box," she nodded. "What do you make of all this?"

"Reach glassed, millions dead, probable Covenant invasion of the Sol System within months, if not weeks? We're doing wonderfully."

"Now really isn't the time for your sarcasm."

"My apologies. One moment."

A three-dimensional box materialised over the holotank, its brightest side pointing towards Parangosky. The AI glowed for a brief moment as it sorted through endless possibilities and contingency plans; ways to save Humanity from its current predicament. Parangosky might have been smart, but she was just one woman. Black-Box had already proved to be an invaluable asset despite being activated just a few weeks before.

"By my calculations, we've got a month of breathing room at best, provided the Cole Protocol has been followed efficiently. A headcount of sorts for our current fleets should be made and the Home Fleet reinforced. Might I suggest Fleet Admiral Harper to command Fifth Fleet?"

"Good call. Give Hood my recommendations. He needs another experienced officer up there when it hits the fan."

"Will do. As for our special forces - the top-secret ones at least - we'll need to get them in the field as soon as possible."

Parangosky nodded. "News from Onyx suggests that Gamma Company will be deployed within the next month."

"No news yet from most of our other Spartans, sadly. We'll have to hope that some come limping back from Reach."

"Do you believe that the SPARTAN-II's will make such a big difference?"

There was a brief pause. A few seconds might not have seemed like much, but to the likes of an AI as advanced as Black-Box, it meant something was up. Parangosky couldn't help but wonder if her last statement was due to genuine doubts in the famous supersoldiers, or her own feelings regarding the program's creator surfacing.

"They've certainly gotten results before. I see no issue with having some faith in them."

"I see," she glanced down at a datapad for a moment, indicating that they were done with that particular topic. "We'll have to contact Section Two as soon as possible. People will want pictures of what happened on Reach. We'll give them what they need to see and give them a push in the right direction."

"I did see a report suggesting that enlistment rates would skyrocket now that Reach has fallen."

"Good. We'll need every man and woman we have, considering the projected casualty reports. Losing the likes of Admirals Freemont, Stanforth and Whitcomb has been a heavy blow."

There were quite a few noticeable gaps in the Admiralty Board these days. Parangosky pondered for a moment on what would be done if any of these men did reappear. Would they welcome a much-needed comrade back, or have them crucified for presiding over the single worst military defeat in Human history? This was no time to be turning on each other, after all.

"Black-Box," she spoke eventually, her icy blue eyes turning towards his avatar. "Do what you feel necessary. The coming months may determine whether or not the Human race survives, and I'm inclined to keep us all alive, understood?"

"Perfectly, ma'am."

The AI winked out. Without pausing to rest, Parangosky continued typing at her console, organising half a dozen different projects while ensuring that the Office of Naval Intelligence didn't collapse in on itself the moment she looked away. Daily reports were coming in from various departments as her subordinates began working overtime across the galaxy. Some were your regular technical details while others contained apologies or celebratory messages. Scrolling down, one caught her eye. It was an uneventful report from some unimportant laboratory, but a tiny note at the end struck her:

Remember Reach.

For a brief second, she smiled sadly at the sentiment before a familiar determined look settled over her lined face. She reached for a nearby communicator and the hotline that would connect her directly to the headquarters of ONI'S Section Two. She normally left the propaganda branch to the professionals, but Parangosky had one hell of a slogan to give them.

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